by Jennifer Pharr</em>
My phone rang on January 3rd.
“Hey, Jen. Glad you picked up. I wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” I reassured my friend. “What’s up?”
“Well, I heard a report on the news that a 24-year-old female was missing after hiking alone in the Southern Blue Ridge and, well…I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
That phone call marked the moment that Meredith Emerson began to impact my life.
Within the past four months, the deaths of Irene Bryant, Cheryl Hodges Dunlap, and especially Meredith Emerson have deeply penetrated my thoughts and emotions. Like all three women, I love hiking. I have hiked over 5,000 miles in the past three years, and 95 percent of those steps have been taken alone as a solo hiker.
When Irene Bryant, who lived 15 minutes from my hometown of Hendersonville, N.C., was found murdered on a popular trail 20 miles away, I was sickened by how close the event was to me, both physically and emotionally. I remember second-guessing my upcoming day and overnight hikes in the area, and I particularly remember a phone conversation with my concerned dad who begged me to be extra cautious of people and surroundings while hiking in the local parks.
Then, two months later when I heard Cheryl Hodges Dunlap’s body had been recovered in a Florida national forest, I felt violated and angered that someone would prey on a single female hiking alone. The event further confirmed my recent decision not to hike the 1,400-mile Florida Trail alone this winter.
But when the story of Meredith Emerson’s tragic death began to surface, I couldn’t verbalize my emotions. I didn’t know how to feel. The only thing I could do was cry. For a full week after her body was recovered, I would turn on my computer every morning and cry over a new article. I cried over her disappearance, and then I cried over her confirmed death. I cried over the touching sentiments of Meredith’s friends and family in the wake of her passing. I cried over her obituary and the many internet memorials that testified to a life well lived, but one that was cut short. I cried for Meredith, I cried for her family, and—unknowingly—I cried for myself.
Meredith’s bio is eerily similar to my own. We were the same age, the same marital status, and the same race. We were recent college graduates with similar degrees. We both loved wine and foreign culture, four-legged creatures, and good books. We both loved creation and the Creator to the point that both of us volunteered in a Presbyterian Church nursery during our college years. On top of that, we both loved the woods, loved to hike, and felt safe and experienced in the wilderness. Reading Meredith’s obituary was like staring death in the face. The realization of her fate shook me because I could not separate what happened to her from what could or may still happen to me.
I don’t remember school psychology so I don’t know what stages of grief I went through. All I know is that initially I felt scared. I felt scared to hike, scared to pursue what I love. I felt anxious on my next trail run and paranoid on my next hike. I even flipped out when a neighbor of mine unexpectedly approached me in the dark. As someone not easily upset or scared, I was now constantly looking over my shoulder.
Eventually, though, my fear evolved into anger. How could someone carry out such a hateful and twisted act? What kind of deranged background and mental disorder does this killer have that would cause him to do such evil? How dare he end such a beautiful life with his sinister motives? And why Meredith? Why this gracious, loving woman in the prime of her youth? Why not someone else? Why not me?
I’m not sure why Meredith experienced this painful departure, but what I do know is that in her passing I witnessed sincere sorrow for of this 24-year old hiker. Meredith’s memorial page on the internet was bombarded with messages and prayers from men and women, young and old, East-Coasters, West-Coasters, and residents everywhere in between. The page had posts from animal lovers, tree huggers, and people who simply recognized a shining star snuffed out by the evil of the world. After several weeks of reading about and praying for Meredith Emerson, I now carry peace that she lived life to the fullest, that she loved and was dearly loved, and that she will never be forgotten.
Although I sometimes feel guilty that fate called Meredith home early when it just as easily could have been me, I have found peace and purpose in attempting to keep her memory alive and her passion ablaze. This summer I am thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for myself, for Cheryl, for Irene, and especially for Meredith. I am thru-hiking as a statement to any human predators who disturb the serenity, peace, and safety of the woods. Such men cannot take stifle my love of nature and solitude; they can only make me appreciate it more.
I am hiking the trail north to south this year. Providentially, on my second to last day of the trail, I will pass over Blood Mountain, the site of Meredith’s last hike. There I will pause, pray, and remember Meredith Emerson. I will sit on the mountain and whisper words into the breeze, and the words will be carried away to where Meredith can hear them. I will thank her for her courage and her example. I will tell her how she inspired me to hike, and more importantly, I will tell her how she inspired me to live. I will remind her that she hasn’t been forgotten, and that she never will be forgotten. Then, I will stand up and do exactly what Meredith would want me to do – I’ll keep hiking.