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Dear Meredith, . . .

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Dear Meredith,

You don’t know who I am, but you have deeply impacted my life. I wish we could have had the opportunity to meet; I think we would have been great friends.
When I began to learn about you this winter, I was amazed at how much we have in common. Reading about your life and interests I felt like I was looking at a biography of my own life. We are the same age and we are both lucky enough to call the Southeast home. We both love animals, literature, wine, and spending time with our friends. You and I have both spent time volunteering with children and we both share a strong faith and value system. But most of all, I know that you love the outdoors – you feel free and safe in the outdoors – and so do I.

That’s why I was ripped apart this January when reading accounts, first of your disappearance and then of your death on Blood Mountain, Georgia.
How could something so tragic happen to someone so beautiful and full of life? You had your whole life in front of you and it was selfishly and carelessly ripped away. And one of the most unsettling details is that your future was lost in the wilderness – a place that you and I both look to for peace and restoration.
I absolutely hate what happened to you. Every time I think of your fate, my stomach becomes queasy and my body tenses up. I have cried many times over your death, and I have cried for your grieving family.

I am not alone in my sorrow. I know many who were deeply troubled by your fate and touched by all the contributions you were able to make during your 24 years of life. I have heard the stories of several individuals who no longer feel safe traveling in the woods because of the darkness you encountered. I, too, admit that for several weeks I didn’t feel safe running or walking in the forest. I spent more time looking over my shoulder than at the path ahead.
On one particular hike, I was in a heightened state of paranoia when I finally concluded this isn’t what you would want. You wouldn’t want me to feel threatened in the woods, you wouldn’t want me to live in fear and you would never want to be the barrier that kept people from enjoying creation.
Michael Hilton, in his sickened state, managed to instill fear and doubt in individuals throughout the country. But I know those aren’t the byproducts that you would want from your death. You would want laughter, love, and the courage to move forward in the woods and in life.
This summer I am hiking the Appalachian Trail and I am doing it in your honor. You will be in my thoughts daily and I hope that you, your family and friends will accept this hike as a living memorial. I am hiking to celebrate the blessings you were through your life, and the legacy you left in your death. I am not just trying to complete the trail, but I am also attempting to set the women’s endurance record on the Appalachian Trail. I want women to know that they shouldn’t fear the woods. Rather, I want them to know that nature should be respected, protected, and enjoyed. I want women of all ages to know that they are capable of amazing accomplishments and that fear should not be something that holds them back. I want to blaze the trail with laughter, kindness, and a confidence that in the future I will encourage others to do the same.
I sometimes feel that the loss of your life was similar to someone picking the most beautiful flowers in the forest just as they begin to bloom. I know that the beauty of that individual blossom will never again be replaced, but I hope that my endeavor is an attempt in reseeding. As a hiker you must have been familiar with the term “leave no trace” and with your blessing this summer, together we can work to “leave no evil” in a wilderness that we both call home.

With Love and Admiration,
Jennifer Pharr

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