He thru-hiked from New York to Florida. He met dozens along the way. But two years after he died in his tent, no one knows who this mystery man was
By Jason Nark
Sometimes I imagine him falling through space, drifting like dust from dead stars in the vast nowhere above us. I see him take shape in the soft light of a forest before dawn. First a fog, then ephemeral form, then living flesh. This kind of thinking is where my mind goes at night, when half my head is in a dream and I ponder him fancifully, unmoored from the hard facts that make his case so frustrating.
Whoever he was, he walked into the woods in New York in the spring of 2017 and hiked south for nearly fourteen hundred miles, down the Appalachian, Pinhoti, and Florida trails. On July 23, 2018, two day-hikers from Fort Lauderdale found his yellow two-person tent in Nobles Camp, among the saw palmettos and alligators in Big Cypress National Preserve about one hundred miles west of Miami. His boots were parked outside. When the hikers called out and no one answered, one of them peered into the tent and saw the man sitting upright, his body twisted. His eyes were wide open, but he wasn’t alive.
“Uh, we just found a dead body,” one of the hikers, Nick Horton, told the 911 dispatcher.
Investigators from the Collier County sheriff’s department catalogued the man’s belongings. They included a beige shirt, gray shorts, underwear, Salomon hiking boots, flip-flops, a tent and sleeping bag, hiking poles, some food, a pack, and a baseball hat. There were two notebooks full of computer code and almost four thousand dollars in cash in a plastic baggie. What they didn’t find were a wallet, driver’s license, credit cards, cell phone, or ID of any kind.
Two days later, the District 20 medical examiner’s office performed an autopsy. The man was five feet, eight inches tall and “markedly cachectic,” meaning his muscle had all but wasted away. Many later assumed that his weight, listed as eighty-three pounds, was a typo. It wasn’t. The man’s stomach was empty and the only chemicals found in his blood were ibuprofen and antihistamines. The medical examiner didn’t believe he’d been dead very long, as his body was remarkably intact despite the oppressive South Florida heat. He had no tattoos, no major scars, no dental work at all. His fingerprints didn’t match any others in police databases, and investigators estimated his age as anywhere between thirty and fifty. He weighed 83 pounds. The man was a cipher.
But when the sheriff’s department posted a sketch of his thin, bearded face on its Facebook page, the case suddenly came to life. “As soon as I seen it, I knew who it was,” said Kelly Fairbanks, a trail angel who met the man in Florida. Hikers, church members, and outfitters reported meeting him in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and atop Springer Mountain in Georgia. People knew him first as Denim, a trail name he was given for hiking in jeans, and later as Mostly Harmless. They’d eaten meals with him, slept beside him in shelters, and shared confidences before parting ways. They took dozens of photos of him, many of which now circulate online. In some he stares directly into the camera, smiling slightly. His beard is sometimes closely clipped, more often a ragged patch of salt-and-pepper weeds. The photos show his gear, too: His clothes and boots, his odd habit of keeping the rain cover over his pack at all times. The last known photo of Mostly Harmless was taken on April 15, 2018, less than ten miles from the swamp where he wasted away, alone, and where his body was found more than three months later.
Media in Florida and New York picked up the story in 2018, but it gained the most traction on Facebook, Reddit, and Websleuths, an online forum dedicated to unsolved cases. I learned about Mostly Harmless in February 2019, when the Collier County sheriff’s department released Sworn Statement, its three-part podcast about the case. Kristine Gill, a former newspaper reporter who works in media relations for Collier County, hosts the podcast. “Let’s say you wanted to disappear tomorrow. What would you want to do?” Gill asks as the first episode opens.
Beavers are known to react to the sound of running water by building dams. The urge is so ingrained that they’ll pile wood atop a speaker if it sounds like a stream. And that’s pretty much how humans react to unsolved mysteries like that of Mostly Harmless. Online detectives have pursued the case compulsively, mailing out fliers and contacting storage facilities where they suspect Mostly Harmless may have left his belongings. I’m one of them, a newspaper reporter who used the tools of my trade—public record searches, the Freedom of Information Act, dozens of interviews—to dig ever deeper into the mystery, and also to mask the depth of my obsession as professional interest. For more than a year, I told myself to stop investigating Mostly Harmless and start writing, that my role is to tell a story, not solve the case. But like a beaver, I hear the water running. I’ve posted queries in hundreds of Facebook groups, trying to break out of the echo chamber of unsolved mystery and hiking forums. I plastered his face in Dr. Who fan clubs, Turkish language groups, dozens of tech, coding, and gaming forums, even a Baton Rouge vegetarian group. I scanned through high school yearbooks until my eyes hurt. I’ve gone down rabbit holes, into MySpace pages, blogs of hikers who had brain cancer, even the Twelve Tribes, an alleged cult that’s into hiking and building cozy coffee houses all over the country.
The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System at the University of North Texas had thirteen thousand, one-hundred eighty-nine open unidentified remains cases as of spring 2020. About nine hundred of those are in Florida. Many consist of a single bone or a foot that washed ashore in a shoe. Often, bodies are so badly decomposed that police wouldn’t dare release a photo. The program’s director, B.J. Spamer, told me it is “uncommon” to have as many photographs of an unidentified body as there are of Mostly Harmless—in his case, there’s even a video. Today, he is a skeleton, stored in a medical examiner’s office in Naples, five miles from the Gulf of Mexico, and despite all the pictures and posthumous fame, he remains unidentified.
In the absence of answers, people who never met Mostly Harmless have made him a proxy, a canvas on which they paint a portrait of the man they want him to be. They see his blue-gray eyes in photos and decide they were kind, or lonely. They see a stranger’s face as somehow familiar. They cast him as a wanted fugitive, ex-military, or former cult member, either chronically ill or mentally unstable. Some believe he chose to die this way, a long suicide by starvation.
In my own portrait, Mostly Harmless is a mystic who left the material world behind, a transcendentalist who shed smaller, inconsequential truths for a larger one. I see him as the ideal of William Hazlitt’s 1821 essay “On Living to One’s Self.”
“He reads the clouds, he looks at the stars, he watches the return of the seasons, the falling leaves of autumn, the perfumed breath of spring, starts with delight at the note of the thrush in a copse near him, sits by the fire, listens to the moaning of the wind, pores upon a book, or discourses the freezing hours away, or melts down hours to minutes in pleasing thought. All this while he is taken up with other things, forgetting himself.”
The truth is that Mostly Harmless’s life will be mundane when it finally comes out, I tell myself. He’ll be from Milwaukee or Brooklyn, as he told other hikers, not the ether. He’ll turn out to be the guy from IT who helped connect our laptops to the office printer. Police will release a name and say he was an only child with no parents left alive to report him missing. Perhaps we’ll learn what he was seeking on the trail. Maybe then we’ll know how he could have such a profound impact on so many people, without ever revealing his identity.
“I just really hope he’s who I thought he was,” Jennifer “Obsidian” Vickers told me. Vickers knew him as Denim and spent more time on the trail with him than anyone. They hiked southbound together on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia for about a hundred miles, starting at Blackburn Trail Center. She laughed often when we spoke, recalling their unlikely partnership. She was a black woman in her late sixties, he a white man she pegged to be about forty. Both had bad knees and hiked slowly. She taught him how to make a fire. He gobbled M&Ms, obsessed over distances between destinations, and longed to see a bear. Some hikers give off bad vibes, she said, but Denim made her feel safe.
When he signed in at hostels, he printed out the alias “Ben Bilemy.” That name doesn’t exist in the United States, as far as I can tell, and no hiker recalls hearing him say it aloud. He told Obsidian he was from Louisiana, but she heard him tell others he was from New York. (UPDATE: DNA testing has show he is Cajun) In all their time together, neither asked the other’s real name. That’s not unusual in the thru-hiking community, said Warren Doyle, who has hiked the AT nine times and helps other hikers prepare for the “philosophical and psychological” aspects of the trail. He knows people who never got driver’s licenses, who only worked for cash their whole lives. “The best way to understand yourself in the real world,” he said, “is to remove yourself from it, so you can look back in.”
I longed to find some deeper meaning in the words, and found none. The notebooks never get personal. There are no trail life musings, no recollections of people he met or left behind. Nothing explains what led him to nature. There’s no “goodbye.”
Mostly Harmless told one hiker he was a big Dr. Who fan with hard drives full of his favorite television shows and movies. His supposed interest in science fiction led many to guess the trail name Mostly Harmless is a reference to the title of the final book in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Others say the trail name was descriptive: Someone said he was “mostly harmless,” and it stuck.
The most popular theory of his demise is a romantic one, which I also wanted to believe. In that scenario, he receives a terminal diagnosis, puts his affairs in order, and packs up his identity. He forgoes machines and radiation to die on his own terms, in nature. When I received a copy of the autopsy in January 2020, though, it revealed no such illness. His organs were small but otherwise normal, including his brain. He had no tumors or wounds. An investigator described his teeth as perfect, though the autopsy found the edges of his upper teeth had been ground down.
The cause and manner of death were listed as “undetermined.” The chief findings of the autopsy were his weight loss, the “pronounced cachexia,” and a faint scar on his abdomen. The mark suggested a prior surgery, but when I reached out to the medical examiner he wouldn’t speculate. Baffled, I sent the report to Dr. Cyril Wecht, a pathologist. He read it and found nothing revealing, besides the obvious cachexia. “There’s no evidence of cancer. There’s no evidence of an infectious process, no evidence of anything at all,” Wecht told me. “People don’t often kill themselves by starving. That’s pretty painful.”
I don’t believe Mostly Harmless intended to die on the trail. At least, I don’t want to believe that. People who fill notebooks with ideas are thinking of a future with themselves still in it. Suicidal people, from my experience, can’t imagine one. The writer Andrew Solomon once said the opposite of depression is vitality; a long, drawn-out suicide over a thousand-mile journey sounds like fiction. Still, dark feelings can move like thunderstorms through a person’s life.
Mike Usher hiked with Mostly Harmless in Pennsylvania in the summer of 2017. Mostly Harmless told him he’d started hiking around Harriman State Park in New York because he was “depressed with his life and needed a complete change.” He told Usher that he began hiking the AT because he was nervous about getting caught camping illegally at Harriman. Once on the trail, though, Mostly Harmless told Usher he experienced a “new sense of happiness.”
I did my best to reconstruct his journey. Some online posts suggest he started from Bear Mountain State Park in New York, around April 2017. Others place his starting point at Harriman State Park. Both parks are less than fifty miles north of Brooklyn and popular with New York City residents. I requested records for illegal camping violations and impounded cars at both parks. When they arrived, personal information was redacted in deep black lines and mostly useless. None of the cited campers matched Harmless’s age range or height, from what I could see. Was the 1998 Ford with the bowling ball and cat food in the trunk his? What about the Honda Accord with two cell phones and a debit card locked inside? Disappointed, I forwarded them all to Collier County.
Investigators have ruled out dozens of missing persons cases, many sent by amateur sleuths whose confirmation bias helps them disregard clear discrepancies, such as eye color and height. I spent weeks investigating one potential match, a man named “Steve” who possibly went missing in Boulder, Colorado. In early 2020, he sent me a message: “Hey, I’m not dead.” At times, my heart leapt, like the moment Obsidian told me Mostly Harmless purchased hiking boots with a credit card. When I contacted Rockfish Gap Outfitters, they confirmed they sold one pair of boots that day, Salomons in size eleven—but that the customer had paid cash. Later, the medical examiner told me Mostly Harmless’s feet were a size seven. When I followed up, thinking that was a mistake, he said “that is his exact foot measurements into shoe size.”
Frustrated, I sat down with a copy of Mostly Harmless to see if the novel held any more clues than the impenetrable notebooks. One scene, in which the protagonist seeks out an oracle for advice, felt apropos, as if Mostly Harmless himself were talking to everyone trying to crack his case. “You cannot see what I see because you see what you see. You cannot know what I know because you know what you know.”
Nearly two years after his death, the timeline of Mostly Harmless’s last fourteen months is still full of unknowns. No one reported seeing him in Tennessee or North Carolina and only a few people remember him on the Pinhoti in Alabama. He told a hiker in Florida that he’d skipped the Alabama Roadwalk section of the trail, choosing to ride to the beginning of the Florida Trail in Pensacola with “some girls.” He told this man, like many others, that he intended to end his trip in Key West. Mostly Harmless was photographed a few hundred miles north of Nobles Camp on March 17, 2018. He looks thin, his beard wild, but nowhere near eighty-three pounds. “He was in good spirits, seemed to be enjoying his hike,” the photographer said.
Mike “Water Boy” Gormley took two photos of Mostly Harmless on April 15, 2018, on the side of a road a few miles north of Nobles Camp. He may be the last person to have seen Mostly Harmless alive. In Gormley’s photos, Mostly Harmless is not smiling, as he was in many other photos. His face is tan, his beard short again. It was well over eighty degrees that day, and Mostly Harmless was carrying a pack that weighed more than fifty pounds. He told Gormley he was still carrying his winter clothes.
“I offered to send them back home for him and he declined,” said Gormley, who remembers Mostly Harmless as “a quiet, polite guy” who asked for nothing but readily accepted bottles of Gatorade and frozen water. Gormley estimated his weight to be about one hundred and fifty pounds.
Ninety-nine days later and ten miles away, the hikers found him dead in his tent.
No one knows whether Mostly Harmless made it to Key West and was returning north when something went wrong or if he got sick in Nobles Camp and hunkered down, too weak to move. Despite his extreme weight loss, he had food with him when he died. He may have had a mental breakdown. He may have chosen to stay there, in that tent, to die of “inanition,” a term I hadn’t heard until Warren Doyle said it. It means the quality of being empty, in this case losing the will to live.
Obsidian told me she asked Mostly Harmless to take her to Mardi Gras someday, but she couldn’t recall if he answered. She last saw him in Buena Vista, south of Afton Mountain, in Virginia. They fist-bumped and she watched him walk off in the rain, assuming they would cross paths again.
“We were just hiking,” she said. “I don’t know why people hike but you meet a lot of really good people on the trail. He was one of those people.”
Orginally published in Adventure Journal #17.