A Nameless Hiker and the Case the Internet Can’t Crack

In April 2017, a man started hiking in a state park just north of New York City. He wanted to get away, maybe from something and maybe from everything. He didn’t bring a phone; he didn’t bring a credit card. He didn’t even really bring a name. Or at least he didn’t tell anyone he met what it was.He did bring a giant backpack, which his fellow hikers considered far too heavy for his journey. And he brought a notebook, in which he would scribble notes about Screeps, an online programming game. The Appalachian Trail runs through the area, and he started walking south, moving slowly but steadily down through Pennsylvania and Maryland. He told people he met along the way that he had worked in the tech industry and he wanted to detox from digital life. Hikers sometimes acquire trail names, pseudonyms they use while deep in the woods. He was “Denim” at first, because he had started his trek in jeans. Later, it became “Mostly Harmless,” which is how he described himself one night at a campfire. Maybe, too, it was a reference to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Early in the series, a character discovers that Earth is defined by a single word in the guide: harmless. Another character puts in 15 years of research and then adds the adverb. Earth is now “mostly harmless.”
By summer, the hiker was in Virginia, where he walked about a hundred miles with a 66-year-old woman who went by the trail name Obsidian. She taught him how to make a fire, and he told her he was eager to see a bear. On December 1, Mostly Harmless had made it to northern Georgia, where he stopped in a store called Mountain Crossings. A veteran hiker named Matt Mason was working that day, and the two men started talking. Mostly Harmless said that he wanted to figure out a path down to the Florida Keys. Mason told him about a route and a map he could download to his phone. “I don’t have a phone,” Mostly Harmless replied. Describing the moment, Mason remembers thinking, “Oh, this guy’s awesome.” Everyone who goes into the woods is trying to get away from something. But few people have the commitment to cut their digital lifelines as they put on their boots.Mason printed the 60 pages of the map and sold it to Mostly Harmless for $5 cash, which the hiker pulled from a wad of bills that Mason remembers being an inch thick. Mason loves hikers who are a little bit different, a little bit strange. He asked Mostly Harmless if he could take a picture. Mostly Harmless hesitated but then agreed. He then left the shop and went on his way. Two weeks later, Mason heard from a friend in Alabama who had seen Mostly Harmless hiking through a snowstorm. “He was out there with a smile on his face, walking south,” Mason recalls.
By the last week of January, he was in northern Florida, walking on the side of Highway 90, when a woman named Kelly Fairbanks pulled over to say hello. Fairbanks is what is known as a “trail angel,” someone who helps out through-hikers who pass near her, giving them food and access to a shower if they want. She was out looking for a different hiker when she saw Mostly Harmless. She pulled over, and they started to chat. He said that he had started in New York and was heading down to Key West. She asked if he was using the Florida Trail App, and he responded that he didn’t have a phone.