Only eight people have ever "died in acts of violence," as Earl Swift puts it, on the Appalachian Trail. In a lengthy piece for Outside Online, Swift tells the story of the first person to meet that grim fate, a story that he describes as otherwise being lost to history. It was early 1974, and Margaret McFaddin Harritt was a 17-year-old freshman at the University of South Carolina; while waiting tables that March, she met Joel Polson. There was nothing romantic between them, but as she got to know the man nine years her senior, she began to be swayed by his proposal: that she accompany him on his hike of the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, a "feat [that] did not yet inspire the public's imagination," writes Swift. And so the two set out that May in Georgia, and on their second day made it to the Low Gap shelter. Polson's life would end there.
In the shelter they met a man who gave his name as Ralph. Polson pulled Harritt aside and said he wasn't sure he trusted the man, who wasn't outfitted in proper hiking gear. Polson wanted them to leave early the next day. As she pulled on her boots that morning, she heard a shot. Then she saw Ralph with a gun in his hand. Swift traces the seemingly improbable story that follows, while in parallel painting a picture of who Polson had been before his murder. Ralph—he would turn out to be Ralph Howard Fox—stole Polson's gear and traveler's checks but then decided not to kill Harritt. Rather, he wanted to hike her to safety, which led to the two following the trail to a road and then getting a motel room. He didn't lay a hand on her and ultimately got her to a Greyhound station. The story goes on to detail what happened to Fox; it's worth reading in full. (Read more Longform stories.)