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Thursday, April 11, 2024

The Unsettling Truth About the ‘Mostly Harmless’ Hiker

Sometimes the most alluring stories we tell are the ones with the details left out. Objects and faces can be prettier in the half light. We see a faint shape and we add the lines and shadows we want. We hear one part of a story and add another part that we hope might be true.

I first learned of the man called Mostly Harmless this past August. A WIRED reader sent a note to my tip line: The body of a hiker had been found in a tent in Florida in the summer of 2018, but scores of amateur detectives, and a few professional ones too, couldn’t figure out who he was. Everyone knew that he had started walking south on the Appalachian Trail from New York a year and a half before. He met hundreds of people on the trail, and seemed to charm them all. He told people he was from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and that he worked in tech in New York. They all knew his trail name, but no one could figure out his real one.

I had just spent three days hiking on and off the Appalachian Trail with my 12-year-old son, and I was pulled in. We live in an age of constant machine surveillance and tracking. Yet somehow Mostly Harmless had escaped the digital dragnet. He had traveled without a phone or an ID. He carried cash and couldn’t be tracked by credit card receipts. His fingerprints weren’t in any database and his image didn’t turn up any results when run through facial recognition software. The authorities in Collier County, Florida, where his body was found, were stumped, but they were certain he had died of natural causes. He must have been smart. He appeared to have been kind. He was handsome in a general, familiar kind of way. It was easy to map a gentle story onto his past.

His life was a mystery packed inside a tragedy. A man had died alone in a yellow tent, and his family didn’t know. “He’s got to be missed. Someone must miss this guy,” said Natasha Teasley, a woman in North Carolina who organized a Facebook group with several thousand people dedicated to discovering his identity. Members of the group lit candles for him. They talked about “bringing him home.” They scoured every missing-persons database. Everyone had a story they wanted to be true: He was trying to escape modern society. He was trying to escape a medical diagnosis. He was trying to escape someone who wanted to hurt him. This was a way to use the internet to do something good.

I published an article about Mostly Harmless the day before the presidential election. More than one and a half million people read the story and looked at photos that other hikers had posted. People sent me theories about who he could have been or what he might have been doing. He had a long scar on his abdomen and readers diagnosed potential illnesses. He had perfect teeth, which suggested good dental care as a child. Others dug into Da Vinci Code–level clues. He had signed in at hostels as “Ben Bilemy,” which, with some creative effort, could be read in reverse as “Why me, lib?” And sometimes they just let their imaginations fly. “I think he could be a space alien,” one reader wrote to me. “A kind of astral Tocqueville taking a long, long trip to get a sense of the people and the planet, and when he was done, he wasted away and went back to Alpha Centauri. Think about it.”

And, of course, people thought they knew who he was. A few hours after the story went live, I got my first ID via DM. “Hi, this is a crazy note to be sending but I believe I know who the hiker was.” My correspondent had gone to high school with someone who looked like the hiker and whose name was something like Bilemy. A few phone calls later and it was clear the lead was a red herring. Her former classmate was alive and well.

The tips kept coming in. One Louisiana woman sent me a photograph of her brother, who bore an uncanny resemblance to the missing man, and told me she suspected Mostly Harmless was the illegitimate son of her drug-dealing uncle. A man was convinced the hiker had played in a hardcore punk rock band in New Orleans. But by far the most enticing tip came from a man in Virginia who persuaded me, briefly, that he had known the hiker and that his name was Daryl McKenzie. My correspondent told a moving story of befriending the man in a Newport News bowling alley and hearing that Daryl had terminal cancer and planned to hike to his death. Daryl had supposedly said, “I came into this world without a name and I’m going to go out of this world without one.”

I began searching for details to validate the tale. I told my editor, who got obsessed too, and she found a Facebook page for a Daryl McKenzie that hadn’t been active since 2017, the year Mostly Harmless started his trek. McKenzie had just four Facebook friends and his only posts were photos of the wilderness. It had to be him. I contacted one of the friends and explained that a hiker had disappeared and that his name might have been Daryl McKenzie. I’d written about his story and posted it online. She burst into tears. “Oh, no, Daryl,” she said as her voice quavered.

I felt awful. I’d wanted to help identify the missing hiker. But I hadn’t focused on all the pain that could bring. I told her that I was sorry to have broken such terrible news so suddenly. She should take her time and call me back whenever, if she even wanted to. Two minutes later my phone rang. “That’s not Daryl,” she said. The photos in my story didn’t look at all like her friend, who was indeed a hiker but who was alive and well in Los Angeles. He had never been bowling in Newport News.

Meanwhile, the dedicated Facebook hunters kept going. And they were ingenious. On the trail, Mostly Harmless had carried a notebook full of ideas for Screeps, an online strategy game for programmers. And so a group focused on digital forensics went through the accounts of every possible user who had been on Screeps up until April 2017, the date Mostly Harmless had given other hikers for when he’d begun his journey. They had a bead on a user named Vaejor. Meanwhile, a woman named Sahar Bigdeli had arranged for one of the country’s leading isotope analysts to study the hiker’s teeth in hopes that clues could be discovered about where he had lived. A genomics company, Othram, had taken his DNA and started to do cutting-edge genetic analysis to identify him. Collier County had sent them a bone fragment; they had extracted the hiker’s DNA and then begun searching for genetic similarities among people in a database called GEDmatch to build a tree of potential relatives. They learned that the hiker had Cajun roots; that his family had come from Assumption Parish, Louisiana; and that there were family members with the name Rodriguez. The founder of the company, David Mittelman, went on Facebook to talk about the case. I bought Facebook ads on my personal page to promote my story in the region of Louisiana where I thought his relatives likely lived.

In the middle of December, photographs of Mostly Harmless found their way to a group of friends in Baton Rouge, one of whom called the Collier County Sheriff’s Office. This friend, who asked to be referred to by her middle name, Marie, told the detective that she knew who the hiker was. The sheriff’s office had received hundreds of bad tips. But this one seemed real. Marie recognized the face and she knew all about the scar. The handwriting was familiar, and the coding style too.

At 5:30 the next morning, my phone rang. It was the same person who had first sent the tip in August. We have a name, he said: Vance John Rodriguez. He texted two new photographs that looked just like Mostly Harmless. The nose was the same. The ears. The eyes with dark circles around them. I was elated to some degree. The mystery appeared to be solved. But then I thought back to my phone call to the friend of Daryl McKenzie. Someone was going to have to tell his family now. Someone would have to tell all the people who missed him.

I started reaching out, first to Marie, then to other old friends and girlfriends. I and others worked to confirm his identity, with the first press story about Rodriguez appearing in late December in Adventure Journal. The puzzle was formally solved today, when Othram confirmed that the DNA of the hiker matched that of Rodriguez’s mother.

We'd all been telling ourselves stories about his life. But the man whose journey had ended in the yellow tent wasn’t who anyone thought or hoped. If he had been trying to escape something, it was himself.

Vance John Rodriguez, a k a Vaejor, was born in February 1976 near Baton Rouge. He had a twin sister and an older brother. He told friends over the years that his father had deeply hurt him, but no one I spoke with seems to be clear exactly how. When he was about 15, according to friends, Rodriguez headed off into a field with a gun, intending to kill himself. He fired into his stomach. But then, as he lay bleeding to death, he decided to live. He raised his hand weakly and a passing truck saw him and pulled over. The surgeries that followed were the cause of the scar that had so intrigued the Facebook group. Later, he would tell friends that he wanted to be buried in that field.

At 17, with the consent of his parents, Rodriguez was emancipated by a Lafayette, Louisiana, court. Marie, who lived with him as a friend for several years in his twenties, says he was angry that his parents had institutionalized him after the near suicide. “He would not talk about his parents except to say ‘fuck them,’” Marie recalls. I wrote to his parents and sister in early January, two weeks after they heard the news. His sister wrote back, “My family has no comment.”

After graduating from high school, Rodriguez enrolled at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. In the school’s computer lab, he came to know a man named Randall Godso. They became off-and-on roommates for the next five years. Occasionally they would go out and party; one friend of Rodriguez’s wrote that she remembers him coming to her dorm and playing “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica on the piano. “I could be quiet around him,” she wrote, “and it never felt awkward.”

Godso and Rodriguez were both computer nerds, with Rodriguez taking it to the extreme. Godso remembers his roommate playing games for 18 hours a day and shutting everything else out. “He would go through huge bouts of depression. He’d go for a year without smiling or being nice to people,” Godso recalls. Rodriguez, according to his roommate, had cut off all contact with his family. “He was depressed and moody his whole life,” Godso recalls. “But I needed a roommate and we got along OK.” Godso adds that he doesn’t remember Rodriguez ever showing any interest in spending time in the wild. “Outside was between the car and the building.”

According to Godso, Rodriguez didn’t graduate. But people with computer skills usually don’t have a hard time finding a job. Eventually, he started work at an ecommerce company based in Baton Rouge called Shoppers Choice, where he was recognized by many as the most talented engineer on the team. The company’s codebase is still filled with notations of “VR,” for code that Rodriguez wrote. Marie, who works in IT, told me, “He was a crazy good coder. Except he would always code everything the hardest way possible, kind of like you hired Rembrandt to paint your bathroom. You know it is going to be lit, but over the top.”


He wasn’t particularly collaborative, but he would sit down, put on his headphones—listening to Temple of the Dog and Rage Against the Machine—and solve problems. As the problems got more complex, he got more comfortable. He was quiet but not, to his coworkers, perversely so. “If you’re asking me if he is the guy who shows up at the party in a clown suit blasting things out of a cannon, that’s not him,” says a former colleague named Corey Tisdale. “But he would go to holiday parties and not look miserable.”

He ate once a day, often pizza from Walmart or lasagna from Pasta Kitchen. He wore black jeans, a black shirt, and a black trench coat. He had long, dark hair almost down to his waist. One day he cut it all off and gave it to Locks of Love. He attended Dragon Con. He appeared to suffer from some mental health issues, but, according to Marie, he refused conventional medicine. “He self-medicated with drinking and chocolate,” she says. He would go on what Marie and other friends called “outages,” where he lay immobile for days, refusing food and all human contact. But eventually he would snap out of it. “He wore his sadness like an extra layer of skin,” Marie recalls. But, she adds, “I truly dug his imperfectly perfect solitary singular self.”

During this time in Baton Rouge Rodriguez started a relationship that would last for five years. But it ended quite badly. When it was over, the woman he had dated wrote on her Facebook page, “Apartment 950 a month / bills 300 a month / Standing up to the monster that beat you up emotionally and physically for 5 years? Priceless.” After Rodriguez was identified as the hiker, the woman’s mother commented on Facebook, “This man was so abusive to my daughter, he changed her.”

His colleagues from that time, learning of his story now, seemed saddened. But not entirely surprised. “He was always very introverted, kept to himself. His jokes were usually obscure,” says a colleague named Keith Parent. “None of this is surprising, except for the fact that, in the end, he died.”

“I looked for Vance in mid-2017 to hire him to build an app for a client of mine,” says another coworker from Shoppers Choice named David Blazier. “And I would have paid him literally anything he asked. I never found him.”

In 2013, Rodriguez moved to New York City. He’d met a woman, whom I’ll call K, in an online chat room. K, who asked for anonymity because of the public obsession about the hiker, was then finishing college in upstate New York. They traveled back and forth to visit each other. As their relationship evolved, they decided to both move to New York City and live together. She was going into fashion and had to be there. He had spent his life in Louisiana and welcomed the change. He’d never seen snow before. At first, he was romantic and sweet. But soon he started to clam up and shut her out. “If something upset him, he would stop talking to me completely. Which can be lonely when you share a 500-square-foot apartment,” she says.

Rodriguez kept working remotely for Shoppers Choice for about a year, then quit and lived off his savings. He and K went out maybe once a month, she recalls. She would ask him if he wanted to travel, and he would respond that he didn’t need to go anywhere because he could easily look at pictures online. The city was filled with constant motion, but that seemed to render him catatonic. “I think it made him even more lonely to be in a place with so many people and no one to connect to,” K recalls.

Gradually, the dreary relationship got worse. K recalls, “He did open up to me about previous women that he knew and how he treated them. They should have been red flags.” She stayed with him, despite her foreboding. “At one point he locked me out of our apartment after I got out of the shower without clothing because we started arguing about something I can't even remember. That wasn't the only time he locked me out.”

On a Saturday night in September 2016, K was injured when a terrorist set off a bomb on West 23rd Street in Manhattan. “I had pretty bad PTSD to which he hated caring for me, even kept a dated log of every time I needed help, to the point where he left me outside in the dark—knowing that at that time I couldn't be outside alone or be in the dark without panicking,” she recalls, before adding, “and this is only the light stuff.”

Around this time, according to K, Rodriguez also made a threat that was both terrifying because of his skills and ironic because of the anonymity he was about to seek: He threatened to dox K if she ever left him. She still moved out that winter. He reached out to Godso, who remembers worrying that Rodriguez would commit suicide. In January 2017, Rodriguez wrote, in a Slack channel for Screeps users, “I'm mostly harmless (for now).” In mid-April, he posted his last message in the Screeps Slack and headed into the woods. He seems to have left in a hurry. When his landlord opened the door to the apartment, eight months later, he found unopened food along with Rodriguez’s passport, wallet, and credit cards.

Rodriguez spent the next 15 months hiking south and shedding all remnants of the man he’d been. According to friends who saw the photographs of him on the trail, he looked healthier than ever. He was smiling. Everyone liked him. Had he become a different person? I asked K this question. “He was personable when you first met him, but after spending more time with him in an intimate way his personality completely changed. The people on the trail didn't spend years with him to see how he handled ups and downs. Maybe he was good at code-switching and hiding the person he was behind doors with me or others,” she said. “I think it just hurts that he was capable of being this person with complete strangers, but when it came to us he couldn't even be a decent human being to treat me or my body with any dignity.”

As he traveled down the Appalachian Trail, Vance Rodriguez was unencumbered by obligations and flush with cash from his time in tech. And there wasn’t anyone looking for him. His family wasn’t in touch. His ex-girlfriend was afraid of him. And his friends in Louisiana just thought he was in “a long-ass outage,” as Marie puts it. “Vance cut all ties and left,” she says. “Everyone assumed he would show back up.”

When I wrote about the mysterious hiker in November, I ended the story with two questions: “Why did Mostly Harmless walk into the woods? And why, when things started to go wrong, didn’t he walk out?”

Rodriguez’s friends have a theory about the second question. The timeline of his last few months is unclear, but he appears to have been stuck and starving, maybe at the same campground where he was found on July 23, 2018. By the time two hikers stumbled upon his tent, his body weighed just 83 pounds. He had money, though, and he was just a few miles from a major highway. Maybe his inexperience caught up to him and he was outmatched by the bugs, the snakes, and the humidity. It’s more likely, his friends suggest, that he had one last, major outage.  “I know that when he had to deal with anything, he would just lay down and sleep,”  K told me. “I feel like that's what happened. He would ignore problems and ‘sleep until it was gone.’”

The other question is harder: Why did he go into the woods to begin with? There is a simple, if reductive, answer that might apply to anyone whose mind is going sideways. We go outside because it helps take us inside ourselves. We stand in the trees, breathe in the scent of cedar, and we can think and feel. Our phones don’t ring and our screens don’t beckon us. We stand in the vastness of nature, remember how small we are, and everything slows down. 


As I tried to make sense of Rodriguez, I thought about a man I know named Jesse Cody who I had raced against in high school cross country. Like Rodriguez, Cody had struggled in his twenties and thirties. He had treated women poorly. He had come to dislike himself. He had contemplated suicide. Then, in an epiphany, he had decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, despite never having pitched a tent before. And there, in the woods, he figured out how to tame his demons. He now runs an organization to help people struggling with depression by taking them into nature. And he hasn’t stopped hiking since.

Maybe Rodriguez’s story is similar to Cody’s. He was alone in a vast, unfamiliar city. He’d destroyed his relationships. He left his apartment in anger. And then, as he traversed the mountains, walking through sugar maple and oak, hickory and poplar, stepping over roots and rocks, he tamed his demons too. The many people who met him didn’t sense the dark, brooding, sometimes dangerous person who left Brooklyn. Maybe he did become someone different. Maybe that’s what he’d been seeking.

But then again, maybe these are all just stories I’m telling myself about Vance Rodriguez because I still don’t actually know what happened. I want to think that he became someone else out in the woods, and I want him to have felt the things I feel when I hike on that trail. I want him to have smelled the cedar trees the way I smell the cedar trees. I want him to have a redemptive story, like Jesse Cody’s, because I like happy endings and because it better justifies all the time I spent researching bowling alleys in Newport News. I’m sketching in details in the half light.

The thing about mysteries is that they are most exciting when you’re still trying to solve them, when you can write in your own theories, fantasies, or fears. And this reality has struck the many people who hunted for Mostly Harmless before he was known to be Vance Rodriguez. They had been lighting candles in an effort to bring someone back to his family—only to learn that he had completely cut himself off from them. What do you do when the answer to the mystery isn’t what you thought or hoped? "I'll give you a reason not to like me,” Rodriguez had written on Slack, describing a kind of move in Screeps, two months before he went into the woods.

After the case was solved, and after some of the dark things about Rodriguez had come to light, I corresponded with Sahar Bigdeli, the woman who’d tried to get his teeth analyzed. “I became immediately engaged in the case and started to get a feeling that Mostly Harmless was a kind person, probably otherwise lonely as everyone else assumed. After all, he did leave everything, abandon everyone, and go off into the woods. It's courageous and reminds me a bit of myself as I made some brash decisions in life too,” she wrote. I asked her if she was disappointed that Rodriguez had such a dark side. No, she said. “I don't think I was committed to Vance as a human. I detached myself as a person to Vance, in that I didn't want to get too attached to a dead stranger. But I was committed to solving the case with others because it would be a great way to prove that people can do great things together.”

Maybe that’s the prettiest bow you can put on the box that contains this strange story. The mystery of Mostly Harmless captivated and inspired thousands of people. It inspired a group that has committed itself to trying to solve other cold cases. It brought some new attention to a cutting-edge type of genealogical analysis. It reminded everyone that it is still possible to disappear.

Yet it’s hard not to look at this story with anything but sadness. The boy who raised his hand to get help from a passing truck—and whose body still bore the scar of that Louisiana field—had grown into the man who didn’t seek help as he died in a Florida swamp. A man was able to disappear in no small part because no one was looking for him. A man was harmed and maybe harmful. And then he went into the woods and became Mostly Harmless.

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