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.
Fairbanks took notice of his gear—which was a mix of high-end and generic, including his black-and-copper trekking poles. And she was struck by his rugged, lonely look. “He had very kind eyes. I saw the huge beard first and thought, ‘It’s an older guy.’ But his eyes were so young, and he didn’t have crow's feet. I realized he was a lot younger.” She was concerned though, the way she used to be concerned about her two younger brothers. The trail could be confusing, and it wouldn’t be long before everything started getting intolerably hot and muggy. “I remembered him because I was worried,” she added.
Six months later and 600 miles south, on July 23, 2018, two hikers headed out into the Big Cypress National Preserve. The humidity was oppressive, but they trudged forward, crossing swamps, tending aching feet, and dodging the alligators and snakes. About 10 miles into their journey, they stopped to rest at a place called Nobles Camp. There they saw a yellow tent and a pair of boots outside. Something smelled bad, and something seemed off. They called out, then peered through the tent’s windscreen. An emaciated, lifeless body was looking up at them. They called 911.
“Uh, we just found a dead body.”
It’s usually easy to put a name to a corpse. There’s an ID or a credit card. There’s been a missing persons report in the area. There’s a DNA match. But the investigators in Collier County couldn’t find a thing. Mostly Harmless’ fingerprints didn’t show up in any law enforcement database. He hadn’t served in the military, and his fingerprints didn’t match those of anyone else on file. His DNA didn’t match any in the Department of Justice’s missing person database or in CODIS, the national DNA database run by the FBI. A picture of his face didn’t turn up anything in a facial recognition database. The body had no distinguishing tattoos.
Nor could investigators understand how or why he died. There were no indications of foul play, and he had more than $3,500 cash in the tent. He had food nearby, but he was hollowed out, weighing just 83 pounds on a 5'8" frame. Investigators put his age in the vague range between 35 and 50, and they couldn’t point to any abnormalities. The only substances he tested positive for were ibuprofen and an antihistamine. His cause of death, according to the autopsy report, was “undetermined.” He had, in some sense, just wasted away. But why hadn’t he tried to find help? Almost immediately, people compared Mostly Harmless to Chris McCandless, whose story was the subject of Into the Wild. McCandless, though, had been stranded in the Alaska bush, trapped by a raging river as he ran out of food. He died on a school bus, starving, desperate for help, 22 miles of wilderness separating him from a road. Mostly Harmless was just 5 miles from a major highway. He left no note, and there was no evidence that he had spent his last days calling out for help.
The investigators were stumped. To find out what had happened, they needed to learn who he was. So the Florida Department of Law Enforcement drew up an image of Mostly Harmless, and the Collier County investigators shared it with the public. In the sketch, his mouth is open wide, and his eyes too. He has a gray and black beard, with a bare patch of skin right below the mouth. His teeth, as noted in the autopsy, are perfect, suggesting he had good dental care as a child. He looks startled but also oddly pleased, as if he’s just seen a clown jump out from behind a curtain. The image started to circulate online along with other pictures from his campsite, including his tent and his hiking poles.
Kelly Fairbanks works at the Army and Air Force exchange store on a Florida military base. She normally monitors the CCTV cameras for shoplifters, but if there’s no one in the store she might sneak a look at Facebook. It was a quiet moment, and suddenly the picture popped into her feed. There he was: eyes wide open and looking up. She recognized the eyes and the beard. “I started freaking out,” she says. It was the kind man she’d seen on Highway 90. The sheriff’s office had also posted a photo of the hiker’s poles, and Fairbanks knew she had an image of the same man holding the same gear.
She clicked right over to the Collier County Sheriff’s Facebook page and sent in two photographs she had taken of Mostly Harmless. She got a message back immediately asking for her phone number. Soon a detective was on the line asking, “What can you tell me?”
She told him everything she knew. And she shared the original post, and her photo, all over Facebook. Soon there were dozens of people jumping in. They had seen the hiker too. They had journeyed with him for a few hours or a few days. They had sat at a campfire with him. There was a GoPro video in which he appeared. People remembered him talking about a sister in either Sarasota or Saratoga. They thought he had said he was from near Baton Rouge. One person remembered that he ate a lot of sticky buns; another said that he loved ketchup. But no one knew his name. When the body of Chris McCandless was found in the wilds of Alaska in the summer of 1992 without any identification, it took authorities only two weeks to figure out his identity. A friend in South Dakota, who’d known McCandless as “Alex,” heard a discussion of the story on AM radio and called the authorities. Clues followed quickly, and McCandless’ family was soon found.
Now it’s 2020, and we have the internet. Facebook knows you’re pregnant almost before you do. Amazon knows your light bulb is going to go out right before it does. Put details on Twitter about a stolen laptop and people will track down the thief in a Manhattan bar. The internet can decode family mysteries, identify long-forgotten songs, solve murders, and, as this magazine showed a decade ago, track down almost anyone who tries to shed their digital skin. This case seemed easy.
An avid Facebook group committed to figuring out his identity soon formed. Reddit threads popped up to analyze the notes he had taken for Screeps. Amateur detectives tracked down leads and tried to match photographs in missing persons databases. A massive timeline was constructed on Websleuths.com. Was it possible, one Dr. Oz viewer asked, that Mostly Harmless was a boy featured on the show who went missing in 1982? Was it possible that Mostly Harmless was a suspect in Arkansas who had murdered his girlfriend in 2017? None of the photos matched.
The story pulled people in. Everyone, at some point, has wanted to put their phone in a garbage can and head off with a fake name and a wad of cash. Here was someone who had done it and who seemed to have so much going for him: He was kind, charming, educated. He knew how to code. And yet he had died alone in a yellow tent. Maybe he had been chased by demons and had sought an ending like this. Or maybe he had just been outmatched by the wilderness and the Florida heat.
It just wasn’t a normal story in any way. And, as Fairbanks said, “he was a good-looking dude,” which, she notes, might explain why so many of the searchers are women. In mid-October, one woman in the Facebook group posted a slideshow comparing his photos to those of Brad Pitt. “Actually I think MH looks better. 😉,” one commenter wrote.
The dude, though, seemed to have followed, to near perfection, the hiker credo of “Leave no trace.” None of the clues panned out. Nothing actually got people close to solving the mystery. An industrious writer named Jason Nark spent more than a year obsessively tracking down leads and then wrote an elegy to the hiker that began, “Sometimes I imagine him falling through space, drifting like dust from dead stars in the vast nowhere above us.”
Natasha Teasley manages a canoe and kayak company in North Carolina. As business slowed when the coronavirus hit, she started to spend more time online, and she started to fill the gap in her life with the hunt for Mostly Harmless. She sent flyers to the Chambers of Commerce in every city where people thought he might have come from, including Sarasota, Florida, and Saratoga Springs, New York. She tracked down details about every car that was towed out of Harriman State Park, where he likely started his journey. She scoured missing persons databases. I asked her what motivated her to spend so much time looking for a man she’d never met. She responded achingly, “He’s got to be missed. Someone must miss this guy.”
When we think of DNA tests, we normally think of their miraculous ability to give us a yes or a no. The unique thread of base pairs that make us who we are exists in every cell. So we take the genetic information found at a crime scene, or in the saliva on a coffee cup, or on the hand of a deceased hiker. Then we look closely at roughly 20 chunks, or what geneticists call markers, and we search in a database of collected samples to see whether the markers match. Imagine if a book, 1 million pages long but without a cover, washed up on the shore. And then imagine you could scan one page and search all the books in a giant database to see if that exact page appeared. That’s conventional DNA testing.
But DNA also can tell the story of human history. By running a different kind of test, you get beyond yes or no and into a million variations of maybe. The genetic markers in your body are closer to those of your first cousin than your third. And they’re closer to those of your third cousin than your sixth. There’s a little bit of each generation in each of us, from our parents to our great grandparents to the early apes of the forests of Africa. So now imagine that book, and imagine that instead of comparing one page, you could compare everything in the book with everything in all other books, to find similar words, syntax, and themes. You would need complicated math and pattern tracing, but, eventually, you might figure out the author. And so, early in the summer of 2020, the organizers of the Facebook group searching for Mostly Harmless’ identity sent news about the case to a Houston company called Othram. It had been started two years earlier and pitches itself as a one-stop shop for solving cold cases.
Othram’s founder, David Mittelman, is a geneticist who had worked on the original human genome project, and he was drawn to this odd case. The company asks the public for suggestions for mysteries to solve, and that’s one of the best parts of the job. “I like doing the cases from the tip line,” Mittelman told me. “Lab work for the sake of lab work is kind of boring.” If he could crack the hiker’s identity, he’d get attention for his technology. But there was something else, too, drawing him in, a riddle he wanted to answer. The hiker seemed to have found an internet family but had no connection to his real one.
Othram called up the Collier County Sheriff’s Office and offered to help. DNA analysis is expensive, though, and the company estimated that the whole project—from evidence to answers—would cost $5,000. The sheriff's office couldn't spend that much money on a case that involved no crime. But it would love Othram’s help if there were another way to pay for the work. And so three of the great trends of modern technology—crowdfunding, amateur sleuthing, and cutting-edge genomics—combined. Within eight days, the Facebook group had raised the money to run the analysis. Soon a small piece of bone from the hiker was on its way west from Collier County to the Othram labs.
The first step for Othram’s team was to extract DNA from the bone fragment and to then analyze it to make sure they had enough to proceed. They did, and so they soon put small samples of DNA onto glass slides, which they inserted into a sequencer, a machine that costs roughly a million dollars and looks like a giant washing machine made by Apple.
Unfortunately, it’s a washing machine that has a long run cycle. And it doesn’t always work. Sometimes the pages of the book you find are ripped or blurry. Sometimes the process is iterative and you have to tape fragments back together. So, as the sequencer spun, the Facebook hunters fretted that, once again, nothing would come of a promising lead. But by mid-August, Othram had a clean read on the DNA: They knew exactly what combination of As, Cs, Gs, and Ts had combined to create the mysterious hiker. A company spokesperson appeared live on the Facebook group’s page to detail the progress; posters responded with gratitude and euphoria.
Science sometimes gets harder with every step, though, and having the sequence was just the beginning. In order to identify Mostly Harmless, the team at Othram would have to compare his genetic information with other people’s. And they would start with a service called GEDMatch, a database of DNA samples that people have submitted, voluntarily, to answer their own hopes and questions—they want to find a lost half-sister or a clue about their grandpa. That collection of DNA has become a cornucopia for law enforcement. Each new sample submitted provides one more book for the library that can be searched and scoured. It was through this technique that investigators in Contra Costa County, California, found the Golden State Killer in the spring of 2018, connecting a DNA sample of the killer to GEDMatch samples of relatives. Just this past week, Othram helped law enforcement identify the murderer of a 5-year-old in Missoula, Montana, a case that had gone unsolved for 46 years.
It’s been over a month since Othram started looking through the GEDmatch database. It won’t say anything about what it has found, and the Collier County Sheriff’s Office is keeping quiet as well. But one source outside of the company who is familiar with its progress says that, while Othram doesn’t know Mostly Harmless’ name, it has found enough matching patterns to identify the region of the country from which his ancestors hail.
That isn’t sufficient though. Knowing for sure, for example, that his relatives came from Baton Rouge doesn’t mean Mostly Harmless came from Baton Rouge. His parents could have been born there and moved to Montreal. He could have been born in Louisiana and dropped on a doorstep in Maine. But, right now, the data scientists at Othram are combing through all the DNA samples in GEDMatch, looking for patterns and trying to circle closer to his identity. They’re most likely building out a family tree. Let’s say they found someone in GEDMatch whose DNA seems like a fourth cousin of Mostly Harmless, and then perhaps someone who seems like a third cousin. How do those two people connect? Through this sort of slow, painstaking analysis, they can get closer to an answer. Soon they might find his extended family, and then perhaps his parents’ names. And then law enforcement will be able to solve a case that has stumped them for more than two years.
They might get there, and they might not. A source familiar with the work suggests that the earliest we’ll get an answer is December. Unless between now and then, perhaps, someone reading this article or browsing a Facebook group recognizes his face. Or puts together clues that have eluded everyone else. Finally, he won’t be “Mostly Harmless”; he’ll have a real name.
And then, with that mystery solved, a new one will open up. Why did Mostly Harmless walk into the woods? And why, when things started to go wrong, didn’t he walk out?
Two months following the publication of this story, the hiker was formally identified. Here is Nicholas Thompson’s follow-up story on his life.