0121HIKERAUDListen as Kim Williford discusses why she attended the memorial hike Sunday in honor of slain hiker Meredith Emerson.
Hikers were invited to bring their canine companions to the park, and about 50 dogs trotted beside their owners on the short walk to honor the slain hiker.
Emerson was hiking with her dog, Ella, on Jan. 1 on Blood Mountain in Union County when she was abducted from a mountain trail. Authorities have charged Gary Michael Hilton, 61, with abducting and slaying Emerson, 24.
A photo of Emerson and Ella was posted above a memorial stone placed near the covered bridge at Meeks Park. The stone read, "Remember Meredith Emerson: She hiked the path of life with Ella, love and wonder."
Josie Cardoza attended the memorial hike with her dog, Max, who was sporting a handkerchief around his neck that said, "Remember M.E." The Humane Society’s Mountain Shelter donated the handkerchiefs, and also offered free microchip implants to all dogs at the event, which allows the animals to be tracked if lost.
Although Cardoza didn’t know Emerson, she said she felt a connection to her as a fellow female hiker.
"I’m here for Meredith, because I’ve hiked that mountain by myself, and I’ve done it with my dogs," Cardoza said. "And it’s hit close to home, and I want to do it for her."
Cardoza said she’s hiked Blood Mountain four times within the past year by herself, and she’s hiked the Appalachian Trail numerous times with two other women.
"We’ve hiked and stayed out there at night ... and it’s sad that you can’t do that any more and you worry about things happening on the trail when it’s supposed to be safe," Cardoza said. "But we’re here to stick together."
Union County Sheriff Scott Stephens attended the memorial hike and said the event originally was planned to take place at Blood Mountain, but the threat of icy roads moved the hike to a more accommodating location. Organizers also said that the expected crowd forced the move to a location with more parking.
Stephens said the Union County Commission temporarily repealed the ban on dogs at the park to allow supporters of Emerson to honor her memory.
"We’ve never had anything like (the kidnapping) on our trails before," Stephens said. "I don’t think it’s anything for people to get alarmed about; it’s just a freak type deal. People should still come and enjoy the trail ... but always be safe and notice your surroundings."
Stephens said that hikers should contact law enforcement immediately if they encounter a suspicious individual on a trail. That allows officials to begin locating the suspicious person.
"We have a right to hike these hills whether we’re alone or with our family," said Kim Williford, who hiked with her dog, Piper. "When we have memorials like this, it tells the (evil spirits), ‘Hey look, these are our hills. We have the right to walk them, You’re not going to take the fear out of us.’"