The disappearance of Meredith Emerson, the hiker who disappeared near Blood Mountain on New Year’s Day and whose body was found Monday night, has been a hot topic of conversation in Georgia and throughout the nation.
But no one has been following the story more closely than hikers themselves.
"We hiked at Raven Cliffs (about 4 miles east of Blood Mountain) Sunday, and this was all people talked about," said Beckie Hilton, president of the Clarkesville-based N.E. Georgia Mountain Hiking Club.
"We actually had a couple of new people join the club while we were out there. Both were women who said they don’t want to hike alone anymore. We’re happy to have them as members, but it’s a shame that someone has to join a hiking club for this reason."
Emerson, a 24-year-old Colorado native, was initially presumed injured or lost. But within a few days, investigators determined that the last person seen with her — Gary Michael Hilton, 61 — may have been responsible for her disappearance.
Gary Hilton, who is not related to Beckie, was charged Saturday night with kidnapping with bodily injury, after blood-stained items belonging to Emerson were found in his Chevy Astro van.
Officials with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation confirmed Monday night that Emerson’s body was found in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area.
Witnesses hiking at Blood Mountain last Tuesday reported that Emerson was seen talking with Gary Hilton. The two may have felt they had something in common because they both hiked with dogs.
According to one account, the last time Emerson was seen alive, she had let her black Labrador retriever mix, Ella, run off-leash alongside Hilton’s golden retriever mix, Dandy.
Frank Wright, president of the 700-member Georgia Appalachian Trail Club, speculated that the friendliness of the dogs may have given Emerson a false sense of security, even though she was said to be a smart and capable young woman.
"The fact that (Hilton) had a dog may have ingratiated her more to him than if he had been alone," Wright said. "Unfortunately, you cannot judge the owner by the dog."
Had Emerson met Gary Hilton on a busy city street, his scruffy-looking appearance might have set off alarm bells.
But Beckie Hilton said an unkempt look is almost normal on the Appalachian Trail, where "thru-hikers" spend months out in the woods as they walk the 2,175-mile path from Georgia to Maine. She said she tries to determine a hiker’s mental state by their behavior, not their appearance.
"The first time that my children and I backpacked, in 1989, we went from Springer Mountain to Neels Gap ... and there was a guy everybody called ‘Crazy Al,’" she said. "He apparently had a drug problem and was homeless. And he, too, had a dog. He would approach hikers and beg for food. He never harmed anyone, but he made a lot of people uncomfortable."
Wright said he has had similar experiences.
"I have encountered people on the trail who appeared to be unstable or to have emotional problems," he said. "There was never any violence, but it did put me on my guard."
Hilton said hikers are almost in denial that any foul play could occur on the trail, because it seems so out of context with the peaceful environment.
"When we meet somebody like that in the wilderness, it catches us off-guard," she said. "We’ve been conditioned to violence in our society for a long time, but the wilderness was one of the last places where we felt safe. I’m afraid that this incident has taken that freedom away from a lot of women."
Wright contends that from a statistical perspective, people are still much safer on the trail than in the city.
"People who go out there need to understand that it’s public land and everybody has a right to be there," he said. "But encountering bad people isn’t something that just occurs in the woods. It’s far more likely to happen to you when you’re going to the Kroger or when you’re walking out of the fitness center at night."
However, the Chattahoochee National Forest is classified as an "urban" forest because it is heavily used by people from metro Atlanta. So the chances of meeting an unstable person may be higher at Blood Mountain than at other Georgia hiking spots, simply because that area gets far more visitors.
"It’s estimated that each year, about 4 million people walk on some portion of the (Appalachian Trail), and Blood Mountain is the most heavily traveled section south of the Smokies," Wright said. "But we’ve not had an incident like (the Emerson case) in Georgia before."
Wright said he feels profound regret at what has happened.
"I feel terrible for that girl’s family and her friends, and for her," he said.
But he hopes that it doesn’t scare people away from hiking in Georgia, especially now that the suspect is locked up in jail in Union County.
Wright is also encouraged by the fact that authorities are investigating whether Gary Hilton may have been responsible for the disappearance of an elderly couple who were hiking in North Carolina in October.
"I’m glad to see that the North Carolina case is being investigated," he said. "If there is a connection, it means there was just one crazy person going out and harming people, instead of two."
Beckie Hilton said suspect Gary Hilton is probably better off now that he’s in custody, considering the amount of anger directed toward him.
"I think the hiking community is outraged over this, as well as sorrowful," she said. "More than anything, our hearts go out to (Emerson’s) family. We’ve all been talking about how we wish we could send a card to the family and express how much we sympathize with them."