New Year’s is one of those holidays that, to me, is almost more stress than it’s worth (you know, like Bastille Day). What do you do? Do you go to a club? Sure–if you want to pay $150 to dress like a metrosexual with copious amounts of hair product. Do you go to a party? That sounds okay–but what if it sucks? What’s your backup plan?
So, a few years ago, we decided with another couple, that we’d go out of town each year. This year, as in the previous two, we decided to rent a cabin in the mountains. We found a very nice cabin in Blairsville, in the North Georgia mountains. We got TRASHED the first night–well, as trashed as a bunch of 30-year old married people can get. The next day (New Year’s Eve) around noon, we decided to go hiking. We ventured out to Vogel State Park to hike Blood Mountain, which leads to the Appalachian Trail.
Our first stop was this small outpost store that sold hiking-related merchandise (trail maps, hiking clothing, books on mountains/hiking, etc.). As I was at the counter paying for a Gatorade (I’m not a serious hiker, obviously), an older man came in the door. I immediately noticed him because he was dressed so oddly. He had on a bright yellow jacket with turquoise pants (I think…they may have been purple), and one of those floppy hats that has the ears that you can either let hang down or pin up on the hat…just a very oddly dressed man.
This strange man asked the guy at the counter if he could use his phone, because the pay phone outside wasn’t working. My first thought was “This man doesn’t have a cellphone? I thought even infants have cellphones these days.” He said he had to call Atlanta, and asked if that was okay (I’m assuming because he thought it was long distance). The man behind the counter obliged, and he made his call. I walked to the back of the store, where my wife was trying to convince me to buy a hiking stick. A hiking stick is basically a tree branch with 3 pints of lacquer on it, so I was less than enthused. But, considering my wife has my nuts in her purse at all times, we bought “his and her” hiking sticks. Good lord. As we were leaving the store to approach the mountain, I noticed the strange man going through some things in a white AstroVan.
A quick aside: There are a few things you should know about me–I have a “Rain Man” like memory. I have at least 10 friend’s social security numbers memorized. It’s a long story of how that came to be, so just believe me. I can remember strange and minute details–people have often remarked that I’d be a great witness to a crime, because I’d remember every detail. And also, I remembered the AstroVan because my friends and I have an inside joke that anyone driving an AstroVan is clearly in the business of abducting small children. I even made the joke to myself when I saw the strange man with his AstroVan.
Anyway, back to my story…We hiked about a mile up Blood Mountain, and on our way back down, we encountered a red Labrador retriever with no leash, and presumably, no owner. The dog was very well behaved, however, which is saying a lot coming from someone that’s not a dog person, and especially considering it seemed to be a stray dog in the mountains. All four of us petted the dog and remarked how docile it was. At that point the same strange man from the outpost store came up and called the dog to him. As we walked past him, we told him how well behaved the dog was. He said something like “You would think so–it’s only been five years!” I’m not really sure what that meant, but I just chalked it up to him being clinically insane.
Fast-forward to Thursday morning, and my wife calling me at work. “Have you heard this stuff in the news about a missing hiker?” She said that it was the same mountain we were on, and that there was a person of interest, an older man with a dog. I immediately remarked “The guy with the yellow jacket?” I almost instinctively started rattling off details: “He had a white AstroVan. His dog was a red lab retriever.” She told me that the sheriff’s department was still looking for this man, and gave me a number to call to give them the details I remembered. I called the number for the Union County Sheriff’s Department, and gave the woman all of the details I knew. I told her what time we saw him at the store, and what time we crossed paths on the mountain (again, the memory thing). I hoped that maybe they could find the number he dialed in the store, and that might lead them to where he might be hiding.
As I learned Friday night, when Gary Hilton was caught in Atlanta, it probably wasn’t my tip that led them to the fugitive. Oh well…I at least felt like I fulfilled my civic duty.
Once he was booked, and I saw the booking photos on the web, it started to set in that I had a conversation with a murderer less than 24 hours before he killed someone. Wow. It’s still scary. I wonder if something I could’ve done would’ve prevented this from happening. What if I accidentally ran into him on the trail and knocked him over, spraining his ankle? Would Meredith Emerson still be alive? What if my wife decided to go hiking by herself that day? I don’t know. I just hope I never come this close to a murderer the rest of my life.
I don’t know what his motive was–maybe it’ll be determined at some point. I just feel horrible for the victim’s family. They’ve lost a daughter, sister, granddaughter, niece…for no good reason (is there ever a good reason?). If God had blessed me with future-telling abilities instead of a good memory, maybe I could’ve done something. Either way, I hope her family is able to find a way to cope with their loss.