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BOOK REVIEW

Tracking a killer and a cold case in Kathryn Miles’s ‘Trailed’

A new true crime book re-examines a murder in the wilderness

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In May 1996 Julie Williams and Lollie Winans took heavy backpacks and their dog for a hike on the Appalachian Trail. They set out from Skyland lodge in Shenandoah National Park, and hiked to a remote spot off the Skyland Meadows Bridle Trail. The two women, both in their mid-20s, were experienced wilderness guides. They had fallen in love while at an outdoor program for women, and they had nourished their bond with a series of multi-day treks in various national parks. But in Virginia on that day, while they were setting up their campsite, they were attacked and killed by an unknown assailant.

Kathryn Miles opens “Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders” with the couple’s final hours and speculates that the women were followed from the lodge to their campsite. She begins with the classic convention in writing a mystery: the opening is a tight aperture focused on the hikers, the “wizened hickories and chestnut oaks,” and the “gnarled stems of mountain laurels and rhododendrons” that turn the forest dark and ominous.

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But what starts as a true crime narrative about a single horrific event turns into something much larger. In investigating how and why Williams and Winans died, Miles connects the women’s deaths to complex questions of who has access to the wilderness, and how the National Park Service, guardians of vast swaths of land, fails to protect those who seek peace in wild spaces.

Miles is a scholar-in-residence for the Maine Humanities Council. She brings all of her powers as a journalist and outdoors expert to bear in telling Julie and Lollie’s story. Miles conceived the original feature article on the case that she was to write for Outside magazine as a “deep dive” into the murders and the investigation, paying special attention to how gathering evidence in a wilderness murder brings the inherent complications of a crime scene that can be scattered over a large territory.

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The early investigation by the National Park Police and the FBI looked at, in part, what the brutality of the crime said about the perpetrator and why he might have chosen Williams and Winans. Officials insisted that this had been an isolated incident. As Miles reports, other hikers had reported rapes and assaults, and a number of murders along the roughly 2,190 miles of trail that stretches from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Katahdin, Maine. A poorly funded park service with not enough resources to cover the millions of acres under its national purview was not eager to reveal to the public that hikers were vulnerable.

John Muir wrote that “wildness is a necessity” and that mountain parks were “fountains of life” where those made anxious by city life might find calm. But writers such as J. Drew Lanham and Camille Dungy have explored in their works that peace doesn’t extend to everyone. The woods remain spaces of potential racist violence for people of color. Elissa Washuta and Sasha LaPointe have written of their dislocation as Native American women when walking in a wilderness space created by a campaign of genocide and forcible removal of their ancestors.

As a young woman, I discovered that the wilderness areas in the Cascades were where I felt most grounded. I find that hiking brings me the sense of Waldeinsamkeit — a German word that means the sublime solitude of the forest — for me, a peace that comes from recognizing my true proportions in its vastness. Most of my hiking time has been spent either alone, or with a close female friend. Going into the woods requires carrying the right equipment, and being prepared for potential encounters with animals or bad weather. But as “Trailed” illuminates, the isolation of the wilderness provides a perfect venue for those humans intent on harming others.

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By the late 1990s, investigators continued to explore the possibility that there might a serial killer targeting hikers, but they also begin to suspect that they were looking at a hate crime that specifically targeted the lesbian couple. A decade before, a man had targeted another lesbian couple in a national park, killing one of the women and gravely injuring the other. Claudia Brenner survived the attack, and wrote a book that called attention to these types of wilderness hate crimes.

As Miles untangles the overlapping branches of the investigation, she also takes readers back to the days of Julie and Lollie’s girlhoods. We learn from the women’s families about the long-lasting grief and anger that the unsolved crime has left behind. But getting close to the families and learning more about their daughters’ lives means that Miles must also work through her fears that she would be “unable to prevent myself from absorbing that anguish and dragging it wherever I went, an invisible weight.”

What ultimately motivates Miles to continue her investigation is the official silence. In the wilderness, the stillness is broken by the creaking of the trunks of pines, the soughing of branches, the chitter of small animals and birds. But the silence imposed on the case of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans brought no sense of peace; it left behind grief and rage, feelings to which Miles gives voice in this passionate book.

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Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders

By Kathryn Miles

Algonquin, 320 pages, $27.95

Lorraine Berry is a writer and reviewer from Oregon. She tweets @BerryFLW.