Wired has the wild story about a hiker known only as Mostly Harmless, who was found dead in Florida's Big Cypress National Preserve in the summer of 2018. Mostly Harmless had allegedly left his tech job in New York City and began to hike the Appalachian Trail in April 2017. He didn't bring a cell phone or any credit cards with him. According to everyone known to have encountered him, he was a pleasant guy—as you might have guessed from his trail nickname of "Mostly Harmless." When his body was found, there was no evidence of foul play, or chemical substances, or disease, or, well, anything, other than a cadaver that once had been pretty healthy after hiking from New York to the Everglades.
So what the hell happened to him? That is the question, particularly in an age when surveillance is damn near unavoidable.
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.
I want to say that the article is worth reading for its satisfying conclusion, but here's the spoiler: there is no satisfying conclusion. At least, not yet. And that's exactly why I think it's worth reading. How could a white guy in America—one who allegedly worked in tech in NYC, no less—be so completely off-the-grid that there is absolutely nothing for authorities to trace him on?
A Nameless Hiker and the Case the Internet Can't Crack [Nicholas Thompson / Wired]
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