Who’s Safe in the Woods? An Interview with Kathryn Miles, author of Trailed

In May 1996, Julie Williams and Lollie Winans were brutally murdered while backpacking in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, just off the Appalachian Trail. Twenty years later, journalist Kathryn Miles began looking into the lives of these adventurous young women and those who remain haunted by their loss. Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders offers a thoughtful braided narrative that delves into these devastating murders and the author’s own growing obsession with the case, while asking fundamental questions about justice in the national parks and who is safe in the backcountry.


Kathleen Yale: I have a tendency to seek out narratives on difficult topics. I know, for myself, part of that relates to this kind of need to bear witness, to force myself to look into the darkest corners of history and humanity. This book started as an assigned article for Outside. At what point did it shift to a book in your mind? Was that decision informed by your personal connection to the case, a morbid curiosity, or perhaps a sense of obligation?

Kathryn Miles: I think so many of us share your tendency: there’s a reason true crime is a perennially popular genre, and I think a lot of that has to do with our innate curiosity about that which is transgressive and even sinister in human nature. A lot of true crime fans have also told me that exploring the darker sides of humanity helps them feel more informed and ultimately in control, especially where the prospect of violence is concerned.

As for this particular story, the narrative of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans felt personal to me. I was the same age as Julie and Lollie when they were murdered. And like them, I was a sexual assault survivor who had found tremendous healing and strength through hiking and backpacking. The idea that two outdoor leaders could be brutally murdered doing what I most loved really shattered my sense of security in the wilderness. When I began working on this story as a feature article, I figured I’d have just enough space to pay homage to their personal stories, while also calling attention to what the FBI had promised might be new forensic science that would allow them to advance the case. It didn’t take long for me to realize that there were far more troubling reasons why the case hadn’t been solved, including incompetence and outright bias on the part of the Justice Department. I knew I couldn’t possibly tell that story in one or even ten feature articles. So in that regard, I’d say the genesis of the book was a combination of personal connection and something like obligation, which is to say that I felt compelled to call attention to the ways in which both our justice system—and our National Park System—are really broken.


KY: You talk about poring over case files and crime scene evidence, reading Lollie’s and Julie’s journals, speaking to their loved ones. This kind of deep reporting on such a violent crime, especially one that strikes so close to home, could take a deep toll on a person’s mental health. Were you able to maintain boundaries during your research, or did this case consume you entirely, as is often the case with this kind writing?

KM: I’m so glad you called attention to the emotional toll that this kind of reporting takes. The burnout rate and instances of depression and substance abuse among not only crime writers but also those who cover issues like climate change is something we don’t talk about nearly enough in this industry. That kind of writing is absolutely essential to effecting change, but it also leaves an indelible mark on those who undertake it.

Prior to this book, I had reported at length on the story of Gerry Largay, a grandmother and retired nurse who went missing while hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT). I’d seen firsthand how psychologically exhausting that kind of work can be. But I also came to understand how fortunate we are when family members or loved ones entrust us with a person’s legacy and their final narrative. In the darker days of research, I tried to really focus on what a gift it was to tell Lollie and Julie’s stories, not just in terms of their remarkable generosity and talents, but also their extraordinary love story. There were more than a few times—especially early on—when I would find myself either too emotionally exhausted or even too frightened to continue. But the more I learned about issues relating both to wrongful convictions and the real lack of access to wilderness experienced by so-called subordinate social groups, the more that fear and exhaustion were replaced with a kind of righteous anger and desire for justice that continues to fuel my work today.


KY: I spent a decade doing remote backcountry work in grizzly country, often alone, but it was really only the fear of running into a sinister man that ever kept me on edge. You’ve spent a lot of time in wild places, too. Has your relationship with them changed since writing this book? At one point you describe experiencing a panic attack on a camping trip, realizing how much your blue and yellow tent looked like Lollie’s tent. Had you had moments like that before? 

KM: Ever since learning about the murders of people like Lollie and Julie, Rebecca Wight, and other women on the trail, I’ve definitely become more apprehensive about solo camping or even hiking in certain spots—especially if they’re close to towns. And it’s very sobering to me how many people—especially women, nonbinary, and queer individuals—approach me after I give a book talk to say that they have never returned to the woods after first hearing about these crimes. In that regard, I really do think these murders embody the very definition of a hate crime: not only have they taken away the lives of innocent and accomplished individuals, but they’ve also had terrifying and lasting ripple effects in the communities to which those individuals belonged. I guess I count myself among them in some real ways. I’ve made peace with the idea that, for at least the foreseeable future, solo camping or camping with a girlfriend is probably off the table for me. I know that, statistically speaking, I am very safe sleeping in the woods. But I’ll never be able to unsee the crime scene photos associated with this case, and that has taken away a lot of the joy for me. It’s one thing to be statistically safe and another thing entirely to actually feel safe. That said, I’m still an avid trail runner, and the woods remain one of my favorite places to be.


KY: As you’ve said, we know women, members of the queer and disabled communities, and racial and ethnic minorities were largely excluded from mainstream narratives around the American environmental movement. And these groups are still underrepresented in the outdoor community–in media, in positions of leadership at organizations, and recreationally speaking, just boots on the trail. How does this lack of representation and safe opportunities continue to limit some people’s access to nature? 

KM: This is such an important topic and one that truly demands a national reckoning. Groups like Outdoor Afro, Gay Outdoors, and Fat Girls Hiking have done a lot to create a more inclusive space, but there is still so much work to be done. We still haven’t really confronted the profound racism that drove a lot of outdoor policy in this country, from displacing Native groups to create wilderness areas to segregating our national parks. Meanwhile, much of the American outdoor recreation experience was largely born out of a white, hierarchical, masculine model that emerged out of World War II and the military groups like the 10th Mountain Division. For so many people, that model—which encourages increasingly stressful situations as a vehicle for self-growth—just doesn’t work. Meanwhile, subordinate social groups remain hugely underrepresented not just in those leading outdoor organizations, but also in pop culture depictions of outdoor recreation (take a look at ads in a glossy outdoor magazine, for instance, and you’ll see that the models used are overwhelmingly white men). Even finding plus-size ski pants that fit can be difficult for many people. So at every turn, people in the groups you mention find themselves boxed out of the American wilderness experience. As a nation, we have a moral responsibility not just to confront this inequity but to resolve it.


KY: How might a person reconcile their desire, or I’d say actual need, to enter wild places to gain confidence, to heal from past traumas, to just feel the peace or thrill of nature, with their often very real fears for personal safety? Is that vulnerability inevitable for so many of us?

KM: Oh, I so wish I had a wise answer to this question. The truth is, I don’t really know, except to say that the answer is probably going to be different for every person and the trauma they’ve experienced not just as individuals, but also as a group or a generation. To that end, a lot of really exciting work is emerging on intergenerational trauma, or how past historical events like genocide or lynchings continue to do real damage today. I think just understanding those impacts and their immediacy is an important first step. I also think that vulnerability is part of what draws us to wilderness spaces. There’s nothing like standing in a virgin grove of ancient redwoods or encountering a whale shark while snorkeling to remind us of just how small we are. The trick, of course, is to foster a space where feeling small and vulnerable is a positive experience. Supporting therapeutic wilderness organizations that emphasize holism, mindfulness, and an equality among participants is another valuable step, but only if we also ensure those organizations are within reach of all Americans, regardless of income, class, or geography.


KY: The vast majority of homicide victims in the United States are young males, but women and nonbinary people make up the majority of victims in the backcountry. Can you speak to these trends?

KM: I think that there is a certain subgroup of white heterosexual men who still view the backcountry as their exclusive domain. They believe rules and laws don’t apply there, and that they are justified in poaching animals, stealing endangered plants, or even assaulting women, nonbinary, and queer people who “dare” to venture into their territory. In several of the murder trials that have resulted from this kind of violence, perpetrators have attempted to use a provocation defense: in other words, they contend that they were so provoked and disturbed by witnessing, say, two lesbians kissing or making love in the wilderness, that they had no choice but to kill them. It’s an obviously ludicrous and offensive argument, but one that continues to come up again and again. Until we get to the real root causes of so-called toxic masculinity and the behaviors it provokes, I fear we won’t see an end to this kind of violence.


KY: What’s changed on the AT or in Shenandoah in the quarter century since the murders, and what’s the same?

KM: Shenandoah, like the rest of our national parks, continues to suffer from gross underfunding and sometimes outright mismanagement. Our National Park System currently has a multibillion dollar deferred maintenance problem, which is not only stalling important infrastructure improvements to parks, but also the hiring, training, and equipping of rangers there as well. That deficit continues to rise every year. Couple that with the continued increase of visitors to our national parks—especially during the COVID era—and you have a recipe for potentially dangerous conditions. Earlier this year, the Biden administration pledged $2.8 billion to tackle this problem. It’s a good start, but also a drop in a very big bucket. It’s time to pull our national parks back from the brink and make good on the premise that they really our America’s best idea.


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Kathryn Miles is an award-winning journalist and science writer. The longtime editor of Hawk & Handsaw, Miles served as professor of environmental studies and writing at Unity College from 2001 to 2015. Miles is the author of five books: Adventures with Ari, All Standing, Superstorm, Quakeland, and Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders. Her essays and articles have appeared in publications including Audubon, Best American Essays, the Boston Globe, the New York Times, Outside, Pacific Standard, Politico, and Time. She currently serves as a scholar in residence for the Maine Humanities Council, a faculty member for several MFA programs, and as a private consultant. She lives in Portland, Maine.

Kathleen Yale is Orion’s special projects editor and the author of the award-winning children’s book, Howl Like a Wolf!. She’s a former scriptwriter for the educational programs SciShow and Crash Course, and prior to that worked as a wildlife field biologist. 


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