We can now confirm that Mostly Harmless was Vance Rodriguez, a technology worker originally from Louisiana but in recent years based in Brooklyn, New York. After our print story was published, Nark continued his reporting and on December 16 he connected with Rodriguez’s former roommate, who is certain that the hiker known as Mostly Harmless is Rodriguez. Three other friends of Rodriguez also confirmed to Adventure Journal that the hiker in the photos is the man they knew as Vance Rodriguez. A former girlfriend said she is “100 percent sure” Harmless is Rodriguez. A previous DNA test conducted by an outside lab showed that Harmless has Cajun ancestry. In response to our request for comment, a representative of Collier County emailed, “We have no updates to release at this time.”
Below is our original story (“Part 1”), the first of our print stories we’ve put online, followed by Nark’s updated reporting (“Part 2”) on how he found Rodriguez—and who this mystery man was.
Part 1: The Ghost In The Tent
He thru-hiked from New York to Florida. He met dozens along the way. But two years after he died in his tent, no one knows who this mystery man was
Sometimes I imagine him falling through space, drifting like dust from dead stars in the vast nowhere above us. I see him take shape in the soft light of a forest before dawn. First a fog, then ephemeral form, then living flesh. This kind of thinking is where my mind goes at night, when half my head is in a dream and I ponder him fancifully, unmoored from the hard facts that make his case so frustrating. Whoever he was, he walked into the woods in New York in the spring of 2017 and hiked south for nearly fourteen hundred miles, down the Appalachian, Pinhoti, and Florida trails. On July 23, 2018, two day-hikers from Fort Lauderdale found his yellow two-person tent in Nobles Camp, among the saw palmettos and alligators in Big Cypress National Preserve about one hundred miles west of Miami. His boots were parked outside. When the hikers called out and no one answered, one of them peered into the tent and saw the man sitting upright, his body twisted. His eyes were wide open, but he wasn’t alive. “Uh, we just found a dead body,” one of the hikers, Nick Horton, told the 911 dispatcher.
Investigators from the Collier County sheriff’s department catalogued the man’s belongings. They included a beige shirt, gray shorts, underwear, Salomon hiking boots, flip-flops, a tent and sleeping bag, hiking poles, some food, a pack, and a baseball hat. There were two notebooks full of computer code and almost four thousand dollars in cash in a plastic baggie. What they didn’t find were a wallet, driver’s license, credit cards, cell phone, or ID of any kind. Two days later, the District 20 medical examiner’s office performed an autopsy. The man was five feet, eight inches tall and “markedly cachectic,” meaning his muscle had all but wasted away. Many later assumed that his weight, listed as eighty-three pounds, was a typo. It wasn’t. The man’s stomach was empty and the only chemicals found in his blood were ibuprofen and antihistamines. The medical examiner didn’t believe he’d been dead very long, as his body was remarkably intact despite the oppressive South Florida heat. He had no tattoos, no distinctive scars, no dental work at all. His fingerprints didn’t match any others in police databases, and investigators estimated his age as anywhere between thirty and fifty. The man was a cipher.
But when the sheriff’s department posted a sketch of his thin, bearded face on its Facebook page, the case suddenly came to life. “As soon as I seen it, I knew who it was,” said Kelly Fairbanks, a trail angel who met the man in Florida. Hikers, church members, and outfitters reported meeting him in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and atop Springer Mountain in Georgia. People knew him first as Denim, a trail name he was given for hiking in jeans, and later as Mostly Harmless. They’d eaten meals with him, slept beside him in shelters, and shared confidences before parting ways. They took dozens of photos of him, many of which now circulate online. In some he stares directly into the camera, smiling slightly. His beard is sometimes closely clipped, more often a ragged patch of salt-and-pepper weeds. The photos show his gear, too: His clothes and boots, his odd habit of keeping the rain cover over his pack at all times. The last known photo of Mostly Harmless was taken on April 15, 2018, less than ten miles from the swamp where he wasted away, alone, and where his body was found more than three months later.
Media in Florida and New York picked up the story in 2018, but it gained the most traction on Facebook, Reddit, and Websleuths, an online forum dedicated to unsolved cases. I learned about Mostly Harmless in February 2019, when the Collier County sheriff’s department released Sworn Statement, its three-part podcast about the case. Kristine Gill, a former newspaper reporter who works in media relations for Collier County, hosts the podcast. “Let’s say you wanted to disappear tomorrow. What would you want to do?” Gill asks as the first episode opens.
Beavers are known to react to the sound of running water by building dams. The urge is so ingrained that they’ll pile wood atop a speaker if it sounds like a stream. And that’s pretty much how humans react to unsolved mysteries like that of Mostly Harmless. Online detectives have pursued the case compulsively, mailing out fliers and contacting storage facilities where they suspect Mostly Harmless may have left his belongings. I’m one of them, a newspaper reporter who used the tools of my trade—public record searches, the Freedom of Information Act, dozens of interviews—to dig ever deeper into the mystery, and also to mask the depth of my obsession as professional interest. For more than a year, I told myself to stop investigating Mostly Harmless and start writing, that my role is to tell a story, not solve the case. But like a beaver, I hear the water running. I’ve posted queries in hundreds of Facebook groups, trying to break out of the echo chamber of unsolved mystery and hiking forums. I plastered his face in Dr. Who fan clubs, Turkish language groups, dozens of tech, coding, and gaming forums, even a Baton Rouge vegetarian group. I scanned through high school yearbooks until my eyes hurt. I’ve gone down rabbit holes, into MySpace pages, blogs of hikers who had brain cancer, even the Twelve Tribes, an alleged cult that’s into hiking and building cozy coffee houses all over the country.
The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System at the University of North Texas had thirteen thousand, one-hundred eighty-nine open unidentified remains cases as of spring 2020. About nine hundred of those are in Florida. Many consist of a single bone or a foot that washed ashore in a shoe. Often, bodies are so badly decomposed that police wouldn’t dare release a photo. The program’s director, B.J. Spamer, told me it is “uncommon” to have as many photographs of an unidentified body as there are of Mostly Harmless—in his case, there’s even a video. Today, he is a skeleton, stored in a medical examiner’s office in Naples, five miles from the Gulf of Mexico, and despite all the pictures and posthumous fame, he remains unidentified.
In the absence of answers, people who never met Mostly Harmless have made him a proxy, a canvas on which they paint a portrait of the man they want him to be. They see his blue-gray eyes in photos and decide they were kind, or lonely. They see a stranger’s face as somehow familiar. They cast him as a wanted fugitive, ex-military, or former cult member, either chronically ill or mentally unstable. Some believe he chose to die this way, a long suicide by starvation.
In my own portrait, Mostly Harmless is a mystic who left the material world behind, a transcendentalist who shed smaller, inconsequential truths for a larger one. I see him as the ideal of William Hazlitt’s 1821 essay “On Living to One’s Self.”
“He reads the clouds, he looks at the stars, he watches the return of the seasons, the falling leaves of autumn, the perfumed breath of spring, starts with delight at the note of the thrush in a copse near him, sits by the fire, listens to the moaning of the wind, pores upon a book, or discourses the freezing hours away, or melts down hours to minutes in pleasing thought. All this while he is taken up with other things, forgetting himself.”
In all their time together, neither asked the other’s real name. That’s not unusual in the thru-hiking community.
The truth is that Mostly Harmless’s life will be mundane when it finally comes out, I tell myself. He’ll be from Milwaukee or Brooklyn, as he told other hikers, not the ether. He’ll turn out to be the guy from IT who helped connect our laptops to the office printer. Police will release a name and say he was an only child with no parents left alive to report him missing. Perhaps we’ll learn what he was seeking on the trail. Maybe then we’ll know how he could have such a profound impact on so many people, without ever revealing his identity.
“I just really hope he’s who I thought he was,” Jennifer “Obsidian” Vickers told me. Vickers knew him as Denim and spent more time on the trail with him than anyone. They hiked southbound together on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia for about a hundred miles, starting at Blackburn Trail Center. She laughed often when we spoke, recalling their unlikely partnership. She was a black woman in her late sixties, he a white man she pegged to be about forty. Both had bad knees and hiked slowly. She taught him how to make a fire. He gobbled M&Ms, obsessed over distances between destinations, and longed to see a bear. Some hikers give off bad vibes, she said, but Denim made her feel safe.
When he signed in at hostels, he printed out the alias “Ben Bilemy.” That name doesn’t exist in the United States, as far as I can tell, and no hiker recalls hearing him say it aloud. He told Obsidian he was from Louisiana, but she heard him tell others he was from New York. In all their time together, neither asked the other’s real name. That’s not unusual in the thru-hiking community, said Warren Doyle, who has hiked the AT nine times and helps other hikers prepare for the “philosophical and psychological” aspects of the trail. He knows people who never got driver’s licenses, who only worked for cash their whole lives. “The best way to understand yourself in the real world,” he said, “is to remove yourself from it, so you can look back in.”
I longed to find some deeper meaning in the words, and found none. The notebooks never get personal. There are no trail life musings, no recollections of people he met or left behind. Nothing explains what led him to nature. There’s no “goodbye.”
Mostly Harmless told one hiker