Editor’s note: In Adventure Journal 17, summer 2020, we published a story called “The Ghost in the Tent,” by journalist Jason Nark, who had been trying to decipher the mystery of a man known only by his trail name, Mostly Harmless, whose emaciated body was found in a tent by day hikers in Florida. Harmless had hiked from New York to Florida and there was food and money in his tent, but no identification, and neither Collier County detectives nor amateur web sleuths could figure out his real name, find his family, or uncover friends.

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.

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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.”

Mostly Harmless told other hikers he worked in information technology and based on his notebooks that seems likely. I obtained the forty pages of notebooks from Collier County through the Freedom of Information Act. Numbers and computer code in small, neat print cram most of them. Harmless wrote out nutritional formulas for a line of trail wafers and plans for a role-playing game with descriptions of miners, warriors, and a “nanite guild.” The notebooks reference Screeps, a computer game for programmers in which players control their “colony” by writing JavaScript A coder who reviewed the notebook said it was “very coherent and lucid,” not the sign of a deteriorating mind. The notebook, he surmised, was where Mostly Harmless simply jotted down ideas. Obsidian said she never saw him write anything, not even in the guest registers in hostels, though he did like to read them.

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 he was a big Dr. Who fan with hard drives full of his favorite television shows and movies. His supposed interest in science fiction led many to guess the trail name Mostly Harmless is a reference to the title of the final book in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Others say the trail name was descriptive: Someone said he was “mostly harmless,” and it stuck.

The most popular theory of his demise is a romantic one, which I also wanted to believe. In that scenario, he receives a terminal diagnosis, puts his affairs in order, and packs up his identity. He forgoes machines and radiation to die on his own terms, in nature. When I received a copy of the autopsy in January 2020, though, it revealed no such illness. His organs were small but otherwise normal, including his brain. He had no tumors or wounds. An investigator described his teeth as perfect, though the autopsy found the edges of his upper teeth had been ground down.
 The cause and manner of death were listed as “undetermined.” The chief findings of the autopsy were his weight loss, the “pronounced cachexia,” and a faint scar on his abdomen. The mark suggested a prior surgery, but when I reached out to the medical examiner he wouldn’t speculate. Baffled, I sent the report to Dr. Cyril Wecht, a pathologist. He read it and found nothing revealing, besides the obvious cachexia. “There’s no evidence of cancer. There’s no evidence of an infectious process, no evidence of anything at all,” Wecht told me. “People don’t often kill themselves by starving. That’s pretty painful.”

Mostly Harmless in Damascus, Virginia, October 2017

I don’t believe Mostly Harmless intended to die on the trail. At least, I don’t want to believe that. People who fill notebooks with ideas are thinking of a future with themselves still in it. Suicidal people, from my experience, can’t imagine one. The writer Andrew Solomon once said the opposite of depression is vitality; a long, drawn-out suicide over a thousand-mile journey sounds like fiction. Still, dark feelings can move like thunderstorms through a person’s life.

Mike Usher hiked with Mostly Harmless in Pennsylvania in the summer of 2017. Mostly Harmless told him he’d started hiking around Harriman State Park in New York because he was “depressed with his life and needed a complete change.” He told Usher that he began hiking the AT because he was nervous about getting caught camping illegally at Harriman. Once on the trail, though, Mostly Harmless told Usher he experienced a “new sense of happiness.”

I did my best to reconstruct his journey. Some online posts suggest he started from Bear Mountain State Park in New York, around April 2017. Others place his starting point at Harriman State Park. Both parks are less than fifty miles north of Brooklyn and popular with New York City residents. I requested records for illegal camping violations and impounded cars at both parks. When they arrived, personal information was redacted in deep black lines and mostly useless. None of the cited campers matched Harmless’s age range or height, from what I could see. Was the 1998 Ford with the bowling ball and cat food in the trunk his? What about the Honda Accord with two cell phones and a debit card locked inside? Disappointed, I forwarded them all to Collier County.

Investigators have ruled out dozens of missing persons cases, many sent by amateur sleuths whose confirmation bias helps them disregard clear discrepancies, such as eye color and height. I spent weeks investigating one potential match, a man named “Steve” who possibly went missing in Boulder, Colorado. In early 2020, he sent me a message: “Hey, I’m not dead.” At times, my heart leapt, like the moment Obsidian told me Mostly Harmless purchased hiking boots with a credit card. When I contacted Rockfish Gap Outfitters, they confirmed they sold one pair of boots that day, Salomons in size eleven—but that the customer had paid cash. Later, the medical examiner told me Mostly Harmless’s feet were a size seven. When I followed up, thinking that was a mistake, he said “that is his exact foot measurements into shoe size.”

Frustrated, I sat down with a copy of Mostly Harmless to see if the novel held any more clues than the impenetrable notebooks. One scene, in which the protagonist seeks out an oracle for advice, felt apropos, as if Mostly Harmless himself were talking to everyone trying to crack his case. “You cannot see what I see because you see what you see. You cannot know what I know because you know what you know.”

Nearly two years after his death, the timeline of Mostly Harmless’s last fourteen months is still full of unknowns. No one reported seeing him in Tennessee or North Carolina and only a few people remember him on the Pinto Trail in Alabama. He told a hiker in Florida that he’d skipped the Alabama Roadwalk section of the trail, choosing to ride to the beginning of the Florida Trail in Pensacola with “some girls.” He told this man, like many others, that he intended to end his trip in Key West. Mostly Harmless was photographed a few hundred miles north of Nobles Camp on March 17, 2018. He looks thin, his beard wild, but nowhere near eighty-three pounds. “He was in good spirits, seemed to be enjoying his hike,” the photographer said.

Mike “Water Boy” Gormley took two photos of Mostly Harmless on April 15, 2018, on the side of a road a few miles north of Nobles Camp. He may be the last person to have seen Mostly Harmless alive. In Gormley’s photos, Mostly Harmless is not smiling, as he was in many other photos. His face is tan, his beard short again. It was well over eighty degrees that day, and Mostly Harmless was carrying a pack that weighed more than fifty pounds. He told Gormley he was still carrying his winter clothes.

“I offered to send them back home for him and he declined,” said Gormley, who remembers Mostly Harmless as “a quiet, polite guy” who asked for nothing but readily accepted bottles of Gatorade and frozen water. Gormley estimated his weight to be about one hundred and fifty pounds.

Ninety-nine days later and ten miles away, the hikers found him dead in his tent.

No one knows whether Mostly Harmless made it to Key West and was returning north when something went wrong or if he got sick in Nobles Camp and hunkered down, too weak to move. Despite his extreme weight loss, he had food with him when he died. He may have had a mental breakdown. He may have chosen to stay there, in that tent, to die of “inanition,” a term I hadn’t heard until Warren Doyle said it. It means the quality of being empty, in this case losing the will to live.

Obsidian told me she asked Mostly Harmless to take her to Mardi Gras someday, but she couldn’t recall if he answered. She last saw him in Buena Vista, south of Afton Mountain, in Virginia. They fist-bumped and she watched him walk off in the rain, assuming they would cross paths again.

“We were just hiking,” she said. “I don’t know why people hike but you meet a lot of really good people on the trail. He was one of those people.”


Part 2: Identifying Mostly Harmless
December 2020

The rent for the small, one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn had gone unpaid for more than half a year. When the building’s owner finally got a warrant to get inside in late January 2018, it looked as if his tenant had simply stepped out for a moment.

Computers and monitors and “video game things” were everywhere. Food was in the cabinets, clothes still in the bedroom. The tenant had left behind his wallet, credit cards, a passport, a New York State ID, and a driver’s license. It was from Louisiana, from a life he’d long since left behind.

They all carried the same name: Vance Rodriguez.

“We had no idea what happened to him,” Gary Hoffman, the building’s owner, told me. “It was like he had just disappeared.”

Disappear is exactly what Rodriguez, who would be 44, had done, likely on purpose, and few who knew him found that at all unusual. Friends and former co-workers are convinced Rodriguez is the thru-hiker known variously as Denim, Ben Bilemy, and Mostly Harmless, a mystery man who was found dead inside a tent in Big Cypress National Preserve in the summer of 2018. Mostly Harmless remained unidentified for nearly two and half years, despite the best efforts of detectives in Collier County, Florida, where he was found, and a community of online investigators that eventually spanned the globe.

“I am 100 percent sure,” a former longtime girlfriend of Rodriguez in Louisiana said Tuesday night after viewing trail photos of Harmless for the first time. “I want to help put his identity and who he was to rest,” wrote the woman, who asked to be identified by her nickname, Tuggy.

Last week, several of Rodriguez’s friends reached out to the Collier County Sheriff’s Office to tell investigators that the mystery hiker whose identity had stymied them for so long was Rodriguez. A spokeswoman for the department who produced a podcast about the case in 2019 had no comment. The podcast was part of the department’s years-long effort to identify the hiker, but seemed initially only to deepen the mystery. I wrote about Mostly Harmless in Adventure Journal 17, collecting bits and pieces of his story from people he met while hiking 1,400 miles from New York to Florida, where he died. A later story in Wired brought an explosion of interest in the case. The unsolved mystery stumped detectives and prompted thousands of internet detectives and journalists like me to scour the web for clues.

Images of a young Rodriguez supplied by a Louisiana friend. Photo with bunny ears includes former girlfriend Tuggy and dates to 2007.

Natasha Teasley is the administrator of a Facebook group dedicated to finding Mostly Harmless, which swelled to nearly 7,000 members worldwide. The group, called “Unidentified male hiker Ben Bilemy 2018,” is one of several that was dedicated to discovering Mostly Harmless’s identity, including Reddit pages and online sleuthing forums. (Disclosure: I became a moderator in Teasley’s group earlier this year.)

Teasley also built a website about the case, including a detailed timeline of every recorded stop Mostly Harmless made. She helped organize a fundraising effort that brought Othram, a Texas-based DNA lab, into the case. I donated to that cause. That lab was making progress on the case, recently finding Cajun ancestry in Mostly Harmless’s DNA.

Then last week, friends of Rodriguez saw his photos online and came forward. Several of Rodriguez’s family members have joined the Facebook group in recent days. Teasley said they have not liked or comment on any of the hundreds of posts or photos.

Despite the identification, some mysteries surrounding the case have deepened. Rodriguez’s parents are alive, along with his twin sister and older brother. He is included in his grandfather’s obituary from this past summer. His family has not responded to requests for comment. A woman Rodriguez once lived with in that Brooklyn apartment said my efforts to identify Mostly Harmless were “misguided.”

“There’s a reason no one reported him missing,” said a former roommate in Baton Rouge, who asked to be identified by his first name, Randall.

Interviews with former friends like Randall and co-workers from Louisiana paint a picture of Rodriguez as an intelligent and troubled man who often struggled with personal relationships, particularly with his family. Rodriguez was “hot and cold,” said a female friend from Baton Rouge who asked to be identified as Marie, noting that he periodically went through what she described as “outages,” depressive episodes where he could be hurtful and shut people out. Mostly Harmless told at least one hiker in Pennsylvania that he’d gone into the woods “depressed with his life and needed a complete change.”

“He was deeply kind and caring and a bit of a dick,” Marie said of Rodriguez.

One of those “outages” may be the reason he died, alone and nearly skeletal inside his tent in the Florida swamp with notebooks full of computer code, nearly $4,000 in cash, and no identification. Mostly Harmless weighed just 83 pounds.

While friends said Rodriguez liked to travel and go for walks, none recalled him ever talking about long-distance hiking. Nature seemed to work on him, though, and his quick trip to Harriman State Park turned into an epic journey that lasted more than a year. Randall said photos of Mostly Harmless’s time on the trail stood out. He looked healthy, Randall thought, more muscular than he’d been when they were roommates back in Louisiana. Randall couldn’t remember him smiling so much as he did in photos taken on the trail.

“It did not surprise me to hear that he left everything behind, though I lost touch with him after we parted ways,” Tuggy wrote.

By the time Hoffman, the landlord, got into his Brooklyn apartment, Rodriguez was likely somewhere in the Deep South. Mostly Harmless was seen at a trailhead in Alabama earlier that month. He’d long since found his trail footing, upgrading gear along the way, spending nights in tents, shelters, and hostels. Other hikers knew him as Denim, the trail name he acquired early in his trip, while still hiking in jeans, and Mostly Harmless, a trail name he may have given himself because of a lifelong love of science fiction and the one that stuck. Mostly Harmless was first seen in the woods in the spring of 2017, around New York’s Harriman State Park and he continued southbound, down the AT, Pinhoti, and Florida trails. He met and interacted with dozens of hikers. Many took his picture. He told them he worked in Brooklyn, which turned out to be true. His company, V-Tech, was based out of the apartment he’d abandoned.

Mostly Harmless told at least one hiker he was from Baton Rouge, and Rodriguez both lived and worked there for many years. Randall met Rodriguez at the University of Southwest Louisiana, now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, in 1994. The two played multi-user dungeon games and Randall said Rodriguez was most confident when he was on a keyboard. Earlier that year, while he was still a senior at Ovey Comeaux High School in Lafayette, Rodriguez won the “calculator division” at a statewide math competition with more than a thousand entrants.

“We were both in computer science and we didn’t have a lot of friends,” Randall said. “We spent a lot of time in the computer lab.”

Between semesters, Rodriguez would move back home and Randall went over to visit him once, bringing his computer along to play games. He doesn’t recall meeting Rodriguez’s parents. Eventually, the two became roommates in Baton Rouge, though Rodriguez also moved in and out with girlfriends. Randall said Rodriguez often came to his house for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“He never wanted to talk about his family,” he said. “Ever.”

Tuggy, Rodriguez’s former girlfriend in Louisiana, said they dated for more than four years. She described Rodriguez as “kind, quiet and intelligent” but believes his “quiet and reclusive” nature contributed to him going so long without being identified.

“Even after we parted ways, and even today, I still love him very much,” Tuggy wrote.

Corey Tisdale was a former boss of Rodriguez’s at a Baton Rouge company called BBQguys, known then as ShoppersChoice.com. Tisdale told me Rodriguez was “wicked smart” and worked as the company’s senior architect and developer for about three years. He said Rodriguez wanted challenges at work, preferring complicated fixes over easy ones. Rodriguez “was very nice to people,” Tisdale said, but often had to be cajoled to attend company get-togethers.

“He just kind of did his own thing,” Tisdale said. “If you told me he decided he wanted to be alone in the woods and left his phone, I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Rodriguez during his Shopper’s Choice days.

 

In Brooklyn, Hoffman didn’t recall seeing a phone among Rodriguez’s belongings. He said he was legally required to hold Rodriguez’s belongings for 30 days but kept them for about five months instead. He said Rodriguez lived there with a woman he described as a girlfriend but that they’d had a falling out. Hoffman said the woman told him she didn’t want Rodriguez’s belongings and didn’t know how to reach him.

Eventually, Rodriguez’s belongings were placed in trash bags, put on the curb, and taken to a dump.

Teasley, the Facebook page moderator, said she always knew Mostly Harmless could turn out to be an imperfect person. Teasley said that doesn’t take away from the work done by volunteers and as a member of the group.

“The people who cared about him and even the people who felt hurt by him all deserve to have that closure,” she said. “We had often though he might have been running from something and it turns out what he might have been running from is himself.”

Last week, as Rodriguez’s name began to circulate online, a woman who used to work with him posted to Teasley’s Facebook group. Rodriguez “wouldn’t have wanted any of this,” she wrote, however well-meaning the group.

“I recognize that and acknowledge that this was done with utmost love and respect for a man that none of you knew,” wrote the woman, who asked not to be identified.

In the months before he left Brooklyn and started hiking, Rodriguez was playing the online game Screeps, where computer programmers control their “colony” by writing Javascript. Rodriguez was known as Vaejor, a user name and email handle he used for decades. He was active in message boards on the game’s Slack channel, telling users he was “usually in front of a computer” or that he’d played until 4 a.m. Notebooks found in the tent with Mostly Harmless were traced to the game.

Most of Rodriguez’s discussions in the Screeps Slack channel centered on the game but some things were personal. He talked about ordering cereal in bulk and gave advice to a user who wasn’t feeling well and had lost his voice. Rodriguez joked that no one would notice if he lost his voice.

Marie believes Rodriguez saw the trail as another game, the distance between shelters or hostels his daily missions. His trail name was similar to online user names, a world he knew so well, a place where no one cared about your real name.

While no one knows what Mostly Harmless did in those final months, whether he walked to Key West as he intended or simply stayed at Nobles Camp with the alligators and oppressive heat, Marie believes he died with intent. Tuggy thinks that was his plan from the beginning.

“I think he faced some very impossible monsters internally,” she wrote, “and his self isolation only added to that.”

Most friends, after all, knew about the scar on Rodriguez’s abdomen, and how it got there. During the autopsy at the District 20 medical examiner’s office in Naples, it was described as “indistinct” and “possibly” a scar. In the photos of Rodriguez’s remains that were released to the public this year, however, the scar is large and clearly visible. Friends said it was from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Randall said Rodriguez was open about his suicide attempt and that he always donated blood when he could because he’d once needed so much himself.

“It was one of the more charitable things I recall him doing,” Randall said.

Hikers I spoke to over the last year said Mostly Harmless hadn’t shown outward signs of mental illness. He spoke of sadness and dark times, yes, but they thought the trail had helped. I reached out to one of them, Jennifer “Obsidian” Vickers. She spent the most trail time with Rodriguez, about a hundred trail miles in Virginia. Rodriguez found a perfect hiking partner in Obsidian. She never pried. He didn’t either. She chuckled when I told her his name was Vance. She knew him only as Denim and didn’t need to know much more.

“I guess I’d like to just remember him the way I remember him,” she told me before Christmas.

In one Screeps message, at the end of January in 2017, Rodriguez made a telling remark to another user.

“I’m mostly harmless (for now),” he wrote.

By early April, he disappeared from Screeps and the Slack channel. He paid a few more months of rent, then left the remains of his life in that Brooklyn apartment, heading out to the woods to begin his final game.

“I regret that he passed alone out there,” Tuggy wrote to me, “but I hope he is at peace.”

 

 


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