I spent three days in the Michaux State Forest area when I went out to lead the HIKE For Mental Health Pole Steeple hike. I was able to hike a few trails during my trip, including the remote Rocky Knob Trail, located off a forest road atop South Mountain.
The Rocky Knob Trail was surprising in many ways. First, its not especially rocky by Pennsylvania standards. Secondly, the views alleged to be on the trail were always obscured by trees. And thirdly, I found the sensation of evil present still, 26 years after one of the most notorious crimes in Pennsylvania history took place not far from where I walked.
I first read of the murder in Bill Bryson’s book A Walk In The Woods, although Bryson errs in placing the crime on the Appalachian Trail. (The AT crosses the entrance to the Rocky Knob Trail, and the initial contact between killer and victim took place on it, but the crime did not take place on the AT.) I’m revisiting the events of May 12 and 13, 1988 here just as I did the crime scene. In brief, Rebecca Wight and Claudia Brenner, lovers and backpackers up for a few days in the woods after the end of the semester at Virginia Tech, decided to camp along the stream below the Rocky Knob Trail despite their twice that day having met a creepy man with a shotgun. Stephen Carr was living illegally in the forest, and decided to stalk the two women. Once they’d set up camp and the woman became intimate, Carr fired. Wight was hit twice and her injuries were fatal. Brenner, in one of the great stories of survival, hiked out of the forest at night with five bullets in her, and then reached the Old Shippensburg Road miles away, where she was picked up by young people driving by and taken to a hospital in time to save her life.
After a manhunt Carr was captured, and a plea bargain spared him the death penalty in exchange for no jury trial and a sentence of life without parole. The murder and subsequent trial are the subject of two books, H. L. Pohlman’s The Whole Truth, and Claudia Brenner’s memoir Eight Bullets. Brenner recovered from her injuries, completed her architecture degree, and moved to New York state, where she runs her own firm and does public speaking on violence against gay people.
I can’t help but think of the crime as I ride the Perkiomen Trail, which crosses land part of Graterford Prison, Carr’s home. And it was on my mind as I hiked along the Rocky Knob Trail. At one point I looked down towards the stream and felt a chill. Was it because I was alone on a mountaintop and it was late afternoon? Or because I was in the midst of beauty and the thought of evil? Was THIS the place on the hillside where Carr stalked his victims? I quickened my steps, and I felt better once I was back at my car.
The Rocky Knob Trail is a pleasant four and a half miles of relatively easy hiking, and I doubt I will ever visit again.