On a quest for god? Hiker disappears into the Appalachians

The Appalachian Trail, and the wilderness in general, has a way of drawing together hikers from all the disparate walks of life. Young and old, rich and poor, the experienced and the greenhorn, the aesthetically oriented and the scientifically oriented. Hikers desiring a physical challenge and those seeking a transcendental spiritual truth all converge along the 2,100-mile long trail.

Paul D. Paur, 50, of Allis, Wisconsin. Photo from the Union County Sheriff's Office.

Paul D. Paur, 50, of Allis, Wisconsin. Photo from the Union County Sheriff’s Office.

What of Paul D. Paur? Which one was he?

On June 5, 2014, a woman working the desk at the Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center in Dahlonega, Georgia, just 30 miles northeast of the Appalachian Trail’s southern terminus at Springer Mountain, saw an older man walk through the door and up to the counter. He threw down a set of keys and offered her $200 if she would keep an eye on his car outside the center.

She asked how long he would be gone. Six months, he said. The man intended to hike the trail north to Katahdin, Baxter State Park, Maine.

She said that she would mind his car while he was gone. The man left.

Within a few days, hikers reported a backpack full of gear was discarded in the middle of the trail only a quarter mile from the center, the Towns County Herald reported. Union County Sheriff’s deputies recovered the backpack and found inside it the ID of the hiker, who only days before had left the center: Paul D. Paur.

A 50-year-old construction worker from Allis, Wisconsin — a Milwaukee suburb — Paur apparently had quit his job a week earlier, withdrew $5,000 from his bank account and told his girlfriend he was going to hike the Appalachian Trail. That was the last she saw of him.

After contacted by the sheriff’s office, she told them that Paur had many health issues, including high blood, and had recently been diagnosed as Schizophrenic, the Towns County Herald reported. There was reason to be concerned because in March 2014 Paur had attempted suicide and she feared he may try again. This evidence lent a dark foreboding to what sheriff’s deputies found days prior. Paur’s backpack was full to the brim with equipment — GoPro, GPS, clothes, food, tent and sleeping bag — and $3,000. Not only that but hikers reported a man fitting Paur’s description hiking with nothing but shorts, T-shirt, flip-fops and a garbage bag for a sleeping bag.

Was there a man out there along the trail with a death wish?

The Towns County Herald reported that the sheriff’s office pinged Paur’s cell phone to find his last location: Cleveland, Ohio. Paur, it appeared, had turned his phone off days before ever arriving in Dahlonega.

Slowly, reports began piling that put together a picture of Paur’s northbound journey, according to an article in Outside magazine.

He was seen at Deep Gap on June 7 and other hikers saw him at Plumorchard Gap on June 8, both in Georgia. Then on June 17, Paur was seen climbing Wesser Bald in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains.

Paur’s story took an interesting turn when a hiker claimed to have spent the night of June 10 with Paur at the Standing Indian Shelter in North Carolina. The hiker said that Paur had spent the night reading the New Testament and talked a lot about religion. It appeared that Paur, perhaps, was out on the Appalachian Trail for more than a wilderness adventure but possibly a spiritual adventure.

Paur a seeker?

Not long after Paur’s story spread through local and national media, some suggested that he may not be mentally despondent but actually fulfilling a long-desired break from society to find himself or something more intangible. One such sentiment appeared in a column in the Smoky Mountain News. The author found Paur’s actions easy to understand: “What if he just wanted to eliminate the noises surrounding him, the manual labor job he went to everyday, and just wanted to hear himself — a voice maybe not heard since childhood, like for most of us out there?”

The author and others found immediate cause for comparison with Christopher Johnson McCandless, who had also severed all ties to his former life and adopted a new identity and life on the road until his death in Alaska in 1992. McCandless was dissatisfied with the pace of modern life and sought a more authentic existence.

But the author of the column in the Smoky Mountain News did hesitate to draw a direct one-to-one comparison with McCandless.

It’s not hard to see that perhaps Paur desired to find solace within the wilderness. He was, according to his brother, an avid hunter and fisherman in Wisconsin. So it may be reasoned that Paur knew the peace that comes with a temporary withdrawal into the forest.

For as long as there has been a wilderness, people have gone to it for revelation. Roderick Nash explored this phenomena of the “wilderness cult” in his landmark 1967 book, “Wilderness and the American Mind.”

In his book, Nash explored the American relationship with wilderness, which from the 1600s through the 19th century had been largely violent. A gradual shift began with the American Romanticism and Transcendentalism, which revived old notions of wilderness as a chapel of sorts. For Americans “spiritual truths emerged most forcefully from the uninhabited landscape, whereas in the cities or rural countryside man’s works were superimposed on those of God,” Nash wrote. He further said that “wilderness appealed to those bored or disgusted with man and his works.”

Did Paur embark on a journey to find god and bring peace to his mind? Some evidence suggests so. Almost two weeks after Paur left the Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center, he had journeyed more than 100 miles. While at Wesser Bald Paur accepted a week’s worth of provisions from concerned hikers. These two facts seem to counter the belief that Paur intended to commit suicide. Was Paur misguided in abandoning his gear? Yes. Was he suicidal for doing so? Not likely. Paur likely sought a challenge and wanted to get very close to nature, and in doing so get close to god. Many are never ready or foolishly overconfident in their abilities to handle a wilderness situation. Paur is likely one of them, and compounding this is his history of mental illness.

No further information has appeared about Paur and his quest to find god. He has become another of those wandering the trail who are lost and perhaps don’t want to be found.

Anyone with information about Paul D. Paur’s whereabouts should contact the Union County Sheriff’s Office at 706.439.6066.

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