TW big time for this post – murder, death, anti-gay violence, and reflections on all of those things, specifically: Rebecca Wight. Includes photos of the area where she died (not crime scene photos – just pictures of what it looks like now).
Edit 10/15: I was later informed what we built near the site is called a cairn of stones. At the time this was written, I didn’t know there was a term for it.
I’ve been home for two weeks and stewing on this post for about as long trying to find the words that could adequately express what it was like to visit Michaux State Forest and the site where Rebecca Wight was killed. I’m usually great with the written word, but this post is proving to be quite difficult. It was an experience that defies words if for no other reason than the magnitude of what I was trying to accomplish in going there: it was for me. But also for her. And also for the families and the people who were directly involved and impacted. And also for all of the women who have felt less safe hiking in the woods or holding their girlfriends’ hands in public because of this story and others like it. And also for all the victims of violence, like me, and like Rebecca, who have had enough stolen from them, dammit, enough that the people who commit violence against us can’t have this one thing that used to belong to us. It was personal, but it was bigger than that. And I walked every one of the 30,000 steps I took in Michaux State Forest thinking about what that meant.
So here goes.
Five years ago, I first became aware of this story and it proceeded to shake up my world. Had I looked into someone else’s story first, it could have just as easily been someone else’s story that did it, but the name I found first was hers. At the time, I thought we seemed kind of similar – we were both largely closeted, bisexual women who were in our first relationship with someone of the same sex and who maybe weren’t exactly sure how to move forward with that. Though it was those commonalities that initially drew me to Rebecca’s story, it was because of those things we had in common that her story became incredibly frightening to me, especially so after I was a victim of violence myself. While I have been able to some neat things in the years that followed that I do give her credit for, I won’t pretend a great many of those decisions weren’t motivated by the fear that I could wind up just like her. In the fall of 2013, I decided I was tired of being fearful. Almost five years to the date after I first learned Rebecca’s name, I paid a visit to the forest where she spent her last days.
I caught my first glance of Michaux State Forest on the way to where I was staying in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. I passed the sign marking the entrance – and it seemed almost unreal. I had imagined what it looked like so many times it was almost startling to see the real thing in person. Up until this point, Michaux was a place that for me existed only in theory. I had spent a year preparing for this trip, memorizing the names of the trails and how to get from one to the other: Dead Woman’s Hollow Road, Birch Run Shelter, Rocky Knob Trail, Rocky Knob Run. A year later, I still didn’t feel ready.
That night, I thought reading one of the books written about the case would help me pinpoint the locations, but what it actually did was remind me that I was afraid. Terrified, even – of this place, of these places, of doing this, of going there, of things surfacing that I would prefer remain stuffed, of remembering and being reminded of things that no one should have to think about. The whole week had been a nonstop stream of standing at the sites where awful things happened and the sites that remind us that awful things happen, but this one was different. In Gettysburg, I was a modern-day teenager with no combat experience visiting a 150-year-old battlefield. In Michaux, I was going to be a victim of anti-gay violence visiting a site where someone died as a result of anti-gay violence. I didn’t know what I was doing or what I’d gotten myself into, but I knew I was going to walk out of the woods differently than I’d walked in. After all, not knowing what I’m doing had never stopped me before.
The first stop was Dead Woman’s Hollow, which I actually wound up at twice. The first time, I didn’t think I was at the right place, so I had the others who had come with me drive down the mountain to Shippensburg Road where we hiked a trail back to…the exact same place we’d been before. Our journey began on the same trail Rebecca’s had in 1988; a parking area off of Dead Woman’s Hollow Road is the place where she and her girlfriend met up for their camping trip. Aside from its name, and yes, that is its actual name, there was nothing particularly unsettling or foreboding about Dead Woman’s Hollow. It wasn’t a beautiful place, but it wasn’t an ugly place – it looked like the type of place you would park at and forget about until the end of your trip, when it was time to hop in the car and drive home. It was by far the easiest segment of the trip. Rebecca’s connection to Dead Woman’s Hollow was so marginal that I wasn’t especially shaken or rattled by it – it was just the place where she parked her car, though during the second attempt at reaching the site we may have found ourselves on one of the trails she would have taken. I looked around quite a bit and tried to “see” her there, but that was all. I don’t mean that as strangely as it often comes out, but rather in the sense that when you go to a place knowing someone else was there or something else occurred there on the same ground you’re walking, you can almost “see” the person or the scene unfolding if you look hard enough and think about it long enough.
The second stop was Birch Run Shelter. This was the place the pair first attempted to make camp – and also the place Rebecca first encountered the person who would go on to murder her. As I went from location to location, each site I visited proved to be more intense than the last – the best way to describe Birch Run Shelter is “more unnerving than Dead Woman’s Hollow but less scary than Rocky Knob Trail.” There were lots of open areas that would have been perfect places to set up tents around the main shelter, and it was a nice enough area. I could see how someone would have picked this part of the woods to relax and have fun with a partner. It was sunny and sleepy – quiet. There was still no logbook (the thing Rebecca had looked for on her trip that led to her running into her killer), but there was a space built into the shelter that seemed like it should have contained one. I did notice that this was a tough portion of the trail to have privacy on, as we ran into a biker and two or three other hikers on the way there. Though I could see its alluring qualities, I found the whole area creepy. There was just something about it that unsettled me and got under my skin. When I looked around and thought about what happened here, all I could “see” was Rebecca running into a creepy guy in the woods but having no idea what was going to happen next.
Birch Run Shelter from the side. A friend of mine remembers there being two lean-tos here when she hiked around Michaux in the late 80s and believes there would have been two structures when Rebecca saw it.
The third and final stop was Rocky Knob Trail, a lengthy loop trail where you feel as though you’re rock-climbing rather than hiking along certain segments if you’re an inexperienced hiker. The location of the couple’s second attempt at setting up camp and the final trail Rebecca would have taken – they set up near Rocky Knob Run (a creek) and she didn’t survive the evening. This site was by far the most difficult. I relied on instinct and memory of what I’d read to tell me where on the trail the shooting had taken place, and I frequently said “no” while walking Rocky Knob Trail. “No, this can’t be it. This isn’t anything like she described in the book.” “No, we need to go down, not up. I hear running water down there, not up there, and she was close to a creek.” “No, it’s further. This area is too rocky; there’s no way she could have set up a tent here.” At one point I stopped to listen to the birds chirping, taking in the solitude and the silence of the trail and thinking about the disconnect between those sounds and what happened here that her girlfriend must have experienced as she escaped. I definitely felt alone on Rocky Knob Trail – the entire time we were walking it, it seemed as though the three of us were the only people in the woods.
When we did find the general area of the site, I was at a complete loss for words. The side of the creek I was standing on was full of brush and rocks, but just across the creek was a clearing that I came to believe had to be the place. Though it was extremely overgrown and covered with moss, it was much more open with much more room to stretch out, a much better place to try and set up a tent. As far as I know, the trail I was on would have taken us to that clearing if we’d have kept going, but I didn’t continue that direction to find out. I didn’t want to go any further or closer. I just sat down and tried to take it all in, the fact that I was actually there. Michaux was nothing like what I’d been picturing for the past five years, which was rather jarring and gave it an unreal quality.
Having been a victim of violence, whenever I’m placed in an unfamiliar area, I always have my escape route charted within ten seconds of being there. So one of the things that I noticed right away was how thin the trees were. Even the larger ones weren’t thick enough or big enough to shield two people, not even the one toward the center of the clearing. If someone was shooting at you here, where would you go? One of the things that made me feel the most vulnerable and shaken was the realization that there is no escape route here, and there was no escape route here. It was terrifying. This wasn’t one of those times where I could have honestly said, “I can’t imagine the fear they must have felt while this was happening” because in that moment, I could and did. There was nowhere to hide here, nowhere safe to run to, and it caused me to look at the site as a scary place as soon as I noticed that.
It got to me. At first it was incredible, and then it was just…awful. I took some photos, and I made some recordings, and though I usually practice Leave No Trace, we did arrange a kind of memorial a little ways away from the site – a mound of rocks to mark the spot, with Rebecca’s initials scratched into the one on top. It began with the tears that surfaced the minute I realized if this was the site, I most likely was seeing it from the killer’s perspective (I had a perfect view of the clearing, but you wouldn’t necessarily have been able to see me if you were standing on the clearing looking across). Tears for Rebecca and myself and everyone who has felt the rippling impact of what happened here and what it means. It ended with the overriding desire to get as far away from that area as I could.
When I visited the Colonial Parkway, I had a neat story to conclude with. It was one of those random things that happened at exactly the right moment for it to mean something, though I quipped that it was probably a sign if I was ever going to get one – I was walking around thinking about what happened there only to look down and find myself in the center of a circle of rainbow shells. Unfortunately, I don’t have a way to wrap up my experience in Michaux so nicely and cleanly. When the gravity of what had happened at the place where I was standing hit me, I ran. Back up the path, back up the trail, and as far away from that area as I could get. I ran – not walked, RAN up the trail, scaling the boulders in such a way it’s a wonder I didn’t break my ankle. As I left Rocky Knob Run behind, I never once looked back. About halfway up Rocky Knob Trail, I wondered if I should have, if looking back from a safe distance would have made the experience more cathartic, but it was too late to find out. I just pressed on and was quite content in the moment to leave the site in the dust.
As I was leaving the forest, I saw a sign that said, “You are now leaving Michaux State Forest.” And all I could think was, “You are goddamn right I am.”
So I did it. I went to Michaux and I visited the site where Rebecca Wight lost her life – and the site where she parked her car, and the site where she first encountered the man who killed her. I accomplished some of the things I had set out to in doing this, but certainly not all. I do feel more comfortable in the woods after this experience. But I definitely don’t feel more comfortable with that site. I haven’t made my peace with it and I don’t know that I ever will. And you know? I’ve decided that’s okay. I don’t know that I’d ever visit the site again, but I am glad I did it – it was definitely memorable and worthwhile.