Andrea Lankford’s memoir Ranger Confidential introduced us to her and her time in the National Park Service (NPS). We read about the psychological toll the job took, as well as the human connections she found with others. In her newest book, Trail of the Lost: The Relentless Search to Bring Home the Missing Hikers of the Pacific Crest Trail, Lankford, now a registered nurse, describes how she combined her park ranger, law enforcement, and general outdoors expertise to help get answers for the families of the missing PCT hikers.

Explaining the draw of helping provide these answers, Lankford writes that “[t]here are dozens of ways to die out there, hundreds of parks and forests to get lost in, and a million places that can easily conceal a corpse. I’m never shocked when someone disappears from a trail. But when our rescue teams can’t track down a body—despite all the bloodhounds, ground searchers, and technology—it still bugs the hell out of me.”

Trail of the Lost: The Relentless Search to Bring Home the Missing Hikers of the Pacific Crest Trail by Andrea Lankford
The Inspiration for the Book 

Lankford became interested in the topic of missing PCT hikers in 2017 when television producers asked her to do some research about hikers’ disappearances. As she began researching, she discovered that in 2015, 2016, and 2017, three young, unmarried men—Chris Sylvia, Kris Fowler, and David O’Sullivan—had gone missing on the PCT, one each year. In each case, the searches had been unsuccessful, with no leads. Believing the circumstances to be unprecedented, Lankford went in search of answers for the trio she came to refer to as the ”PCT Missing.” Trail of the Lost details the people with whom she connected (the amateur search groups and internet sleuths), the extensive search efforts that went on for these three men, and the various things they found and learned along the way.

The Four Sections of Trail of the Lost

In exploring the circumstances of each hiker’s disappearance, Lankford divides Trail of the Lost into four parts:

  • Points Last Seen gives background information and details about where each hiker was last seen.
  • Search and Investigate has chapters about the searches and early investigations into the hikers’ disappearances.
  • Fact and Theory looks into different possible theories about disappearances.
  • Witness and Clue discusses various possible sightings and clues.

The Characters

The “PCT Missing,” are Chris Sylvia, Kris Fowler, and David O’Sullivan. Throughout Trail of the Lost, Lankford braids their stories together with the stories of how civilian amateur search teams came together online and in person to search areas, raise money for drones, and hire private detectives or fund trips to the PCT in an effort to find some answers, or at least more information. While at times the intertwined narratives and shifting timelines can get confusing, it’s always fairly easy to reorient yourself, thanks to Lankford’s development of the characters involved.

These characters include desperate family members who never give up hope, a motley array of hikers who shed light on current hiker culture and the community, a psychic, and plenty more—all of whom have a shared goal: to find answers for these families. The searches, both online and in-person, are mentally and physically trying, and yet they affirm a basic hope that many of us still harbor: that most people, at their core, want to do good and help others.

Why You Should Read Trail of the Lost

Trail of the Lost is a unique contribution to both outdoor literature and true crime, although it’s not exactly true crime per se. Lankford details the cases of these missing hikers without being voyeuristic or exploitative, instead being mindful of the humanity of the people about whom she’s writing, as well as their loved ones, remembering that lives and hearts are at stake. Clips from social media are used to highlight clues found online, as well as show how much is going on for the family behind the scenes. At the same time, she captures the grittiness and beauty, in addition to the very real dangers, that can be present in the outdoors—a reminder of the importance of preparation and forethought, and the need to have a healthy respect for nature and all its challenges.

Looking for more outdoor-related books to read? Check out my review of America the Beautiful?.