Each year I re-post this story in memory of two marvelous people whose lives tragically ended on the mountain trails.
They first met on a blind date and took to each other instantly. Much of their courtship consisted of hiking in the mountains of western North Carolina. She was three years his senior, a fact that brought many laughs in years to come. They were married in 1949.
He became a lawyer. A lover of animals, she became a veterinarian, rather unusual for her time. Her continued quest for knowledge led her to take courses in forestry, ichthyology, and she loved and studied all things living. She would later give up her veterinary practice to take college-level courses full time.
They lived in Montana and in New York, but their passion was for western North Carolina where they always intended to retire. The couple were true lovers of the outdoors. When their children grew up they traveled extensively, hiking some of the most rugged mountains in the world. They always stayed at hostels or inexpensive lodging because, as he said, "You meet so many more interesting people that way."
When they were in their 50s he hiked the entire Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia. She joined him for parts of the hike and they celebrated with champagne at the end of the Trail. Other hikers were delighted with her ability to identify every tree, every bush, and every flower along the trail.
All photographs taken from local newspapers.
In 1990 they moved to the North Carolina mountains they loved so much.
She was an avid gardener and an award-winning quilter. Their passion was hiking, especially the lesser known trails in Pisgah National Forest. They were stewards of the environment, purchasing land in their community and donating it to be a nature preserve.
This photograph was taken in the last year of their lives.
After 58 years of marriage they were deeply committed to one another. They continued to hike together every week when she was in her 80s and he almost 80. In all seasons they hiked together.
This photograph was on their last Christmas card.
On October 21, 2007 they went for a hike in Pisgah National Forest. Their son who lived out of State became worried when he didn't hear from them as usual. He contacted their neighbors who also were concerned that they had not returned. The son called the local police and a search was begun.
Their car was found near a trail head here in Transylvania County. On November 9, 2007 her body was found near the trail. Telephone records showed that she had made a "911" call from her cell phone on October 21 but the signal was insufficient to relay beyond the tower. Their bank card was used in nearby Tennessee.
Irene Bryant had died of blunt force trauma to the head. Her husband John was still missing.
In February 2008 the remains of John Bryant were discovered near a forest service road in upstate Georgia. He had been shot in the head.
Evidence linked the senseless killings of this wonderful and devoted couple to Gary Michael Hilton. He appears to have been a serial killer preying upon hikers in the mountains of Georgia, NC, and FL.
On Februray 1, 2008 Hilton pleaded guilty to an equally senseless murder of 24-year-old Meredith Emerson in Georgia. (Interestingly enough, he was captured primarily because he kept Meredith's dog who was hiking with her. He says he "just couldn't bear" to kill the dog so he kept it.) Under the terms of the plea he was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 30 years.
He was tried in Florida for the murder of Cheryl Dunlap, a 46-year-old nurse. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death on February 21, 2011.
Hilton was extradited to Federal Court in Asheville and charged with murder, robbery, and kidnapping in the cases of John and Irene Bryant. He initially entered "not guilty" pleas to all counts. After lengthy delays, hearings, and new attorneys, Gary Michael Hilton pleaded "guilty" in March 2012 and was given a life sentence. He was returned to Florida's death row where he awaits execution.
This post is not about Gary Michael Hilton. It's not even about justice. There is no justice here. There can be no justice for such heinous actions upon such wonderful people. This post is about two of my heroes...John and Irene Bryant.
They left behind a legacy of love. Love for one another, their children, their fellow man, and the future. Love of nature, love of the outdoors, and love for these wonderful North Carolina mountains. They are together once again in spirit. And still we grieve. They left the world better than they found it. We can all take a lesson from John and Irene Bryant. Live your life to the fullest and give back to nature and to humankind.