They met on a blind date and took an instant liking to each other. 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 animal, 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 science 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 in 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.
In 1990 John and Irene Bryant moved to the North Carolina mountains they loved so much.
Both photographs from the Transylvania Times
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 land, purchasing land in their community and donating it to be a nature preserve.
After 58 years of marriage they were deeply committed to one another. The continued to hike together...she in her 80s and he almost 80. They hiked at least once a week, often on the trails of nearby State and National forests.
Their last Christmas card.
On October 21, 2007 they went for a hike in Pisgah National Forest. Their son who lived out of State was concerned when he didn't hear from them. He contacted neighbors who also were concerned that they had not returned. The son called the local police.
The car was found near a trail head here in Transylvania County. On November 9, 2007, Irene's body was found near the trail, not buried but covered with leaves. 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. One wonders if she died immediately, or if she was aware her husband was taken. Certainly John knew that his wife was left to die along the roadside.
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 killing of this wonderful and devoted couple to Gary Michael Hilton, although he was not immediately charged. Following the deaths of Irene and John Bryant, Hilton pleaded guilty to an equally senseless murder of 24-year-old Meredith Emerson in Georgia. Under the terms of a plea bargain 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. Hilton is considered a serial killer, having murdered at least four people in three different states.
Hilton was extradited to Federal court in Asheville, NC and charged with murder, robbery, and kidnapping in the cases of John and Irene Bryant. He initially pleaded not guilty but in March, 2012 he changed his plea to guilty. He was sentenced in Federal court to four additional life sentences for kidnapping and murder. Hilton, now 68 years old is on death row in Florida.
But 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. This post is about two of my heroes...John and Irene Bryant.
They left behind a legacy of love. Love for each other, their children, their fellow man, and the future. Love of nature, love of the outdoors, and love of these wonderful North Carolina mountains. They are together once again and after eight years we still grieve for them. They left the world better than they found it. Let's all take a lesson from John and Irene Bryant. Live your life to the fullest and give back to nature and to humankind.