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A murder that’s a crime against a place

For me — and most people who live around Jackson Hole — the outdoors is a sanctuary where we find solace, joy, peace and beauty. So it’s a shock when it becomes something else.

I just finished reading Annette McGivney’s new book “Pure Land: Three Cultures and the Search for Heaven on Earth,” and I can’t stop thinking about it. Part of my obsession stems from my horror at the murder that lies at the heart of the book. The victim is stabbed to death while hiking the Grand Canyon, a place she went to experience the awe and beauty of nature. It’s as if she had been killed in a church, making it the ultimate violation of her trust, her beliefs and her spirit.

I found myself reacting personally to this affront. Murder in the wild seems almost worse than murder in a city, and I think it is because of the way I, like the victim, believe in the sanctity of nature and visit it with reverence. If someone can be murdered in the Grand Canyon, what does that say about my place of worship?

“Pure Land” follows three stories. One is about a Japanese woman who falls in love with America, its wild places and its native inhabitants. The second delves into the life of the 18-yearold Havasupai man who murders her, and the generational trauma that haunts him and his fellow Native Americans. The third reveals how reporting on the murder brings out McGivney’s own history of violence and trauma.

Tomomi Hanamure is not the only person to die seeking beauty and adventure in the outdoors, but being stabbed 29 times by a stranger is different from an accidental death in the wild. At least rationally, most of us accept that nature is not always our gentle mother. Every year we read about people dying in avalanches, on rivers, while climbing or from exposure. Sometimes these deaths could have been prevented with foresight, skill and planning; sometimes people are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Regardless, if we are thoughtful backcountry travelers we know there are risks inherent in recreating in the outdoors, and we have to accept that if we want to be out there. In fact, for many the element of risk adds a certain edge to our experience that actually enhances its appeal. But to be murdered by another human in a place like the Grand Canyon? That isn’t what we sign up for when we leave our cars and hit the trail.

To be honest, I think the most frightened I’ve ever been in the wild is when some creepy person has become a bit too friendly or moved into my space. Without a locked door to separate me from the stranger, I feel vulnerable on my own out there. The funny thing is, vulnerability is part of what I’m looking for when I’m outside, but not vulnerability to another human’s whims. I like the way looking up at a sky full of twinkling stars makes me feel small and insignificant. I like how the immensity of space puts my — and the world’s — problems in perspective and helps me understand that my petty woes are really not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. I’m reassured by nature’s implacable indifference to my concerns. Life will just keep moving ahead regardless of what is going on for me, and that knowledge soothes my soul.

Nature’s power over the human psyche is well documented. I’ve previously mentioned Florence Williams’ book “The Nature Fix,” which looks at how time spent outside or in close proximity to things like trees, flowers, grass and open spaces helps reduce stress and improves health. We all know that from our own personal experience, but what does it mean when our experience in the natural world is stressful or violent? How does that affect our relationship to the very place we’ve turned to for sanctuary?

McGivney wrote about Hanamure’s murder for Backpacker magazine in 2007 not long after it occurred. The story was different from her typical Backpacker fare, and she found herself drawn in by Hanamure’s tragedy, but also by the tragedy of the killer, who struggled with substance abuse, violence, poverty, neglect and the absence of hope.

It’s easy to understand why she found the two stories so compelling — they are both incredibly moving and sad — but what ultimately led her to dig deeper and turn the Backpacker article into a book was the way the murder triggered her own memories of abuse. It’s not entirely clear what it was specifically about the case that brought those memories up. My theory is that Mc-Givney — who had, like so many of us, sought refuge from her personal demons in wild places for most of her life — felt violated by a murder occurring in what she’d come to believe was a safe place. Suddenly the sanctuary where she could escape to heal was no longer a sanctuary. Violence had invaded into the one place where she thought she could evade it, and that brought all her protective walls tumbling down and the memories of her childhood abuse crashing in.

I understand that the natural world is not and has never been perfectly safe. That’s not the way nature works. Animals are in a perpetual fight for survival, and death is always the end. Natural disasters ravage the landscape on a regular basis. And yet the cycle continues and beauty can always be found somewhere, which is what gives us hope and comfort. But when humans are the ones causing the violence in nature, it feels like more of a desecration of something holy. If Hanamure had died slipping and falling off a cliff, we’d be sad at her death. But because she died violently, terrorized by another human, it feels like a violation of our faith that in this crazy world, one thing remains sacred: the beauty of the planet we call home. Molly Absolon writes Mountainside every other week. Contact her via

For many people the Grand Canyon is nature’s cathedral, so the 2007 murder of a Japanese tourist hiking there felt like the violation of a sacred trust.


Annette McGivney’s “Pure Land.”


Molly Absolon

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