The Union Democrat
Missing on the PCT
Columbia resident lands on New York Times Best Sellers list with new book about unsolved cases
Andrea “Andy” Lankford, a resident of Columbia and a former National Park Service law enforcement officer in Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, has written a book about unresolved searches for missing hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail that’s currently on the New York Times Best Sellers list for hardcover nonfiction.
It’s not clear when the last time a writer based in Tuolumne County authored a NYT bestselling book, but Lankford is definitely the most recent one to do so.
For “Trail of the Lost,” published by Hachette Books, Lankford focused on three specific cases of solo hikers who intended to walk the entire PCT — 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada — before they went missing:
• Chris Sylvia, of Baltimore, Maryland, was 28 when he went missing in San Diego County in February 2015. He was hiking north to south on a practice section.
• Kris Fowler, of Beaver Creek, Ohio, was 34 when he went missing near Mount Rainier in Washington state in October 2016. He had started the PCT at the U.s.-mexico border.
• David O’sullivan, of County Cork, Ireland, was 25 when he went missing, likely somewhere north of Idyllwild in Riverside County, in April 2017. He had also started the PCT at the U.s.-mexico border.
Lankford said she got motivated to look into these still-unsolved cases, beginning with Sylvia’s disappearance, because Sylvia’s case reminded her of a missing hiker case she worked in the Grand Canyon in the 1990s.
“I failed, and I was haunted by that,” Lankford said in a phone interview Wednesday, speaking from Portland, Oregon, where she was promoting “Trail of the Lost.”
“I always felt bad for the family in that case,” she said. “I contacted Sylvia’s family to let them know I was looking into it, and his mother gave me her blessing.”
Lankford started writing “Trail of the Lost” in November 2017 and traveled to search for clues and interview people in San Diego County and Washington state, visiting both ends of the PCT several times over the next five years. For a time, she was based in a cabin in Warner Springs in northern San Diego County. She also wrote parts of the book at locations in Washington state, including Packwood, where Fowler was hanging out before he went missing; the Mount Rainier area; and further north in the North Cascades, where Fowler disappeared.
She finished writing and editing “Trail of the Lost” at the end of December, in Columbia.
“Trail of the Lost” is her most recent book. She published “Ranger Confidential: Living, Working, and Dying in the National Parks” in 2010, before she came to Columbia.
Lankford learned “Trail of the Lost” is on the current New York Times Best Sellers list on Aug. 30 in a conference call with her agent from William Morris Endeavor and her editor from Hachette Books.
As of Wednesday, the NYT Best Sellers list for hardcover nonfiction has Lankford’s book listed at No. 14.
“I knew it was doing good, but the fact it made the New York Time Best Sellers list was a big shock,” Lankford said. “It’s very exciting. We weren’t expecting it.”
Lankford, 59, gained experience and expertise in the field of remote-location missing persons investigations the old-fashioned way. She did it and lived it.
She was born in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and grew up hiking the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina. Her mom moved the family to Georgia, where she graduated from Shamrock High School in Decatur with the class of 1982. She majored in forestry at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and attended a Nps-approved park ranger law enforcement academy at the Southwestern Community College Public Safety Training Center in Sylva, North Carolina, before she began doing summer law enforcement ranger work at Cape Hatteras National Seashore in the 1980s.
She did two summers on the Outer Banks and then headed west to do more summer law enforcement ranger work in Zion National Park in Utah, where she stayed four years and became a full-time, permanent law enforcement ranger.
In 1993, Lankford got a job in Yosemite, where she met her husband, Kent Delbon. They both lived in Yosemite Valley and worked as law enforcement rangers in the park through 1995.
Lankford then worked four years as a law enforcement ranger in the Grand Canyon, where she lived at South Rim Village through the end of 1998.
Since leaving the park service 25 years ago, Lankford’s thru-hiked the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail, kayaked more than 150 miles from Miami to Key West, and teamed with Beth Overton to be the first to mountainbike the 800mile Arizona Trail from Utah to the Mexico border. She also wrote a guidebook, “Biking the Arizona Trail: The Complete Guide to Day-riding and Thrubiking,” published in 2002.
Lankford and her husband first moved to Columbia in 2009, and split time between Columbia and Golden, Colorado, until he got a job working as a Forest Service special-agent-in-charge for the multistate Rocky Mountain Region, covering Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Colorado.
Lankford said she kept busy in Colorado, peakbagging and skiing over the course of three years. She returned to Columbia in 2019 and has been living in Tuolumne County since then.
Lankford said she wants to thank other Tuolumne County residents who helped her with packaging the final edit of “Trail of the Lost.” Joe David, of David Design, illustrated black-and-white maps in the beginning of the book. Kelsey Lane, of Beauty by Kelsey Lane in Sonora, did Lankford’s hair and makeup for her author photo on the trail to Table Mountain outside Jamestown earlier this year, which was taken by Salisha Blackburn, of Storybook Photography in Sonora.
Blackburn also took a black-and-white photo of Lankford in front of Table Mountain, which was recently published by the San Francisco Chronicle with a review of “Trail of the Lost.”
Some people in Columbia know her as “Andy,” the nickname friends call her.
Lankford ends “Trail of the Lost” with an afterword, in which she says she takes heart knowing that every spring “a new batch of hopefuls set out to walk the long path” of the PCT.
One of those hopefuls, Abraham Espinoza, the first thru-hiker to reach Kennedy Meadows in Tuolumne County this year, confirmed by text Wednesday afternoon he finished the PCT earlier this summer, though he had to detour around a 50-mile fire closure somewhere north of Sonora Pass.
“I just want people to be more careful and take it more serious out there,” Lankford said. “I hope people focus on this: The PCT is an incredible pilgrimage for people that’s mostly safe, but it’s not Disneyland. People do die on the trail, and they do disappear.”
Lankford said she still backpacks, but isn’t planning to try to walk the entire PCT herself. She’s already walked many miles on it, and she still hikes part of it every year.
“Just three weeks ago in August I was at Ebbetts Pass,” she said. “At Sonora Pass, I’ve climbed Sonora Peak and Stanislaus Peak. Been both directions at both passes. I did the entire John Muir Trail in 1998. Never came across any threatening people. It was mostly safe. I hike solo all the time.”
Lankford said she plans to do a talk at Sonora Public Library on Greenley Road on Oct. 25, hosted by the Sierra Club. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m., a spokesman for the Tuolumne Group of the Sierra Club said Wednesday afternoon.