This story begins in 1992 during a torrential rain along the Appalachian Trail in Central Virginia and ends 18 years later in a torrent of lies and nonsensical conspiracy theories with the election of Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene as northwest Georgia’s congresswoman – she who has been labeled even by other conservatives as “bat shit crazy.”

It spans wilderness adventure, homelessness, communist conspiracies, Larry Flynt, QAnon, and, of course, Donald Trump – always Trump.

Climb aboard.

On June 4, 1992, during a 1200-mile journey on the Appalachian Trail, I slogged into the Cornelius Creek Shelter in Central Virginia, burdened with a drenched backpack and soaked clothes. This particular day, the fifth straight day of rain, had been miserable, an all-day soaker. Pruned and blistered, my feet ached from walking in water-logged boots.

But as sorry as I felt for my bedraggled self, the person I met in the shelter was in worse shape than me. She too was thoroughly drenched, but she could claim no backpack or any other equipment that I could see. She huddled in the dark at the back of the shelter, and like a figure out of a Dickens novel, she warmed her hands over a candle, setting fire to pages of the shelter’s notebook register for bursts of further warmth.

Too exhausted and soaked to continue my journey, I resigned myself to spending a lonely night with this forlorn stranger. She lived in a tent not far from the shelter, she told me, but the flooding rains had washed it away, forcing her to seek out the shelter. As I cooked my dinner – and shared some with her – she continued her tale of woe.

Her name was Peggy Childers, and she blamed her current despair on Larry McDonald, the firebrand congressman from my home county in Atlanta’s northern suburbs whose district stretched into far North Georgia. McDonald was first elected in 1974, and though a Democrat in name, his political views aligned in spirit and substance with the conservative “New Right.”

It turns out that Congresswoman-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene is not the first kook to represent Northwest Georgia; McDonald may well be the region’s original congressional kook. An extremist, he was animated by the conspiratorial belief that the U.S. was under attack from within by communist sympathizers.

Then, in 1983, in a bit of historical irony, McDonald and 268 other people were killed while traveling to South Korea when Soviet fighter jets shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 after it strayed into Soviet air space. Not surprisingly, McDonald’s supporters claimed the outspoken Communist fighter had been targeted. History has since proven it was a tragic mistake as the “McDonald motive” for the attack was quickly debunked. In truth, he was supposed to be on another flight.

Childers attributed the tragic shooting down of Flight 007 as the moment her life began to spiral downwards. Yes, she was presently living in the woods surviving on SlimFast and grits, but once her life had held promise. She claimed to have written a book, License to Rape and Murder, a manifesto about politicians and the media controlling the minds of citizens, and she said she even qualified to run in the special election to fill McDonald’s seat – an election in which McDonald’s widow, Kathy, was the front runner.

“Kathy McDonald and the CIA ran me out of town,” she told me then. “And Buddy Darden (the ultimate winner) has mafia ties.”

As I dried off in the shelter I listened patiently to Childers, doubting her story, though some details rang true in my foggy memory of that time a decade earlier (I was in high school; more interested in girls and basketball than politics). As night came and the temperature dropped, I offered Childers my sleeping bag for which she was grateful. In the morning, I recovered my bag, left her what food I could spare and continued my walk north, wondering if any of her wild rambling tale was true. Surely, this troubled woman was delusional. Right?

After returning home from my hike, I didn’t bother to investigate Childers’ claims. Instead I got to work and Childers slipped from my memory, just one of many curious characters recorded in my trail journals which began collecting dust in various closets over the ensuing years.

And then in 2020 Marjorie Taylor Greene came to town, fleeing her more competitive 6th Congressional District campaign to join the race for the bright red 14th district seat. Her rambling social media videos espousing outlandish QAnon conspiracy theories earned her national media attention, and for me conjured memories of that crazy woman I met on the Appalachian Trail so many years earlier.

I dug out my old hiking journals, found Childers’ name and then did what would have been nearly impossible in 1992. With a few taps on the keyboard and a click on the mouse, I tracked her down along with her story. Lo and behold, that crazy woman’s story wasn’t so crazy after all. Well, it was partly true, but still crazy.

Childers was one of 19 candidates that vied to fill the vacant seat of Larry McDonald in 1983. Unable to pay the qualifying fee, she entered the race as a “pauper candidate.” Notably, she earned the endorsement and financial support of Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt. The $10,000 that Flynt injected into her campaign allowed her to air commercials alleging that McDonald used taxpayer money to “spy on and slander American citizens.” It also landed Flynt and Childers in hot water; individual campaign contributions were limited to $1000. (In 1985, the Federal Election Commission settled its claims against Flynt and Childers, taking no action against Childers but forcing Flynt to pay a $2000 fine.)

Despite Childers’ extremist views and crazy conspiratorial claims (during the campaign she suggested that the KAL flight tragedy was also somehow linked to the death of Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson from Washington because both occurred on the same day), she was correct about Larry McDonald’s spying. While in Congress, he did, in fact, set up his own intelligence network to investigate leftist activities. 

Nonetheless, the media largely ignored the outlandish platforms of Childers and the other fringe candidates in that race (there were many), and the moderate Democrat Buddy Darden ultimately beat McDonald’s widow, Kathy McDonald, in a runoff.

Childers remained undaunted after her failed congressional bid and set her sights on an even bigger prize. Within weeks she advertised in the Atlanta Constitution classifieds seeking a “CAMPAIGN CO-ORDINATOR (sic) for 1984 U.S. Presidential Candidate.” Said the ad: “Prefer person working toward law degree/political science.”

Childers reappeared in news reports in 1994 – this time as “Crazy Margaret,” a moniker bestowed upon her by other Appalachian Trail hikers who encountered her at trail shelters in Central Virginia. Childers ultimately made one shelter her home, no doubt “Yogi-ing” food off well-provisioned backpackers, and ultimately becoming a backwoods public nuisance. At some point, she developed the theory that she was not Peggy Childers but Margaret Ann Windsor, an heir to the British throne kidnapped from Buckingham Palace as a babe in 1941.

The U.S. Forest Service ultimately prosecuted to remove her from the federal property, and she wound up in a homeless shelter in nearby Roanoke.

Today, she remains out there, literally and figuratively…on the world wide web with a Twitter and Facebook handle, producing rambling, incoherent videos and posts. Online, she is a vocal Trump supporter.

I contacted her via Facebook messenger, and to my surprise, she responded. She’s 82 years-old and living safely indoors these days. She said she remembered our night together, thanked me for my kindness and then rambled on. Here are a few nuggets from the correspondence:

  • The KAL 007 flight tragedy and McDonald’s death was staged. “Pres. Richard Nixon was on that plane and removed just prior to lift off.”
  • In 1984, Larry Flynt furnished a rental car for her and she moved to Falls Church, Virginia where she ran for president “as a Democrat? Yuk, did I say Democrats?”
  • Henry Kissinger ordered her “lobotomized” at a clinic in College Park, Georgia (the evidence to confirm this is in Nixon’s Watergate audio tapes)

My heart aches for Peggy, aka “Crazy Margaret.” I pray the remainder of her life is peaceful and safe.

But, what are we to do with “Crazy Marjorie,” whose influence now extends to the corridors of power in Washington, D.C.?

It’s worth noting that the recently concluded race for the 14th district seat was not unlike the special election to replace the deceased Larry McDonald in 1983. With Rep. Tom Graves’ retirement, the election attracted nine republican candidates from current and former state legislators to a former state schools superintendent.

Like Peggy Childers, Greene was a fringe candidate with a penchant for embracing conspiracy theories. But she had something Childers did not. She had money – pumping her own wealth into the campaign – and she had social media. She didn’t need Larry Flynt; she had Mark Zuckerberg. 

Putting aside the ultra-conservative bent of the district, she owes her victory in large part to today’s fractured media landscape – a place where the traditional role of information gatekeeper played by professionally-trained journalists has been supplanted by a virtual world in which each individual is their own gatekeeper. Left to their own, often suspect, abilities of discernment, citizens must filter facts from fiction, truth from lies.

In 1983, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, WSB Radio and the city’s three television outlets filtered the voices of the 7th District’s fringe candidates. Their positions: returning to the gold standard or reviving prohibition, among others, got mention in media reports, but the bulk of the coverage went to the mainstream, moderate candidates. Peggy never stood a chance.

Marjorie on the other hand, armed with a fat bankroll and a Facebook page, flooded social media, famously toting an assault rifle next to images of Democrat Reps. Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with the tagline: “Squad’s Worst Nightmare.”

Conservative voters in the 14th District ate it up, embracing her anti-establishment message and the McDonald-esque fear of leftists in her “save America, stop socialism” tagline. Her embrace of QAnon, far from being a liability, bolstered her candidacy. Surveys conducted in the lead up to the November election showed that one in three Republicans believed the QAnon conspiracy to be mostly true.

Of course, she was Trumpiest among the pro-Trump Republicans in a Trump-crazed district.

As she ascended, those in the 14th with thinking brains cringed, as did many national Republicans who called some of her views “appalling.” President Trump, on the other hand, hailed her as a “future Republican Star.”

Greene’s victory revealed the double-edged sword that is social media. On one edge, today’s digital formats equalize access to, and the dissemination of, information. On the other edge, misinformation metastasizes when unfiltered by professional journalists.

Greene’s ascendency is a cautionary tale and illustrates the desperate need for an ethical, professional Fourth Estate, not to mention the greater responsibility that must now be borne by each individual citizen.

Digital media has liberated us from the supposed tyranny of “mainstream media” but as with all liberties, there comes responsibility. We are now our own gatekeepers. Can we trust ourselves?

Was the moon landing staged?

Is Paul McCartney dead?

Does the idea of a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against President Trump really make sense?

In another time, journalists sniffed out such outlandish stories and they didn’t see print. Today, journalists play a game of fact check whack-a-mole. In our digital world, you don’t need to own a printing press and the spigot of conspiracy theories and misinformation is never shut off.

So what to do with Crazy Marjorie?

She now sits in Congress. In another era, Marjorie might have ended up living in the woods, surviving on SlimFast and grits.

I’ll buy her the SlimFast and grits – and give her my sleeping bag and tent–if she’ll voluntarily go there instead.

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Image Credit: the feature image of Peggy Ann Childers is from her twitter page (fair use) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene is her official photo, 117th Congress (public domain).

Joe Cook

A former newspaper photographer and reporter, Joe Cook works with Georgia River Network as the organization's Paddle Georgia Coordinator and Guidebook author. He has travelled thousands of mile on Georgia rivers and is the author of six guides to Georgia rivers: the Etowah, Chattahoochee, Flint, Broad, Oconee and Ocmulgee River User's Guide as well as River Song--A Journey on the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers and contributor to Wildflowers of the Appalachian Trail and Wildflowers of the Blue Ridge and Smokies. He lives in Rome, Georgia.