According to Godso, Rodriguez didn’t graduate. But people with computer skills usually don’t have a hard time finding a job. Eventually, he started work at an ecommerce company based in Baton Rouge called Shoppers Choice, where he was recognized by many as the most talented engineer on the team. The company’s codebase is still filled with notations of “VR,” for code that Rodriguez wrote. Marie, who works in IT, told me, “He was a crazy good coder. Except he would always code everything the hardest way possible, kind of like you hired Rembrandt to paint your bathroom. You know it is going to be lit, but over the top.”
He wasn’t particularly collaborative, but he would sit down, put on his headphones—listening to Temple of the Dog and Rage Against the Machine—and solve problems. As the problems got more complex, he got more comfortable. He was quiet but not, to his coworkers, perversely so. “If you’re asking me if he is the guy who shows up at the party in a clown suit blasting things out of a cannon, that’s not him,” says a former colleague named Corey Tisdale. “But he would go to holiday parties and not look miserable.”
He ate once a day, often pizza from Walmart or lasagna from Pasta Kitchen. He wore black jeans, a black shirt, and a black trench coat. He had long, dark hair almost down to his waist. One day he cut it all off and gave it to Locks of Love. He attended Dragon Con. He appeared to suffer from some mental health issues, but, according to Marie, he refused conventional medicine. “He self-medicated with drinking and chocolate,” she says. He would go on what Marie and other friends called “outages,” where he lay immobile for days, refusing food and all human contact. But eventually he would snap out of it. “He wore his sadness like an extra layer of skin,” Marie recalls. But, she adds, “I truly dug his imperfectly perfect solitary singular self.”
During this time in Baton Rouge Rodriguez started a relationship that would last for five years. But it ended quite badly. When it was over, the woman he had dated wrote on her Facebook page, “Apartment 950 a month / bills 300 a month / Standing up to the monster that beat you up emotionally and physically for 5 years? Priceless.” After Rodriguez was identified as the hiker, the woman’s mother commented on Facebook, “This man was so abusive to my daughter, he changed her.”
His colleagues from that time, learning of his story now, seemed saddened. But not entirely surprised. “He was always very introverted, kept to himself. His jokes were usually obscure,” says a colleague named Keith Parent. “None of this is surprising, except for the fact that, in the end, he died.”
“I looked for Vance in mid-2017 to hire him to build an app for a client of mine,” says another coworker from Shoppers Choice named David Blazier. “And I would have paid him literally anything he asked. I never found him.”
In 2013, Rodriguez moved to New York City. He’d met a woman, whom I’ll call K, in an online chat room. K, who asked for anonymity because of the public obsession about the hiker, was then finishing college in upstate New York. They traveled back and forth to visit each other. As their relationship evolved, they decided to both move to New York City and live together. She was going into fashion and had to be there. He had spent his life in Louisiana and welcomed the change. He’d never seen snow before. At first, he was romantic and sweet. But soon he started to clam up and shut her out. “If something upset him, he would stop talking to me completely. Which can be lonely when you share a 500-square-foot apartment,” she says.