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Saturday, December 3, 2016

Brenda Heist wanted to run away from life. Naturally, she went to Key West, FL.

The first time I was down there, I saw a highway sign that, for me, perfectly captured the meaning of that place. North, it said, with an arrow pointing the way.

No South, you understand. Just the one option: North. Not that I didn’t know where I was before I saw that, but it struck me as a visceral manifestation of what the little island represents. As the southernmost dot of inhabited land in the continental United States, it is the nation’s designated refuge for troubled or nonconformist souls. You end up there because running any farther (by land, at least) is a geographic impossibility. It is, literally, the end of the road.

So the news that Heist, the Pennsylvania mother who disappeared 11 years ago, fled there, feels almost too on the nose. Of course she went to Key West. Of course she did.

Heist’s odd odyssey began in 2002 in the little town of Lititz. She was going through a divorce and had just been turned down for housing assistance when three strangers found her crying in a park and invited her to hitchhike with them. She said yes.

And with that, she disappeared, leaving behind a husband and two children, until last week when she walked into the sheriff’s office in Key Largo and told deputies she was a missing person. The 11 years in between are a confusing pastiche of aliases, petty crime, panhandling, trailer parks, common-law marriage, sleeping under bridges, and even working as a housekeeper. It unfolded up and down the Florida peninsula, but largely on that half-mythic island at the bottom.

You can read the cost of Heist’s journey by gazing on the before and after pictures, the former showing a middle-age mom wearing lipstick and a posed smile and the latter showing a gaunt, hollow-eyed wraith with stringy blond hair and no eyebrows. It requires an effort of will to realize that they are the same woman.

But the cost of Heist’s escape is not just seen on her face. It is also seen in the ruins of her relationships.