comscore A wrong turn, and a death on the Appalachian Trail | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

A wrong turn, and a death on the Appalachian Trail

AUGUSTA, Maine >> She was afraid of being alone and prone to anxiety, a diminutive 66-year-old woman with a poor sense of direction, hiking the Appalachian Trail by herself, who wandered into terrain so wild, it is used for military training. She waited nearly a month in the Maine woods for help that never came.

Geraldine A. Largay chronicled her journey in a black-covered notebook that summer of 2013, and she kept writing after she lost her way, even as her food supply dwindled along with her hopes of being found. Her last entry reflected a strikingly graceful acceptance of what was coming.

“When you find my body, please call my husband George and my daughter Kerry,” she wrote. “It will be the greatest kindness for them to know that I am dead and where you found me — no matter how many years from now.”

It would be two years before a logging company surveyor stumbled upon her campsite and remains, solving a mystery that had tormented her family and defied teams of experienced searchers. Largay, a retired nurse from Tennessee, had survived nearly a month on her own — longer than many old backwoods hands thought possible — before dying of exposure and starvation.

On Thursday, the Maine Warden Service released more than 1,500 pages of its files on her disappearance, shedding light on the fears of her friends and family and the search that pursued countless false leads. The documents include brief excerpts from her journal and the plaintive text messages she tried in vain to send to her husband from a place beyond the reach of cell towers.

“Lost since yesterday,” she texted. “Off trail 3 or 4 miles. Call police for what to do pls.”

In fact, she had set up camp less than 2 miles off the trail. There, with her black tent and her possessions neatly sorted into Ziploc bags, she penned a note to her husband on the cover of the journal: “George Please Read XOXO.”

Largay had adopted the trail name Inchworm, making light of her pace, but that pace had taken her nearly 1,000 miles from Harpers Ferry, W.V., where she and a friend, Jane Lee, had set off on April 23, 2013. Her husband of 42 years, George Largay, drove ahead and met them in prearranged spots with supplies, and sometimes took them to motels for showers and a night indoors.

On June 30, in New Hampshire, Lee cut short her hike to tend to a family emergency, but Geraldine Largay insisted on continuing.

Later, Lee would tell an investigator “that Geraldine had a poor sense of direction,” the Warden Service’s investigative report said. “Ms. Lee said that Geraldine had taken a wrong turn on the trail, more than once,” and Largay “became flustered and combative when she made these kinds of mistakes.”

Geraldine Largay, a meticulous planner, was gregarious and made friends easily on the trail. But she feared the dark and being alone, said Lee, who told park wardens “that George did not know the extent of Geraldine’s inability to deal with the rigors and challenges of the trail.”

But after he reported his wife missing, George Largay told an investigator that “Gerry was probably in over her head.”

Her doctor would tell investigators that once she ran out of the medication she took for anxiety, she could suffer panic attacks.

Geraldine Largay spent the night of July 21-22 in the Poplar Ridge lean-to in western Maine, less than 200 miles from the end of the trail. Her smile was so infectious that before she set off the next morning, a fellow hiker, Dottie Rust, asked to take her picture. In the photo, she is beaming and wearing her backpack, her socks pulled high, as hikers do to ward off scrapes and blisters.

It was about 6:30 a.m., the last known time anyone would see her alive. By 11 a.m., she was lost.

“In somm trouble,” Geraldine Largay wrote in a text message to her husband. “Got off trail to go to br. Now lost.” She asked him to call the Appalachian Mountain Club “to c if a trail maintainer can help me. Somewhere north of woods road. Xox.”

The message was never received.

Geraldine Largay had left the trail in one of its most rugged sections, with thick underbrush and fir trees packed so tightly they almost seem to merge.

“You step off the trail 20 or 50 feet and turn around, it’s very difficult to see where the trail was,” said Douglas Dolan, 53, a volunteer who spent time last summer doing trail maintenance in the area. “If you didn’t know which way the trail was, you could easily walk in circles for hours.”

Geraldine Largay sought high ground, possibly hoping for a cell signal. She tried over and over to send messages, but none went through.

On July 23, she set up camp, laying her tent atop sticks and pine needles, under a canopy of hemlocks that probably obscured her from airborne rescuers. She tied a shiny silver blanket between two trees, possibly to attract attention, and nearby trees had burn marks.

“It looks like some sort of fire was attempted on those trees by Gerry,” wrote Lt. Kevin Adam, of the Warden Service, in a report.

She was supposed to meet George Largay on July 23, at Route 27 in Wyman Township. The next day, he reported her missing.

Multiple agencies and volunteers joined the hunt, with searchers on foot, on horseback and in helicopters. She was close enough to the trail, about 3,000 yards, that searchers probably passed near her without realizing it. Investigators questioned hikers who might have crossed paths with Geraldine Largay, and they tested the DNA on a discarded Band-Aid.

They were inundated with false tips to be pursued.

People suggested that she had been murdered, that she might be lodged in treetops, that she had fallen in the river and that she had been spotted at a women’s shelter in Tennessee. Some hikers thought they might have seen her on the trail but weren’t sure; others had seen sketchy men who they thought might have done her harm. Psychics called to report visions of her, including one who insisted, incorrectly, that she had broken her ankle.

Search efforts were scaled back on Aug. 4. Geraldine Largay kept writing daily observations and letters to her family in her journal until Aug. 10, even drawing out a calendar to keep track of the days. She wrote a final entry that she dated Aug. 18, though investigators are not sure the date is accurate.

Her remains were found on Oct. 14, 2015, inside her sleeping bag, in a campsite she had kept neat until the very end. Around her was the ample gear she had hauled — items like a blue and white bandanna, a rosary, birthday candles, lighters, dental floss, a sewing kit and two water bottles, one still containing water.

When Geraldine Largay’s family visited the patch of wilderness, two weeks later, they left a white wooden cross, decorated with messages etched in black marker. One, written in a child’s hand, said, “I wish you were here.”

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  • A woman of 66 having no sense of direction should have been forced to end her adventure alone by her husband and friend who needed to leave for a family emergency. She, alone was asking for trouble as soon as she needed to relieve herself – getting off the trail in a thick forest. So sad, so unnecessary.

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