Deep in the woods of Maine, a forester is calculating the number of trees that sprawl thickly across the landscape. As he walks on, though, he suddenly ventures upon the remains of an abandoned campsite. And while there’s a damaged tent at the location, there are no people in sight. Unknowingly, the man has uncovered the fate of a hiker who has been missing for two years.
Geraldine Largay – known as Gerry – was 66 years old when she disappeared, and she had always wanted to traverse the Appalachian Trail. It is one of the world’s most famous hiking trails, after all, and it extends from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
For much of her life, in fact, Gerry lived near the southern end of the trail in Nashville, Tennessee. There, she spent her days working as a nurse and bringing up a child with the love of her life, George. And after their daughter, Kerry, became an adult, the couple went on to relocate some 250 miles southeast to Atlanta, Georgia.
In Atlanta, Gerry found many outlets for her passionate personality; she joined the Nature Conservancy, for one. The mom also attended a local newcomers’ group where she took part in all manner of activities, including hiking and quilting. All in all, then, Gerry was an active and engaged member of the community.
And Gerry also had a spiritual side. Having previously taken up George’s Catholic faith, she often prayed during her adventures in the great outdoors. At other times, though, she enjoyed simply wandering through the woods, using a guidebook to identify the flora and fauna that she found.
Kerry went on to have children of her own, and Gerry loved to take her grandkids out on hikes, too. But her own sights were set on something bigger: the more than 2,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail. And, ultimately, it seems that the temptation of the trek became too great, as the grandmother went on to plan the ultimate adventure.
Although the grueling nature of the Appalachian Trail hike did not appeal to George, he was supportive of his wife’s ambition. And so the couple later sold their Atlanta home before moving in with Kerry and her family in Brentwood, Tennessee. It was while Gerry was residing with her daughter, in fact, that she began meticulously plotting every step of the long journey ahead.
Gerry even found a way around a potential obstacle in her path. Sometime before, you see, she had injured her back, making it impossible for her to carry a heavy pack. So, George agreed to regularly run supplies to his wife as she made her way along the trail. And after a number of challenging practice treks, the enthusiastic hiker was ready to make a start.
On April 23, 2013, Gerry started out from Harpers Ferry in West Virginia with her friend Jane Lee. The pair are said to have intended to move north from the center of the trail to its terminus at Mount Katahdin before catching a ride back to their starting point. Then, they would hike the southern half of the trail all the way down to Springer Mountain.
And, to begin with, things went about as smoothly as the two women could have hoped. Seemingly not deterred by the rain along the way, Gerry was upbeat when writing in her journal about the abundant flora she had encountered. She even adopted the trail name of Inchworm, and her sociable personality led her to befriend other hikers.
In late June, however, things changed. After receiving word of a major family issue back home, Jane was forced to leave the trail, and Gerry, behind. Undaunted, the solo hiker continued on, sleeping in makeshift shelters when the location was too remote for George to whisk her to a campsite or motel.
And by July 21, Gerry had successfully conquered some 900 miles of the northern section of the trail. In fact, she was only 200 miles or so from Mount Katahdin at that point. But before she could reach George and pick up more gear for the last section of the trek, she faced a 22-mile hike on difficult ground.
As she expected this section of her hike to take two nights, Gerry packed a tent in preparation. Ultimately, though, she slept in a shelter at Poplar Ridge on the evening of July 21. Then, the following morning, she waved goodbye to a fellow hiker and set out once more – not knowing what fate had in store for her.
On July 22 Gerry left the trail in search of a secluded space in which to relieve herself. In the process, however, she apparently walked onto land that had been logged a dozen years earlier and which had now become a mishmash of discarded trees and foliage. And, at this point, the hiker realized that she had become lost.
Disorientated in the thick woods, Gerry therefore sent a text to George to say that she was experiencing some difficulties; she also asked her husband to contact the Appalachian Mountain Club for assistance. The message read, “In some trouble. Got off trail… Now lost. Can you call AMC to see if a trail maintainer can help me. [I’m] somewhere north of woods road.”
Sadly, though, there was no cell phone signal in the area, and so Gerry’s message remained unsent. Hoping to find a spot with service, the hiker subsequently set off in search of higher ground. But despite fighting her way through the logged trees, she did not succeed. Eventually, then, Gerry decided to set up camp in the area.
The following day, Gerry tried to send another text to her husband, asking him to contact the police. And, once again, the message did not go through. Meanwhile, George was waiting in the designated spot for his wife to arrive. Because the weather was bad, however, he was not overly concerned when she missed their original rendezvous.
But when Gerry had still not arrived the following morning, George notified the authorities. And before long, the Maine Warden Service launched a massive search and rescue operation. Along with hundreds of volunteers, wardens began scouring the countryside around the trail.
At first, the search crews focused on the stretch of trail north of Poplar Ridge, knowing that it was part of Gerry’s intended route. But then misinformation began to cloud the rescue mission. Apparently, one tip-off claimed that the hiker had been seen in Spaulding – even though she had never made it that far. Some boys also reported seeing a woman who matched Gerry’s description further along the path.
And although searches still continued in the region of Poplar Ridge, the operation expanded to cover other locations. In the meantime, Gerry was struggling to make her meager food rations last through the long days. Hoping to attract the attention of rescue planes, she also took steps to make her makeshift camp more visible from above.
Relocating her tent to a spot where the canopy was less dense, Gerry cut her silver emergency blanket into strips and dangled them in the trees. But as the days passed, she remained alone. And while she eventually heard the planes and helicopters of the rescue operation passing above, they tragically did not spot her.
To occupy her time, Gerry made notes in her journal and read a novel she had brought with her several times. Apparently, the hiker also practiced complex sewing patterns with a piece of dental floss. Then, on August 6 – 15 days after leaving the trail – she attempted to send another text message to George. Sadly, though, there was still no signal to be found in the vicinity.
In the interim, the search and rescue mission had covered an area of 23 square miles – including some of the region’s most remote terrain. However, on July 30, with no trace of Gerry having been found, the authorities were forced to call off the search. And for more than two years afterward, the mystery of the grandmother’s disappearance would haunt the Appalachian Trail.
Then, on October 14, 2015, a forester working near the trail came across an abandoned tent. And close by, the man unearthed something shocking: what seemed to be a body wrapped up in a blue sleeping bag. He went on to call the find in, with a small team assembling to investigate the situation the following day.
Among the group of wardens and law enforcement officers was Kevin Adam, who had headed up the search for Gerry years before. The team were joined by a crew who were filming an episode of North Woods Law. And as the crowd neared the spot where the remains had been seen, the difficult moment was captured on film.
After two hours of hiking, the group had arrived at the place where the forester had discovered the abandoned camp. And there, they discovered what none of them had wanted to find. Inside the sleeping bag was Gerry’s body – easily identified by the ID that she had stashed in a resealable bag.
For those who had been a part of the hunt for the lost hiker, it was a distressing find. Warden Kris Maccabe told the Animal Planet network, “There’s nobody that wanted to bring her home more than we did. I really feel for the family.”
Alongside Gerry’s body, they also found personal effects including her cellphone. And the messages that she had attempted to send to her husband remained unsent. Apparently, she had also cut up her credit card and buried the pieces so that nobody could steal the details.
Most heartrending of all, however, was the journal that Gerry had left beside her. In it, the hiker had left a message that indicated that she had known that she was going to die in the woods.
“When you find my body please call my husband George and my daughter Kerry,” the message read. “It will be the greatest kindness for them to know that I am dead and where you find me – no matter how many years from now.”
The last entry in the journal was dated August 18 – a full 27 days after Gerry had wandered from the trail and 18 days after the search had been called off. And after looking at the diary’s detailed passages, investigators were able to piece together the lost hiker’s activities as she waited in vain for help to come.
Eventually, though, Gerry had succumbed to the elements – perishing from exposure and a lack of water and food. And, heartbreakingly, she had actually been found surprisingly close to a public path. According to a 2016 report by The Boston Globe, Gerry’s camp had only been situated some 2,300 feet as the crow flies from the Railroad Road trail.
Gerry’s final request had been for her eventual rescuers to send her possessions on to her surviving relatives. She had written, “Please find it in your heart to mail the contents of this bag to one of them.”
But while Gerry’s family mourned her death, they remained full of praise for those who had dedicated huge amounts of time and energy in an attempt to bring her home. They said in a statement, “Gerry was doing exactly what she wanted to do. As the warden’s report indicates, she was lucid and thinking of others – as always – until the end.”
Fittingly, Gerry may continue to help people even after her tragic death. In June 2019, you see, Maine-based writer Dee Dauphinee published When You Find My Body: The Disappearance of Geraldine Largay on the Appalachian Trail. And through this book, the author believes, others will learn about the potential pitfalls of the popular hike.
“I spoke to the trail culture on the Appalachian Trail. You know, the trail is so well marked that the Appalachian Trail culture and hikers – many of them insist that you don’t need a map and compass or any of the wilderness survival skills,” Dauphinee told Maine Public in 2019. “So, I really spoke to that in the book. And I wasn’t sure how the Appalachian Trail community was going to respond to that. But, overwhelmingly, it’s been great.”
“I’ve had several hundred emails from people [who] have read the book [and] said, ‘I went out and bought a compass,’ you know, and things like that,” the author continued. “So, I think, Gerry was such a caregiver that I think that, were she alive, she’d be happy to know whatever she did on the Appalachian Trail was [contributing] to somebody’s safety down the road, potentially.”
For Gerry’s family, however, the loss has been difficult to bear. Particularly painful, according to George, was the realization that his wife had survived for so long before finally succumbing to her ultimate fate. In a 2016 interview with The Boston Globe, George explained, “That was gut-wrenching. I knew [Gerry] was one tough cookie; I just didn’t realize how tough she was.”
Then, ten days after Gerry’s body was discovered, her family hiked to the campsite where the wife and mother had spent her final days. And at the spot, they put up a homemade cross covered in messages from the hiker’s beloved grandchildren. One day, Kerry even hopes to return with her own kids to the remote location that remains a testament to one woman’s strength.
Later, controversy also emerged surrounding hiking fanatic Warren Doyle, who currently holds the record for the greatest number of treks along the Appalachian Trail. Apparently, you see, Gerry had attended one of his training courses before embarking on her adventure. Unfortunately, though, Doyle claimed that the lessons hadn’t covered survival techniques. And in 2016 the instructor told website Central Maine that although Gerry’s case is an unusual one, it will likely serve as a cautionary tale for many years to come.