In Oct. 2015, a forest surveyor working in federal land in western Maine made a disturbing discovery. The surveyor stumbled across what turned out to be the campsite and the skeletal remains of Geraldine Largay. Largay, who was 66, had gone missing two years before, and her body was found surprisingly close to the trail.
In his new book, When You Find My Body, Maine author Dee Dauphinee explores what happened to Largay in the last days of her life and how someone could become so irrevocably lost so close to the trail. Dauphinee spoke with Nora Flaherty for Maine Public Radio.
Dauphinee: "A lot of people that hike the Appalachian Trail, they can prepare a lot of different ways. And they can set one foot in front of the other and they do a good job, on the Appalachian Trail, or an Indian long distance hike, but a lot of them don't have any knowledge of what to do if they get lost.
"Having been involved in search and rescue in the old days, I can tell you the stressors of getting loss are enormous and can cause a lot of different problems physiologically, physically, mentally. And so once she (Largay) got lost, and she lost her bearings, it didn't take very long for her to make some poor decisions."
Flaherty: "We heard a lot about her when she was originally lost. And then when her body was found, and she was she was an interesting person. Who was Geraldine Largay?"
"She had raised her family in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee. After the family was grown, they moved to the Atlanta area. She was involved in many things, the Nature Conservancy and the Alpharetta Newcomers Club, where they did everything from quilting and hiking to bridge, and she was involved in many parts of that community. She was very spiritual, was a religious person. She converted to Catholicism because her husband George was Catholic and involved in the church. And she wrote in her journals, and she prayed, and she told people that she when hiked on trails she prayed a lot and, and so all these things came together to paint a pretty clear picture of what kind of person she was: gregarious, spiritual, engaging, lovely person that was in love with nature."
"You did some research yourself on the circumstances of Geraldine Largay's death and, specifically, her physical state before she died. What did you find? "
"Physically, everything was intact. As we said that she didn't really know what to do to aid in her self-rescue. She had remembered from her Girl Scout days to stay put, but she didn't. She wandered around, by her own reckoning, about four miles the first day, kind of paralleling the Appalachian Trail, walking the wrong direction. She ended up trying to climb higher and higher to find cell phone service, instead of staying put, and crossed several brooks and kept climbing higher and higher, but there's no cell phone service for miles in that area.
"So once she decided she'd kind of had enough and worn herself down on the second day, she did stay put, but by then had dug yourself so far into the forest that in such a terrible, terrible terrain, that searchers just couldn't find her. It was really difficult because you know, you get some places there, you can't see 10 feet, you can't hear somebody screaming or blowing a whistle from 60 yards away."
"What do we take from this story?"
"Well, you know, that's part of the early research, I knew there were obvious lessons about maybe learning map and compass work and carrying one on the Appalachian Trail or any long distance hike where you might be going through the wilderness.
"But beyond that, there were lessons about our reliance on technology in the backcountry, which isn't a great thing to do, because sometimes those technologies aren't going to help you.
"In addition, 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, that the trail is so well mark, that it's just not necessary. So I really spoke to that in the book. And, 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 that have read the book that said, you know, I went out and bought a compass, you know, and things like that.
"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 contribute to somebody's safety down the road, potentially."
Dee Dauphinee is a writer and backcountry guide based in Bradley, Maine. His new book is When You Find My Body: The Disappearance Of Geraldine Largay on the Appalachian Trail.
Ed note: edited for time and clarity