For hiking enthusiasts as well as many others, October brought an end to a two year mystery that has haunted the Appalachian Trail in Maine ~ the disappearance of experienced hiker Geraldine Largay on July 22, 2013. The Boston Globe featured an excellent article in December 2014 which explored in depth one of the biggest mysteries and largest manhunts in Maine’s history. Despite massive searches no trace was ever found and eventually life continued. Tributes to Geraldine aka “Inchworm” were left at trailheads and laminated signs were prominently placed by the MSP both on the actual AT and in surrounding areas.
This past summer when I was searching for the missing dog, Jumper, it was sobering to see memorials and signs like these in Stratton:
Then on October 14, 2015, a set of human remains along with personal items believed to be Geraldine’s, were discovered by an independent contractor conducting a survey on Naval property.
Yesterday it was confirmed by the medical examiner that the remains were indeed hers; cause of death was “accidental, caused by lack of food and water and environmental exposure”. A cellphone found with the remains indicated that she had reached Orbeton Stream on the day of her disappearance. I actually had to sit down and reread the article a second time in order to fully comprehend. Then I burst into tears for I knew the area where she was found very well; I too became lost there earlier this year. Since I live in the Western Mountains of Maine within close proximity to the trail, I was doing sections of it as day hikes. My grandson was graduating from high school and I didn’t want to leave for my thru hike until after this special milestone. June was a particularly rainy month so I encountered trail conditions that were probably quite similar to those Geraldine met. If memory serves me correctly, there was a heavy rain storm the day before she disappeared. I entered the woods via an access road accompanied by my little dog Bailey B. The forest floor was quite wet and streams bursting but it was a warm and sunny day. We took our time, enjoying the day and taking frequent sniff stops for Bailey. The further we travelled, I marveled at how brutally rugged the terrain was. At times the trail was an obstacle course of steep slabs, trip wire roots that resembled thick tentacles, steep rocky ascents and tooth rattling descents. It began to seem that I was now taking five steps forward only to encounter shoulder high rocks to climb over followed by vertical slabs. I remember being thankful that I had opted for long Columbia pants that day as opposed to shorts because I did a lot of seat sliding. I could faintly hear Orbeton Stream and figured BB and I would take a break there. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment but I suddenly realized I was off trail. “No big deal” I thought as I slowly turned around looking for the white blazes. Instead I saw more rocks, roots and trees ~ but none bearing the familiar white markings. It didn’t take long for panic to set in because in just that short time NOTHING looked like the trail. I didn’t expect to see a lot of evidence of foot traffic as SOBO hikers were really just beginning at Baxter and the bulk of those headed NOBO hadn’t reached Maine yet. In all honesty, in my many day hikes up until that point I’d encountered very few people which I attributed to the copious rainfall in June. I tried sending a text to my backup people from my inReach satellite handheld but it couldn’t pick up a signal. Even though I knew it was futile I still tried my cell phone to no avail. As I forged ahead towards what I thought was the stream, I began to second guess my decision for what I worried about the most was Bailey. Im sure she sensed my anxiety because where she once hopped confidently by my side she now darted back and forth in front of me but always looking back. She didn’t ask to accompany her human into the woods that day, I made the decision to bring her and I was obligated to get her out safely. So I sat down on a log and assessed the situation. Like so many tech junkies I had relied strictly on my hand held and didn’t have a compass. I also hadn’t clearly marked all the access roads between Point A & B because it was supposed to be a relatively short hike. **Hint** Take notes and learn from these two mistakes! I decided that if my family came looking for me that they would begin at the access road where I’d entered. I also knew that the closer I got to that point there was a better chance of obtaining a satellite signal. I decided that I was going to rely on my senses and reverse course. The first thing my senses told me was that the animals of the woods were definitely more vocal as the day passed. BB’s previous confident swagger was now fully replaced by fear and furtive movement; I knew if necessary I could carry her. I realized I had to stifle my anxiety as she was also feeding off it so I began to sing. Barney theme song, Elton John, Queen ~ anything I could belt out.And then mistake #2. I tripped over a particularly tuberous root and then over a rock, losing my glasses in the process. **Hint** Wear a strap to secure glasses to head. Even though I wear progressive lenses, I always remove my glasses to read, knit , etc. I needed them more for distance and that darned “middle” area. I stayed on my knees and tried to find them but the frames were black and apparently blended in well with years of leaves and tree debris carpeting the forest floor. I wanted to scream and run away but that wasn’t an option. Neither was clicking my heels together three times. I got up, resumed singing and kept moving. Had a lot of run ins with inanimate objects because I basically walked looking down at my feet. As I walked and sang I started to second guess myself, thinking perhaps I should just break and set up camp but one look at BB and I knew I had to keep going. Plus I knew if I didn’t return or get a signal to my family they would invariably come looking for me in the dark. Several hours later I stopped for a “break” and when I headed back out I saw a white blaze. I can’t even describe my elation. As we continued I began to recognize a few areas where we had earlier stopped for one of Bailey’s sniff fests. Then I heard a familiar beep from the inReach and knew my text was on its way. By now it was dark and I was wearing my Black Diamond headlamp. I was innately calmer and think that Bailey sensed it because her small body appeared more relaxed. As I got closer to the access road I switched from singing to calling out my husbands name. Suddenly I heard him respond along with the trusty bark of Sasha, one of my beloved German Shepherds. He met me in the middle of a bog bridge where I began crying and didn’t stop until BB and I were safely out of the woods and into his truck. I’m not typically a dishonest person but I was mortified to admit that I had become lost in an area that by Maine standards was in my backyard. I felt stupid and ill equipped, especially for someone who had spent hours researching, planning, hiking and most of all, was leaving on a thru hike soon. So I fudged the details of my mishap to both my family and friends. I downplayed the “terrified & lost” component to the “we lost track of time” one. I’m not sure if my husband actually believed me because I’m also not prone to fits of hysterical crying while hiking but he’s too kind of a person to say anything.
Then they found Inchworm’s remains and now we know her location and cause of death. As I wrote at the start of this entry this information upset me greatly. Not because I thought I could have helped her; I became lost a year after her disappearance. No, I was upset because after being lost in the same general area for several hours, I can’t even imagine what she went through and it truly breaks my heart. She was found approximately 3,000′ off trail (one half mile). When we think of that distance we envision a quick jaunt but in the rugged terrain of the area it might as well have been ten miles. I also feel foolish and ashamed that I ever felt the need to downplay that day to the very people that care about me the most. There is no shame in admitting your mistakes;the shame is when you don’t learn from them. I’ve since learned to be proficient with an old fashioned compass, to mark all access routes whether I think I’ll use them or not and I bought two head-straps for my glasses.
I’m terribly sorry for the tragic turn of events that cut short Geraldine Largay’s productive life and I’m thankful that she was found so that her family has some type of closure. This tragedy has also made me rethink that old adage “Well they died doing what they enjoyed”. After being lost for the better part of a ten hour day, I’m pretty damn sure Geraldine didn’t enjoy anything.
In closing, beginning with the disappearance and continuing with her remains found on property which is part of a Naval SERE Training Camp, the discovery has given rise to conspiracy theories and speculation, none of which I subscribe too. However I’m inserting a few links if anyone cares to explore. The last article is by Paul Dorion, Registered Maine Guide and accomplished author.