On Monday morning, July 22, 2013, a woman named Geraldine Largay vanished while hiking the Appalachian Trail in southern Maine.
To this day, the details of her disappearance are a mystery.
Largay, whose trail nickname was “Inchworm” due to her slow hiking pace, was an intrepid 66-year-old grandmother from Tennessee. She was also a veteran backpacker. She and a friend had started their hike at the AT halfway point at Harpers Ferry, WV. But her friend had a family issue arise and had to bow out in New Hampshire. She tried to talk Gerry into also quitting, but Largay insisted on continuing solo to the endpoint of Mt. Katahdin in eastern Maine. Her husband had driven their car and was periodically rendezvousing with her at road crossings.
The Maine section of the AT is known for having long stretches of isolated, rugged, and densely forested country.
On the night of July 22, Largay shared a lean-to just east of Saddleback Mountain with five other hikers. The following morning, one of them took her photograph. The photo shows a lean, muscular woman with a beaming smile almost as big as her backpack.
Largay was to meet her husband at a road crossing the next day. She was looking forward to a hearty meal and a soft bed. But she never arrived.
After George Largay reported his wife missing late on July 24, the story spread like a brush fire. Hundreds of volunteers and search and rescue workers fanned out to search for her. The Largay family posted a large reward. But for over two years, there was no trace of Inchworm. Authorities were baffled. Although they publicly denied foul play, this was only because they had no tangible evidence. It was as if Largay had been swallowed by the earth.
Then, on October 14, 2015, an environmental impact researcher found human remains inside a tent in a thicket of woods near an overgrown logging road. The site was only a half mile from the AT. It was a hundred yards inside a restricted area of forest owned by the U.S. Navy. The navy uses this area for P.O.W. simulation training (and, according to the alternative Maine publication The Bollard, some of this training involves torture).
(photo courtesy Hutch Brown and “The Bollard”)
Medical analysts eventually confirmed that… yes… the remains were that of Inchworm. Police say there was no evidence of crime. (But after two years in the forest, how much evidence would there be?) Her death was officially ruled as “inanition.” It’s a rarely used term that means “a state of being empty.” Empty of food… or, perhaps, empty of will.
How could a woman totally disappear for over two years despite the largest manhunt in Maine history??
I ask this question because it makes no sense why Maine authorities could not rescue her in time, and her family should have to suffer so long without knowing anything. Their grief at her disappearance was bad enough without having a huge question mark hovering over it.
But I guess I’m also asking for selfish reasons. One is, I hate to admit it, morbid curiosity. But the other is that I plan to soon hike the White Mountains in New Hampshire, very close to where Inchworm disappeared. If (heaven forbid) something happens to me, I would want my family to immediately know the whys and the wherefores. One of the appeals of solo hiking in the mountains is the challenge. Although not considered an “extreme” sport, there is an element of danger. But at the same time, I don’t want my family being interviewed by “Inside Edition.”
Gerry Largay disappeared on a sunny day only three miles from the lean-to where she was last seen. The Maine Warden Service now believes she descended Poplar Ridge, crossed Orbeton Stream, then strayed from the main trail on either an old railroad road or logging path.
The AT guide that I own calls either the railroad road or logging path a “Woods road.” It’s at the 1982.3 mile mark (northbound) on the AT. The guide also has an instruction to follow this road a short distance east. It’s not uncommon for the trail to coincide with a road like this. But the Woods road soon veers north. It’s possible Inchworm wasn’t paying attention, missed the sign to continue east on the AT, and followed the Woods road north a great distance. Then when she realized there were no white blazes painted on the trees, instead of backtracking she panicked and headed into the brush in hopes of a shortcut. When a person does this in the unforgiving Maine woods, unless he or she is proficient with a compass, well…
The following day, Tuesday, July 23, it poured rain all day.
Old railroad road that Inchworm may have mistakenly taken (photo courtesy Hutch Brown and “The Bollard”)
If it’s true Gerry got lost, God knows the terrors she experienced while awaiting the end. She undoubtedly heard the helicopters whirring overhead. Maybe she also heard distant bloodhounds. Hopefully her final hours were peaceful.
But there are many gnawing unknowns. The Appalachian Trail is well-marked, and Inchworm was an experienced hiker, having trod the southern half of the AT and most of the northern half. If she chose the wrong trail at some point, why didn’t she backtrack? Didn’t she have a GPS, or compass and map to use once she got lost? Why did she pitch her tent in such a thick, inaccessible patch of forest? Didn’t she have enough food and water to last for at least several days, more than enough time to relocate the main trail? Didn’t she have dry matches to create a smoke fire? Was she able to write a last message?
Another mystery: at the beginning of the investigation, police reported a strange phone call to the Stratton Motel, where George Largay was staying. The receptionist claimed an unidentified person called saying that Gerry was delayed and would be arriving late. This call came on Wednesday, when only her husband knew she was missing.
And there was a police report of a man leaving threatening messages in AT shelter logbooks in Wyman Township, directly adjacent to where Largay disappeared. The police report was dated July 6… only twelve days before Largay went missing.
But most annoying is why the Maine Warden Service was unable to locate her in time. Largay’s remains were only thirty yards from the logging path. It beggars the imagination why search parties weren’t instructed to flare out from this path.
Mysteries have intrigued us for centuries. But some mysteries are more unsettling than others. Such is the case with Inchworm’s disappearance. From all accounts, she was a wonderful person. What happened makes no sense.
NOTE: Since this essay was originally published, several extracts from a journal kept by Inchworm were made public. It appears she stepped off the AT to relieve herself somewhere east of the Woods road, then was unable to relocate the trail, became lost and plunged further into the thick woods, then eventually set up her final camp, where she died.
Location of Gerry Largay’s final campsite. The white cross was placed by her family (photo courtesy Hutch Brown and “The Bollard”)