A 66 year old retired nurse set out in the spring of 2013 to take on the famous Appalachian Trail that runs approximately 2200 miles from Georgia to Maine.
It is a rite of passage for many, with many movies and books having been made or written to document the adventures.
But, this story does not have a happy ending. In fact, it is a cautionary tale, one fraught with many unanswered questions and unexplainable mysteries – least of which – how could this possibly happen the way it did?
So, let’s get started with another article in my continuing series Missing in the Woods,
Just Another Normal Hike
Gerry, as her friends called her, set out with a friend on the AT, allotting six months to finish the thru-hike. After about half way through, her friend was called away on a family emergency, and Gerry decided to go on alone.
Now, it’s not like this woman didn’t have help. Her husband was, in fact, not far away, serving as moral and physical support for his wife. They would rendezvous along the trail, since Gerry could not carry much in way of her own supplies.
This went on for over 1000 miles and Gerry slowly made her way down the famous trail, never suspecting something so terrible could be waiting just around the next bend.
Lost in the Woods
On July 23, Gerry left the trail fro a bathroom break (something done all the time while hiking). At that point, she vanished. She did not show up at her next stop, twenty miles away. She did not call in or answer her cell phone. Unfortunately, the GPS tracker she had purchased had been lost at either a hotel or at a sleeping cabin.
There was simply no sign of her and her husband was quickly becoming worried.
Soon a search party was sent out, utilizing state police, national park rangers, fire departments, canine teams, and aircraft.
Nothing turned up.
Keep in mind, even though she disappeared on a well known trail, it was in the 100 mile wilderness area, which is known for its rugged terrain and is a place easy to get turned around in.
Shortly after the search began, heavy rains swept the area, making the search even more arduous.
Then there was news from her original hiking buddy that Gerry often struggled with reading a map and compass, and had a hard time keeping up with others.
But, despite all this, her family never gave up hope. Even though Gerry seemingly vanished without a trace.
Close but not Close Enough
Over two years later, in 2015, a forester working in the area, discovered the remains of what had once been a campsite – and, what they thought might be a dead body.
Authorities arrived on the scene with the thought foremost in their mind. Was this the remains of Gerry Largay?
It turned out to be.
She was found less than 2 miles from the AT, and only a 30 minute walk through mostly open forest to a logging road that would have taken her out of the woods and to safety.
In fact, authorities were confounded later when they realized that K9 teams had come within 100 yards of Gerry’s campsite during the search, but they had not picked up her trail, nor had she heard them and called out for help.
At the site, there was a flattened tent, and a sleeping bag with a skull inside. She had put her tent on top of tree bows to keep her sleeping area dry and out of the rain. Along with other items, she had maps of the area, a rain jacket, a space blanket, and a flashlight (that still worked).
Laying next to her remains, authorities found a hand written journal that documented her time lost in the woods, giving us a stark and gripping glimpse into what she went through.
From the journal, it was discovered that Gerry had survived nearly a month alone, out in the wilderness. She had apparently left her campsite on July 23 and had gone off trail for a bathroom break when she got turned around at a creek crossing. From that point, she had no idea which direction she should take.
Two days she spent wandering around in the woods, trying to get her bearings, trying to use her cell phone to text or call her husband, gaining ground for better reception that simply could not be had out in that area of the wilderness.
Once she made camp, she tried several times to light fires, but was unsuccessful. Her tent was pitched under a thick canopy of trees, making it nearly impossible to see from the air. Sadly, authorities noted if she had pitched a few yards away, overhead was clear.
Lost, exposed, starved, Gerry lasted until the middle of August, when she finally succumbed to the elements and starvation.
Gerry was found only 2 miles from the trail and a 30 minute walk to a logging road. Canine rescue teams came within 100 yards of her camp. How could she have gotten lost for so long so close to rescue?
What a horrible way to die – what a feeling it must be to find yourself lost and alone and forsaken by God – betrayed by your own reasoning, but prodded on by an insistent instinct to survive.
The woods and forests and wildlands across this world are a fascinating and beautiful tapestry of majesty and wonderment. Yet, simultaneously, they are a treacherous and ravenous, gaping maw. The quiet, solitary places care not about us or our plans. If we step too far into their reach, they can occasionally snatch us out of the life we were so carelessly living.
Usually, once that spring has been sprung, it’s simply and irrevocably too late.
What can be learned from this tragedy that occurred on one of the most romanticized trails in the United States? What do we take with us the next time we venture out into the unknown spaces, forge on past that creek crossing, beyond that next ridge, down through that unexplored draw that has been absent of human presence for what – ten, twenty, thirty years?
First – and I hear it all the time and I think I might be coming around to their way of thinking – if you want a chance of survival, you need to tell people where you’re going. This, of course, would not have helped in Gerry’s situation. Though she was hiking alone, she was on a well established trail and had a great deal of first hand experience. Plus, her husband was only twenty miles away. Could she have done anything differently, that might have prevented her death?
I doubt it.
I’ve been in similar situations before. Back in my early twenties, living out in a remote area, I would take off into the woods whenever the mood struck me. I would leave no notes without any thought to something going terribly wrong, and one morning I ventured out, crossed the river in a canoe, went up the ridge to the top, and followed the logging road all day.
I eventually got turned around, having traveled much further than I ever thought possible. I had no maps, no gear save the clothes on my back and an already empty water bottle.
Once I finally managed to break through the wall of trees, I discovered I was nearly 20 miles away from home with no transportation, exhausted, dehydrated, and starving. I managed to hitch a ride back to my trailer, and the only thing the driver could say was, “I’m surprised you didn’t turn right and head toward the coast. That would have been the end of you. There’s nothing out that way for hundreds of miles until you hit the ocean.”
Luck was all there was in that brief moment when I decided to turn left instead of right – turning away from the unknown and a certain similar, deadly fate.
Second, and to the point, always be prepared in gear, supplies, and know how. It was said that Gerry attempted several times to light a fire, but was unable to get one going. That might have saved her, allowed her the ability to boil water, maybe even attract notice from the search party. They were certainly close enough to spot smoke.
Then again, I have been building fires for years, and can tell you there is a big difference between fire-starting success when out camping and the wood is nice and dry, and then when it’s soaked to the bone from heavy rains.
The bottom line is, spending time in the wilderness carries with it an inherent risk that is unique to itself. It is a fantastically metaphysical experience, being close to nature, to hear the hum of an entirely foreign world as the mosquitoes begin to rub their wings together just before dusk, or when you spot that deer and her spotted fawn crossing in front of you, only a handful of feet away.
It is a life inspiring encounter, full of wonder and peace and substance and vitality. But, that substance is altogether real and poignant and rarely devastatingly brutal. It is certainly starkly and unabashedly explicit. There are few things that nature wants from this world.
To grow. To consume. To bring forth life. To take it.
We must remember, mankind does not make it’s way in the natural world. We are separated from it. We are distinct and dispatched from it’s severity by our technology and ingenuity and collective knowledge.
But, this means, in nature, we are visitors. This place, no matter how much time we might spend within, it is not our home.
It is, of all things, foreign and unforgiving.
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