Lost on the Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail is a 2,200 mile hiking trail in the Eastern United States, connecting Maine’s largest mountain, Mount Katahdin, at its north eastern tip with Springer Mountain, Georgia, at its far south western end. Every year, thousands of hikers set out in the hopes of completing a ‘thru-hike’; walking the entire length of the trail. This undertaking often takes five months or longer, and only around 25% of those that attempt it complete it successfully.

In July 2013, one of those attempting a thru-hike was 66-year old Geraldine Largay, a retired Air Force nurse from Nashville. After losing her way and being unable to find the trail again, Largay was missing for over two years before her remains were found in a neatly set camp just two miles from the Appalachian trail. A hand-written journal and attempts to contact loved ones via cell phone indicated that she survived for 26 days before succumbing to a combination of starvation and exposure.

The last photograph taken of Geraldine Largay, taken by a fellow hiker on July 22nd 2013. Image: Maine Warden Service


Largay had set out from Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, the previous April with friend Jane Lee to attempt to conquer the trail, and had already covered over 1,000 miles by the time she went missing. Largay’s husband George Largay would regularly meet them along the route to provide the pair with fresh supplies and stay with the pair at motels. While the two women had completed a five-day training course before departing, Lee later said that Largay had often struggled to keep up and was a poor navigator. 

Lee also acknowledged that Largay struggled with a fear of the dark and being alone, and her doctor had prescribed her medication to combat panic attacks. When Lee was forced to abandon the hike due to a family emergency, Largay made the fateful decision to continue with her attempt alone. Pushing on through the White Mountains of Western Maine, the remote terrain made it more difficult for George to meet with her and she spent some nights sleeping in trail shelters or her small hiking tent.

Despite the difficulty of the hike and the loss of her travelling companion, Largay appeared to embrace and enjoy the experience, with many hikers on the trail that summer recalling pleasant conversations with her. Like many thru-hikers she adopted a ‘trail name’, used to sign the guest book found in many of the shelters along the trail. Hers was ‘Inchworm’, a self-deprecating nod to her slow pace of travel. Largay also kept a journal throughout her experience, documenting the flora and fauna she saw along the way.
Largay was last seen on the morning of July 22nd 2013 at the Poplar Ridge Lean-to by fellow hikers, one of which took a picture of her that would prove to be the last photo of her alive. She told the others who had spent the night in the lean-to that she intended to walk the 22 miles to where the trail crossed Route 27, where she had agreed to meet up with her husband. A few hours into her days hiking she left the trail to relieve herself, and was unable to relocate it. At 11am, she text her husband in an attempt to raise the alarm.

‘In somm trouble. Got off trail to go to br. Now Lost. Can u call AMC to c if a trail maintainer can help me. Somewhere north of woods road. XOX’

Poor cell phone coverage in the area meant that George never received the text. Largay then appears to have attempted to find higher ground, resending the message a further ten times over the next hour and a half. None of them sent successfully. The following afternoon, she tried to send a further message to her husband, which again failed.


‘Lost since yesterday. Off trail 3 or 4 miles. Call police for what to do pls. XOX’

While George had not received the messages, Largay’s failure to make their agreed rendezvous had deeply concerned him and he had reported her missing to to authorities. A massive search effort was launched, including police, park rangers, fire crews and search aircraft. Dog teams were sent out to look for the missing woman, signs were posted along the trail and dozens of hikers were interviewed for clues. Despite all efforts, the search was unsuccessful.

In October 2015, more than two years after Largay went missing, a forestry worker found a tent and camping equipment in a dense stand of trees. Police Lieutenant Kevin Adam was dispatched to the scene, later reporting that he found a flattened tent with a rucksack matching Largay’s propped outside. On closer inspection, he found a human skull in the top of a sleeping bag. Despite being missing for over two years, Largay had strayed barely two miles from the trail. There was evidence that she had attempted to start fires to draw attention, and multiple dog teams were thought to have passed within 100 metres of the camp.

However, the location she chose was surrounded by deadfall and difficult to see, while a thick canopy above blocked the site from the view of rescue aircraft. Tragically, while the spot she had chosen for her camp was in a section of dense forest, just a short distance south the woodland thinned out, offering much better visibility. Lieutenant Adam estimated that it took him just 30 minutes walk from the campsite to reach a logging road that lead to buildings

Amongst Largay’s personal effects they found her journal, moss growing across the cover. She had written the simple message ‘George please read XOXO’ across the front. Inside, she described how she had become lost after a wrong turn and wandered for two days, attempting to find raised ground to allow her to regain some sense of direction. Eventually, she set up camp to wait for a rescue that never came.

The diary entries continued until the 18th August, nearly a month after she became lost. With her supplies exhausted and the dawning realisation that rescue was an unlikely prospect, one entry dated the 6th August was a plea for anyone who found the site to tell her husband George and daughter Kerry of her fate. A cross erected by the family now stands at the place where her tent was discovered.

Find out more about the Appalachian Trial here:
http://www.appalachiantrail.org/

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