It got pretty quiet in the newsroom last Wednesday afternoon when we learned that, according to a new report from the Maine Warden Service, Appalachian Trail hiker Geraldine Largay may have been alive for almost a full month after she went missing back in July of 2013.
Reporters tend to be a matter-of-fact bunch — it’s our job to be objective, after all. But for a few somber minutes, my colleagues and I contemplated what it must have been like for the 66-year-old solo hiker from Brentwood, Tennessee, to mark the days slipping past, making entries in her journal and trying repeatedly, fruitlessly, to contact her worried husband using her cell phone, which had no signal in the deep woods where she was lost. We imagined the impact of this report on her family, their frustration and grief as they learned the details of her ordeal in the beautiful, rugged mountains of western Maine.
On the day after she got lost, Largay wrote to her husband, in a text she was never able to send, that she had wandered three or four miles off the trail after stepping into the dense forest for a bathroom break.
“Call police for what to do pls,” she wrote, signing it “Xox.”
We’ll never know how far she actually traveled, but her remains and her makeshift campsite, when a land surveyor happened upon them more than two years later, were only about 3,000 feet off the trail.
The report, while full of interesting information, leaves so many questions unanswered. Here are some of mine: How could this experienced backcountry hiker get so lost, so quickly and so immutably? Why didn’t she return to the nearby AT after her off-trail bio-break instead of striking out through the trees in the wrong direction? Why did she make the choices she did, once she realized she was lost?
There’s been a lot of speculation, some of it detailed in the extensive warden service report, some in response to media coverage. Was Largay equipped with an old-fashioned compass and map, and did she know how to use them? Had she stopped taking her prescribed medication to combat anxiety, leaving her vulnerable to panic, confusion and poor judgement? Was she dehydrated or hypothermic — conditions more likely to affect us as we age, and more likely to have serious physical and cognitive consequences?
At 66, was Largay perhaps in the early stages of dementia, undetected by those closest to her but setting her up for disorientation and forgetfulness? Had her sense of hearing deteriorated to the point that she was oblivious to the calls of nearby searchers, including a canine team that reportedly came within about a hundred yards of her campsite ten days before the date of her last journal entry?
I am not a backpacker like the intrepid “Inchworm,” as slow-but-steady Largay was known on the AT. But I do enjoy a good long day hike in the relative backcountry. And, although I sometimes like to hike in congenial company, I often prefer to go alone. Not only does a solo hike provide a few hours of precious stillness in the quiet beauty of the natural world, it also allows me to check in mindfully with my sense of direction, my good judgment and my problem-solving skills. I have made some mistakes, but I have never felt afraid when alone in the woods of Maine.
At 61, I like to think I have years of hiking and exploring ahead of me. The fact that I rarely find the time these days doesn’t diminish my interest or enthusiasm. I have every expectation that someday soon, I’ll load my daypack, lace up my boots and head west to the mountains, far from the manicured trails and social amenities of more populated areas.
But this time, I’ll take a little extra time to prepare. I’ll be sure someone knows exactly where I’m going and when I plan to be back. I won’t make any last-minute changes to my destination or my route. I’ll be sure to have a good, recent map, even if I’ve done the hike before and know the terrain. I’ll refresh my iffy compass skills and pack plenty of water and food, my flashlight and an extra layer of warm clothing. Yes, I’ll bring my trusty smart phone, but, no, I won’t rely on it to save my life.
And maybe it’s time to reconsider the merits of hiking with a friend.
Hiking alone means making every decision by myself. It means having no one to leave at the last toppled cairn or faded paint blaze while I go looking for the next one. It means only one set of eyes and ears, one knowledge base, one skill set and one sense of mordant humor when the going gets tough.
Especially in Maine’s remote mountains, especially as I get older, a trail buddy could easily make the difference between a good decision and a fatally bad one, between being lost and being found again.
This is what I have learned from poor, lost Geraldine Largay and the tragedy of her lonesome death in the Maine woods.