Geraldine Largay was spritely and determined for her age. At 66, the Tennesseean had made the same commitment many others will make annually, though the majority would likely be several decades her junior: Largay had planned to hike the famous Appalachian Trail in its entirety.
It is a true feat for anyone, really, no matter the age, and with the help of her husband, Largay's hike was to be completed in portions where the couple would meet periodically along the way. Largay was also accompanied by a friend throughout various portions of the trip, in addition to meeting and camping with fellow hikers at shelters along the way.
Then, in July of 2013, over the course of a three-day trip through a remote portion of Western Maine, Largay's companion chose to turn back, leaving the determined 66-year-old to press on alone. When she failed to appear at her next rendezvous point with her husband, authorities were notified, but despite a massive search effort in the region, neither Largay, nor her any clues to her whereabouts were found.
Like many hikers who take to the wilderness by themselves, Geraldine Largay had vanished without a trace.
Now, after three years, Freedom of Information Act requests filed by the Associated Press and other media agencies have revealed details about Largay's final days, which she spent lost on a rugged stretch of land used for training operations by the U.S. Navy.
Largay had attempted to text her husband repeatedly from the trial, sending messages requesting assistance. At 11:01 AM on July 22, 2013, she sent the following text:
"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"
Additional texts continued to warn that she was lost, as Largay continued to try to reach higher elevations where her cell signal might allow the messages to be sent. Details from within the newly released FOIA records also indicate that Largay had attempted to build a fire by her makeshift campsite, where her body was eventually recovered from within the remains of her tent.
Along with her remains, a heartbreaking note was found which read:
"When you find my body, please call my husband George and my daughter Kerry. It will be the greatest kindness for them to know that I am dead and where you found me - no matter how many years from now. Please find it in your heart to mail the contents of this bag to one of them."
Largay's story bears similarity to the many similar incidents involving hikers who became disoriented and lost in national parks and wilderness areas over the years. At very least, the discovery of her remains, along with the details related in her text messages and her diary, bring a degree of closure to the situation that otherwise might have remained open ended; a mystery unsolved, with questions left unanswered.
With the closure that the new information about Largay's disappearance brings, we are also presented with a number of lessons, many of the same sort that previous disappearances have offered (like that of six-year-old Dennis Martin, arguably one of the most famous cases involving a boy who vanished over Father's Day weekend in 1969, and was never seen again). In Largay's case, the recovery of her final handwritten message, along with her immediate belongings, help construct details about what led to her disappearance... and they are all too common.
The choice to carry on by herself, once her fellow hiker decided to turn back, had been the first of a string of unfortunate decisions. Arguably, the single most important rule for hikers -- whether or not they are hiking in unfamiliar or rugged terrain -- is to never hike alone. This fundamental truism, simple though it is, might otherwise save dozens of lives annually if every hiker chose to abide by it.
Also, Largay's initial text to her husband sheds light what led to her disorientation: she had left the trail to find an area with enough privacy that she might relieve herself, which led her far enough from the trail that she couldn't find it again. If a hiker must leave the trail in this manner, one thing that can (and should) be done is to leave markers that will help indicate the way back to the trail. Even just a short distance from a marked path, the conditions within a rugged forest area can be disorienting enough that a hiker can become disoriented; in many cases, lost individuals are found within a short distance of where they disappeared, or within a short distance of the nearest trail or shelter.
The tenacity of those like Geraldine Largay will be kept fondly in her memory, though with the careful review of disappearances like hers, we can hope to learn more about how to prevent similar future incidents. After all, even the simplest precautions can be effective in preventing dangers that may await hikers.