Deep in the woods of Maine, a forester stumbled upon an abandoned campsite. He came across a damaged tent surrounded by scattered items, and when he peeked inside, he spotted the remains of a lost hiker. Unbeknownst to him, he had just solved a two-year missing person’s case – the one of Geraldine Largay.
As he rummaged through her belongings to try and get a clearer picture of who he’d come across, he discovered a small notebook titled “George Please Read XOXO.” In it were the heartbreaking notes of a woman who took a wrong turn on the Appalachian trail and lost herself in an unusually tangled region in the forest.
Geraldine Largay, known by her loved ones as Gerry, had always wanted to hike across the Appalachian Trail. Ranging from Maine to Georgia, it’s one of the world’s most incredible hiking trails, with breathtaking views in every corner and glorious mountains. Who wouldn’t want to cross it if they had the chance?
At the age of 66, Gerry decided to take on the challenge. It normally takes between five to seven months, and Gerry had cleared out her schedule to make it happen. In April of 2013, she packed her belongings and set off.
Gerry had always been somewhat attached to the notorious trail. For most of her life, she’d lived near the southern end of the route in Nashville, Tennessee where her days were spent working as a nurse and raising a daughter with the light of her life, her husband George.
Once their daughter Kerry moved out of the house, she and George decided to stir things up and relocate to Atlanta, Georgia. There she found an outlet for her love of nature – she joined the Nature Conservancy. With a guidebook on wild plants and local birds, Gerry would traverse the woods around her on a weekly basis.
Gerry found joy in her weekly hikes, as well as in the short strolls in nature she took with her daughter and grandkids. But deep down, she knew there was something bigger she wanted to achieve – the 2,190-mile-long Appalachian Trail. She played with the thought in her head for months until finally deciding it had to be done.
Her husband, George, wasn’t a big fan of the idea. He felt that the trail was too grueling for her and that she was better off sticking to shorter, gentler ones. But when he realized how serious she was about the issue, he decided to support her. Gerry’s remarkable spirit was hard to resist.
George had good reason to worry about Gerry’s ambitious adventure. She had injured her back a while before, so he believed that it would be difficult for her to walk and crouch and leap and stand on her two feet for such a long period of time.
After a bit of brainstorming, the two came up with a great idea to make things easier for her along the way. George agreed to be his wife’s supply carrier, providing her with whatever she needed on various stops along the trail. That way, she wouldn’t have to carry a heavy backpack.
With her husband backing her up, Gerry was now ready to go. A little before her departure, she found her trail name – she chose to call herself “Inchworm” due to her speed.
“This has been a long time in the planning, and we are excited and a little nervous to begin this adventure,” Inchworm wrote in her journal.
Gerry’s good friend, Jane Lee, decided to join her on her journey, and on April 23, 2013, the two set out from Harpers Ferry in West Virginia. The adventurous duo started by trekking up north from the center of the trail all the way to Mount Katahdin before catching a ride back south to their starting point. The plan was then to hike the southern trail all the way down to Springer Mountain, Georgia.
The trek kicked off as smoothly as could be. With light rain here and there, the two women marched across various fields, taking stock of the lush greenery around them. In Gerry’s journal, she wrote about the colorful flowers, the healing sound of the birds, and the empowering feeling of walking for hours.
“Squirrel corn, bluets, spring beauties, Jack in the Pulpits, abundant May apples!” she wrote.
However, their plans changed around late June. Jane received news of some urgent family issues back home and was forced to quit the trail, leaving Gerry behind to continue solo on the journey. Undeterred by the sudden plot twist, Gerry marched on, fully believing that she could finish it on her own.
At the end of most days, George would meet up with her, armed with nutritious food and the best campground spot or motel for her to lay her head. And by mid-July, the solo hiker had successfully crossed about 900 miles of the trail’s northern section. Only 200 miles away from Mount Katahdin, Gerry was upbeat and ready to conquer the land ahead.
Her next endeavor on the path? A 22-mile hike across treacherous terrain.
Gerry expected this section of her journey to take her approximately two nights, and thinking she would sleep outside, she packed a tent in preparation. Ultimately, the solo hiker ended up sleeping in a shelter at Poplar Ridge. It was the night of July 21st – the last night she would ever experience serene, wholesome shuteye.
Early morning at the Poplar Ridge, another hiker named Dottie snapped an endearing picture of Gerry, dressed in a red fleece and flashing a wide, enthusiastic smile. It would be her last picture.
“It will make the perfect Christmas card!” Dottie gloated. She later recalled being mesmerized by Gerry’s wits, courage, and bright attitude.
Right before setting off, Gerry texted George to let him know she was leaving the shelter. It was 7 a.m. She then shut off her phone, stuffed it in her bag, and said her goodbyes to the lodgers at the Poplar. The day began like any other. “Inchworm” explored the thick woods, remaining loyal to the trail, paying close attention to where she placed her feet.
So far, so good, she believed. It was only when she needed to relieve herself that things took a turn for the worst. One wrong decision, and the woods, which were usually a comforting setting, mutated into a disorienting labyrinth.
At the start of the trek, with Jane by her side, going to the bathroom wasn’t an issue. The two women would often keep an eye out for each other and take turns. But on her own, and especially as a woman, she had to make an effort to find an out of sight tree trunk, often going a bit farther away from the trail.
This time, she tried getting back on the familiar path but was overcome with fear once she realized that everything looked the same. She didn’t know where to go. The trees were closing in on her, seeming denser than ever. The sky was barely visible, and she could hear nothing but her own shallow breathing, the crumpling of the leaves, and the snapping of the twigs beneath her lost feet.
She turned on her phone and texted George, reporting that she was lost and asking him to seek help from the Appalachian Mountain Club. Her message read: “In some trouble. Got off trail… Now lost. Can you call AMC to see if a trail maintainer can help me? [I’m] somewhere north of woods road.”
Unfortunately, there was no signal in the area, so Gerry’s message never reached George. She tried not to freak out too much and spent the following hours trying to find higher ground, making it her day’s mission to find a spot with service. Nothing helped. And when afternoon came rolling around, she pitched her tent. As she lay alone in the woods that evening, the night sky seemed more ominous than ever.
The following morning, rain poured down on her, washing away any speck of hope she might have woken up with. Still, there was no time for wallowing. She pulled herself together and tried texting George again, asking him to contact the police.
“Lost since yesterday. Off trail 3 or 4 miles. Call police for what to do pls. Xox.” But once again, she received a text back reading “Message receipt failed.”
In the meanwhile, George was in the trailhead parking area, waiting patiently for his wife to show up.
George wasn’t too panicky at first. The weather was less than ideal, so he figured the downpour was the reason she hadn’t arrived yet. He checked his phone now and then, and by nightfall, he retired to his SUV, hoping that by sunrise, he would see Gerry, trekking poles in hand, sound and safe.
When she hadn’t shown up the following day, he reported her missing. It’s not uncommon for hikers to arrive late due to rain, but just in case she was in trouble, police decided to organize a wide search that covered Gerry’s route from Poplar Ridge to the designated parking lot.
Unfortunately, Gerry was way, way, way off the trail by that point.
The sun finally made an appearance on Wednesday afternoon. Its glimmering rays created an illusory sense of hope, a speck of optimism, a shift in Gerry’s spirit. She hiked to a stream she had crossed the day before, knowing very well that without clean water, her chances of survival were slim.
She built her tent anew and made use of the sunlight to dry her gear on the branches. Desperate to make herself more visible, she cut up parts of her silver-colored blanket and hung them in areas where the sun’s rays pierced through the trees. She figured the reflection would help pilots find her.
Although she didn’t want to think about it, Gerry knew she had to ration her food appropriately. She had only carried with her three days’ worth of produce and calculating how to stretch it farther than that was a terrifying thought, yet it had to be done.
Her dinner that night included a few Fritos, some almonds, and a prune. She then laid her head down, closed her eyes, and whispered the full rosary under her breath. “O God come to my aid; O Lord, make haste to help me,” she prayed.
Four days into the search, nearly every hostel owner in the area had already heard about the missing woman, as well as every other hiker who had been on the trail in the previous weeks. Dottie Rust, the one who had taken Gerry’s last picture, was questioned by authorities: “Have you seen Gerry Largay?”
She told them about the night she spent with “Inchworm,” and how she seemed well and healthy, alert and fit. Dottie sent in the photos she snapped of Gerry that Monday morning as proof of the location where she was last seen – the Poplar Ridge.
But where had she gone from there?
Authorities found traces throughout the trail – drops of blood on a rock and strands of hair wrapped up in a piece of gauze. But none of the potential clues belonged to Gerry. Neither were the water bottles, wrappers, and any other objects left behind.
As time went by, the search crew received tips from people who claimed to be psychics. Their answers explaining Gerry’s disappearance ranged from fairly reasonable (attacked by a bear) to absolutely preposterous (she was abducted by Bigfoot).
The wardens picked up on all sorts of puzzle pieces during their search. One hopeful tip came from a group of young hikers who recalled seeing an older woman just several miles from the Spaulding Mounting Lean-to, the next stop on the trail. Could it have been her? The boys said they didn’t actually speak to her. She was quiet and withdrawn.
But that didn’t sound much like Gerry. Kevin Adam, part of the search crew, admitted that he tried to force the description to fit her: “I’m thinking, that’s not Gerry. But I’m like, but maybe she’s having a hard hike that day, maybe she’s not feeling so good.”
“Gerry had a bunch of supplies,” Adam explained, “She had a tent. She had some food for a couple of days. We knew she had fire-starting material.” The crew searched the area with helicopters and planes, believing that if Gerry would spot them, something would surely be fired into the air.
“We’re blowing whistles, we’re using ATVs, and we’re not getting any stimulus back on anything, and we’re not seeing any smoke from any fire,” he recalled. As time went on, everyone’s confidence dwindled. Their optimism hung on a thread. A thin, brittle, meager thread.
The distant noise of the helicopter’s rotors, as well as the roaring sound of the plane’s engine, were as exhilarating as they were depressing. Gerry heard them on several occasions. She waved her red fleece uncontrollably as she yelled and cried for help.
After six days in the wilderness, on July 28th, she had eaten her last piece of food. The following day, she heard another search plane in the distance. She considered moving her tent towards the noise but was too weak to do so. And in any case, she thought, moving her tent a little further would be just as hopeless.
Thinking of George warmed her heart. She knew he was out there, thinking about her every minute of the day, searching for her with all his will. As long as people were out there, she thought, patrolling the skies and the grounds in search of her, she would give it her all to survive.
But the frustration of coming up empty time and again began to dwell on the search crew. They’d been searching for two weeks, and the only clue they had was the picture Dottie took of her. The sharp contrast between Gerry’s infectious smile, and the ghostly nothingness that came after was too difficult to comprehend.
On August 6th, Gerry turned on her phone one last time and tried texting again. Still no cellphone service. She’d been lost in the wilderness for two weeks, and it had been nine days since her last meal. With little to no power left, she somehow managed to light a fire, hoping someone would spot it. She kept the flames going on for hours each time. But no one came.
She opened her journal that day and wrote, “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.”
Two days later, Kevin Adam spoke to a witness who confirmed their worst fears – Gerry had never made it to the Spaulding shelter. The woman went by the trail name “Ivanich,” and she had stayed at the Poplar Ridge the same night as Gerry had, leaving shortly after her in the morning.
Ivanich told Adam that she hadn’t come across Gerry on the trail, and she hadn’t seen her anywhere around the Spaulding shelter either.
As it turns out, the young hikers who provided the tip from before had confused Ivanich for Gerry.
Days turned into weeks turned into months. Gerry “Inchworm” Largay was nowhere to be found. And while the wardens remained alert, they were no longing sending aircraft to scan the area, nor were they galloping on horses across the trails.
They kept their ears open for any news and continued interviewing potential witnesses. Here and there, they would receive calls from people saying they had seen someone who resembled Gerry. Some reported her in New Hampshire, others in Minneapolis. But all of them ended up being false leads.
One October morning in 2015, the search for Gerry came to an end. After two years, two months, and 24 days, her remains were discovered by a forester working for the U.S. Navy. He reported he had found a “possible body” on the trail.
Lieutenant Kevin Adam rushed to the scene, and upon arrival, his heart sank. “I saw a flattened tent, with a green backpack outside of it and a human skull with what I believed to be a sleeping bag around it. I was 99% certain that this was Gerry Largay’s,” he reported.
The items found in the campsite affirmed her identity – it was Gerry. Amidst the maps, the blankets, the Ziploc bags, and the flashlights, there lay a small journal, covered in moss and filled with Gerry’s thoughts and fears. The title read: “George Please Read XOXO.”
The entries went on until the 18th of August, three weeks after her disappearance. But Kevin Adams isn’t entirely convinced Gerry understood what day of the month it was. After nearly a month out in the wild, with no food in her system, it seemed unlikely that Gerry’s brain was functioning correctly and that she could keep track of the days.
The most devastating bit is how close Gerry’s campsite was to help. She camped out less than two miles from the trail. If only she had walked a bit south from where she was, the crammed forest would have opened up into a clearer area with good visibility.
Located 30 minutes from Gerry’s last campsite was a clear logging road that led to a lodging site. The thought of it tore her family’s heart apart. She was so close to help, yet so deeply intertwined with the forest that she saw no point and had no power to continue walking any further.
While the family mourned Gerry’s death, they remained thankful for those who had spent huge amounts of energy and time trying to find her. They released a statement: “Gerry was doing exactly what she wanted to do. As the warden’s report indicates, she was lucid and thinking of others – as always – until the end.”
George Largay said he believes his wife wouldn’t have wanted people to sit and mope around. “She would want us to get back on the trail,” he confidently stated.
When the family visited the campsite, they brought a small cross with them that has been placed in the area where her tent had been. Her daughter Kerry says that she wants to bring her kids there one day, so they could see how brave their grandmother truly was.
In June of 2019, writer Dee Dauphinee published a book inspired by Gerry’s tale, dedicated to spreading her story and warning other people of the dangers of solo hiking. The book is titled When You Find My Body: The Disappearance of Geraldine Largay on the Appalachian Trail.
Speaking of her book, Dauphinee told Maine Public in 2019 that it was important for her to clarify that, contrary to popular belief, one must always carry a compass with them even if they set out on popular trails like the Appalachian. You never know what might happen.
There’s no doubt that Gerry’s fortitude serves as an inspiration to us all. She survived nearly three harsh weeks in the wilderness with nothing but three days’ worth of food. But for George, the thought of her dying slowly is more than he can handle.
He told The Boston Globe in 2016 that discovering she was alive for that long was, in fact, “gut-wrenching. I knew [Gerry] was one tough cookie. I just didn’t realize how tough she was.”
Hopefully, Gerry’s case can be a cautionary tale for us all. No solo hiking. Even if there’s someone tagging along from afar with a car, it’s clearly not enough. Always have someone with you.