A Few Thoughts on the Tragic Death of Geraldine “Inchworm” Largay

It was the summer of 2013 when Geraldine “Inchworm” Largay was first reported missing on the Appalachian Trail.  She had been seen on the morning of her disappearance at the Appalachian Trail’s Poplar Ridge Lean-To in Western Maine.  A search party consisting of “about 130 people, some with dogs, horses, ATVs and aircraft” sprawled the area looking for the missing hiker, to no avail.

Some suspected foul play, even the wardens would not rule this out.  Albeit rare, foul play seemed possible, if not probable, given the nature of this story. The Appalachian Trail, in general, is very well marked (with a white blaze every 70 feet, on average).  However, ask anyone who’s hiked the entire AT- navigating through Maine is a greater challenge than the rest of the Trail.

When Largay’s body turned up in October of last year, medical reports confirmed that foul play was not the culprit.  And yesterday, more details from Inchworm’s death had been released, including entries from a journal she had kept in the days leading up to her passing, including:

“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.”

I presume Largay’s family takes some solace in getting closure with this tragic story.  In either case, my heart goes out to Inchworm’s friends, family, and loved ones.

When the news broke yesterday, several people and pages via social media suggested something along the lines of “let this be a learning lesson”.  There are lessons to be learned from Inchworm’s heartwrenching story, but what those lessons are- at least to me- aren’t quite so clear.

Is the lesson that the trail is a dangerous place?  

If so, I concur, but being alive is fraught with risks.  The Trail presents risks not found inside one’s home, but the danger is no greater- at least I haven’t seen any compelling evidence of this being the case. As the saying goes, you’re more likely to die driving to the trailhead than on the trail. Largay’s story is a sad exception.

Is the lesson that a map is necessary for navigating the Appalachian Trail?

Undeniably the risk of getting lost decreases by carrying a map and compass (and knowing how to use it), but each year hundreds of AT thru-hikers successfully navigate through Maine, and only a small minority do so with a map and compass (13 and 9%, respectively according to a 2014 survey of thru-hikers conducted by Dan Feldman).  The overwhelming majority (87%) instead use a guidebook.

The decision of whether to carry a map and compass, GPS, and/or guidebook is not black and white.  There are nuances to consider, including an honest assessment of one’s sense of direction, in which Inchworm’s hiking partner admitted that Largay’s was “poor”.

Should Largay have been carrying a satellite communication device or map and compass (with the knowledge of using it properly)?  This tragedy offers the hindsight that the answer was yes- at least if she insisted on hiking solo.

Does this mean that everyone needs one?

To those who live in the “better to have it and not need it” camp, I encourage you to attempt a 2,200 mile hike with all the items that fall under this category. A gun, full map set, 3 lb. first aid kit, bear canister, extra set of clothes, etc., will quickly overload your pack and put your odds of injury and/or burnout ahead of your odds for a successful thru-hike.  If carrying these items decreases the risk of death by a tenth of percent, is that a worthwhile tradeoff for decreasing the likelihood of success by 80%?

For many (not everyone) it is not.

It should be said, the Appalachian Trail is unique in how well marked it is.  By comparison, everyone I’ve encountered on the Colorado Trail has carried a map and compass, GPS device / app, or both- myself included.  And by many standards, the Colorado Trail is a very well marked trail.

So what is the lesson?

For many, sadly, because Inchworm’s death has gained national prominence (being reported by NYTimes, Washington Post, etc.), the takeaway will be to steer clear of the backcountry.  Like bear attacks, when a hiker gets lost on the trail, it becomes big news.  You don’t hear of the tens of thousands of hikers that make it from point A to point B without becoming fatally lost or those who aren’t awoken by a bear biting through their tent.

If you’re an avid reader of this site, you already know that these stories are rare exceptions- that a thru-hike is an exceptional adventure, a rite of passage.

Although there is no guarantee for safety, the availability heuristics perpetuated by the media is not indicative of life on the trail.  In reality, the perceived safety of our current situation is anything but– the big difference between the two is the onset of consequences. Life is short anyway you shake it, and the fear of not living should exceed our fear of death.  The popular trail expression, I believe, holds true for life- it’s about the smiles, not the miles.

As Inchworm’s husband himself put it: “She embraced life, and she would want anyone who reads about this to — that this would serve as a reason to do it, or to do something else that they were thinking about, versus to sit on the sidelines and play safe…She was absolutely where she wanted to be, doing absolutely what she wanted to be doing with every fiber of her being.”

May she rest in peace.

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Comments 13

  • Mark Stanavage : May 27th

    Just today, when I mentioned that I solo hike, Inchworm was brought up. I carry maps and compass, I park my pack with its blaze orange vest on the trail when I leave the trail for “business” . I point it towards where I am going so I don’t get turned around. Some simple little tricks cost little to no weight, yet they can help.
    When my time comes, I hope like Inchworm to be doing what I love.
    Rest in Peace.

    Reply
  • Whisper : May 27th

    Just wondering whether Inchworm carried a whistle. When lost, three whistle blasts are a signal for help, louder and less tiring than shouting. That’s a bit of gear lighter to carry and easier to use than a compass or gps.

    Reply
    • A J MacDonald Jr : May 27th

      The report said she had a whistle and a compass.

      Reply
    • Nevis Beeman : Jun 2nd

      A whistle is excellent advice….and I thank the Peace Corps Volunteer on St Kitts who gave me her Peace Corps issue whistle as I was leaving for the AT. 2012.Thankfully I never had to use it…to this day it dangles from my rucksack. But YES ….bring a whistle. Really could save your life or the life of someone else.

      Reply
  • A J MacDonald Jr : May 27th

    Embracing life and doing what you want to do is no excuse for a complete lack of orienteering skills when hiking the AT. Would we say someone was embracing life and doing what they wanted to do when they wrecked a Ferrari while going 150 mph because they had no performance driving skills? Don’t make excuses. She died because she lacked a basic hiking skill.

    Reply
  • Karyn : May 28th

    Even the condescending words of the self-righteous & omniscient (as noted above & quoted in your article) can be helpful for anyone with a humble perspective to learn from the unfortunate mistakes of others. It very well could be (and only her family will know as they have the journal) that she became, in what must have been frightening for her, too disoriented to use the compass properly. Or it could be that she did not use it at all. I don’t know. But I guess it’s a good thing we have some unflappably perfect people in our imperfect mass of humanity that will always be there to wag a finger and rebuke from afar; keep the rest of us ‘in line’.

    Reply
    • Capt. Norm : Jun 2nd

      Well said.

      Reply
  • TBR : Jun 1st

    Insightful essay, Zach. A sad case.

    Reply
  • Seth Lawrence : Jun 2nd

    I spent 12 days looking for Jerry starting about 3 weeks after she went missing. Looking back finding a hiker in such a large search area, was like trying to find a needle in a haystack to me. I hadn’t done any prior searching prior to Jerry missing and it made me appreciate all the hard work that had been done by the earlier search teams.

    Reply
  • David C Miller : Jun 2nd

    Sorry A.J. MacDonald, she got lost because she panicked. If you read the article in the Washington Post, she was under a physicians care for anxiety, and panic attacks. And was prescribed Xanax. How this information got out is a mystery because it violates HIPPA laws big time.

    Further, she climbed away from the trail to reach higher ground for cell phone reception. Now it was dusk and she was is full panic mode. She didn’t die because she lacked basic hiking skills, she’d already proven her knowledgeable trail skills by the many, many miles she had already done. No, she died because she panicked.
    Your flippant reply is shameful. David C Miller

    Reply
  • Julie Moran : Jun 2nd

    I just want to say that while Geraldine “Inchworm” Largay’s death most certainly was tragic, equally tragic was any perception all the press coverage may have created, that getting lost is a significant risk through-hiking the AT. It is not.

    If you just look at the facts at hand — where Ms. Largay’s remains were found, and the fact that she had a “map” and compass — to me it is simply bewildering how someone in that situation could not set any random compass bearing south-southeast and eventually stumble back onto the trail.

    That “poor sense of direction” provides the answer — if that describes you, as an AT through-hiker, I’m guessing that would be your training starting point. Don’t go until you’ve worked that out.

    I’m a lazy, good-for-nothing day hiker, so my hat’s off to all of you thru-hiker folks. I know you all plan and prepare carefully. For me that’s the main takeaway from stories like these.

    Reply
  • Matt : Nov 1st

    I’m an AT section hiker and this story really hits home. Many of the suggestions about what she should have done assume she knew where she was. When you are on the trail most of the time you don’t know exactly where you are because you are just in the woods and can’t see any landmarks. If it is cloudy, you don’t even know which way you are facing because the trail winds around so much that a “Northbounder” can often be walking south.

    So once she got off the trail and became disoriented, I wonder what would have been the best strategy? Without landmarks the map only gives basic hints – like there is a highway X miles SE of where I was this morning. The usual advice is to stay where you are and wait to get rescued, but in the Maine woods you are invisible and unlikely to be found. Probably she should have taken a general bearing on the map and just started hiking (I think she had a working compass). If she elected to stay put (if the compass was broken or she didn’t know how to use it) she probably should have spent her time making huge bonfires that would be visible for miles.

    I think my final comment is that she is a tragic example of what happens when you out-hike your technology. If you can’t rescue yourself without your cellphone or your GPS, then you should limit where you hike. On most of the AT it is not a problem, just hike downhill and you’ll hit a road shortly. Maine is a whole other world.

    Reply

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