Geraldine Largay knew she was doomed.
It had been two weeks since she left the Appalachian Trail to go to the bathroom and lost her way; two weeks since she had wandered deeper and deeper into the woods of northwest Maine in search of a cellphone signal to message for help; two weeks since she had pitched her tent underneath a copse of hemlock trees atop a ridge; two weeks since she was supposed to meet her husband, waiting for her in his SUV on Route 27.
Largay’s food was running low. Her water, too.
So the 66-year-old retired nurse sat down and wrote a note to whoever might find her — after she was dead.
“When you find my body, please call my husband George and my daughter Kerry,” she wrote in the note, dated Aug. 6, 2013. “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.”
Largay was right. More than two years would pass before a forester would stumble upon her remains, hidden beneath the hemlocks barely two miles from the trail.
Details of her death emerged Wednesday when the Maine Warden Service released its report on her July 22, 2013, disappearance.
It shows that Largay survived at least 26 days — far longer than previously thought — before passing away from exposure and lack of food.
The report also includes agonizing information on Largay’s desperate attempts to contact her husband, who was waiting for her just a few miles away when she got lost. It acknowledges that rescuers came within 100 yards of her location on several occasions, only to miss her. And it reveals Largay penned messages to her loved ones in a notebook as her strength faded during her final days.
In a way, the report is the closing chapter to a three-year saga reminiscent of “Into the Wild,” Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book on the death of hitchhiker Christopher McCandless in Alaska.
Like McCandless, Largay was a free spirit driven to explore the American wilderness, despite the risks.
“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,” George Largay said of his late wife after her bones were found last year, according to the Tennessean.
“She was absolutely where she wanted to be, doing absolutely what she wanted to be doing with every fiber of her being,” he said.
Game wardens release new photo of Geraldine Largey. This is what she was wearing when she disappeared on the AT. pic.twitter.com/W7oR49NI56
— TVTEDDY (@TVTEDDY) July 29, 2013
Gerry, as she was known, and George were living in Tennessee when, in the spring of 2013, she decided she wanted to hike the 2,200-mile-long Appalachian Trail.
Gerry was no beginner. She had spent years attending hiking courses and camping in the Smoky Mountains. Fellow hikers described her as experienced and level-headed. Her trail nickname was “Inchworm” for her slow but steady pace.
Hiking the AT was on her bucket list, but she was realistic about how to achieve it. She enlisted her frequent backwoods partner, Jane Lee, to hike the trail and her husband to meet her every day or two to provide supplies, a pep talk or a lift to a motel for a hot shower.
From April to July, Gerry and Jane hiked roughly 1,000 miles of trail from Tennessee to New England, with George tagging along in his SUV. Just as they entered the White Mountains of New Hampshire, however, Jane had to abandon the hike to tend to a family emergency back home.
Before she left, Jane tried to persuade Gerry to go back home with her. They could finish the hike together the next summer, she said.
Gerry refused. She would hike on, by herself.
She happened to go solo just as she was entering one of the toughest parts of the trail. Western Maine’s Mahoosuc Notch is “the wilderness version of a jungle gym with more painful repercussions,” some hikers say.
But Gerry made it, and on July 21, she once again prepared to leave her husband on a three-day, 32 mile trip over seven mountain peaks. As was his habit, George hiked with her a little way along the trail before saying goodbye.
It was the last time he saw her alive.
The night of July 21, Gerry slept in the Poplar Ridge Lean-To, a small wooden cabin with only three walls and a corrugated metal roof. There she met two female hikers headed in the opposite direction: Dottie Rust and her hiking partner, Regina Clark.
The women fast became friends, cooking dinner together over portable stoves and trading stories, according to the Boston Globe. Gerry recounted her days as a nurse for the Air Force and family trips around the world. “She was just full of confidence and joy — a real delight to talk to,” Rust told the Globe’s Kathryn Miles.
The next morning, Rust and Clark woke just in time to see Gerry finish her breakfast and shoulder her pack. She was headed eight miles north toward another lean-to, then 13 more miles the next day to meet George. Before they parted, Rust asked to snap a photo of her new friend.
“It’ll make the perfect Christmas card,” Rust said, according to the Globe.
Instead, the photo — which captured Gerry wearing a bright red fleece and a huge smile just as she tightened her backpack straps — would be the last one taken of her.
— maineprmaven (@maineprmaven) July 15, 2014
Several hours later, Largay stopped somewhere along the trail to go to the bathroom.
Then she got lost.
When she couldn’t find her way back to the trail, marked with blue and white blazes, Gerry tried to send a text message to her husband.
“In somm trouble. Got off trail to go to br. Now lost,” she typed into her blue Samsung sliding phone at 11:01 a.m. “Can u call [the Appalachian Mountain Club] to c if a trail maintainer can help me. Somewhere north of woods road. XOX.”
But there was no cellphone service in the remote stretch of forest and the message would not send.
Instead of continuing to search for the trail, she wandered west in an attempt to find higher ground and cell tower coverage, according to the Warden Service report.
She eventually found higher ground, but not phone reception. It’s unclear where she spent her first night in the wild, but by her second day off the trail, she had reached the copse of hemlocks atop the ridge where she would die.
At 4:18 p.m. that day, around the time when she was supposed to meet her husband on Route 27, she tried to send another text.
“Lost since yesterday,” she typed. “Off trail 3 or 4 miles. Call police for what to do pls. XOX.”
Again, the message never sent.
When Gerry never arrived at their designated meeting place, George began to get worried. But it was raining heavily and he figured she could have gotten delayed by the bad weather. The next day, July 24, however, he began asking passing hikers if they had seen her. When none had, he flagged down a passing cop car.
“It was time to send up the flares,” he told the Globe.
Maine wardens initiated a search of likely spots, such as lean-tos and other resting places, but came back with nothing. Then they launched a full search and rescue.
— Dado Molina (@molind413) November 17, 2014
The operation would grow to become one of the longest and most expensive in state history. More than a hundred rescue workers searched a huge swath of forest around Largay’s last known location. Wardens and state police deployed scent-sniffing dogs. Planes and helicopters scoured the terrain from above.
At several points, a search team came within 100 yards — a mere football field — of finding Gerry, according to the report.
Meanwhile, Gerry was atop the ridge, growing weaker with each passing day. She had strung up her shiny solar blanket in an apparent attempt to draw attention. She had also tried to make fires using the matches and lighters she kept in her backpack. There was a stream near her camp, but it’s unclear whether she was able to find any food.
Even as her energy waned, Gerry wrote letters to her family inside her notebook.
On Aug. 4, the 12th day of the search, rescuers announced they were scaling back the search. Gerry’s husband and daughter, who had joined her father in Maine shortly after the search began, returned home. Later that week, George gave a news conference saying that he still held out hope for his wife’s return, but realistically, it was time to move on.
“The uncertainty is the toughest part,” he told the Tennessean a few days later. “Until they find Gerry, there’s always the unknown, and that’s almost tougher than the known.”
In fact, his wife was still alive — although she, too, felt certain of her fate.
— Brian Sullivan (@BSullivanTV) October 16, 2015
Around the same time as George held his news conference, Gerry penned her note. Her phone had died that very day, severing her last possible line of communication with the world beyond the hemlocks and birch trees surrounding her camp.
“Please find it in your heart to mail the contents of this bag to [my husband or daughter],” she added at the end of the note, which she tore from her notebook.
Despite apparently being resigned to her death, Gerry kept on writing.
For the next three days, she wrote entries underneath the date.
Curiously, she then stopped writing for a week, before making one last entry on Aug. 18.
She appears to have died shortly afterward, although it is impossible to be certain.
— The Boston Globe (@BostonGlobe) October 17, 2015
On Oct. 11, 2015, 26 months after Geraldine Largay smiled for Rust’s camera and strode out of sight, a forester working on an environmental impact statement stumbled upon her corpse.
When wardens heard that a body had been found in that area of the trail, they immediately suspected it was Gerry’s. Four days later, Lt. Kevin Adam, who had headed the search, arrived at the campsite.
The campsite was “difficult to see unless you were right next to it,” he wrote in his report.
“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,” Adam wrote. “I was 99% certain that this was Gerry Largay’s.”
Inside the tent, investigators found Gerry’s notebook. They began to read the entries out loud but then stopped.
“I realized from listening to the passages being read that there were a lot of personal letters and compositions to family members inside the book,” Adam wrote.
Investigators also found a compass, trail map and emergency whistle, according to the report.
— Mike McNamara (@MikeAMcNamara) October 17, 2015
Two weeks later, Adam and several other officials returned to the campsite with George, Kerry and other members of Gerry’s family.
The campsite was barely 20 minutes from a logging road.
The family looked around at the campsite — the trees and mountains that had kept Gerry company in her final days — before leaving a cross where her tent had stood.
Although the report released Wednesday sheds new light on Gerry’s disappearance and death, her family members had already found some peace after the tragedy.
“I no longer wake up thinking about Gerry’s disappearance every morning,” George told the Globe last year. “Now it takes a holiday or an anniversary or a certain Neil Diamond song on the radio.”
This article has been updated.