Finding Lessons in a Tragic Hiking Story
As an author living in Maine and having a history of mountaineering and Search & Rescue, I must have had two dozen people approach me about writing Gerry Largay’s heartbreaking 2013 Appalachian Trail story. My third book had recently been published, and it had been an emotional project that required two years of research (requiring inquiries and trips to Ottowa, Halifax, England, Belgium, Germany, and France). It had been exhausting. I was knee-deep in a refreshing novel, and I had little interest in taking-on a non-fiction project like Gerry’s story.
One friend called me and said, “Dee — you’re the guy to write her story; you were a search-and-rescue guy, you know a bunch of the wardens, you have military connections, and you were there for a couple of days, weren’t you?” (Armed with only a few tidbits of information, I had driven down to where Gerry had become lost. Whereas I’ve been out of Search & Rescue (SAR) for over 30 years, I only poked around in the woods for two days looking for some sign in an area already cleared by dog crews.) I didn’t want to contaminate a search area with my “unique” smell. I found out two years later I was less than half-mile from her.
My friend’s call made me reconsider writing the story. I knew there were lessons to be learned, but writing it well was not going to be easy. The game wardens (the SAR authority in Maine) try to glean knowledge from every search they conduct, but the search for Gerry had been unsuccessful — it was likely they were still upset and would be reticent to talk about it. (Maine has a ninety-seven percent success rate looking for lost persons.) Gerry’s body had been found very close to the border of the U.S. Navy’s “Search Evade Rescue & Escape” school, a secretive code of conduct school for high-risk military personnel which not only teaches survival techniques but also what to do if ever captured by an enemy. Getting an “in” with the Navy would be difficult.
In spite of that, I did some preliminary research. It wasn’t easy, but I dug up almost all of the hikers who hiked with Gerry — trail name, Inchworm during her Appalachian trail “thru-hike.” I found her closest childhood friends. I interviewed the last person to speak to her on earth. Another difficulty arose; because Gerry’s family had reached out to the media seeking help so often during the search, they were burned-out on talking about the tragedy. They were grieving and had no interest in dredging everything up again. I understood. The family still grieves.
Despite the problems with the story, two things made me decide to undertake writing the book: I clarified some important lessons that weren’t initially obvious, and I also learned what a giving, gregarious, beautiful woman Gerry Largay was. It became clear to me that Gerry, a retired nurse, through her story would relish the notion of potentially helping hikers in the future, even after death.
In the writing of her story, I met some wonderful people and made some cherished friends from all over the country — Gerry was still bringing people together, four years after she passed away on that cold, lonely ridgetop in western Maine.
The story was difficult to write, Gerry offers important lessons in the book, and, could she read it, I think she would approve.
From the publisher’s Galley:
When You Find My Body
The Disappearance of Geraldine Largay on the Appalachian Trail
by D. Dauphinee
When Geraldine “Gerry” Largay (AT trail name, Inchworm) first went missing on the Appalachian Trail in remote western Maine in 2013, the people of Maine were wrought with concern. When she was not found, the family, the wardens, and the Navy personnel who searched for her were devastated. The Maine Warden Service continued to follow leads for more than a year. They never completely gave up the search. Two years after her disappearance, her bones and scattered possessions were found by chance by two surveyors. She was on the U.S. Navy’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) School land, about 2,100 feet from the Appalachian Trail.
This book tells the story of events preceding Geraldine Largay’s vanishing in July 2013, while hiking the Appalachian Trail in Maine, what caused her to go astray, and the massive search and rescue operation that followed. Her disappearance sparked the largest lost-person search in Maine history, which culminated in her being presumed dead. She was never again seen alive.
Marrying the joys and hardship of life in the outdoors, as well as exploring the search & rescue community, When You Find My Body examines dying with grace and dignity. There are lessons in the story, both large and small. Lessons that may well save lives in the future.
When You Find My Body will be in fine bookstores everywhere June, 2019.
D. Dauphinee has been a mountaineering, fly fishing, and back-country guide for over thirty years and has participated with several search & rescue organizations. He has led many expeditions, including mountain, jungle, or desert treks on four continents. Twice he orienteered (without the benefit of a GPS) across the Isthmus of Panama, he has four first-ascents on mountains, has hiked the Negev Desert at its widest part, and has climbed above 20,000 feet thirteen times. A former UPI photographer, he is now a full-time writer and has published books on fly-fishing and travel. He has also written numerous essays and articles about fly fishing, climbing, and life for many newspapers and magazines. He lives in Bradley, Maine.