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She was alone, though that wasn’t originally the plan. Her hiking companion had had an emergency that called her home early from their adventure. She was hiking the Appalachian Trail in remote western Maine, a difficult stretch. But everything seemed to be going okay — until she vanished without a trace.
Geraldine Largay, known as Inchworm on the trail, made national headlines when she disappeared in July 2013. The Maine Warden Service launched a massive search for her that continued for days, then weeks, then months. For more than a year, they followed leads.
Then in October 2015, her remains were found, startlingly close to the trail.
Maine author Denis Dauphinee is now giving voice to the last days of Largay’s life. His newest book, “When You Find My Body: The Disappearance of Geraldine Largay on the Appalachian Trail,” is published by Down East Books.
The book, Dauphinee hopes, will help make sense of what happened while giving readers a chance to draw their own conclusions. “I hope that readers don’t judge Gerry so harshly — it can happen to a lot of people. I hope they respect her will to try. I hope they learn a few valuable lessons that if they get turned around in the woods, they can use them,” Dauphinee said.
Dauphinee is an experienced back-country guide, mountaineer, fly-fisherman and photographer. He’s assisted in search and rescue operations as well. He also works in medicine, assisting in surgery three to four days a week, for between six and eight months a year. And for about a year and a half, he dug into who Largay was, what she experienced and what might have happened when she lost her way.
“In the first two weeks of my investigative research, I realized what a lovely person she was and that there were some lessons beyond the obvious lessons to be learned from her story that might help other people in the future,” Dauphinee said. “The people I met along the way in the first few weeks were so engaging and were so passionate about her and her story.”
From trail logs to official reports, Dauphinee used many channels to pull together the information and write this story. “I reached out to the family first and then to the [Maine Warden Service] and, using the Freedom of Access Act, I got not just the warden’s reports but the forensics report,” Dauphinee said
And in the forensics report, he was looking for something specific: Were Largay’s ligaments intact? “That would tell me she didn’t sprain an ankle or hurt a knee … she could walk out on her own,” Dauphinee explained.
Both Dauphinee’s medical experience and his wilderness experience came in handy in his research. “It helped a great deal — I could recognize that Gerry had some back problems and some issues with being afraid of the dark … I could tell that Gerry really faced some of her fears [on the trail],” Dauphinee said.
Largay wasn’t carrying heavy loads — her husband was driving between points and meeting her — so the load weight wasn’t really an issue. Still, Dauphinee believes “she was on the edge of a ketotic state.
“[Stressors] can really affect you physiologically and physically in a heartbeat,” Dauphinee said. “I just know that she went from being this slow, but capable, vibrant hiker to being (probably within a couple of hours) afraid and … physiologically starting to feel the effects and I don’t think it took her very long to feel weak in a deconditioned state. And I think that contributed to things. She didn’t know what to do.”
How exactly could that have happened? Dauphinee said that her physical state contributed to her decision making — she made mistakes, forgot basic principles. “When people get lost in the woods, lost person behavior is very interesting. Oftentimes people start to hurry. It’s part of their anxiety,” Dauphinee said.
Dauphinee reached out to another person who’d become famously lost in the Maine woods to learn more about what that is like.
Donn Fendler at age 12 was separated from his family on Mount Katahdin while camping in the Maine woods. He’s known for surviving alone for nine days and wrote a memoir of the experience called “Lost on a Mountain in Maine.” Dauphinee asked Fendler for his thoughts on Largay’s disappearance, and met with him at his home in Newport.
“He made me tea and we had cookies and sat on his porch and we had a wonderful time,” Dauphinee recalled of his interview with Fendler in October 2016, just days before Fendler’s unexpected death.
Fendler described the aches, pains and mental challenges that came with being lost.
“You know, I had hallucinations, and I don’t mean once I started to starve, but right away. I had them on the second day. To this day I don’t know if they were dreams or not,” Fendler told Dauphinee.
Whatever happened during Largay’s final days, many came together to help Dauphinee make sense of her life. Hikers who’d met Largay along the trail helped paint a picture of her last days. Longtime friends shared emails they’d received and information about who she was.
“It was remarkable how her best friends from school wanted to talk about her. There were only a few people out of dozens who didn’t want to talk about it. They were just profoundly affected,” Dauphinee said. Her family chose not to be interviewed, though they were supportive of the project.
What Dauphinee aimed not to do though was to pepper the text with his own conclusions. He wants the reader to draw their own. And he wants Largay to be remembered — not for what happened, per se, but for what others can learn from her story.
“Instead of Gerry being a statistic, [I want her to] be part of Maine lore and be helpful [to future hikers],” Dauphinee said.
Watch: ‘I can kick some butt again’: Appalachian Trail hiker gets new leg
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s June/July 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.