I read the headline on my phone while still lying in bed, Geraldine Largay’s Wrong Turn: Death on the Appalachian Trail. As I scrolled through the article I wondered how it was possible for someone to get lost on this well-beaten path hiked by thousands of people every year. I also was concerned that a sixty-six year-old woman, known to have a poor sense of direction and taking medication for anxiety, would think it advisable to continue on alone after her hiking companion had to discontinue the hike due to a family emergency.
The incident occurred in the summer of 2013. When she didn’t meet her husband at the next resupply point, he waited a day and then reported her missing. A large-scale search was initiated that lasted a number of weeks. No sign of her was found in terrain so rugged it is often used for military training. It wasn’t until October of 2015 that a logging company surveyor stumbled upon her campsite and remains in a densely wooded area about two miles off the trail. It is there that she had awaited rescue—a rescue that never came.
Lost in the wilderness.
The files on the case that were released include excerpts from her journal as well as texts pleading for help that she tried to send to her husband, but which were never transmitted due to a lack of cellular service. A note found in her diary read, “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.” When I read this I was filled with compassion for this woman. I started imagining what it would have been like for her to be alone in the wilderness, unable to find her way out, and with only a few days of food remaining in her backpack. I could see her setting up her tent on a layer of pine needles in a small clearing between the forest trees, placing her belongings around her, and spreading out her sleeping bag. But then what?
It was reported that she had a rosary among her possessions so can I picture her praying. I can also imagine her writing in her journal and see her listening–listening for any sound other than the wind in the trees and the rustling of the bushes around her. I’m sure she fantasized about her rescue; that suddenly she’d hear the sound of boots and a voice calling out her name, “Geraldine!” But there was nothing.
When did she give up hope of being found? I wonder what that was like? I know about acceptance; that in order to find a measure of serenity we must say to ourselves, “This is the way it is. I hope it changes, but for now, this is it.” At some point she must have given up trying to find her own way out. Instead, she put her faith in her family, the authorities, and, it seems, God, to come to her aid. But that didn’t happen. She’d tried everything she could, but had given up. The only thing left was to surrender to an outcome over which she had no control.
Did she sink into despair? Did she rail against the Universe? Did she replay over and over again in her mind what she should have done until those ruminations brought her to edge of insanity? I’d like to think that as she slowly began to accept the fact that she might die before being found, she was able to submit her will to a power greater than herself. That as she weakened and lay there in her tent, she was able to say to God and to the Universe, “Thy will, not mine, be done.”
I can see her lying there, sensing the earth spinning on its axis, feeling the wind on her face and the coolness of the ground beneath her; the ground to which she knew she would be returning. I imagine that as her body started giving out from lack of nutrition and exposure to the elements, she was watched over by the birds of the forest and the angelic beings that make themselves known to those who are journeying from this world to the next. She wouldn’t have felt alone. She would have felt the very real love of her husband, daughter, and friends. She would have felt the presence of the Holy One and of the ancestors reaching out to her to guide her to the next life.
Lost in the wilderness.
With every breath letting go.
Embracing the journey.
No longer lost in the wilderness.