Belated Thoughts on Gerry Largay

Gerry Largay, also known as Inchworm, was a 66 year old thru-hiker of the Appalachian Trail in 2013: the same year that I completed my thru-hike. She disappeared from the trail in Maine during the month of July. At the time of her disappearance, I was much further south, somewhere in Virginia.

During my journaling and the subsequent writing of Adventures of a Trail Stooge, I never once mention Gerry Largay. Even today, I don’t precisely know why, though I will attempt to sort through the reason why below.

Some people have branded my story “immature,” and perhaps that is the reason why I did not mention Gerry: I did not have the capacity for compassion for another person because I was emotionally caught up in my own life. Or perhaps it is that I was simply too involved in my own basic needs of food, water, and shelter to think about those of another. Here too, the reason would be an inhibition of compassion and kindness on my part; an inability to sympathize with another thru-hiker.

But I don’t think that is the reason. I felt sadness and sorrow for her. I saw her picture hanging from flyers on trees. I saw her wide smile and that red jacket, and the blue bandana on her head. She looked just like any other hiker I might meet on the trail and talk about food and water with, and ask them how their day was going, and feel confident that they would make it to Katahdin because they’ve made it so damn far already. In that picture that was posted all over the trail, she looked like she was supposed to. She looked content and happy and a part of the AT community. So maybe I didn’t write about her because I was confident that she would be found; or maybe I was just hoping against hope that she would be, and to write about it would break the tension that lay over her disappearance. In a way, writing about her would be an acceptance of tragedy, and perhaps I did not want to do that. I wanted Gerry Largay to wind up on Katahdin. I wanted her to have an epic adventure that she could go home and tell her family about, and laugh about, and cry about, and show them pictures of, and tell them about all the trail angels and hikers and silly mistakes that she made, like a wrong turn when she got off the trail. I wanted that mistake to be something to laugh about, and I still held out hope that it would be something to laugh about, that she would summit Katahdin in due time.

But I don’t think that is the reason either.  I talked to other thru-hikers about her. We said how sad it was that she was missing, and that we hope that they find her soon. And those ideas were heartfelt, yet they had the pang of morbid resignation: I knew that it was highly unlikely she would be found alive. I had already admitted to myself, whether I wrote it down or not, that she was likely dead. Three months after she went missing, as I walked through the woods of Maine, I knew that somewhere in the wilderness was Gerry Largay’s corpse. I had imagined that she had fallen down a hillside far from the trail, or had gotten injured in some way and wandered deep into the forest, and that her body was inaccessible with the cold winter moving in. But I was wrong: she was no more than a mile off the trail, having left the AT to relieve herself and gotten confused. And that’s where she died, rolled up in her sleeping bag and her tent, less than a mile from where I walked at some point in the woods of Maine.

So what is the reason I failed to write about Inchworm? In the end, I suppose I simply do not know. But I do think this: I think the AT elevated my perspective on existence. It insulated my emotions and feelings from the sad and brutal things that we see and hear about every day of our lives. The AT allowed me to slow down the fire of my soul, accept what is brutal and terrible, and engage with existence in all its myriad forms, without wanting to burn the entire world apart, without wanting to damn it all to Hell.

Perhaps this is why I did not feel the need to write about the death of Gerry Largay–perhaps I had accepted it the moment I saw that flyer nailed to a tree. Life and death live side by side on the trail: what is alive is only alive because what is dead is now dead. All life falters and is consumed by the void to begin the cycle again. Life and death are not opposites, they are part of a single unity. This is not metaphysical; as a hiker, you see it in the woods at every turn, it surrounds you with every step. It is always there: rotting trees lie against the living, forcing them to bear a lifeless burden; beetles crawl upon the corpse of a baby deer and larva are planted within its flesh; squirrels and birds and all beasts hunt and are hunted and die and are eaten; the fallen foliage under our feet is decayed and turned to soil by the worms and bacteria along with flesh and feces.

So perhaps I just accepted it. But even so, I am ashamed of myself for not sharing Gerry Largay’s story earlier. I am ashamed that I did not write about her on my blog or in my book. I am ashamed that I did not take the time, until now, to sort through the swirl of ideas that her death on the AT brings up in me. So this is my attempt to rectify that, and in doing so, I do not mean to belittle Gerry Largay’s death, or the death of any individual. But I hope we can find both the beauty and the misery in all tragedy. Because they are both a part of the horribly beautiful dance of death that Inchworm was a part of—that we are all a part of—the thing that we call Life.

For more information on Gerry, here is a link to an article on her disappearance.

To Do What We Want

“It is just so beautifully wild out there. Sometimes it is difficult to imagine vast tracts of land that have been minimally touched by the push of human progress – but they are there, and they are amazing. It is a powerful view to look out over forest and hills and not see roads cutting scars across the land. It’s powerful to know that this is what the world really is – it is not cars and buildings and schedules and presentations. The real world is something far more awe inspiring and spiritually massive than anything we can imagine sitting inside a home or an office. There is a feeling of stewardship that arises when you look out over the wilds. Because although we can do what we want with the land–we can lay roads, cut trees, mine ore, and build towns–it is not ours to do as we wish with. And we can feel that in some moments, when we see ourselves as peaceful individuals on a hillside, that we are integral with the rest of the world.”

I wrote those words in a blog entry during my time on the trail. I’ve said it many times–I often struggle to maintain the mindset that I had while on the trail. Words do not fully express the subtleties that go along with thoughts that carry so much weight–thoughts that seem to defile the idea of human progress, or to damn technological pursuit. I think in writing the above words, I failed to see a deeper meaning.

Perhaps value does not lie in the tangible outcome: it does not matter whether we have untarnished wooded plots or complex machine cities. It does not matter whether we have untainted rocky mountains or burnished city skylines. All objects are merely benign matter in the end, and matter itself is not inherently moral or immoral.

And perhaps value does not lie in the processes of our lives: it does not matter whether we destroy, create, preserve, modify. None is inherently better than the rest; they are all necessary modes of interaction with the World. One must be willing to destroy in order to create. One must be willing to modify in order to preserve. They are all just interactions with and between matter, and as such, are not inherently moral or immoral processes.

So perhaps the value lies somewhere else, somewhere beyond matter. Perhaps it lies in our minds–in the motivations and intentions that drive us to influence and alter the World. What is the spirit behind the matter? Do we seek to integrate ourselves with the World, or do we seek to dis-integrate ourselves from it, and it from ourselves?

In writing the above entry, I failed to see that we can do what we want with the land. But we also need to remember that the land, like ourselves, is only a small manifestation of the infinite and eternal cosmos–it is a Mask of God, but without human features: brains and fingers, nerves and culture. It is a Mask made of bark and leaf, soil and rot, mushroom and maggot. It is made of rock and moss, skull and gnat, stinging bee and soothing stream, rising fog and burning sun. The myriad entities of the world arise as something non-human and therefore different from our conception of interaction and communication. But simply because something is non-human does not mean that it is non-communicative. All things have a mind–every single thing is a Mask of God, and therefore, are endowed with a reason for being. Each rock, each root, each grain of sand cries out, “The fact that I exist leads me to believe that I am worthy of existence.” But I also hear the roadways cry this out too, and the buildings, and the machines and the technology that we create and destroy, modify and preserve: “The fact that I exist leads me to believe that I am worthy of existence.”

Thomas Berry wrote that “Every being has its own voice. Every being declares itself to the entire universe.” Just because we can not hear that declaration in human syllables does not mean it is not declared. So our declarations as human beings–our choices to destroy, create, preserve, or modify–must be integrated with the declarations of the matter and minds that surround us, regardless of whether they take up form in the natural world, or in the sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying brave new World that we have created for ourselves.