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.