How many hikers were simultaneously saddened and relieved to hear that Geraldine “Inchworm” Largay’s death was not a result of foul play? Recent press reports inform us that she left the trail to relieve herself, got disoriented and ultimately found herself hopelessly lost in the rugged mountains south of the Crockers and Saddleback on the AT in Maine. A written note revealed that she knew she would likely not be rescued and asked that her family be given the sad news of her fate. Additionally, stored text messages that were never sent made us aware that she was unable to find her way out of trouble. She died of starvation and exposure.
I am struck by the fact that her cell phone became her enemy. As I spend time on trails these days, I marvel at the way hikers are consumed by smart phones. They are an infernal distraction that detracts from appreciation of wilderness. They also give hikers a false sense of security, because they make the assumption that the phone can cure all ills. Dinosaur that I am, I only recently began carrying a smart phone, and I often find myself responding to its siren call as I stare slackjawed at the small screen.
Apparently, when Geraldine got disoriented and lost, she decided to seek higher ground in hopes of getting a cell signal. We now know that she did not succeed and that her text messages were stored but not sent. They help to piece together the sad answer to how she died, but sadly her smart phone led her farther away from safety. I can only imagine the silent desperation she felt out there as her strength and hope faded.
I was with my friend Tom LeVert when the search for Inchworm was going on. We were hiking in the area where she had been hiking. We felt the haunting sense of helplessness that searchers and hikers felt, knowing she might be out there — somewhere nearby — but unable to help her.
I am reminded of the horrible kidnapping and murder of Meredith Emerson near Blood Mountain years ago. I also think of my friend Bob Brugmann who drowned in the Mill River of Vermont in 1973. The Appalachian Trail is a pretty safe place most of the the time. But when each of my kids took off on their individual AT thru-hikes, I warned them that good judgment is always critical, because the AT — just like every other place on the planet — can be deadly.
My old Boy Scout training to Be Prepared will henceforth include a promise that even though I carry a smart phone, I will never assume it is a guarantee of safety. It is just one of many tools combined with good judgment to bring us home safely.
I send my kindest thoughts to Inchworm and her family. They are my kind of people, the ones who — even in the darkest hours — pledge to stay vertical and keep walkin’ on our great American hiking trails.