When Inchworm’s remains were finally found, you can imagine the struggle for words among her friends and family. After all, she had mysteriously vanished in the woods two years prior.
You can just see the listless hugs; hear the awkward whispers:
“She died doing what she loved.”
It’s one of those phrases that, at a time of grief, comes easy and can also ring hollow. But for lack of more apt and succinct homilies, the old saying still serves when someone perishes—unexpectedly, yes, and, I will add, nobly—while pursuing a passion.
Geraldine Largay really did die doing what she loved. She’s the 66-year-old Appalachian Trail hiker who in 2013 lost the trail in the dense woods of Maine, sent a series of heartbreaking and fateful text messages, and ultimately died of exposure and starvation after 26 or so days. Her body was discovered two years later. However, comprehensive details of her disappearance, as compiled by the Maine Warden Service, were only released recently—late May 2016.
I’ve read many stories and hundreds of comments about Geraldine’s death. Most of the written reactions are suitably respectful. People are disturbed and touched by her messages, particularly the most haunting of them all: “When you find my body, please call my husband George and my daughter Kerry,” she wrote. “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.”
The second-most common theme among commenters pertains to the very real perils of backcountry travel. Those remarks contain a lot of “tsk-tsking,” as prudent hikers remind us all that we have to take the wilderness seriously. We need to be prepared. We can’t rely solely on cellphones or GPS. We should have old-fashioned topo maps and a compass, and know how to use them. We should have fire-starting materials, and the wherewithal to employ them to signal our location.
No disagreement here.
Then there’s a third strain of commentary, one of quiet disbelief that translates as, “What on earth was a 66-year-old woman doing out there alone?”
That’s what I want to address. The impression that Geraldine was irresponsible, and uncaring for her husband and daughter. That she was somehow a sobering example of hubris run amok.
What was she doing out there, an aging speck of life on that 2,100-mile trail, all alone? As she saw it, Geraldine was living her life completely. And I will only celebrate that.
Hubris? Come on. Her self-adopted trail moniker was Inchworm. She chuckled at her slow pace. But it was a pace that carried her more than 900 miles along that wild and beautiful path. Largay’s husband, by the way, regularly ferried supplies to her. He was obviously onboard for her adventure.
What revelations she must have savored along the way! How many times did her heart soar when she reached the apex of a mountain pass and looked out across a universe cloaked in dense firs and hardwoods? How many times did she sit beside a mountain stream and feel utterly at peace? How many songs of birds did she listen to, while most of us remained insulated inside of our cubicles or cars?
“Look how beautiful it is,” she’d once told her part-time hiking companion, referring to a rising sun piercing the morning mist. She apparently lingered at the sight even as her friend was eager to get moving.
I think that Geraldine Largay is an inspiration to masters athletes. I like to think that I am her, every morning—when I click into my pedals for a solo workout, or lace up my shoes for a trail run. When I beat a well-worn path on my favorite mountain biking route, or hike up to Strawberry Peak and look out at the awesome San Gabriels. Every single ride, run, or hike I take, I marvel at the beauty of the world, and feel gratitude for having the fitness level to do what I do.
I’m only a few years younger than Geraldine. I don’t imagine heading off alone on a long thru-hike, but I have my own versions of hiking the AT, my own goals, my own passions. I fully understand and embrace the impulse that motivated her to take on the Appalachian Trail alone. It’s not that I’m out to prove anything. I don’t think she was either. She had likely already proven all she needed to. She was simply living her life fully.
And so I remain resolved to do the same, and am happy to celebrate Geraldine Largay. I believe she will indeed rest in peace precisely because she was doing what she loved. I’m saddened by Inchworm’s death, and deeply gladdened by her life.
She died doing what she loved.