A whodunit where the “who” turns out to be nature and decisions could be anti-climactic. The title and an Author’s Note at the beginning of the book foretell the tragic ending in When You Find My Body: The Disappearance of Geraldine Largay on the Appalachian Trail, by D. Dauphinee (DownEast Books 2019), but the story in between remains taut and meaningful. Geraldine Largay, a sixty-six year old Appalachian Trail (AT) hiker, trail name “Inchworm,” disappeared in July 2013 on a section of the AT in western Maine, and despite a wide search, her remains were found inside a sleeping bag by surveyors in October 2015, less than eight hundred yards from the AT.
As Largay cannot bear witness anymore (besides e-mails, text messages, and notes from the hike), Dauphinee largely focuses on the searchers from the Maine Warden Service and other agencies, the friends, and the fellow hikers to tell Largay’s story. The misinformation, inaccurate tips, and rumors are seen in split-screen with the actual timeline created from digital and physical artifacts of Largay. As Dauphinee concludes at the end of a chapter, “The behavior of lost people is a challenging study.”
Woven throughout the narrative on Largay’s disappearance is a broader examination of the AT’s history, its lore, terminology, and culture, and the reasons each hiker has for tackling all or part of the trail. Dauphinee also devotes a fair amount of time to the concepts of Search And Rescue and the mindset of the lost person. The irony that Largay became disoriented and eventually died on lands used for training by the U.S. Navy Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) school could have been played up for effect, and indeed, Dauphinee references sensational Bollard news articles which insinuated that this Navy “torture school” was responsible for Largay’s disappearance, and other theories about prescription drugs. But this conspiracy-type thinking is quickly neutralized by Dauphinee’s interviews and interactions, including with a retired SERE instructor who participated in the search, and who was emotionally affected by the failed effort. Dauphinee eventually returns with the SERE instructor for a somber visit to the site at which Largay’s remains were found. Dauphinee’s book ends with an epilogue in which he discusses the practical lessons that may be learned from Largay’s tragedy.
It is the mark of good writing that, even when the end is never in doubt, the reader still feels compelled to turn each page, to explore the broader story. In this case, human nature and years of evolution make it a story that sticks with us beyond the closing of the book, a survival lesson learned. And the care taken by Daupinee to be respectful, to make the kind, gregarious Largay more than a statistic, builds a character that the reader roots for, even knowing the outcome.
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