A summer or two ago, I was standing in line for some food in my small central Maine town when a tourist – I’m not making assumptions, sometimes you can just tell – asked me where she could find a public bathroom. I suggested the porta-potty at the local country store, or the one at the other end of Main Street by the church parking lot.
She was appalled and maybe even a little disgusted. And kind of disdainful.
Sorry, lady. Maine.
When you live here, you learn to accept the lack of facilities, lack of cell service (there are even places in my house I can’t get it), issues related to remoteness – like no open restaurants or bars, or even lack of food or gas stations if you go too far off the track. There’s a hope that if people come up to take advantage of the beauty our state has to offer and stray away from the lobsters and lighthouses, they’ll know that too and be prepared.
As Dylan sang, “If you don’t believe there’s a price for this sweet paradise, just remind me to show you the scars.” He wasn’t singing about Maine, but you get the picture. Nothing this good doesn’t come with some hurt.
Most times, the result is that people who misjudge just how remote or rustic things are in Maine are inconvenienced.
But sometimes it’s worse.
That hit home last week when the Maine Warden Service released it’s 1,500-page sad and tragic report on the disappearance of Geraldine Largay. Largay, 66, disappeared on the Appalachian Trail in western Maine in July 2013. Her remains were found in October 2015, about two miles off the trail in a restricted military area. At the time, the warden service didn’t say much about the circumstances and the focus was on how sad and tragic it was that in one of the most extensive searches in the state’s history, one that had gone on in various forms until she was found by someone who wasn’t looking for her at all, she succumbed to hunger and thirst and died waiting for someone to find her.
The report is even more – here are those words again – sad and tragic. As the media, including the newspaper I’m city editor of, the Morning Sentinel, started digging through the case file, the details were sobering. She’d wandered off the trail July 21, 2013, about three hours after texting her husband, who was meeting her two days later where the trail crossed Route 27. When she realized she was lost, she texted him again saying she was lost and asking for help, but he never got it because there was no cell service where she was. She tried again, many times, but none of those texts reached him.
Largay kept a journal with a final entry Aug. 6 asking that her family be notified when her body was found, and a possibly later entry, though the warden service says that date is in question.
As we looked further into the case file at the Morning Sentinel, the tragedy became even more chilling. Buried in all that other information was the fact that Largay didn’t know how to use a compass.
Largay, of Tennessee, had started hiking the second half of the trail in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. She’d gone about 950 miles and had less than 200 to go. A friend had accompanied her, but had to leave as they finished the trail in New Hampshire. And Largay was alone.
When she was lost, again when her remains were found and again after the news from the report began making headlines last week, the warden service and her family said she was an experienced hiker. But her friend, in the report, also said she had increasingly become more disoriented on the trail and was prone to panic. She didn’t like being alone and didn’t like the dark. She’d been prescribed anti-anxiety medication, but no one knew if she’d been carrying with her or was able to renew the prescription.
She’d had a SPOT device – a GPS that can be used instead of a compass – but according to the report had left it behind in a hotel. She had a compass, but according to the report, didn’t know how to use it.
Her husband was meeting her at checkpoints every few days and they were relying on texting to keep in touch.
Yes, Largay was experienced – she’d hiked hundreds of miles on the Appalachian Trail, had taken a course before her hike, had hiked before. But she was entering what’s considered the most challenging part of the trail. A place she couldn’t expect to get cell service. A place where the woods can eat up a person in minutes. A place where some of the most experienced searchers in the world couldn’t find her, despite coming as close as 100 yards of her resting place with a dog tracking team.
She was alone. She was prone to getting disoriented. She didn’t know how to use a compass.
The Morning Sentinel has written numerous stories, including the ones on Largay, where locals stress how many underestimate Maine – its remoteness, its wildness. Many of the conveniences we rely on in other places just don’t work or help here.
There’s a kind of joke among Maine mystery writers that despite the fact the state has one of the lowest crime rates in the country – we get about 20 to 25 homicides a year – we certainly kill off a lot of people in our books. I was just thinking about that yesterday, as we reported on the state’s sixth homicide of the year, a fatal shooting in Wilton, also in Franklin County south of where Largay got lost. I think between Cold Hard News and its soon-to-be released sequel, No News is Bad News, I’ve killed off that many people in less than a year. In one town with a population of about 2,000.
What we forget is that the biggest threat to life in Maine is Maine itself. This doesn’t mean the state and its wilderness is evil or bad – English and philosophy majors will recall the school of Naturalism, the belief that nature is in charge and what it says goes. Free will? It’s a joke. We have no control. It’s indifferent to puny humans and we think we can conquer it at our own risk. At least that’s how I remember it. Writers including Edith Wharton, John Steinbeck and Stephen Crane were big believers. One of the biggest was the great Jack London, whose “To Build a Fire” is Largayesque in its tragedy.
None of this is a knock on Geraldine Largay or her family or the warden service.
But please remember this if you’re going for a day hike, even in the lobster and lighthouse district, or out in the wilderness, in Maine, or anywhere:
She got off the trail and became disoriented. She didn’t know how to use a compass. Her cellphone didn’t work.
The people most qualified to find her couldn’t as she lay dying from lack of food and water in her tent about two miles off the trail in Franklin County, Maine.
Maureen will be one of the featured authors at Maine Author Day at the Guilford, Maine, Memorial Library, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturday, June 11. Come on by and say hi! Books will be available for sale and signing.
Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series and city editor of the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, Maine. Follow her on Twitter: @mmmilliken47, on Facebook: Maureen Milliken mysteries, and sign up for web updates or find out about her latest book at maureenmilliken.com.