Family plans memorial service in honor of hiker
“No qualms,” Kerry Bauchiero said laughing. “She had no qualms about hiking the trail.”
Kerry is talking about her mother.
Three weeks ago, 66-year-old Geraldine “Gerry” Largay went missing near Wyman Township in Maine while hiking the Appalachian Trail. What seems like a short span of time has been an eternity for her family in their search to recover a beloved wife, mother, sister and friend.
Back from Maine, Kerry sits in a Nashville hotel office with her father George, husband Ryan and two family friends, David Fox and Andrew Maraniss.
At this point, they recognize that time is not in Gerry’s favor, but all five are collected and calm as they reflect on who Gerry was and resolve to look forward – which in many ways, was what her hike was all about.
What makes Gerry’s disappearance so difficult to contend with is that it simply doesn’t make sense. An experienced hiker who planned meticulously, Gerry was prepared.
When she first set out on the trail this spring, her husband George wasn’t consumed with worry, because Gerry wasn’t.
Cutting through 14 states at just under 2,200 miles, the Appalachian Trail is a hike of monumental proportions, but both Largays were seasoned hikers, a hobby they took up seriously in 1998, George said.
He described his wife’s preparation, which took a year and a half, as thorough, intense and exhaustive, but necessary to “minimize surprises” along the trail.
Gerry read seven books on hiking the trail, and took a course at the Appalachian Trail Institute in east Tennessee with director Warren Doyle, who hiked the AT 16 times.
|Geraldine "Gerry" Largay in her hiking gear|
She hiked 200 miles through Georgia and North Carolina to practice, simulating the experience with George. She met with several renowned thru-hikers, like Jennifer Pharr Davis, who holds the record for speed-hiking the trail in 46 days.
She had gazetteers for reference and Excel spreadsheets to plan her hike down to the infinitesimal detail.
“One time while we were still living in Atlanta, she was figuring out what to put in her backpack, and she had a scale that weighed things in grams. It was over the top, but that’s Gerry. Over the top,” George said.
Gerry’s son-in-law, Ryan Bauchiero, added, “Nerves set in when you’re unprepared. I was absolutely against this because of the worry factor. When I started asking questions, ‘Is it safe? What about animals?’ Gerry could automatically spout out an answer. So you thought, she’s got it, she can do this.”
While a combination of her level of research and “determination and sparkle” quelled most of George’s concerns, he ultimately stood behind Gerry’s decision to hike the AT from start to finish simply because she was his wife.
“My concerns were probably less than some of her friends’. They thought [the hike] bordered on crazy. But when you’ve been lucky enough to be happily married 42 years, and there’s something she really wants to do, your job is to support it, not critique it. I wasn’t going to deny her something she wanted to do,” George said.
“I genuinely can’t recall in the 45 years that I knew her a time she asked for something that was about her. She had supported my career for over 40 years. Hiking the Appalachian Trail and sleeping in tents and wearing the same stuff for three and four days in the rain – not on my bucket list. But she needed to be supported on the hike, because she had limits on what she could carry, so I simply had to say, ‘OK, suck it up. What’s six months in the grand scheme of things?’ So I did it.”
George and Gerry lived in the Nashville area for many years until about 2000 when George’s job in marketing with ADT Automotive took them to Atlanta, where they lived for more than 10 years. When Gerry was ready to hit the trail, they sold the house in Atlanta and locked up their belongings in storage, except for what they would need for the next two and a half months for Gerry’s hike.
In the time just before leaving for West Virginia, the Largays stayed in Brentwood with Kerry, Ryan and their two children.
Gerry and her close friend, Jane Lee, set out from Harpers Ferry, WV, on April 23. Gerry had planned to walk solo, but her friend accompanied her for nine weeks until a family emergency in late June called Lee back home.
The last three weeks of hiking Gerry did by herself.
“Gerry was fine with hiking alone. She felt good about it, and in Maine, we found those to be some of the best, if not the best, blazed trails,” George said.
Once Gerry began walking alone, George would often hike into the trail with her part of the way in the mornings, or hike in to meet her at the end of the day whenever he would bring her supplies.
|A close-up view of the search area|
Communication protocol was in place, but at the mercy of cell reception. Gerry would text George every couple hours at mile points, and they would determine the next day’s route the night before.
In these weeks, Kerry would call her dad and ask about her mother, how she was doing, if she was hiking only for the sake of accomplishing a goal. But George would say, “She can’t get enough of it. Every morning is like Christmas Day out there for her.”
When friends and family describe Gerry, they paint an image of a woman who was irrevocably positive and always looking toward something new.
She loved her husband, kids and grandkids. She loved hiking and quilting, and as George talked about her, the reverence for his wife is plain.
“I knew her reputation as a nurse before I knew her as a person. It was always about other people. It was never about Gerry. It was always about you. She was the best listener I’ve ever met. Very caring. She loved life. We’d kid that she put the ‘joie’ in ‘joie de vivre,’” George said.
“She was tons of fun to be around. I’m probably the typical guy – just give me the remote and the game on – but she would search for new horizons.”
As AT hikers do, Gerry had a trail name, “Inchworm,” which she christened herself with the knowledge that at her age, the hike would take time.
“Like an inchworm, the idea was to always move forward, like the tortoise and the hare. Slow and steady, and we’ll get there,” George said.
His trail name is “Sherpa,” like the Himalayan mountaineers commonly known for guiding early explorers as they trekked Mount Everest. It’s a befitting moniker, given his role to support Gerry as she hiked.
George and Gerry met in 1968 at Travis Air Force Base northeast of San Francisco. She was a nurse, he an administrative officer. They worked on the same floor.
After a month of unsuccessfully trying to meet her “accidentally on purpose,” George employed the help of a mutual doctor friend.
“I told him my frustration in terms of the ‘accidentally on purpose’ that hadn’t happened. I got a clipboard and pad like we were discussing something official, and the plan was we’d walk down, and he’d introduce me when she popped out of a patient’s room. We’d start talking, and if things were going well, the doctor friend would fade into the wallpaper. If they weren’t going well, he was my rescue plan,” George said.
“He faded into the wallpaper.”
In March 1969, George went to Vietnam, returning a year later to the day. In that time, Gerry sent George 357 letters – one each day save for the week they spent together in Hawaii for R&R.
“That was kind of the lifeline. We’d dated five months at that point, and it could have gone any other way. There was a pilot in the Air Force who had a Corvette, and I knew I had a little competition, but we sensed we had something special [laughs],” George said, recalling the precise date of his and Gerry’s first date: Oct. 5, 1968.
He proposed Oct. 5, 1970, and they married April 17, 1971.
The last time George saw Gerry was Sunday, July 21, at a road crossing off Route 4, south of Rangeley, Maine. He hiked in with her around 7:15 a.m. – Gerry liked to be on the trail by 7 – and they planned to meet again at Wyman Township in western Maine, likely by Tuesday evening.
“It was a gorgeous day. She couldn’t have been happier. She had a great night’s sleep. We’d stayed at a motel the night before, had a great meal, and I walked in with her for about an hour and 45 minutes,” George said.
Early Monday morning, George received a text from Gerry saying she was headed north along the trail.
By Tuesday night, Gerry hadn’t shown up. George said he wasn’t immediately concerned. It had rained heavily that day until about 4 p.m., and he assumed she had stayed at one of the trail shelters until the rain stopped.
That night, George slept in their Toyota Highlander in the trail parking lot where Gerry was to meet him; in case she turned up, he said, he wanted to be there.
By late morning on Wednesday, July 24, when it had been 48 hours with no word from Gerry, George connected with police. By Thursday, a search team led by Maine Warden Service was out looking.
George said he doesn’t recall his last conversation with Gerry in great detail; he assumed he would see her two and a half days later. He does know he told her what he always told her when leaving her on the trail: to be safe, and she responded, as always, that she would text when she could.
About 10 friends and family came to be with George, Kerry and her husband while they were in Maine, including George and Gerry’s son Ryan, who lives in California; Gerry’s sister Anita; Gerry’s hiking friends and George’s best friend from Atlanta.
While in Maine, Ryan said the biggest role for friends and family was to put a face to Gerry’s name, to make her real to those searching for her on volunteered time.
At the peak of the search, 130 were out looking for Gerry, including ATVs, a helicopter, K-9 units and Maine Warden Service. As days passed, worry and frustration mounted in the searchers as well as those close to Gerry.
|Equipment used in the search for Gerry Largay|
“They’re used to finding people who get lost,” George said. “This just doesn’t happen.”
In fact, according to Maine Warden Service’s 2011-2012 Search and Rescue Report, 98 percent of hikers reported missing between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2012 were found within 24 hours. Gerry just happens to be the 2 percent.
“All we did the whole time was speculate and go through every possible scenario,” Kerry said. “The truth is, at the end of the day, none of them makes sense. And that’s the hardest part. If something had happened to her on the trail, she would have known to stay put, and someone would have found her. Clearly something other than that happened.”
Now, the search has been significantly scaled back, though rescuers continue to look. Last Saturday, searchers took K-9 units out, Ryan said, and will do so again Wednesday.
“[The game wardens] made it clear there was nothing else we could do there. They said we had to go home and be with family and friends. When you spend every waking moment together in this type of situation, you learn to trust them fast,” Ryan said.
He is convinced that Gerry will eventually be found in some capacity.
For the time being, George is staying with Kerry, Ryan and their two children at their Brentwood home, where Kerry said everyone is trying to take it one day at a time.
“We would love some closure, for sure. But we have to rely on the family and our faith. It’s strange. I keep calling it our ‘new normal.’ No one can tell us what the next step is, because no one we know has been through this,” she said.
George said he relies on faith, of which Gerry had plenty, and also finds solace in the fact that his wife was exactly where she wanted to be on the trail.
“When I think, ‘Why?’ I just say to myself, ‘What would Gerry say or think? What would she be doing?’ She would focus on getting on with life and helping others. I try to focus a lot on the glass half full versus the half empty,” George said.
If they do look back, it’s only to look at something good.
Kerry said her most prominent memories of her mother are family vacations, particularly camping.
“It was just always a fun adventure. It was outdoorsy. Camping or cross-country skiing, and playing family games at night. No one wanted to be on mom’s team for Monopoly, because she always ended up owing a lot of money [laughs].”
She continued, “It was nothing materialistic. Just being together. It didn’t matter where. We took road trips everywhere, playing license plate bingo. She’s the heart of the family.”
As much as her own children, Gerry loved her three grandkids, Tommy, Callie and now Juliet, Ryan Largay’s new daughter. Gerry was the type of grandmother to draw treasure maps and hide them around the house, or pretend the tree limb was a racehorse, Kerry said.
Gerry clearly lived for her family and gave everything to them, and they attest to that fact. But Gerry’s last gift was her first to herself. That was to hike the Appalachian Trail in its entirety, and she was in the home stretch.
“Gerry always did things she loved. But even the things she loved, she did for other people. She loved to quilt, and she made one for our daughter and son when they were born. She made quilts for soldiers returning home. She loved doing it, but there was always somebody else in mind, which made the Appalachian Trail so much fun for everybody to observe,” Ryan said.
“It was finally something that said, ‘I want to do this for me.’ You’re relieved to hear somebody say that when you’ve known them to do things for other people for so long.”
George is happy Gerry was where she wanted to be, and said that whenever he begins to ask “Why?” he remembers that Gerry’s focus would not be on the “why,” but the “where.” Where do they go from here? The answer to that is a process, but George does know what he would say to his wife if he could see her now.
“If I could see her now, it would be one of two things. If she came walking out of the woods in Toronto, I would say, ‘Where have you been so long? You need to know how many people were looking for you,’” he said.
“If I next see her in heaven, I’m glad she’ll be able to put in a good word for me to help improve the odds of joining her, and I would thank her for having been the love of my life, having given me the best 45 years of my life. She was everything. She meant everything to me. Still does.”
memorial service is being planned for Gerry.
The public memorial service will be held at St. Brigid Catholic Church in John's Creek, Georgia outside of Atlanta on Saturday, Oct. 12 at 10 a.m. The church is located at 3400 Old Alabama Road in John's Creek, GA 30022. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Gerry Largay's honor to either the Nature Conservancy, an organization long near and dear to Gerry, and the Maine Association of Search and Rescue, which has led the search efforts that have meant so much to the Largay family.
To donate to the Nature Conservancy, visit nature.org and click on the "donate" button. Select "Memorial and Tribute Giving" in the dropdown menu, then click on "Make a Memorial Gift" and follow the prompts to enter information. Note "Gerry Largay, Brentwood, Tenn." in the "Person to be Remembered" field. You can also donate over the phone by calling (800) 628-6860 and mention "in honor of Gerry Largay, fund No. 3233563." You can also mail a check to The Nature Conservancy, P.O. Box 6014, Albert Lea, MN 56007. Note "in honor of Gerry Largay, fund No. 3233563" in the subject line.
To donate to the Main Association of Search and Rescue, mail a check to Maine Association for Search and Rescue, c/o Jim Bridge, Secretary, 14 Pasture Way, Brunswick, ME 04011. Note "In honor of Gerry Largay" in the subject line.
Jessica Pace covers Williamson County, Williamson County Schools and Nolensville for BrentWord Communications. Contact her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @Jess_Marie_Pace.