She was 200 miles from her goal, the rocky Maine mountain that marks the northern end of the Appalachian Trail. She had been in touch with her husband just that morning. She had said a cheery hello to other hikers, who snapped her photo before she turned toward the peaks rising in the distance.

And then?

Geraldine “Gerry” Largay vanished on July 23. No one knows what happened to the former Peachtree Corners, Ga., resident.

News of her disappearance has rippled through metro Atlanta communities where Gerry was a constant, smiling presence — prompted questions, too. Did she fall off a cliff? Did someone attack her?

George Largay figures he may never again see his wife — not alive, anyway. He’s learning to refer to her in the past tense.

“She was absolutely where she wanted to be,” Largay, 69, said last week. “She was absolutely doing what she wanted to do.”

Meanwhile, police keep searching for the lost hiker as summer wanes and the nights grow longer. They know the odds against finding her alive grow ever longer, too. They’ve combed hills on foot, sent helicopters thudding skyward, followed dogs trained to sniff the faintest scent. Word about the missing grandmother has gone up and down the 2,200-mile trail that cuts a diagonal from Georgia to Maine.

The mountains where Largay was last seen are steep, thick with forests. What happened to Gerry Largay may be a secret known only to the trees and the wind, the rocks and the water.

‘Meet in the middle’

Two years ago, Gerry surprised her husband. She wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail.

George thought about it. In four decades of marriage, she had followed him in his career of automobile sales and marketing. Since 2001, they had lived in Peachtree Corners, where the couple celebrated his retirement in 2010. He owed her the hike.

It would not be a mere stroll in the woods. The Appalachian Trail — the AT — begins in Georgia at Mount Springer and winds through 14 states. Its northern terminus is in Maine at Mount Katahdin, rocky and windswept, rising a mile above sea level. Three-quarters of the AT’s hikers don’t complete the trek. Gerry resolved to be in the minority who do.

With her husband, she hiked 200 miles in the Georgia and North Carolina mountains, training for harder trails ahead. She took a course at the Appalachian Trail Institute. She sought the advice of a woman who holds the record for hiking the trail in 46 days. She read seven AT books. In all, she spent 18 months in logistics and training, even weighing her food to determine how much she should carry. George was her constant, bemused fellow planner.

“Hiking [the trail] was not on my bucket list,” George said. “But when you’ve been happily married for 42 years you sort of meet in the middle” and compromise.

George, not a camper, agreed to be the fellow she’d meet at prearranged spots to provide her with more food — and, every few days, with a hotel room where Gerry could take a bath and sleep on a mattress. He adopted a trail nickname, “Sherpa,” to describe his role as the support guy in her trek. She also took a hiking nickname, “Inchworm.” She was slow and steady.

Gerry decided to make the northern trek first, leaving from the trail’s midway point at Harper’s Ferry, W.Va. That would put her ahead of hordes who started from Mount Springer. Gerry hoped to reach Mount Katahdin by late July or early August. She’d then return to Harper’s Ferry and hike toward Georgia, taking advantage of the milder Southern weather as temperatures dropped in Northern states. Gerry planned to finish by mid- to late November.

In January, they sold their house and moved to Nashville, where the Largays had lived before and where their daughter Kerry Bauchiero has a home. From there, they made final plans.

Those plans went into effect April 22, when George took his wife to Harper’s Ferry. Joining them was Jane Lee, a friend from Alpharetta, Ga. She planned to make the trek, too.

The two women left the next morning. It was 38 degrees at sunrise. The two walked down a small street, trailing vapor clouds, and entered the trail. Their adventure had begun.

“She was on cloud nine,” recalled Lee, who shared a love of canasta and hiking with Gerry. “Finally, we were walking on the AT!”

As the two walked, Gerry took note of her surroundings. She shared her thoughts with friends in periodic emails she wrote with a laptop George supplied when they stopped for the night.

In an April 26 entry, she sounded a gloomy note about the dead woodlands they encountered after entering Pennsylvania.

“We later found out that insects have been the main cause; the emerald ash borer has wiped out the ash, the woolly adelgid has wiped out the hemlocks, and the gypsy moth has done a number on the oaks,” she wrote. “Heart breaking.”

Gerry shook her malaise the next day when she summed up their first four days on the trail: “A grand beginning!”

One morning, Gerry paused to admire the rising sun. Its beams sliced the night mist as cleanly as a blade cuts paper.

“Come on, Gerry, we have to go!” Lee said.

Gerry didn’t move. “Look!” she said. “Look how beautiful it is!”

They covered nearly 800 miles until a family emergency forced Lee to give up the trek. On June 30 they parted in New Hampshire, both weeping.

“I don’t want to leave you,” Lee said.

“Jane, I’m a big girl now. I’m going on this hike with or without you,” Gerry replied. “I’ll be fine.”

Lee received a text from Gerry on July 19. “JANE I JUST CROSSED OVER THE STATE LINE OF MAINE,” the excited hiker wrote. “WISH U WERE HERE.”

Four days later, Gerry was gone.

Few lost

It’s not unusual for hikers to take a wrong turn on the AT, but nearly every hiker is found. A report last year from the Maine Warden Service concluded that 98 percent of lost hikers were found within 24 hours. The service is still searching for Gerry, but has scaled back its scope. It takes three hours to hike in to the area where officials think she went missing. Crews searched for her Thursday, but found nothing.

Officials have not ruled out the possibility that she met with violence, but say the odds are better that she got lost, with fatal results.

“We’ve had a handful of cases” of lost hikers, said Cpl. John McDonald, a public information officer for the warden service. “This could well be one of those instances.”

That’s a hard truth, and George struggles with it. When she didn’t meet him at a prearranged spot on July 23, he didn’t worry about it. Surely the rain had slowed her. He spent the night in their Toyota Highlander, confident she’d join him the next day. When she did not, he contacted police.

He and his son Ryan joined the early search for Gerry, only to follow the advice of Maine officials: Go home, they said. He’s back in Nashville, planning to attend a memorial for his wife next month at St. Brigid Catholic Church in Alpharetta, which they regularly attended while living in the metro area.

He has memories that won’t let go. At Gettysburg, he surprised his wife with a couple of hiking shirts that wick moisture from the skin. One was blazing pink, and it fit. She wriggled into it, and George knew: He had scored some major husband points.

“Her expression said it all,” said George.

These days, George is, suddenly, someone without a plan, talking in the past tense.

“We always figured that I’d be the first to go,” he said. “It didn’t work out the way we figured.”

Distributed by MCT Information Services