Why Humans Totally Freak Out When They Get Lost

The day after the surveyor’s gruesome discovery, Kevin Adam and his fellow wardens retrieved the remains of her camp and went through her phone records and her journal, which she had wrapped in a watertight bag, to try to piece together what had happened. They learnt that she had left the trail during the morning of July 22 a few miles from the Poplar Ridge shelter to go to the bathroom and couldn’t find her way back. Most likely she went no more than 80 paces into the woods—this was her usual practice. Disorientated in the tangle of trees and brush, she started wandering. At 11:01 am she sent a text to George: "In somm trouble. Got off trail to go to br. Now lost. Can u call AMC [Appalachian Mountain Club] to c if a trail maintainer can help me. Somewhere north of woods road. xox." Unfortunately she was in an area with no cell phone coverage, and neither this nor her subsequent texts got through. The following afternoon she tried again: "Lost since yesterday. Off trail 3 or 4 miles. Call police for what to do pls. xox." That night she pitched her tent on the highest ground she could find. She heard the spotter planes and helicopters looking for her and she did her best to be seen. She tried to light a fire. She draped her reflective emergency blanket on a tree. She waited.
On August 6, Gerry used her phone for the last time, though she kept writing in her journal for four more days. By then, she knew what was coming. She left a note for her would-be rescuers: "When you find my body please call my husband George and my daughter Kerry, 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. Please find it in your heart to mail the contents of this bag to one of them." She survived at least 19 days on her own in the wilderness before succumbing to the effects of exposure and starvation, longer than many experts believed possible. She did not know that a dog team had passed within 100 yards of her, that her campsite was only half a mile from the trail as the crow flies, or that if she had walked downhill she would have soon reached an old railroad track that would have taken her, in either direction, straight out of the woods.

To be lost is a dreadful thing. Most people are unsettled by the slightest threat of it. Fear of being lost appears to be hardwired in the human brain, as visceral as our response to snakes: Millions of years of evolution have taught us that the experience tends not to end well.

The fear runs deep in the culture. Children lost in the woods is as common a motif in modern fairy tales as in ancient mythology. Usually in fiction there is some kind of redemption: Romulus and Remus are saved by a she-wolf; Snow White is rescued by dwarfs; and even Hansel and Gretel, facing certain doom in the gingerbread house, find their way home. Reality is often more grim: During the 18th and 19th centuries, getting lost was one of the most common causes of death among the children of European settlers in the North American wilderness. "Scarcely a summer passes over the colonists in Canada without losses of children from the families of settlers occurring in the vast forests of the backwoods," the Canadian writer Susanna Moodie noted in 1852. Moodie’s sister, Catharine Parr Traill, another pioneer and writer, based her own novel Canadian Crusoes: A Tale of the Rice Lake Plains on real-life stories of children who walked into the woods and couldn’t find their way home. Canadian Crusoes is set in Ontario, a few hundred miles west of Maine, yet Traill’s depiction of the wilderness could have been written about the forest that engulfed Gerry Largay: "The utter loneliness of the path, the grotesque shadows of the trees that stretched in long array across the steep banks on either side, taking now this, now that wild and fanciful shape, awakened strange feelings of dread in the mind of these poor forlorn wanderers."