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Into the Woods
As a child, he read the celebrated book 'My Side of the Mountain' over and over. Now, 50 years after its publication, he was finally ready to walk in the footsteps of the main character.

By Steve Hendrix
Sunday, October 11, 2009

This was the forest of my childhood.

These hemlocks, towering over a deep vale of the Catskill Mountains, loomed larger still over the memory of my adolescence, when I would retreat again and again to the shelter of their filigreed shade.

These endless views down wooded slopes were my delight. These hidden gorges, shrouded in shadow and cut by hustling creeks, were my refuge. The nearby college town of Delhi, where I had gorged on New York pizza before shouldering the big pack and tackling this steep ridge trail, was a place I knew intimately as an accommodating base for nature boys.

And this crystalline air, free of city noise and rich with pine, this was the wind that whispered some of my deepest longings for escape and solace.

Yes, this rough, improbably remote corner of central New York State was the beloved wilderness of my youth.

And here I was, seeing it all for the very first time.

***

I hitched rides into the Catskill Mountains. At about four o'clock a truck driver and I passed through a beautiful dark hemlock forest, and I said to him, "This is as far as I am going."

He looked all around and said, "You live here?"

"No," I said, "but I am running away from home, and this is just the kind of forest I have always dreamed I would run to."

-- Sam Gribley in "My Side of the Mountain"

What debt do we owe to the best books of our childhood?

All my previous visits to this patch of the Catskills had occurred in a bottom bunk, a red beanbag chair, the back seat of a station wagon, all the book nooks of little Americus, Ga. Best I can figure, I read "My Side of the Mountain," Jean Craighead George's classic tale of a boy who runs away to live alone in the wild, more than 25 times. The first time, it was read to me by Mrs. Rathel, a syrup-voiced Southerner who took the last 10 minutes of every language arts class to read aloud to her rapt fourth-graders. Perched on a stool beside her desk, she embedded in us, one Newbery chapter at a time, an enduring love of wonderful reads: "Where the Red Fern Grows," "The Call of the Wild," "Who Killed Cock Robin?"

And, in the winter of 1977, "My Side of the Mountain." I clung to every word as Sam fled a home that was too urban and too crowded so he could find nourishment, of all kinds, as a self-taught naturalist. After his year of catching his own food, tanning his own clothes and, finally, reconciling himself to life with an imperfect family, I only wanted more.

"That was one of my favorites," said Mrs. Rathel, long retired at 83 but still surrounded by kid-lit books at her assisted-living apartment in Americus. "My, what an adventure! You were not the only one of my students who loved that book."

"My Side of the Mountain" has been in print constantly since it was published in 1959 and took Newbery honors in 1960. It has sold nearly 9 million copies, inspired two sequels and been made into a movie. Earlier this year, Penguin published a 50th-anniversary "Pocket Guide to the Outdoors" based on the novel with new sketches by the author. I am far from the only child to be captivated by the tale of the 13-year-old who swapped a tumultuous home life for the solitude of wilderness survival. In thousands of us, Sam's mastery of nature planted the seeds of a lifelong love of camping, an appreciation for the Zen-like satisfaction of feeling at home in Earth's wild places. Many a campmate and I, over lingering coals, have traced our backcountry heritage to the common root of Sam's tidy woodcraft.

But I have always felt a fealty to this book beyond the boot it applied to my hiking pants. At 13, the age at which Sam flees his intolerable home life in the opening pages, my own mother, the divorced single parent of two young boys, got sick. There were only four months between the first baffling stomach pain and a funeral I remember mostly for the burning desire I felt to be out of the sympathetic gaze of well-meaning strangers and into the familiar seclusion of my favorite book. Nowhere during that unsettled time did I feel as comfortable as I did with Sam in the Catskills. I was side by side with him as he proved that a tweener boy could wrestle life from the grip of bleak forces and cut a solitary path through an unforgiving world.

I read it again and again.

What do we owe the most important book of our childhood?

I decided I owed mine a pilgrimage.

***

A stream is supposed to be full of food. It is the easiest place to a get a lot of food in a hurry. I needed something in a hurry, but what? I looked through the clear water and saw the tracks of mussels in the mud. I ran along the log back to shore, took off my clothes, and plunged into that icy water.

***

There was snow on the ground when I turned onto the Dry Brook Ridge Trail in Catskill State Park and started my climb. Not a lot. Just some leftover pockets from a late fall storm two days earlier. But, officially, snow.

I wasn't kidding myself: My weekend in the woods with a space-age tent, freeze-dried food and a WhisperLite backpacker's stove wouldn't be much of an analog to Sam's year, which he started with little in his pocket but a fire flint and length of string. I planned an homage, not a simulation.

Still, there was snow on the ground. And the promise of even more challenging weather to come. As the FM signal had faded in and out on my drive from Delhi to the trailhead, I caught snatches of an increasingly apocalyptic forecast: "90 percent chance of rain" ... "high winds" ... "approaching nor'easter." I turned off the radio before they got to the plague of frogs.

Like Sam Gribley, I had begun my wilderness sojourn with a stop in Delhi, about 30 miles north of the park. Delhi (pronounced DEL-high) is a pretty burg, a college town just a half-size bigger than tiny, straddling the West Branch of the Delaware River. In the 1960s, the hippie ethos covered the middle reaches of New York State (Woodstock is less than 80 miles from here). Two generations later, this is one of the shaded pockets where, like the patches of snow on my trail, small drifts of the counterculture survive, a diverting enclave of potters and coffeehouses.

But, like Sam, I only had eyes for the library. It was a dignified brick low-rise in the middle of a tree-filled block of Victorian houses. Sam came seeking information on the local wilds, and the kindly librarian was the first adult to take him seriously.

"We get letters from whole classes, from all over the world," said Cathy Johnson, the real-life Delhi librarian. "They send pictures, they come visit, they ask if Sam Gribley still lives around here."

There is a mini shrine to Sam in a corner of the children's section: a scrapbook of fan mail going back decades, news clips of "My Side" pilgrims who have come to Delhi from Texas, Germany, Australia. There is a snapshot of a girl dressed in the buckskin shirt -- just like Sam's -- that she made herself and brought on her trip from Waukesha, Wis. And a framed geological survey map features Delhi at the center and a hand-sketched dotted line leading out of town to a spot labeled "Gribley's Mountain."

This map is a fiction about a fiction. Jean George annotated it on one of her occasional readings at the Delhi library. There is no Gribley's Mountain, of course. Further, she never saw the Delhi Library or Delhi itself before making them famous. She merely plucked the town from a map as a dot of the right size more or less in the center of Sam's imagined territory: in the middle of the Catskills but not actually on public land.

"I picked that mountain, because it wasn't in Catskill Park," George had told me. "I wanted Sam to collect plants and trap and hunt with his falcon, and he would have been breaking the law to live like that in the park."

Sam settled onto a long-abandoned piece of property that had belonged to his grandfather. Even though I wasn't planning to hollow out any hemlocks or harvest any mussels or cattails, I was pretty much restricted to the park for my outing. That was no hardship; it's a majestic terrain of 700,000 acres and 98 peaks above 3,000 feet. It provides plenty of Gribley-suitable settings far from the grid.

In fact, it was less than a mile from my parking space that I rounded a bend and found myself in a spectacular grove of old-growth hemlocks much like Sam's own home base. These were the shaggy old giants of the mountain throwing dappled afternoon light down to a carpet of loam decades in the making. I was a toddler wandering through a crowd of grown-up legs, and enjoying the security of being dwarfed by kindly superiors.

Worse luck: This almost-perfect spot was just too damned close to the trailhead. For me, the appeal of backcountry camping only kicks in once you punch through the membrane that separates man's world from nature's. This was a just a 20-minute walk back to the car and, then, the 24-hour world of fast food and emergency rooms. I sat and absorbed the evergreen vibe of the place, not really needing a rest, and then saddled up and kept climbing.

I loved the idea of Sam and the feral dexterity he brought to pulling a living from the forest. But as I trooped over the browning leaves, enjoying the view but seeing no trace of anything that looked like a meal, or even a snack, I wondered how far removed was I from the Euell Gibbons ideal Sam represented. I was already hungry.

***

Autumn was well along; as I rose, the maples and birch grew barer and barer and the patches of snow grew larger. After two hours of steady hiking, I reached a long, long view to the west. At the lower elevations, some swaths of red and yellow remained, the fading notes of fall's chromatic symphony, which had reached its crescendo here two weeks earlier. In the distance, the light slanting off the waters of the Pepacton Reservoir was growing orange, a signal that evening was on the make and I'd better find a campsite.

Two miles on, I spied the tip of a hemlock poking above the surrounding trees way off to the right. On a whim, I turned off the trail and bushwhacked a few tenths of a mile until I found it, a towering granddaddy of a tree at the center of roomy clearing. I unclipped and let my pack slip with a muffled thump to spongy ground. Home.

I blew on my hands, looking around. A lot of snow here. But no sign of radio-promised storm clouds. Except for Grandpa Hemlock, the surrounding trees were bare, and I scanned the growing twilight sky through a tight scrim of branches, a postcard sunset viewed through a Brillo pad mesh. A cool day was quickly shifting to a cold evening, so I dug a fleece vest and wool cap out of my pack and got busy.

I like fussing around camp and am never as organized as when I'm living out of a backpack. Before anything else, I gathered a huge pile of branches, stacking them tight enough to fit under my backpack cover. Sam had taught me the importance of keeping a supply of dry wood at hand, and I wanted to button down my cache before the storm came.

Next, I pitched my little two-person tent on a flat mossy place, fixing the rain fly at every point and, with that high-winds warning in mind, put stones on the pegs. I collected all my food in a single duffle bag and stashed it under a log 20 yards from my tent. If a bear was going to sniff out my hot chocolate packets, better it not find them zipped up with me.

My water bottles were nearly empty, so I pulled out the leaky old filter pump I've been using for years and hiked out to the stream I'd passed a half-mile back. It was a pleasure to walk without the pack, and I found myself whistling.

I stopped and pondered. When was the last time I had whistled while doing chores? Here it was, that euphoria of the camping I had learned from Sam.

And Sam had learned it from Jean Craighead George.

***

One day at breakfast I whistled for Frightful. I had no food, she wasn't even hungry, but she came to me anyway. I was thrilled. She had learned a whistle meant "come."

***

I had spent two hours that morning with George in her cedar-shingle house of 51 years in Chappaqua, 100 miles down the Taconic Parkway from the Catskills.

"Sure," she had said when I called to invite myself over for a firsthand briefing. "You're camping? Oh, golly, I wish I were going with you!"

At 90, George doesn't spend many nights in tents anymore. She doesn't even go upstairs much. But she still writes almost every day, and goes over galleys, and answers the e-mails she gets constantly from fans of "My Side" or "Julie of the Wolves" or the 100-plus other books she has written that celebrate and explain the natural world to young readers.

"A lot of them write to tell me they want to run away like Sam did," she says after pouring coffee and settling us at a dining table covered with printer's proofs of her latest book, "The Last Polar Bear." Tocca, her African gray parrot, mutters in a nearby cage. Out the back window, the view over her writing desk is of a cheery manmade waterfall and a sloping forest. "I tell them to run away in a book. It's easier, and warmer."

The fear that Sam Gribley might be a bad role model for restless young readers almost kept "My Side" from ever being published. George said she got a call from an editor at E.P. Dutton soon after submitting the manuscript. The publisher, Elliott Macrae, loved the story, the editor said, but didn't want to sanction running away. No deal.

"I was devastated," she said. She sought relief where she always had: in the woods. A long walk in the forest behind her house provided some comfort, but not nearly as much as the message waiting for her at home. Macrae, having been reminded of his own love of the Adirondacks, had reversed himself.

Surprisingly, Sam's backwoods heritage flowed directly from George's own childhood in Washington, D.C., and the forests she had haunted along the Potomac River. Her father, an entomologist in the U.S. Forest Service, was a voracious outdoorsman. The family lived at 41st Street and Military Avenue NW but spent nearly every weekend smoking fish, foraging edibles, building lean-to's along the river at Cupid's Bower and Seneca Locks, exploring the chestnut forests that would soon die out all over the East Coast.

It's hard to imagine how wild, in the late 1930s and 1940s, was a stretch of land that is now within sight of the Capital Beltway. Wild enough for George and her two older brothers to teach themselves the art of falconry, to capture, train and hunt with raptors year after year. The twin brothers, John and Frank Craighead, would go on to write a seminal book on falconry and to become famous for their research on grizzlies and other wildlife. The Craighead Environmental Research Institute in Montana remains a leading conservation organization.

Their expressive little sister, meanwhile, studied both science and literature at Penn State and was briefly a reporter for The Washington Post in the 1940s. She went on to translate her half-wild upbringing into a oeuvre of nature writing few authors can match. Sam's wilderness skills are a mirror of her family's everyday feats: The fires he sparked with flint and steel blazed in their own camps; the shelters he rigged they slept under; the falcon he raised and hunted, Frightful, was an imagined version of George's own pet peregrine, Bad Boy.

"Bad Boy, isn't that terrible?" George says with a laugh. "I thought Frightful was a nicer way to say the same thing."

In the early 1950s, while her husband studied ecology at the University of Michigan, they lived in a tent on the outskirts of Ann Arbor. George peered into the routines of squirrels and mink and owls and typed away on a little Corona. A few years later, she married her growing understanding of nature's rhythm to the youthful joy she and her brothers had felt at navigating the wilds along the Potomac. After three weeks of writing, Sam Gribley was born.

"A child's dream is to do things well and have people believe in you," she says, fingering a turquoise bead on her necklace and gazing back, momentarily, on those sibling adventures. "I wanted kids to know they could do what Sam did. It's all possible."

***

This night I am making salt. I know that people in the early days got along without it, but I think some of these wild foods would taste better with some flavoring. I understand that hickory sticks, boiled dry, leave a salty residue. I am trying it.

***

I thought of Sam's constant foraging as I ripped the top off a boil-in-the-bag packet of Mountain House freeze-dried rice and chicken. After pouring in the hot water, I kneaded the hot foil and read the nutrition info -- sodium: 126 percent of daily requirement. Sam was boiling the salt out of hickory sticks, and the biggest wilderness risk I faced was hypertension.

It was delicious, though, after my long day. I scarfed the whole reconstituted clot right from the bag with a two-pronged fork I'd carved from a maple twig. A little bit of Gribley and a whole lot of REI.

I didn't light a fire. Campfires, as comforting as they are, are like television; your eye can look nowhere else, and the sky was too pretty tonight for that. I sat for an hour listening to the hush of the forest, the heavy breathing of a soft breeze through bare branches. In my tent, I burrowed into the downy clutches of my bag and watch my breath smoke through the beam of my headlamp.

It was getting colder. I couldn't have been cozier. What a great day.

***

The first drops of rain woke me up well before dawn, a building timpani thump on the tent wall that announced the coming downpour like a drum roll. Within minutes, it was deafening, like a billion BBs falling on the tin can that was my home. I switched on a light and saw the tent walls press in from the left, the flexible poles fighting it out with the growing wind. Here came the apocalypse.

It lasted just shy of 16 hours. Not always at full pitch, but with near constant winds and rain that spent lots of time at deluge levels and never dipped below heavy drizzle.

I had to leave the tent one time, if you know what I mean. So I combined that necessary sortie with a commando raid on my distant kitchen, grabbing my stove, a bowl and the bag of food. I went naked beneath my parka so to avoid diving back into the tent with soaking clothes.

Breakfast was instant oatmeal boiled up in the dripping confines of the tent's little vestibule overhang. Lunch was a granola bar. Otherwise, I just lay there, thankfully dry but dreadfully inert. I read "My Side" through for the 26th time but eventually went into a kind of suspended animation, confined with my mind. I wasn't whistling.

Only rarely in 177 pages did Sam express any sense of loneliness and isolation. It was always a thing I admired about him at a time when what I wanted most was a wall of hemlocks between me and the crazy world of real people. But now, alone in his woods, solitude also seems like the hardest thing to endure.

"That's one of the reasons I provided him with Frightful," George had said, looking over at her parrot. "You'd be surprised how much companionship a bird can provide."

About 3 o'clock, I had to get out, no matter the wet. Sam made his own all-weather suit from deer skins he cured himself. For me, it was polypropylene long underwear and wool socks. The rain was light, but the trail was a tricky course of rivulets and slick rocks. I counted 128 steps from the turnoff to my campsite to the first unmistakable trailside feature, a boulder shaped like a upright vacuum cleaner. Hopefully, that would keep me oriented in the homogeneous gloom.

I practically jogged up the trail ecstatic to feel my heart pumping at more than a reptile doze. It was colder up on the exposed ridge, and yesterday's views were smothered in gray mist. The ferns of summer were nearly finished here; glossy black fronds bent over the trail and dripped their short lives away. This was nature climbing into its own shelter, hunkering down for its own season of suspended animation.

The wind came in wave sets, like an ocean surf, which I leaned into as they roared up the ridge. I was enjoying this forceful side of mountain life until the tone of the storm changed suddenly to a more menacing note and seemed to take particular notice of me. The wind pulled at my parka; the rain ran in streams down my collar. The trail nearly disappeared in the black murk.

I turned to start the three miles back to camp when a gust shoved me around like a judo champ. I threw out a boot, slid on a wet boulder and went down, rolling twice down a slope and slamming my knee into a tree root.

Even as I cried out in pain and fear, I thought to myself, Sam was never hurt. This was not a lesson I learned from him. "My Side," unquestionably, bears the mark of the less graphic age in which it was written (not only is Sam never injured, he never goes to the bathroom as far as the reader can tell). I thought about this years later when I read "Into the Wild," Jon Krakauer's troubling nonfiction account of a young man's attempts to live strictly off the wilderness. In that one, the young man starves to death.

It took me a minute, but I managed to untangle and stand up. Nothing broken. The knee hurt, but it took weight, and I began the long hobble home, my boots full of water.

***

The sky was blue, blue, blue. The hemlock grove was laced with snow, the meadow was smooth and white, and the gorge was sparkling with ice. It was so beautiful and peaceful that I laughed out loud.

***

A bad day in the woods is like a bad flight: When it's over, the misery fades like a fog that never was.

In the morning, sunlight poured down through the trees. I climbed out of the tent stiff, soggy and bruised, and returned the sky's sunny smile.

It was a spectacular scene. Shafts of light pierced the canopy in a hundred places; a million prisms danced where raindrops hung from a million twigs. Soon, thanks to my pre-staged woodpile, camp smoke added to the spectral scene, along with steam from drying socks and fragrant wafts from my coffee mug.

Later, I would happily fail to catch a fish with a hand-carved fish hook baited with peanut butter. And in the vast hemlock grove down the mountain, I would sit long and still enough to see a snowshoe hare amble through the shade. And at the end of the day, 50 miles from the park, I would uncoil my tendons in the hot showers and warm bars of the Mohonk Mountain House, a old-style resort that George recommended as the place where she has been getting her woodland fixes since age led her to mothball her sleeping bag.

But nothing in that fine itinerary made me as happy as those opening hours of the day.

As the water for my oatmeal came to a boil, I was the one whistling like a kettle.

It was so beautiful and peaceful that I laughed out loud.

Steve Hendrix is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at hendrixs@washpost.com.

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