It is a vivid memory of seeing my Grandfather Pitts for what seemed like the first time. He is sitting at the gray Formica kitchen table drinking coffee. He is making jokes – not that unusual for him because beneath his worn exterior he had buried a sense of humor. It is hidden somewhere under a large pile of the past. It is hidden under a failed marriage. It is beneath the loss of a wife to cancer. It is obscured by a layer of years working in a mill with hard bitten people who had a pecking order you didn’t want to be at the bottom of at any time. If you were at the bottom once you were at the bottom forever. And bottom is miserable.
The reason I am “seeing” him for the first time is because he has never been lost before. He is an expert woodsman, from a long line of people the census records listed as “day laborer”. What this meant was that they lived a life dependent on their skill in finding their way around the mountains and streams, lakes and treacherous blow downs that are part of the Adirondack Mountains. When my grandmother was dying she had treatment in Boston which required extended stays in the hospital. This was the “failed marriage” wife – it was the only wife, but that’s another layer to unpack another time. They didn’t divorce but they probably should have. I believe he really loved her but he was also a difficult man to live with. Today someone in the same situation would simply say, “It’s complicated.” And it was. He would take the bus to Boston to see her on the weekend after a week in the mill. And he had a change of clothes and a compass in his pocket. And armed with that and legs that carried him over more mountains and down more trails in his 70+ years than I can imagine, he found the hospital. He navigated Boston with that compass and an unerring sense of direction.
But for over 30 hours beginning yesterday morning he was lost in the woods. That isn’t scary unless you’ve been in the deep woods at night. And the temp dropped below freezing at night. And as he sat at the table making jokes (“The Indians say ‘Indian not lost. Tepee lost'”. Then he would laugh and slap his knee) and drinking coffee he begins telling how he thought he was on one range of mountains with which he was quite familiar but had become “turned around” and found himself on a range that was not familiar. And night began to fall. And since he worked up a head of steam because he traveled fast all day long, he had left his red plaid wool hunting coat in the car, as was his habit. He had long johns, wool hunting pants and wool shirt. But no overcoat as the temperature began to plummet. He knew he had to keep going. So he walked. As daylight was lost he slowed down. There weren’t any trails, he was “bushwhacking”. Some of these mountains have steep drop-offs – almost a cliff but not quite. The lines on the topographic map of these mountains have places where the lines are so close you can’t define the separation between them. It is those close lines that are the drop-offs. Soon it was impossible to see and necessary to keep moving. So he described how he carefully removed the clip from his Savage Arms 32-20 rifle, then unchambered the final round. This rifle became his “walking stick”. He crooked his thumb to show me how he had curled his fingers around the barrel and put his thumb over the muzzle. And all night long he walked. Twice by his own admission the use of the rifle to feel his way along kept him from going over one of those cliffs. And he walked.
In the morning light he found some spruce gum and nuts from a beech tree to stave off the hunger pains. His coffee and sandwiches from yesterday were long gone. Then he found a creek and reasoned that following it would eventually lead him to a road. The State Police had been searching all night but they were unaware of where exactly he had gotten lost.
And he walked. Sometime around mid-day of picking his way gingerly along the creek he could hear cars in the distance on a paved road, that unique hum that carries in the crisp cold air. And he kept walking. Once he reached the road – not a super highway mind you but more than a logging road because it was oiled gravel – he turned east and hoped it was the right direction.
Late in the afternoon we got the call from the State Police that he had been found and was in good shape. And now he was sitting here and I was seeing him for the first time. As an adult. As a man not afraid of a challenge or an adventure.
Maybe this is when I began asking questions. I asked him what he learned and what he felt when he heard the cars.
“I learned that you have hope long before you’re actually found.”
I reflect on his affirmation that it was the tepee that was lost and not the Indian, and I think he was passing on wisdom to me that I was slow to grasp. Now I know that the first step in finding home is getting lost.