Authors: Jean Craighead George
Terribly unhappy in his family's crowded New York City apartment, Sam Gribley runs away to the solitude and danger of the mountains, where he finds a side of himself he never knew.
Jean Craighead George
Jean Craighead George was born in a family of naturalists. She attended Penn State University, graduating with a degree in Science and Literature. In the 1940s she was a reporter for The Washington Post and a member of the White House Press Corps. She has written over 100 books. Of these, Julie of the Wolves won the Newbery Medal in l973, and My Side of the Mountain was a 1960 Newbery Honor Book. She has received more than 20 other awards. She lives in Chappaqua, NewYork and has three grown children – her sons Craig and Luke are now environmental scientists, and her daughter Twig writes books for children. Ms. George presented the Third Annual Charlotte Zolotow Lecture on Wednesday, September 27, 2000.
I Hole Up in a Snowstorm
I am on my mountain in a tree home that people have passed without ever knowing that I am here. The house is a hemlock tree six feet in diameter, and must be as old as the mountain itself. I came upon it last summer and dug and burned it out until I made a snug cave in the tree that I now call home.
“My bed is on the right as you enter, and is made of ash slats and covered with deerskin. On the left is a small fireplace about knee high. It is of clay and stones. It has a chimney that leads the smoke out through a knothole. I chipped out three other knotholes to let fresh air in. The air coming in is bitter cold. It must be below zero outside, and yet I can sit here inside my tree and write with bare hands. The fire is small, too. It doesn’t take much fire to warm this tree room.
“It is the fourth of December, I think. It may be the fifth. I am not sure because I have not recently counted the notches in the aspen pole that is my calendar. I have been just too busy gathering nuts and berries, smoking venison, fish, and small game to keep up with the exact date.
“The lamp I am writing by is deer fat poured into a turtle shell with a strip of my old city trousers for a wick.
“It snowed all day yesterday and today. I have not been outside since the storm began, and I am bored for the first time since I ran away from home eight months ago to live on the land.
“I am well and healthy. The food is good. Sometimes I eat turtle soup, and I know how to make acorn pancakes. I keep my supplies in the wall of the tree in wooden pockets that I chopped myself.
“Every time I have looked at those pockets during the last two days, I have felt just like a squirrel, which reminds me: I didn’t see a squirrel one whole day before that storm began. I guess they are holed up and eating their stored nuts, too.
“I wonder if The Baron, that’s the wild weasel who lives behind the big boulder to the north of my tree, is also denned up. Well, anyway, I think the storm is dying down because the tree is not crying so much. When the wind really blows, the whole tree moans right down to the roots, which is where I am.
“Tomorrow I hope The Baron and I can tunnel out into the sunlight. I wonder if I should dig the snow. But that would mean I would have to put it somewhere, and the only place to put it is in my nice snug tree. Maybe I can pack it with my hands as I go. I’ve always dug into the snow from the top, never up from under.
“The Baron must dig up from under the snow. I wonder where he puts what he digs? Well, I guess I’ll know in the morning.”
When I wrote that last winter, I was scared and thought maybe I’d never get out of my tree. I had been scared for two days—ever since the first blizzard hit the Catskill Mountains. When I came up to the sunlight, which I did by simply poking my head into the soft snow and standing up, I laughed at my dark fears.
Everything was white, clean, shining, and beautiful. 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. I guess I laughed because my first snowstorm was over and it had not been so terrible after all.
Then I shouted, “I did it!” My voice never got very far. It was hushed by the tons of snow.
I looked for signs from The Baron Weasel. His footsteps were all over the boulder, also slides where he had played. He must have been up for hours, enjoying the new snow.
Inspired by his fun, I poked my head into my tree and whistled. Frightful, my trained falcon, flew to my fist, and we jumped and slid down the mountain, making big holes and trenches as we went. It was good to be whistling and carefree again, because I was sure scared by the coming of that storm.
I had been working since May, learning how to make a fire with flint and steel, finding what plants I could eat, how to trap animals and catch fish—all this so that when the curtain of blizzard struck the Catskills, I could crawl inside my tree and be comfortably warm and have plenty to eat.
During the summer and fall I had thought about the coming of winter. However, on that third day of December when the sky blackened, the temperature dropped, and the first flakes swirled around me. I must admit that I wanted to run back to New York. Even the first night that I spent out in the woods, when I couldn’t get the fire started, was not as frightening as the snowstorm that gathered behind the gorge and mushroomed up over my mountain.
I was smoking three trout. It was nine o’clock in the morning. I was busy keeping the flames low so they would not leap up and burn the fish. As I worked, it occurred to me that it was awfully dark for that hour of the morning. Frightful was leashed to her tree stub. She seemed restless and pulled at her tethers. Then I realized that the forest was dead quiet. Even the woodpeckers that had been tapping around me all morning were silent. The squirrels were nowhere to be seen. The juncos and chickadees and nuthatches were gone. I looked to see what The Baron Weasel was doing. He was not around. I looked up.
From my tree you can see the gorge beyond the meadow. White water pours between the black wet boulders and cascades into the valley below. The water that day was as dark as the rocks. Only the sound told me it was still falling. Above the darkness stood another darkness. The clouds of winter, black and fearsome. They looked as wild as the winds that were bringing them. I grew sick with fright. I knew I had enough food. I knew everything was going to be perfectly all right. But knowing that didn’t help. I was scared. I stamped out the fire and pocketed the fish.
I tried to whistle for Frightful, but couldn’t purse my shaking lips tight enough to get out anything but pfffff. So I grabbed her by the hide straps that are attached to her legs and we dove through the deerskin door into my room in the tree.
I put Frightful on the bedpost, and curled up in a ball on the bed. I thought about New York and the noise and the lights and how a snowstorm always seemed very friendly there. I thought about our apartment, too. At that moment it seemed bright and lighted and warm. I had to keep saying to myself: There were eleven of us in it! Dad, Mother, four sisters, four brothers, and me. And not one of us liked it, except perhaps little Nina, who was too young to know. Dad didn’t like it even a little bit. He had been a sailor once, but when I was born, he gave up the sea and worked on the docks in New York. Dad didn’t like the land. He liked the sea, wet and big and endless.
Sometimes he would tell me about Great-grandfather Gribley, who owned land in the Catskill Mountains and felled the trees and built a home and plowed the land—only to discover that he wanted to be a sailor. The farm failed, and Great-grandfather Gribley went to sea.
As I lay with my face buried in the sweet greasy smell of my deerskin, I could hear Dad’s voice saying, “That land is still in the family’s name. Somewhere in the Catskills is an old beech with the name Gribley carved on it. It marks the northern boundary of Gribley’s folly—the land is no place for a Gribley.”
“The land is no place for a Gribley,” I said. “The land is no place for a Gribley, and here I am three hundred feet from the beech with Gribley carved on it.”
I fell asleep at that point, and when I awoke I was hungry. I cracked some walnuts, got down the acorn flour I had pounded, with a bit of ash to remove the bite, reached out the door for a little snow, and stirred up some acorn pancakes. I cooked them on a top of a tin can, and as I ate them, smothered with blueberry jam, I knew that the land was just the place for a Gribley.
I Get Started on This Venture
I left New York in May. I had a penknife, a ball of cord, an ax, and $40, which I had saved from selling magazine subscriptions. I also had some flint and steel which I had bought at a Chinese store in the city. The man in the store had showed me how to use it. He had also given me a little purse to put it in, and some tinder to catch the sparks. He had told me that if I ran out of tinder, I should burn cloth, and use the charred ashes.
I thanked him and said, “This is the kind of thing I am not going to forget.”
On the train north to the Catskills I unwrapped my flint and steel and practiced hitting them together to make sparks. On the wrapping paper I made these notes.
“A hard brisk strike is best. Remember to hold the steel in the left hand and the flint in the right, and hit the steel with the flint.
“The trouble is the sparks go every which way.”
And that was the trouble. I did not get a fire going that night, and as I mentioned, this was a scary experience.
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. I think I’ll camp here tonight.” I hopped out of the cab.
“Hey, boy,” the driver shouted. “Are you serious?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Well, now, ain’t that sumpin’? You know, when I was your age, I did the same thing. Only thing was, I was a farm boy and ran to the city, and you’re a city boy running to the woods. I was scared of the city—do you think you’ll be scared of the woods?”
“Heck, no!” I shouted loudly.’
As I marched into the cool shadowy woods, I heard the driver call to me, “I’ll be back in the morning, if you want to ride home.”
He laughed. Everybody laughed at me. Even Dad. I told Dad that I was going to run away to Great-grandfather Gribley’s land. He had roared with laughter and told me about the time he had run away from home. He got on a boat headed for Singapore, but when the whistle blew for departure, he was down the gangplank and home in bed before anyone knew he was gone. Then he told me, “Sure, go try it. Every boy should try it.”
I must have walked a mile into the woods until I found a stream. It was a clear athletic stream that rushed and ran and jumped and splashed. Ferns grew along its bank, and its rocks were upholstered with moss.
I sat down, smelled the piney air, and took out my penknife. I cut off a green twig and began to whittle. I have always been good at whittling. I carved a ship once that my teacher exhibited for parents’ night at school.
First I whittled an angle on one end of the twig. Then I cut a smaller twig and sharpened it to a point. I whittled an angle on that twig, and bound the two angles face to face with a strip of green bark. It was supposed to be a fishhook.
According to a book on how to survive on the land that I read in the New York Public Library, this was the way to make your own hooks. I then dug for worms. I had hardly chopped the moss away with my ax before I hit frost. It had not occurred to me that there would be frost in the ground in May, but then, I had not been on a mountain before.
This did worry me, because I was depending on fish to keep me alive until I got to my great-grandfather’s mountain, where I was going to make traps and catch game.
I looked into the stream to see what else I could eat, and as I did, my hand knocked a rotten log apart. I remembered about old logs and all the sleeping stages of insects that are in it. I chopped away until I found a cold white grub.
I swiftly tied a string to my hook, put the grub on, and walked up the stream looking for a good place to fish. All the manuals I had read were very emphatic about where fish lived, and so I had memorized this: “In streams, fish usually congregate in pools and deep calm water. The heads of riffles, small rapids, the tail of a pool, eddies below rocks or logs, deep undercut banks, in the shade of overhanging bushes—all are very likely places to fish.”
This stream did not seem to have any calm water, and I must have walked a thousand miles before I found a pool by a deep undercut bank in the shade of overhanging bushes. Actually, it wasn’t that far, it just seemed that way because as I went looking and finding nothing, I was sure I was going to starve to death.
I squatted on this bank and dropped in my line. I did so want to catch a fish. One fish would set me upon my way, because I had read how much you can learn from one fish. By examining the contents of its stomach you can find what the other fish are eating or you can use the internal organs as bait.
The grub went down to the bottom of the stream. It swirled around and hung still. Suddenly the string came to life, and rode back and forth and around in a circle. I pulled with a powerful jerk. The hook came apart, and whatever I had went circling back to its bed.
Well, that almost made me cry. My bait was gone, my hook was broken, and I was getting cold, frightened, and mad. I whittled another hook, but this time I cheated and used string to wind it together instead of bark. I walked back to the log and luckily found another grub. I hurried to the pool, and I flipped a trout out of the water before I knew I had a bite.
The fish flopped, and I threw my whole body over it. I could not bear to think of it flopping itself back into the stream.
I cleaned it like I had seen the man at the fish market do, examined its stomach, and found it empty. This horrified me. What I didn’t know was that an empty stomach means the fish are hungry and will cat about anything. However, I thought at the time that I was a goner. Sadly, I put some of the internal organs on my hook, and before I could get my line to the bottom I had another bite. I lost that one, but got the next one. I stopped when I had five nice little trout and looked around for a place to build a camp and make a fire.
It wasn’t hard to find a pretty spot along that stream. I selected a place beside a mossy rock in a circle of hemlocks.
I decided to make a bed before I cooked. I cut off some boughs for a mattress, then I leaned some dead limbs against the boulder and covered them with hemlock limbs. This made a kind of tent. I crawled in, lay down, and felt alone and secret and very excited.
But ah, the rest of this story! I was on the northeast side of the mountain. It grew dark and cold early. Seeing the shadows slide down on me, I frantically ran around gathering firewood. This is about the only thing I did right from that moment until dawn, because I remembered that the driest wood in a forest is the dead limbs that are still on the trees, and I gathered an enormous pile of them. That pile must still be there, for I never got a fire going.
I got sparks, sparks, sparks. I even hit the tinder with the sparks. The tinder burned all right, but that was as far as I got. I blew on it, I breathed on it, I cupped it in my hands, but no sooner did I add twigs than the whole thing went black.
Then it got too dark to see. I clicked steel and flint together, even though I couldn’t see the tinder. Finally, I gave up and crawled into my hemlock tent, hungry, cold, and miserable.
I can talk about that first night now, although it is still embarrassing to me because I was so stupid, and scared, that I hate to admit it.
I had made my hemlock bed right in the stream valley where the wind drained down from the cold mountaintop. It might have been all right if I had made it on the other side of the boulder, but I didn’t. I was right on the main highway of the cold winds as they tore down upon the valley below. I didn’t have enough hemlock boughs under me, and before I had my head down, my stomach was cold and damp. I took some boughs off the roof and stuffed them under me, and then my shoulders were cold. I curled up in a ball and was almost asleep when a whippoorwill called. If you have ever been within forty feet of a whippoorwill, you will understand why I couldn’t even shut my eyes. They are deafening!
Well, anyway, the whole night went like that. I don’t think I slept fifteen minutes, and I was so scared and tired that my throat was dry. I wanted a drink but didn’t dare go near the stream for fear of making a misstep and falling in and getting wet. So I sat tight, and shivered and shook—and now I am able to say—I cried a little tiny bit.
Fortunately, the sun has a wonderfully glorious habit of rising every morning. When the sky lightened, when the birds awoke, I knew I would never again see anything so splendid as the round red sun coming up over the earth.
I was immediately cheered, and set out directly for the highway. Somehow, I thought that if I was a little nearer the road, everything would be all right.
I climbed a hill and stopped. There was a house. A house warm and cozy, with smoke coming out the chimney and lights in the windows, and only a hundred feet from my torture camp.
Without considering my pride, I ran down the hill and banged on the door. A nice old man answered. I told him everything in one long sentence, and then said, “And so, can I cook my fish here, because I haven’t eaten in years.”
He chuckled, stroked his whiskery face, and took the fish. He had them cooking in a pan before I knew what his name was.
When I asked him, he said Bill something, but I never heard his last name because I fell asleep in his rocking chair that was pulled up beside his big hot glorious wood stove in the kitchen.
I ate the fish some hours later, also some bread, jelly, oatmeal, and cream. Then he said to me, “Sam Gribley, if you are going to run off and live in the woods, you better learn how to make a fire. Come with me.”
We spent the afternoon practicing. I penciled these notes on the back of a scrap of paper, so I wouldn’t forget.
“When the tinder glows, keep blowing and add fine dry needles one by one—and keep blowing, steadily, lightly, and evenly. Add one inch dry twigs to the needles and then give her a good big handful of small dry stuff. Keep blowing.”