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Home Among the Trees

You can’t tell anyone where we are… is this clear?

The deal was I could share my discovery and describe what I saw in detail, but I was forbidden to supplement my dissertation with photos or video. Nor could I divulge — or even hint at — their general location. This deal was done on a handshake. A grimy but firm and trustworthy handshake. One that meant something. They had to trust me, or kill me, not that the latter was out of the question. But they were a good lot, it seemed, cautious at first, but kind folk once they warmed to my presence. The encounter was a bit of a shock… to both of us. Finding them was dumb luck. A pure accident. I was bushwhacking as I am known to sometimes do, quite a ways off the beaten path this time, and there they were. Well, here’s my story…

It Began with a Chance Encounter

It was a beautiful day early on in the winter of 2021. It was part sun and clouds, cold, but not too bad, and there were light winds out of the west with an occasional stronger gust. The snow wasn’t yet too deep for easy backcountry travel. I had been at it for a few hours, enjoying my day, hiking in a valley somewhere within the White Mountain National Forest (that’s all I can say). The first unusual thing I noted was the smell of smoke. But I couldn’t see any. The air was clear. And there was something else. A smell, or smells, lingering under the smell of a campfire. Part of the odor was a wild, fat or musky smell, maybe earthy is the word, and another part of it was an off-putting stench. Like body odor. I didn’t see anything, though, then the breeze shifted or settled and the smell went away. Before long the whole thing went out of my thoughts and I was back to following a bearing through the woods, happily enjoying my day.

I went on for another ten minutes or so, tramping through the forest, and then there it was again. Bam. A cocktail of odors with smokey overtones — stronger than ever — and now I could smell blood or something visceral mixed in or added as a new layer. I looked around, still not seeing anything in particular to clue me in. I swiveled all the way around scanning a full 360-degrees, and more as I continued looking for the source unconvinced I wouldn’t see it. The smell was that strong. As I panned from north to east making my second rotation, I noted movement to the north in the periphery of my left eye. I snapped back to that direction quickly, but there was nothing. Nothing, that is, until a twig snapped. Still, however, there was no movement. I cautiously walked in the direction of the sound. The smells still strong in the air. Getting stronger, perhaps. My heart was speeding up. I approached a couple of blowdowns, a tangle of roots and branches nestled among the hobblebush. I peered over the trunk of one of the trees, trying to see if something was there. And much to my surprise, there was: A little girl!

The girl was maybe 8 years old with a dirty face and bright green eyes, clutching a dirty, worn, awful looking toy stuffed animal, maybe a dog or bunny. It was so nasty you couldn’t really tell. Only later would I learn it was a koala bear. She had straggly, lifeless blond hair. On her head was an obviously home knit wool hat. She also wore a long wool coat which was slightly oversized and came down almost to her knees. On her legs she wore snow pants with a spun synthetic insulation. Probably polypropylene. I know this because I could see it; she had holes in the outer material, some of which were covered with failing silver duct tape. On her hands she wore wool mittens similar to the ones made by the lady in Vermont, you know, the ones Bernie Sanders wore during the Presidential inauguration. And lastly on her feet were dirty pink rubber boots with some sort of animals printed on them. They looked sort of like whales.

The girl shied away from me but remained silent. I spoke softly, hoping to reassure her and not frighten her:

“I won’t hurt you,” I said, but she didn’t reply.

“Are you lost?” I asked. “Is your mom and dad around? Are you okay? Do you need any water?” I sort of bombarded her with questions. Still, though, there was nothing from the little girl.

“Please talk to me,” I pleaded with her.

She began to cry, tears streaking down her dirty face, and I felt terrible. I tried to make reassuring gestures, though I felt pretty useless. I was far out in the woods. In winter! I didn’t expect to see anyone, not even the hardcore hikers working on their winter lists. Let alone a crying little girl. A smelly crying little girl, I suddenly realized as a breeze carried her to me. She smelled of smoke and of all the things I mentioned. Aside from the strange rubber boots, she was like a little thru-hiker, maybe one that got all her gear from her grandmother or from a second-hand store. It dawned on me at that point that she was possibly homeless. It still didn’t competely explain why the hell she was way out here in the woods where I found her, but the rest of the pieces seemed to fit.

“I’m so sorry,” I told her, then added “I just want to help.”

“MOOOMMY,” she yelled, finally speaking, then repeating it, drawing the word out even further: “MOOOOOOOOOOOMMY!”

I was feeling frantic at this point and backed away from her even further. I didn’t know what to do, but apparently her mother was out here with her, that much was clear, since the girl had called out for her. Somewhere, anyway. Or so I hoped. I wondered if her mother was hurt, or worse. Were they lost? Homeless? I had so many questions running through my head. The girl stopped yelling and now just cried softly. I scanned the woods again, this time hoping to see an adult, a member of this little girl’s family. Even an older brother or sister would do, but there was no one. The wind began to blow. I shivered, realizing I was cooling down. The girl seemed fine. Again I spoke.

“Are you cold?” I asked, even though she clearly wasn’t, and added that I had more layers if she needed them.

The girl stopped crying, looked up, her eyes meeting mine then her gaze continuing on past me, over my right shoulder as I knelt on the ground, and that’s when I heard a woman say: “She’s fine.”

Before I could turn around to see whose voice it was she added, “Rebecca, come to me. Come here Becky.”

I completed my turn in time to see that she was motioning with her arm to Rebecca — or Becky — that she give me a wide berth. I realized at this moment that I was between a mother and her child. A stranger. I thought of black bears, and they’re fine, I’m not afraid of them, but this sent chills up my spine making me feel even colder. I shuddered briefly.

The woman calling to her child was probably in her late 30s, maybe 40. A pretty woman with no makeup, the same hair as her daughter, and also like her daughter she was dirty, her bedraggled attire stained, torn, and beyond well used. She also wore a home knit wool hat, and I realized the two matched. Almost. The woman wore no coat but had a thick sweater under which she had appeared to be wearing several dresses, all layered, which stopped a foot short of the ground. On her feet were what looked like Army boots, an old insult running through my head as I see them — your mother wears Army boots. On her mom’s right hand was a wrap of ace bandages. Maybe for an injury, or maybe for warmth. I couldn’t see the mother’s other hand, but then I realized she may very well have her hand on a weapon. I will never know the answer to this.

The little girl was now next to her mother, having taken a detour around me to get to her. The girl, silent, just looked at me with her vivid eyes. Her mother’s arm pulled her close to her, the girl leaning her head into her mom’s waist. Secure at last.

“You can’t tell anyone you saw us,” the mother said to me, then added: “We’re fine.”

I asked, “Are you lost?” To which she shook her head no.

I added, “Are you okay?” and to that she nodded.

“Covid-19,” she said. “It hit us bad. Not the disease, we avoided that by coming up here, but everything else about it. Money and stuff. We didn’t make it — my restaurant…” she trailed off, looking away, her eyes getting moist.

“Coming up here?” I asked, repeating the words she had used.

“Yes,” she said, “we came up from Homestead, Florida in September and have been up here ever since.”

“By ‘up here’ you mean up here, in the middle of the woods?!” I asked, astonished.

“Yes,” she replied. “Up here in the woods of New Hampshire. Lovely state, by the way.”

It was a strange encounter, to be sure. And I thought that would be it, as odd as that seems. She would go her way with her daughter, pink rubber boots and all, and I would continue on mine. I began to stand up and fully turn toward her. I was going to ask if she was sure she didn’t need any help but I paused. She eyed me and her features seemed to relax. I come across in a friendly manner so animals, kids, and even protective mothers are usually at ease with me. I guess she was no different. She spoke again, but it wasn’t a good bye. She might have had second thoughts about sending me off. She may have realized that this was a rare opportunity.

“My name is Angela” she said, “and maybe you can help us,” she added. I suddenly noticed a sad desperation in her also-green eyes.

Becky looked up at her mother and asked very quietly: “Can we go back to camp, mommy?”

“Will you promise to not tell anyone we’re out here?” she asked again, looking directly at me, almost scowling, and ignoring Becky’s question for the moment. I nodded my head vigorously.

“Of course,” I added, still unsure of what I was about to be shown.

“Please follow us,” Angela instructed. “I am going to bring you to the others.” I nodded, curious, and followed the pair.

Taken to a Village in the Forest

We hiked at a bearing perpendicular to my own for about 18 minutes. I kept track of the time, noted my elevation, and counted my paces as I wanted to stay oriented. We trudged through the snow into an area thick with fir and spruce trees. The smell I noted from Becky — which was shared by Angela — was strong in the air now. I could now see a low smoke in the trees. Not a lot of smoke, but clearly someone had a fire going nearby. Maybe from what looked like a clearing coming up ahead. Their camp, I thought. Focused on seeing ahead I was startled when a male voice boomed from behind me.

“Who the hell is he?!” asked the voice as we all swung around to see.

“Becky wandered off like she does and found this man in the woods,” Angela explained. “He asked if he could help. I said no at first… but, then I thought… well, you know…”

“Well what? What do I know?” he interrupted, though softening his tone a bit.

“The medicine,” she replied. “I thought maybe he could help us get the medicine we need for little Louis.”

The man considered this. I watched him furrow his dirty brow in thought. He looked at Angela, then down at Becky who was still by her mother’s side, then he looked over my way. He, too, wore a home knit woolen hat like the others. I realized that Angela, or a someone, probably made them all. His long, messy hair was dark brown and he had a full beard. Like the others he wore clothing that had seen better days years ago. An inappropriate-for-hiking dungaree coat, one of those with the sheep’s fleece lining. Under this it appeared he had a chambray work shirt and other layers on. His pants looked like Dickies or Carhartts, or one of those with the hammer loop on the side of the leg. On his hands he wore battered leather gloves and on his feet he wore Crocs with socks, with plastic bags over the socks to keep his feet dry. I hoped this was his camp wear, but I was seriously starting to wonder. This was all pretty surreal.

“You can’t tell anyone where we are… is this clear?” He asked but didn’t wait for my answer. It showed in my eyes — and I meant it — just as his threat had shown in his, and how he meant it as well.

“My name is Carlos,” he informed me, then asked: “And you are?”

“Mike,” I told him.

“Becky’s younger brother, Louis — he’s four — is ill and we need medicine,” he told me. “Mike,” he added and looked directly at me.

“If I am able to get the medicine you need, I will help.” I told him.

“Please follow me,” he said. And began to walk toward the clearing beyond the trees. Becky ran off ahead, and Angela followed close behind her. “Wait for me, Beck. You’ve done enough running away for today.”

Once in the clearing I quickly realized that “camp” was more like a makeshift village. And Carlos, Angela, Becky, and Louis were not the only ones living here. They were but one family among many, I was stunned and it took me a few minutes just to take it all in. There were several “homes,” structures ranging from stick-built bushcraft-style cottages like one might imagine the Three Little Pigs living in to elaborate but grimy Wal-Mart tents, even a small teepee and rough looking quinzee made of snow.

There were four fires that I could see at various points throughout camp. People were curious, looking my way like they haven’t see a soul since September and were beginning to come out of hiding. One person approached and asked that I put on a mask. I pulled up my neck gaiter to comply with his request. I had momentarily forgotten all about the coronavirus.

People got back to work doing all sorts of bushcrafty things, making stuff, reviving some lost arts. I noted meat drying on racks, plus deer, moose, pine marten, and other animal pelts being stretched, dried, or tanned. The person who asked me to don the mask was the apparent leader of the village and once he came over Carlos took off with Angela and Becky. I didn’t see them again that day.

The leader was a retired doctor, also from south Florida. And also dirty, worn, and disheveled like the others, though perhaps less so. Every one in sight seemed rather healthy, and happy, despite their rough appearances and their smells. Living outside for months had worn them down, but they didn’t break, and now, despite the cold New Hampshire winters (even at a higher elevation), these people were thriving. They learned to live off the land and to be completely self-sufficient. Just like it was back in the day.

I learned of their plight, their struggle, and their escape. We spoke for a while before I had to leave to beat night fall and get out safely. They are living on public land, but doing so illegally, and they know it, hence the secrecy. Yet, even with the state’s forested areas being so small relatively speaking, these people have managed to persist undiscovered for quite the time. To thrive, even. I’m impressed. In awe.

Fast Forward a Few Months

They’re still there. Still undiscovered. Still thriving. I found them their medicine, and Louis is now fine. They’re all fine. I did bring them a few other items I knew they could use and I have visited them four times now since. I am considered a friend of the village and we all know each other’s names. I still bring a few items when I visit, all luxuries like flour for bread or pre-made iron goods, but they have learned to do without a lot of things we deem essential here in our time zone — or they make their own.

I fear they will be caught once summer comes, but through the winter they were fine. I was careful to approach them by different directions each time I returned trying to help them maintain their privacy. These folks all had something in common and that was that their lives were turned upside down by the pandemic. But then they showed the true strength possessed by humans, the true resilience. I admire these people.

I was allowed to write about this, but they ask that you don’t try to find them. To leave it, and them, alone. They realized they don’t need any more help and don’t want it. I showed up at the right time, in the right place, and now have a second family in the forest. But there is no room for more. They hope to stay, if they don’t get caught. And, honestly, they’re an inspiration. I’m rooting for them. I hope you, dear reader, will respect their wishes and allow them the joy of living their own existence in peace. As a model for us all.

Please note that this piece was published on April 1st and is indeed, FAKE NEWS. Thanks for the fun.

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