Writer I Loved
When I was ten years old, I read My Side of the Mountain, by Jean George. It changed my life. I always had a distinct yearning for solo sojourns into the wild, but I wasn’t sure exactly what those feelings were. I just figured my incessant daydreaming about adventures was simply one of the symptoms of being “slow.” Reading My Side of the Mountain put a label on it for me; it wasn’t that I had A.D.D. (possibly). I had an Adventurous Spirit, which sounded so much better.
I became driven to live in the woods by myself, using rudimentary tools and my wits. When I approached my father with the idea, he knew immediately I would be dead in two or three weeks, and after thinking it over for about a second, decided against it. I persisted, and knowing I religiously read Bill Geagan’s column in the Bangor Daily News each week; he recommended we talk it over with him. Bill and his wife Alice went to our church, and he and my Dad were acquaintances.
When my father approached Bill after Mass one Sunday and told him what I hoped to do, Bill just smiled at me and regarded me with a respectful gaze. Eventually, we agreed that it would be better if I acquired some skills first, and he recommended I attend the Penobscot County Conservation School at Branch Pond. I wanted to go, but Mom and Dad didn’t have the money to send me. After a couple of weeks, Bill called my father over after Mass and offered to sponsor me to the summer camp program. I think the arrangement made my Mom a little uncomfortable (she was raised a Baptist, and wasn’t one to accept charity).
I did go, and although I certainly didn’t win the “Camper of the Week” award, I didn’t get kicked out and sent home early, so I considered it a triumph…and I did have fun.
As I got older, I read and re-read Nature I Loved, and the sequel, The Good Trail. But it was Nature that got my juices going, and became a great influence in my life. I still read it now and again, and recently finished it before handing it over to my seventeen-year-old son, who Bill would have loved; at such a young age my boy is a crack shot with a rifle, a fly tier, a conservationist and an ambassador for fly fishing. I do hope he reads it. He did, after all, accompany me on parts of my quest — the quest to find Bill Geagan’s place in the wild.
There is a type of tourism, for lack of a better word, in which people visit the digs of famous writers, or visit the places described in the literature. It’s not unusual for people to want to go to the places that served as the settings for their favorite stories. Sometimes the readers can then feel a deeper connection to either the story or to the author. It only becomes problematic when you’re dealing with fiction. I guess that’s what I must have been doing when I set out to find Bill’s cabin site on Hermon Pond; trying to connect with the man himself, in the place that defined him.
Perhaps Bill Geagan wasn’t as famous as the Alcott’s, Hemmingway’s and Faulkner’s of the world, but he was just as important to me, and many outdoors-loving people of my generation. When I started investigating the man (so I could write an essay about the writer’s influence on me), the research became a story in itself. Originally, I thought it would be fun to find the location of Bill’s cabin, see if I might draw a little inspiration from the place and perhaps fish some of the spots the author described in his books. In the end, my quest for the place became a story about the man – his follies and his triumphs – and perhaps most importantly, his legacies.
I realized on the first day of research that the beginning of my story was a “backstory,” which did not surprise me since I rarely do anything in a straight-forward manner. I’ll explain. I needed some evidence to find the old cabin site…something real, like a map, maybe. I made notes from the first two chapters of Nature I Loved; descriptions of the canoe ride in, of the lake and the land. With a topo map and the notes of the region, I had a rough guess. I figured my first trip should be to the Hermon Historical Society. If I wanted to start at the beginning, I should find the Train Station in Hermon where Bill debarked on his own epic back in 1920. Problem was there were four train stations in the area at the time. Bill described how many miles the round trip was in the borrowed canoe, so using my campsite “rough guess” I narrowed it down to two train track crossing of the Sourdabscook Stream.
I met Rosanne Gray at the Historical Society early on Friday morning, and it was appropriate that it was in what was once the town of Hermon’s one-room school house because within minutes school was in session. I’m talking the no gum-chewing, pay attention and “raise your hand to go to the outhouse” kinda class. I was never much of a student, and I found myself trying to sit up and pay attention, just like forty years ago.
Rosanne is in her eighties, and her mind is sharper than a twenty-year-olds. (I don’t mean to compare her to today’s young people, what with the cyber dementia of many of today’s twenty-year-olds.) I’ll simply say she remembered everything from her youth in amazing detail, and she was ready for me. She brought with her town records, maps, pamphlets, and books pertinent to my research, calendars with early photographs, and her husband, who also helped. Within a few minutes, she knew precisely which train depot I was seeking. Unfortunately, it is gone and (this is the interesting part), so is the town it was in. Bill didn’t take the train to Hermon at all…he took it to the village of Hermon Pond, a quaint little burg on Hermon Pond near where the Sourdabscook Stream joins the lake (Hermon Pond is actually a lake). Rosanne showed me several maps of the little-lost community – the post office, the two stores (she knew who ran them), the dance hall, and the little train depot, which was stuck high on the bank of the stream just a short way up from the lake, just where it was supposed to be according to Nature I Loved. My new teacher showed me photographs of the old depot and gave me quite detailed directions on how to get to the site.
Now I had somewhere to start. I could find the depot site, rummage around, and maybe even find the trail down to the stream where Bill launched his canoe on his way to find his potential new home. I felt if I could find the train station site, I could get my bearings and from there find his old campsite. I was on my way.
Before starting the little expedition to retrace Bill’s steps, I needed more information. Sometimes the most enjoyable part of writing is the process; the digging, the research, the questioning, and the listening. One can learn so much from the effort. Look-up a deed, and you can uncover some interesting little piece of history. Ask somebody at a historical society where a building used to be, and you might find out there was an entire town – a community lost to history, overgrown with trees and shrubs, or paved-over to make a parking lot.
I tracked down some of Mr. Geagan’s old friends and acquaintances. Bob Leeman of Brewer, Maine knew him well, and I enjoyed several good conversations with him, as with Hal Wheeler, as well. Hal performed the reading of Bill’s classic Nature I Loved back in 1959, and his voice is just as handsome and resonating today. They both related great Geagan stories. It seemed appropriate that Bill’s old friends were all…cool, for lack of a better word.
It took some doing, but I eventually got to meet one of my “heroes” for the first time. I’ve always loved Tom Hennessey’s art and writing. I’ve read his articles for my entire adult life and gazed at his paintings and drawings for hours. I had always wanted to meet him and especially fish with him. I must say I was a bit nervous on the day I was to go to his house for a sit-down. (I should put that into context; I’ve never been enamored by celebrity. I traveled so much for two decades that I incidentally met many famous people along the way. There was a Queen, several Princes, Hollywood actors, five heads-of-state, two once-and-future Dictators and so on. In their presence, I never got all giddy, or tingly, or gushy and I always felt those people were just folks, no different from me…except probably for talent, money, good looks, or education. Except for this one guy; in New York in the eighties, I was at a public presentation a friend was giving on Arctic travel, and I got to meet (and speak, like, three words) to JFK Jr. I’m not a Democrat (or a Republican), and partisan politics didn't sway me, but that young man certainly had something.
So when I told my wife I was nervous to meet Tom Hennessy of Hampden, Maine, she was incredulous. Seeing Tom’s office and meeting him and his wife Nancy was everything it was cracked up to be. His office was very cool; a spacious room made cozy and inviting by the big overstuffed chairs, books and memorabilia everywhere and of course it was sheathed in knotty pine. It was perfect. When I sat down, I couldn’t help but look around, which I suppose is what you do when you enter the studio of a real artist. The room was a wonder of artwork and memories. There, on the farthest wall, amongst the oil paintings, retired fly rods and mounted fish was a prominently displayed portrait of Bill Geagan. It was a framed drawing Tom had done of the writer when Bill was a young man. I had seen the drawing years before, probably in the Bangor Daily News.
Tom and Nancy were kind and gracious. It seemed strange, to be talking about a long-deceased writer whom I admired greatly, with a living writer of perhaps greater renown. I was there to glean some insight into the life of Bill Geagan but found myself wanting to seize the chance to get to know Tom and Nancy better. I tried to stay on task (never easy for me) and asked the questions I thought were appropriate.
Tom praised Bill’s skill as one of Maine’s premier boxing writers. (The reader should know that the boxing scene was very important in Maine for many decades, and the state turned out many national-class fighters.) Bill had enhanced the careers of a few of the boxers who had caught his eye, promoting them through his filed write-ups.
We each revisited long-gone fishing and hunting trips in nearby areas that are now urban neighborhoods, and the luxury of growing up in greater Banger-Brewer back in the good old days. We recounted lots of funny stories. For instance, Bill Geagan had to hide any liquor from his wife, Alice (I had heard that from all his friends). Tom kept chuckling when he told me how he would hide it in the woodpile at deer camp. I could just see Bill volunteering to fetch another armload of wood every ten minutes. As the night progressed, the armloads would get smaller, and the back steps and the camp door would get a little more difficult to negotiate. “Oh, he liked his tea!” (A Maine term for whiskey.) Tom said. And as he said that, it took me back to my younger years with my Dad and my uncles; it warmed me up to hear things like that – colorful sayings you heard from the last two generations, and are getting harder and harder to come by.
The conversation with Tom was shortly after his retirement from the Bangor Daily. I could tell it was bittersweet for him; it must have been a dream job, in a time when a lot of print was dedicated to hunting and fishing in Maine, and a wide readership appreciated the pieces. The bittersweetness, I suspect, was born not simply of facing retirement, but of the changing times. I often feel that same melancholia myself, to an extent. I too sometimes feel that the world was a better place during the 1950s and the 1970s. Was it really? Most certainly, in some respects, but all things considered, I’m pretty happy to be alive right now.
It’s also understandable to long for the days of our youth, or of the bright days and happy times of long ago when things seemed easier. But for Tom, it seemed – deeper. It seemed, with the decline of the hunting and fishing outdoor culture which he grew up with, it was if he was caring for a sick loved one; one who cannot be replaced. It wasn’t like he was bummed-out or anything, but there was a moment when we both wished we could skip over to South Brewer and scare-up some rabbits, or maybe a doe, like when we were kids, but where he hunted after school is all developed now. That is just the way it goes. And it’s not peculiar only to this time…Tom recounted how Bill was once offered a job as an illustrator by Walt Disney himself – a position similar to being offered a job nowadays as an Imagineer. Bill tuned it down. He saw the recent “Bambi” movie as part of an anti-hunting production. He was a man of conviction.
I suspect other considerations led to his decision not to move away from home to accept the Disney Job. The more research I did on my old “inspiration,” reading medical records, personal papers, interviews, pouring over records at the registry of deeds and town offices, the more I realized Bill was seriously working through some issues his entire life. He was painfully shy around crowds or people he didn’t know, and he had a self-professed “nervous condition.” Reading between the lines (his own and other’s), he probably had some sort of generalized anxiety. Maybe even the part of Agoraphobia where he felt uncomfortable in crowded places. As a young man, he also had self-esteem problems. Whether it was some mild “nervousness” or simply his love of the outdoor life, he was driven to escape to the woods on Herman Pond to live free and to find himself.
There are things I learned about my childhood inspiration Bill Geagan that I’m not going to get into here; not because they are untoward or damaging in the least, but because they were intensely personal. Let’s just say he adored his Mother, Father, and Sister, but he definitely had some Daddy issues. The consternation he seemed to feel with his Father may have been no more than the normal, “You’ve got to settle down and get a real job!” Which I suppose can be tough to swallow when you’re an artist. However, Bill’s love and dedication to his Father never wavered, nor did his faith, which speaks of his convictions; Bill was a devout Catholic and was raised in a time when respect and honor were taught to everyone.
My son and daughter accompanied me on the quest for the lost city of Hermon Pond. It would be a lot like the search for the Lost City of the Incas – Macchu Pichu…only without the cloud forests, altitude sickness, and dysentery. Well, at least the cloud forest and altitude sickness.
Five minutes’ drive from downtown Hermon and we were at the location of the long-gone town. It wasn’t hard to find the old train depot. The tracks are still there, and they still looked active. Nowadays, the station is just a hole in the ground with the foundation caved-in. We rummaged around for a while, and my son turned over a pile of debris and found what looked like the remains of the old telegraph machine, complete with the two keys and copper windings. It could have been something else, but for us, it added a personal, human touch to the scene…but we might have felt the same if we found the old outhouse.
Bill described in his book Nature I Loved the path behind the depot station that led down to the stream. From there he canoed to the lake and down the lake to the old cabin that he would make his home for two years. The path was still there, overgrown a bit, but still obvious. Standing on the stream bank, it was easy to imagine the small man loading his dunnage and his two dogs into the canoe he had borrowed from the depot station agent, and sliding it into the lazy, slow-moving Sourdabscook.
It was May when we visited the old train station depot, and it was May 1921 when Bill first journeyed to his future cabin. Just as the young man described then, the chickadees were calling, the nuthatches and robins were flittering about, and robins, hopping and then freezing still, listening to the ground, hoping to find a grub or a worm. The buds were out on the trees, except the alders, which were already dressed-out in leaves. It wasn’t hard to imagine the twenty-two-year-old, excited and feeling free – having slipped the bonds of his parent’s house, full of life and questions, and angst.
We poked around the shoreline of the stream where there certainly could have been an old boat landing, while I tried to place myself in an earlier time. Occasionally it works.
We made our way to the lake’s shore, and I tried to envision where the cabin had stood so long ago. When I spoke with his friends on earlier occasions, there were differing opinions of where it had been. One said near where the stream from Ben Annis Pond entered the lake, but the terrain didn’t fit the descriptions in Bill’s book. I decided to find out for myself. I don’t think you can glean something from a place if you’re not actually at the place. So I was off to the Registry of Deeds in Bangor.
I learned long ago, when you dig into the past you must be prepared to learn about the past. Sometimes that does not simply mean scholarship, but rather a personal education that you didn’t want to know. Not the case with this particular research, but I do believe my eyebrows were raised a couple of times. (I’m bald, so it’s pretty noticeable when my eyebrows rise.) For instance, in Nature I Loved, Bill negotiated a price for the old cabin with “a man in town who wanted to sell an old log cabin,” and how his parents “agreed it sounded like a bargain if the cabin and other things were in any condition at all.” The account of how Bill found the cabin is fun and interesting, but what I found out was somewhat different. I was there at the Registry because I needed to know exactly where the cabin was, now how it came to be Bill’s. But the simple truth is, the old fellow who built the cabin, John Fowler of Hampden, had died years earlier, and Bill’s Dad had purchased the cabin from the man’s widow (Grace Fowler) for the sum of seventy-five dollars, five years before Bill moved to the lake. Oh well, that would have been boring, and I think difficult to write about interestingly.
The important thing I got from the Registry was the lot number for the campsite and description, and a map of the land parcels on the lake dated 1925. I tried to figure out the longitude and latitude of Bill’s lot on my topo map, but I wasn’t convinced of the accuracy, so I stopped in on my friend and neighbor, Oscar Emerson who owns Down to Earth Surveying in Bradley, Maine to pick his brain. Oscar is a map guy, and although he was busy, he dove in and had my map out, his maps out, and two computer monitors going. In minutes he was jotting down the GPS coordinates for me with the assurance, “It may not be within inches of the old foundation, but you’ll be able to spit into it.” (I was off hundreds of feet by my own calculations.) Back to the lake, it was.
I had already done the original trip down the lake as described in the book when Bill first looked at the cabin, so this time I wanted to make it more of a “fishing trip of discovery,” as I described it to my son and daughter and my boy’s girlfriend. On this trip, we made our way upstream, from a boat landing not far from Interstate 95. Just to make it interesting, we used my 1937 Old Town Rangely canvased boat. Using a hand-held GPS, it didn’t take long to find the spot – not far from where the Sourdabscook leaves the lake on its way to Hammond Pond. This time, the terrain was exactly how Bill described it; except now, the cabin is gone, and there is a manufactured home on the camp lot. Fortunately, the current home is not directly on the old cabin site.
No one was home at the time, so I started poking around. In less than a minute, the coordinates Oscar had given me plunked my feet on the edge of a slight depression. I looked around and saw an old, rusted can. Then I noticed another and another, and then some rotted boards with square nails sticking out – or what was left of them. There was what remained of an old fifty-five-gallon barrel, and what looked like some old bed or couch springs.
In the middle of the depression was another, smaller sunken area. A root cellar, maybe? I knew the book well enough that I remembered his description of a small cellar. There was a mound of rotten logs piled off to one side, and I used a heavy stick to move them around while glancing down the dirt road – hoping the homeowners wouldn’t arrive. I was off in the woods a bit from their house and dooryard, but still, I would have to explain why I was digging around in some old trash in the woods. They never showed.
The logs looked like beams, and whatever they were, they were hand-hewn. On the opposite side of the larger depression, was a very distinct pile of rocks. Fieldstones, they were, and some were quite burned. They were clearly part of some type of hearth, but quite possibly they were what were left of Bill’s old fireplace, having long ago toppled over and came to a final rest.
I was convinced I had found it. The only thing left to clinch it for me would be to find the little spring in the woods behind the cabin. In spite of the mosquitos eating me alive, I took some time to survey my surroundings. The manufactured home disappeared, the log cabin sprung from the earth, and the tired fieldstone fireplace collected itself and stood erect again. I picture Bill’s two hunting dogs tethered to the big spruce tree just up from the shoreline, staring out onto the water. I looked out myself, and saw Bill, standing in his old guide canoe which was patched together with adhesive tape and spruce gum, casting a fly along the shore. He wasn’t far from the cabin, and he didn’t seem to care if he caught anything or not.
The mosquitos were getting worse, and I walked back behind what I was now sure was the old cabin site. I walked to the left first, about fifty yards, and then cut to my right and paralleled the shoreline. It was obvious; a tiny bubbling spring, cool and clear; a perennial reminder that some things in nature do remain the same in an ever-changing world. That was it for me. I was there.
I almost made my way back to the boat where the kids were waiting, but instead returned to the depression in the woods and walked up to a large maple tree growing almost from the foundation. I braved the sucking bugs long enough to take out my jackknife and carve the initials, BG. I carved it on the side of the tree not visible from the current home.
The mosquitos don’t typically bother me much. I suppose I’ve gotten used to them from so much exposure over the years, with all those fishing trips up untold brooks as a kid, and the years trekking in various jungles – heck, I’ve even had malaria. But that day they did bother me a little, probably because they were distracting me. Maybe I had hoped for some rhapsodic, metaphysical moment when I found Bill’s cabin, but the blood-suckers were keeping that from me. Or maybe, that kind of crap doesn’t happen. I don’t know…but I do know it was still pretty cool, and that looking out over the lake from the same spot Bill did so many times for those years he was living there, I knew that I could live there, alone in an old log cabin on the lake, no problem. (Although the reader should know, in my youth I once lived in a Chevy van for over a year in Wyoming, including the winter – on purpose.)
We eventually fished our way back to the boat landing, catching small bass and pickerel close to shore. They may have been descendants of the same fish Bill caught and released ninety years earlier. We also caught some crappie, which were not present back then – probably in Hermon Pond by some mindless bucket stocker, but still, they were pretty fish.
Bill didn’t publish his first book, Nature I Loved until he was in his fifties, more than twenty-five years after he lived alone on the lake. He made a modest living as a newspaperman and became a very well-known naturalist. His Associated Press column, “On the Trail” appeared in newspapers throughout the nation for fifteen years. In the 1950’s he appeared on a Bangor television station in the program, “Along the Trail,” a medium he never got comfortable. Bill for years had a great following of countless young outdoors people. All the while, Bill and Alice lived simply in a small apartment on Ohio Street in Bangor. They never had children, but when Bill’s sister Helen (his only sibling) was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of thirty-eight, he and Alice helped raise her son. Bill didn’t write to get rich. In fact, he didn’t do anything to get rich; Nature I Loved sold about 6000 copies in the first two years. At a royalty rate of 12.5%, he made about $2,040.00; not bad for 1952, but to quote Bill, “Money, fame, and power aren’t everything in this world. Many men of only very moderate success who live in comparative obscurity, but who enjoy what they are doing, are very often the happiest.” That was Bill – honest and true.
Bill died in November 1974. I was a sophomore in high school, and for a year I watched his health deteriorate, the trip up the aisle and back during Mass every Sunday at St. Mary’s church got more difficult as the weeks went by – Alice in her kerchief helping him near the end. True to his unassuming way, his official obituary in the Bangor Daily News was only fifty-seven words long. A short time later, friend Bob Leeman a nice, heartfelt piece about Bill in the Bangor Daily in his “Needles from the Pine” column – the name of which was inspired by Bill years earlier. Every writer who has written about Bill tells of how he was buried with a sprig of pine needles in his hand because that is too cool not to.
Alice struggled after Bill’s passing. She remained in the tiny apartment on Ohio Street with the help of a kindly home health nurse. She eventually died at Bangor Mental Health Institute after years of insults from Alzheimer’s disease. Sad indeed.
In my research, I stumbled onto two things; one was a couple of copies of an unpublished, unedited manuscript of a lightly veiled autobiography, one typed by Bill, the other written in his own hand. It wasn’t finished, but it was classic Geagan. The other was an eight-by-ten glossy of Bill and Alice, sitting in lawn chairs at the shores of Branch Pond, watching the awards ceremony at the Penobscot County Conservation Association’s Junior Conservation Camp. The same camp Bill had sponsored me to. Alice was in her omnipresent kerchief; Bill had his omnipresent pipe in his mouth. It was two and a half months before he died. The look on his face was one of content while he watched all the young people interacting with the camp instructors and staff. Content, I hope that he had taken the good trail in life.
Bill lived his life his way, close to nature, often by himself and only through his writings and his example did he influence many people along the way. He influenced us quietly, and simply, and profoundly. He still does.
I went back to Hermon Pond a couple more times last summer, specifically finding places that Bill described in his books to fish and explore. Time has changed a lot of the landscape and changed me (I’ve grown up…and out), but the same streams, brooks, and meadows are there. He went there in the 1920s to find himself – I went there to find him, but what I found was that he had always been right where I left him…in the pages of Nature I Loved, and in his words of encouragement, and his kindness.