My Side of the Mountain begins with a diary entry by Sam Gribley, which he writes while he is holed up inside a tree in the Catskill Mountains during a blizzard. He claims that he is snug and safe. When the entry ends, a slightly older Sam explains that before that blizzard arrived he worked for months building his house in the tree, learning to make fires, collecting stores of food, and so on. When winter arrived he had plenty of supplies, but he was still scared. Luckily he stayed safe and warm through the storm. When it was over, he knew he had made the right choice when he ran away from his crowded New York apartment to live in the woods.
At this point in the story, the focus shifts back to the beginning of Sam’s experience. It is May when he leaves New York with “a penknife, a ball of chord, an ax, and $40” as well as a flint and steel for making fires. He has told his father that he plans to find his great-grandfather’s farm in the Catskill Mountains and live there. His father says that every boy should try some such adventure at least once in his life. He wishes Sam good luck but clearly expects him to be home by morning.
Sam rides trains and hitchhikes to the mountains, ending his day’s journey in a dense wood that looks just like the wilderness home he has imagined. He manages to catch some fish, but he cannot get a fire going. He spends a cold, hungry night under the trees. In the morning he finds a house and asks the man who lives there to cook up his fish. The man hears Sam’s plans and helps him learn to make a fire. Like Sam’s father, however, the man clearly thinks Sam will give up his grand plan in a day or two.
With a full belly and an ability to make fires, Sam hitchhikes to the town of Delhi and asks the librarian, Miss Turner, to help him figure out where the Gribley farm is located. Miss Turner looks up the information and draws Sam some maps. When she asks what he is up to, he explains his plans. She believes him, but she does not try to stop him. She invites him to come back for information if he ever needs it.
Following Miss Turner’s maps, Sam finds his great-grandfather’s land. For the next few days, he catches fish for his meals as he surveys the territory, making himself a diagram of apple trees, hickory trees, and other resources he will use later. He finds a stand of huge hemlocks and decides to make a home inside the partially rotted trunk of the biggest tree.
During these early days, Sam is constantly uncomfortable, especially from hunger. He does not know how to plan ahead for the next meal, so he continually works himself to a state of extreme hunger before he even begins the hard work of catching and gathering his food. He is thrilled with his own cleverness the first time it occurs to him to grab some crayfish before he is actually hungry for them. Slowly he learns that constant, elaborate planning is necessary if he wants to succeed on the land.
Sam has trouble clearing out a big enough living space inside his hemlock tree. Eventually he realizes that he can use fire to burn the center of the tree away. He works at this for weeks before his home is complete. Then, in between catching and gathering his meals, he sets to work furnishing his hideout. One afternoon he is building his bed when an old woman discovers him. She says that he should not be playing idly, and she orders him to help her pick strawberries for jam. Reluctantly he helps her, and as he walks her home, she points out a peregrine falcon—a bird Sam knows can be trained to hunt. After dropping the old lady off at home, Sam goes to the library and asks Miss Turner to help him look up information on catching and training falcons. When he has learned all he can from the books available in the small-town library, he sets out to find the falcon.
Sam sleeps in the woods, watching the cliffs where he saw the falcon before. In the morning he is rewarded with the sight of a bird coming in to feed her young. He climbs some cliffs up to the falcon’s nest and grabs the largest nestling. As he is doing so, the mother bird returns home and attacks him. She hits him once, but Sam manages to knock her off and climb away. Luckily for him, she soon returns her attention to her other two babies.
When Sam approaches the hemlock tree where he lives, he sees a fire warden waiting in the clearing next to the ashes of his campfire. Rather than talk to the man, Sam hides in the woods. He realizes that the smoke from his fires must have been spotted, and he resolves to make less smoky fires and to clean up the clearing so that it looks deserted in the future. In the meantime, he camps in the woods, trapping a rabbit so that he can feed his baby falcon, whom he names Frightful.
Sam needs a door for his house and some heavy cloth for clothes, bags, and blankets. For all this, he wants a deer—but he has no idea how to trap one. One day he has a stroke of luck when a poacher shoots a deer near his home. He chases the animal and covers its carcass with brush. The poacher fails to find it, and when he leaves, Sam takes the deer for himself. He gorges himself on venison steaks and smokes the meat that he cannot eat right away. He figures out how to soak the hide in a hollow oak stump to tan it. When he finishes processing the material, he has a nice door for his tree hollow home as well as a few extra scraps of leather.
When Sam is not working on the deer carcass, he works at training Frightful. First he teaches her to come to his whistle, and then to snatch a lure he throws. Eventually she catches a sparrow, and Sam is proud. He has successfully taught her to hunt for him. In the process, he has also made a new friend. The birds and small animals who live near his camp make him happy—especially a weasel he calls the Baron and a wily raccoon he calls Jessie C. James—but Frightful is by far Sam’s most important companion.
One day Sam enters his camp to find a man asleep on the ground. Sam has just heard police sirens from the valley below, so he deduces that the man must be on the run. Rather than hide and preserve his privacy, Sam wakes the man up, offers him a meal, and shows off...
(The entire section is 2514 words.)