My Side of the Mountain

by Jean George

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2514

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...

(This entire section contains 2514 words.)

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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 his camp. The man, whom Sam calls Bando, seems amazed by everything he sees. After a time, Sam learns that Bando is not a bandit at all, but rather a college professor who got lost on a hike. Nevertheless, the two become friends. Bando gives Sam a new nickname, Thorough, and helps him construct a raft for deep-water fishing. He stays for several days, and when he leaves Sam is actually sorry.

Sam works hard through the fall, gathering nuts and acorns, picking apples, and using Frightful to catch small animals. He works hard at catching deer in traps, and after several failed attempts he has a little success. It is hard for him to process all the food and hide of a deer, but he needs enough warm clothing and blankets to last through the winter, and he does not yet have enough. He sews himself a new pair of pants, but he needs another deer for a jacket—and he cannot seem to catch one.

On Halloween, Sam is feeling lonely. He decides to throw a party, and he puts out food for the neighborhood animals. They are slow to find it, but when they do, chaos ensues. Raccoons enter Sam’s house and invade his winter stores. As he chases them away, he gets himself sprayed by a skunk. He decides that, as the biggest animal around, he has to be dominant. He stomps and shouts until the animals run away in fear. After that, he does not try to feed the animals again.

When hunting season arrives, Sam gets stuck in his little hemlock house. He is dressed in deerskin, and he does not want to catch a stray bullet. One day, feeling stir-crazy, he decides to leave the woods and visit the library in Delhi. On his way he hears a gunshot close by. He flees to a treetop for safety and watches as a fatally wounded deer runs across a field and dies. The hunter fails to find the deer, and Sam claims it for himself. He spends the rest of the hunting season watching out from treetops and snagging any deer he can get. Much of the rest of the fall is taken up by his efforts to process the meat and hides. By the time he gets the last deer, winter is on its way. It is so cold that he is able to freeze a good deal of meat. He also finishes making his suit of deerskin clothing. He sews the shirt full of big pockets for storing what he collects in the woods.

Sam has burnt out another hemlock tree to make a storehouse, and he stockpiles his winter supplies in there. He also uses clay to build a fireplace—a tricky operation that ends up almost killing him with carbon monoxide poisoning before he figures out how to get the ventilation right. Late in November, Sam surprises himself by walking down into town for no particular reason. He strikes up a tentative friendship with a boy he calls Mr. Jacket, because of his nice clothes. Mr. Jacket refers to Sam as Daniel Boone. On the way home, Sam realizes that his preparations for winter have not included gathering a large stock of wood. Cursing himself for his carelessness, he heads home and builds up several woodpiles.

The first snowstorm follows not long after the woodpile incident, and Sam finds out that his preparations for winter have actually been pretty good. He is able to stay warm, dry, and fed even when the weather is terrible. He spends a great deal of time observing the neighborhood birds and rodents, giving each of them names and discovering all of their personalities. He also makes a rabbit fur hat and moccasins for Bando, who has promised to come spend Christmas in the woods.

On Christmas Eve, Bando finally appears and is delighted to find Sam still healthy and happy. He shows Sam several newspaper articles about a “wild boy” suspected to be living in the woods near Delhi. Sam is upset, but heartened to see that the news stories are largely false. He settles down to cook a Christmas feast, and suddenly he hears shouting in the trees. Sam recognizes the voice as his father’s. He runs out to say hello, and soon his father settles in to spend Christmas with Sam as well. Mr. Gribley does not seem angry that Sam ran away—after all, he did give his permission. Moreover, he is proud at what Sam has accomplished.

When Christmas is over, Bando and Mr. Gribley both have to return to work. The winter gets colder and more difficult, with ice storms and dwindling supplies. For the last couple of months of cold weather, Sam has no vegetables to eat. He begins to feel weaker, and his joints grow sore. One day he gets a nosebleed and worries about malnutrition. Soon after, however, Frightful kills a small animal and Sam eats the liver. After doing so, he feels much better. For the last few weeks of winter, he eats all of the liver he can get—and he doesn't find out until later that liver is the most vitamin-rich food he could have found. “Hunger is a funny thing. It has a kind of intelligence all its own,” he says.

As winter is ending, Sam meets a boy named Matt Spell in the woods. Matt is looking for the “wild boy” everyone is talking about because he hopes to write a newspaper article about him. He is half-frozen and half-starved, so Sam builds him a fire and cooks him a rabbit. Sam however claims that he is not the wild boy. Instead he describes the boy as at raggedy kid who lives in a cave not far away. Matt sees through the lie, but he agrees to keep Sam’s secret. In return, Sam agrees to let Matt come and stay with him for spring break.

As spring goes into full swing, Sam eats better again, which is a relief. As time passes, Sam is frequently surprised to find himself embracing the company of people. One day, a musician named Aaron approaches from the woods, and the two share songs. When Matt Spell returns for spring break, and then Bando appears as well, Sam agrees to burn out another hemlock trunk to make a guest house. He reflects sadly that having a guest house means he is “no longer a runaway.” As he explains it:

“I was living in the woods like anyone else lives in a house. People drop by, neighbors come for dinner…I felt exactly as I felt when I was home. The only difference was that I was a little harder to visit out here.”

In spite of his sadness, Sam welcomes all of the people who have befriended him. He does not want to “build a city in the forest,” but paradoxically seems compelled to be with others at least once in a while. Mr. Jacket comes to visit, and so does Aaron. With a twinge of regret, Sam notes that people can now find their way to his camp even if he has not given them directions.

One day Sam’s father arrives at his camp with the whole family, including Sam’s mother and eight siblings. Sam is glad to see them but unsure how he can feed them all. They string up hammocks in the trees, and the boys help Sam hunt and fish. In the morning, Sam’s dad brings a stock of lumber to the clearing and begins laying down the foundations for a house. Sam protests, but his dad explains that Sam’s mother cannot let him live on his own anymore. As his parents, they need to give him a home and take care of him—at least until he turns eighteen. When that day comes, Sam can go off and live however he wants.