Clayton, N.C. — A Clayton man who had been missing for more than two weeks before being reunited with his family over the weekend says he kept trying to get home the whole time but wasn't sure where that was – or even who he was.
Hugh Armstrong, 72, went for a morning hike on July 25 along Stinson Lake in New Hampshire, where his family was vacationing, and planned on returning in time for a pancake breakfast with his grandchildren. A fall into a ravine set him off on a seven-state odyssey that ended early Saturday, when a McDowell County Sheriff's Office deputy picked him up along U.S. Highway 70 in western North Carolina.
"Apparently, I hit my head, because when I woke up, it was after dark," Armstrong said by phone Monday from his home in Clayton, still trying to piece together what had happened.
"I had a splitting headache," he recalled. "I didn't know who I was, but the only thing I knew was that I had to go south and west (to get home)."
He would navigate by the stars at night and sometimes sleep in abandoned barns, he said. He worked two days on a Pennsylvania farm, where the farmer paid him to collect hay from a field and then drove him to Roanoke, Va.
Eventually, Armstrong made his way to Asheville and was sitting in a McDonald's when he started filling in the blanks in his memory.
"I heard a mother call her little girl by the name of Emma. I said, 'I know that name. That’s a family name. That’s my granddaughter’s name,'" he said.
A reference he heard on a television show sounded like a familiar house number, and he began looking up street names in a phone book to assemble an address. He then addressed a letter to "Emma."
"I said, 'Hi, Emma. I don't know who I am, but I hope you do," he said, noting that he included initials and a date inscribed in his wedding ring to provide clues.
Armstrong said he started off from Asheville on Friday to head to Wilmington, where he thought he had family. The deputy stopped him at about 1:30 a.m. Saturday, and he entered Armstrong's information into a computer database and learned New Hampshire authorities had been searching for him.
Ellen Armstrong then got a call in the middle of the night, but she said Monday she didn't dread answering the phone.
"I thought it was good," she said. "Hopefully, they wouldn't call me with bad news at 3:30 in the morning."
Although her husband sounded weak and emotional, she recognized his voice. She then drove to Raleigh to pick up her daughter, and they headed to Marion.
"When I saw my wife, I said, 'That’s my wife,' and I ran and met them at the door," Hugh Armstrong said.
"Oh my God, I couldn’t believe it. He was running through the door there," Ellen Armstrong said. "We didn’t even get in the first door, and we had the biggest bear hugs and crying – all three of us crying."
Hugh Armstrong had a CAT scan on Sunday, and doctors said he likely suffered a mild concussion during his fall in New Hampshire, which explained his amnesia. His wife said being home and around his family again is helping him recover.
Ellen Armstrong said she is grateful for the New Hampshire authorities who searched extensively for her husband, but added that she and her daughter knew the search of Stinson Lake would turn up empty because Hugh Armstrong is careful near water. She said she was most worried that he was injured in the woods and had lost his glasses and hearing aid, which would make it hard for him to find his way back.
"I know he's resourceful, and I know he would be really good with maps if he ever got out of the woods and on a road," she said. "It's just a miracle – a wonderful miracle – because we're not done with him yet."