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August 13. 2012 10:21PM

Man who got lost in Rumney tells how he found his way back to N.C.


Hugh W. Armstrong is reunited with his wife, Ellen and daughter, Diane Black, on Saturday at the McDowell County Sheriff's office in North Carolina. (COURTESY)


Hugh W. Armstrong is reunited with his wife, Ellen and daughter, Diane Black, on Saturday at the McDowell County Sheriff's office in North Carolina. (COURTESY)

Hugh W. Armstrong's last memory of his July 25 morning hike around Rumney's Stinson Lake was a quick side trip to a little steam and waterfall along the lake's northern edge.

The next thing he knew it was dark. He had a bump on his head, a splitting headache and no idea who he was.

“The only thing I could think of is my home is south and west. That is what I was doing. I was heading south and west,” Armstrong, 72, said Monday night in a telephone interview from his west North Carolina home.

With the stars to guide him, Armstrong said he got up, followed the stream, got on a road and headed south through Rumney Village and beyond — not knowing his family remained in Rumney desperately searching for him.

What happened next is a remarkable journey of self-reliance, determination and love as the retired IBM computer expert — driven by some inexorable homing instinct — set out on a nearly 1,000-mile trek to find his family, even though he didn't know exactly where they were.

“All I knew is that I had to get home to them,” Armstrong explained, adding it “never crossed my mind” to contact police for help.

After 17 days of hitching rides from motorists and truckers, sleeping in the woods or abandoned barns, drinking from streams and grabbing bites to eat with the little cash he had on him,

Armstrong was just 240 miles from home when McDowell County Sheriff's Department deputies found him walking along the side of the road in Marion, N.C., about 1 a.m. Saturday.

Slightly thinner but in otherwise good physical condition, Armstrong gave the deputies the initials from his wedding band and told them he thought he had come from either New Hampshire or New York.

“They looked at missing person data bases from New Hampshire and they picked me up,” he said. The deputies then did a web search of his name and came up with a New Hampshire Union Leader article with his picture.

At that point, Armstrong added, “I knew who I was. I had a name. But that was all.”

Ellen M. Armstrong, who had returned to the couple's Clayton, N.C., home after a massive search for her husband, got a call from New Hampshire State Police about 3:30 a.m. Saturday saying they found her husband.

“It was like a dream,” she said.

She and her daughter, Diane Black, pulled in to the McDowell County Sheriff's office later that morning.

“As soon as I saw her through the window, I recognized her,” Hugh Armstrong said. “It was an unbelievable bear hug.”

He said he couldn't remember his daughter's name at the time and still hasn't recovered all of his memory.

“It is absolutely horrible,” an emotional Armstrong said of the experience.

“I've never gone though something like that in my life — not knowing who you are and where you belong.”

The Armstrongs — who have been married 47 years and have three adult daughters — were profuse in their gratitude to everyone who participated in the massive air, water and land search for Armstrong, who was visiting Rumney with his family when he became lost.

“I can't thank the community enough. They will always be in our hearts,” Ellen Armstrong said.

“We couldn't have done it without the wonderful volunteers in the Rumney Village area,” she said.

The couple also thanked all those who helped search for Armstrong, including the National Guard, canine teams, the Red Cross, New Hampshire State Police and Fish and Game. They especially thanked Fish and Game Lt. Jim Kneeland, who coordinated search efforts and even searched on his own time.

“He (Kneeland) put his whole heart in to it...He never ended the search himself,” Armstrong said. “I can't thank New Hampshire enough.”

Hugh Armstrong said he never considered asking police for help during his 17-day journey.

“Maybe it's because of the type of person I am that I think I can do everything by myself,” Armstrong explained. He said it never occurred to him that his family was searching for him.

“One trucker gave me quite a long ride. We talked quite a bit. I told him that I was having amnesia and I didn't know who I was, but I was heading home,” Armstrong recounted. “He named cities for me. When it came to Asheville, N.C., I knew that was it. Come to find out after spending a few days there, that wasn't it,' he added.

kmarchocki@unionleader.com


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