RALEIGH, N.C. – Hugh Armstrong says he hitchhiked and walked 1,000 miles south from New Hampshire without knowing who he was. Then he heard his granddaughter's name in a McDonald's in Asheville and started to fill in a few blanks.
Armstrong, 72, had been missing for more than two weeks, when he disappeared after going for a walk while on vacation near a New Hampshire lake. The retired IBM employee stacked hay for a Pennsylvania farmer along the way, hitched a ride to Virginia and made his way to his home state of North Carolina.
A sheriff's deputy found him walking on U.S. 70 at 1:30 a.m. Saturday, and identified him as a missing person by the initials on his wedding band.
"He's my hero. That's just a remarkable feat," said Deputy Brian Walker of the McDowell County Sheriff's Department.
Armstrong hadn't been able to remember his name since he fell into a ravine while walking near New Hampshire's Stinson Lake on July 25, but he knew his age and thought he might know someone in Asheville. That's where he found himself in a McDonald's trying to sort things out.
And he heard a name he knew. A mother called her child "Emma," and Armstrong thought he might know someone by that name. He sat down with a phone book and looked at the street names listed in addresses. He wrote a letter to Emma in Wilmington and mailed it to her, telling her everything he could remember and that he was headed to her as soon as he could. Walker didn't know whether the letter was delivered.
Deputies found him later, about 240 miles from home in Clayton, outside Raleigh. His wife and daughter drove to the sheriff's office to take him home. Walker said.
"Immediately, when the car pulled in, he recognized the car. When his wife stepped out, he said, 'That's my wife,'" Walker said.
Armstrong last saw his family when he left for his walk alone, leaving a note saying he'd be back by 10 a.m. He had a small bag with him containing some medicine, but nothing with his name on it.
He apparently fell, and remembered waking up in a ravine in the dark, his family and authorities said. He started walking south.
He said he remembered hitchhiking his way to Pennsylvania, where the farmer took him in for several days and had him put up hay. He gave Armstrong a place to stay and food. Armstrong was found with extra clothes in a garbage bag that he thinks he got from the farmer.
The farmer gave Armstrong a ride to Roanoke, Va., after he told him he needed to get to Asheville.
After writing his granddaughter a letter, he started walking down Interstate 40; he couldn't remember if he got a ride for part of the way.
"I really didn't expect this outcome," his son-in-law, Craig Black said. "I'm just glad to have him home."
More than 60 people including volunteers had been looking for Armstrong in New Hampshire, searching the Stinson Lake area day and night and using helicopters, boats and dogs. By July 31, the search was scaled back to a small crew of about five divers who focused on the lake.
"He's very, very resourceful," Black said "He's very strong. He just knows how to survive. He knows how to figure out where he needs to go, how he needs to get there."
McCormack reported from Concord, N.H.