Bob Webber, a man who truly lived
By Jim Hyland
Who was Bob Webber? People that never met him must be wondering. What was so special about this guy? Why all the fuss? Wasn’t he that guy who lived like a hermit in a cabin up Pine Creek somewhere? Built a bunch of trails or something?
I was fortunate to know Bob Webber, and really fortunate to call him a friend. And it is with much anguish and reservation that I try to describe the man known as Bob Webber with words alone. Not possible I suspect, to fully describe a man who was so simple, yet so complex; so insignificant to himself, yet profoundly inspirational to those that knew him. Here goes:
Bob loved nature. It seems funny to write that. A more fitting description would be that Bob was nature. He purposely chose a lifestyle that immersed him in nature. His 50 years on the mountaintop had re-casted him into man’s original role…. sharing the top of the food chain with sabre-tooth cats and giant bears. When Webber poked his head out of his cabin, he appeared as natural as a chipmunk poking out from a tree stump. He was always wearing flannel, green and olive drab wool, although sometimes with flecks of red, like a hawthorn in winter.
He would have been held in high regard by Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean. And I’m talking about the men, not their namesake companies. His skin was tan, weathered and ruddy, as if he had evolved his own camouflage. His arms rippled with muscle, ending in callused hands like twin vices. His vision was sharp and his eyes sparkled. Really, Webber was in many ways a living folk hero, almost fictional by comparison to the masses. He was like a modern day Jim Bridger…always on stage with an amazing story, a witty joke, and a contagious laugh. When Bob was in a public place, a cluster of people would surround him. His celebrity would embarrass him. He loved wildlife profoundly.
Bob Webber looks out from high above Slate Run in Lycoming County.
In the winter, the deer near his cabin would eat corn from his hand. But he understood balance, and harvested all types of game to sustain himself and his wife, Dottie. With his iron-sighted 30-30 Winchester, he had taken over 25 bucks in his lifetime, most of them being the elusive “mountain deer” that inhabit the steep, laurel-choked ridges of the region. I’ll bet that Bob was the only human those deer had ever seen.
A few years ago I was talking to him in the village of Slate Run. He seemed sad. He told me that he had just killed a gray squirrel with his jeep. “That squirrel had survived that brutal winter, howling winds, deep snow”, he said, “only to die senselessly on the road in the springtime”. He was deeply compassionate and felt concern and sorrow for the careless loss of nature…..forests, individual trees, as well as wildlife. He had favorite trees that he would visit from time to time. He would sit with them and eat a sandwich and sip green tea from his old thermous. He’d reflect on his life and theirs.
Bob was an extraordinary storyteller. To watch the master bard was fascinating. His mind seemed to work like an old jukebox that was missing the song list. Filed away in dusty stacks were hundreds of colorful, remarkable recordings that could only be replayed by punching the right numbers. A lucky few of us knew a number or two, but mostly the numbers were scattered across the Black Forest region…..hidden as visual cues that might be kicked up unexpectedly along any trail at any time. Most of the stories were played just once, so you had to be right behind him at the exact time the cue was discovered. We'd be following Bob along some remote forest path when he'd stop abruptly and turn towards those near, pointing his crooked walking stick at a barely noticeable break in an acre of green.
“See that small clearing in the laurel?” When Bob told a story, he'd start by gazing over your shoulder into the forest tapestry. His eyes would blink and twinkle and tear a bit, and then become fixed. His deep, gruff voice would begin the narration: “Well I was working on this section of trail in late September of 1974. I was bent over right here. I was cutting back the low blueberry with a sickle when I heard a powerful stomp and a huff ....HUFF, HUFF.....I righted myself slowly and there in that very clearing stood the greatest black bear I had ever seen. He was a huge, mature boar, all of 600 lbs, and I could smell his foul breath as he huffed…..”
To say Bob had a vivid imagination would be a cliché and understated. When he told stories, he was able to relive the past, imagining the scene as if he were watching some immense movie screen behind you. While his hands gestured and pointed, his voice rose with skilled crescendo and fell into soft whispers, and his rugged face showed a hundred expressions. With his audience mesmerized, he’d end abruptly with a “Yup”, and turn back toward the trail and commence hiking. With a bit of prodding, you could get him to tell one of his favorites: the Exploding Ball Lightning story, the Midnight Wailing Porcupine story, the Pistol-Packin’ Woman that Lived at the Mouth of Daugherty Run story, or my personal favorite, the Get On Board, You Sons of B*****s! story. With even more prodding, Bob would sing. Yes, sing. He had a hundred songs mixed into the dusty stack of stories. In his younger days he had auditioned for an off-Broadway musical or two. He is said to have auditioned over the pay phone at the long gone Fin, Fur and Feather store in Haneyville. He knew songs that dated back to the log rafting days on Pine Creek, songs that he had learned from the Tomb family, the original settlers of Slate Run in 1787.
Bob was exceptionally observant and curious. In his lifetime he had consumed a library of books. There were at least 600 remaining in his little cabin at the time of his passing, and most of them had handwritten notes with personal anecdotes tucked between the pages. The Webbers didn’t have electricity, and so books were entertainment. Their cozy cabin, perched high on a mountaintop, received winter’s full wrath. Bob and Dottie were routinely snowed-in for more than a month annually. As the wind howled across the ridge outside, they would read by kerosene lamp light, Dottie in her rocking chair with “Blue Eyes” the cat on her lap, and Bob nearby, reading and fussing with the woodstove.
The Webber cabin in a Tiadaghton State Forest winter.
With books and the warm, quiet solitude of the cabin, they would travel, even through time, to the world’s most extraordinary places and events. Bob loved history, especially the history of the American frontier. He loved to read and chat about Indians and pioneers and how they interacted in the Black Forest Region where he lived. And he loved to read about nature. When he was in the hospital, I brought in a pile of books for him. I showed them to him one by one: Jack London’s Burning Daylight, John Muir’s The Mountains of California, Barry Lopez, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, and Aldo Leopold. “I read them all”, he said graciously. He could hold a conversation with children and presidents alike, as he could draw just the right chapter to suit the subject from his library upstairs. Talking to Bob was like talking to an intellect from the past. Thomas Jefferson comes to mind. Both had spent huge amounts of time walking, observing and reading, and the product was a man that was able to experience, describe and celebrate life with unusual joy and clarity.
Bob loved baseball, too. Sitting in his cabin, he would listen to ball games on the radio. To Bob, it was just as fun as being there….well maybe. Bob had seen the all-time greats play. He grew up near Philadelphia, and his father was a big fan of the game. He had seen Joe DiMaggio play, Ted Williams, too. He was at the second game of the 1950 World Series at Shibe Park in Philadelphia…..New York Yankees vs. Phillies. He described the fantastic crack of the bat when DiMaggio connected: “We could tell by that loud crack that the ball was going over the fence.” He once told us about a game in which he had witnessed Roger Maris play: “He smashed a tremendous line drive….it didn’t seem to arc….it followed a straight line right out of the stadium and into town."
Bob was fit; I mean really fit. In the past 50 years, Bob had spent at least 10,000 days in the woods. He had hiked over 50,000 miles in his lifetime, and that’s a conservative estimate. Into his 70s, he could hike straight up the steep rocky ridges of the Pine Creek Valley effortlessly. An early co-worker reported that when Bob was in his thirties, he carried a full “Indian Tank”, which is a metal water tank used in fighting forest fires, from the railroad grade along Pine Creek, without stopping, to the top of the ridge. Indian tanks weighed over 50 pounds when full. He was a living example of the type of intelligent, hardened, and determined men who had been members of the Corps of Discovery, who had built the infrastructure of this country, and who had been victorious in World War II.
Bob had vision. Having traveled to the Adirondacks in his youth, he imagined a network of hiking trails that Pennsylvanians could enjoy. “Northcentral Pa. is prettier”, he’d say. So he set his mind to building the Black Forest Trail. He didn’t build the entire route by hand, but he used his knowledge of the backcountry and history to connect old log slides, railroad grades, game trails, and quarrymen’s paths into a 42-mile loop. He dug the connections by hand. He also helped create the Golden Eagle Trail, built his namesake Bob Webber Trail, as well as the cross-country ski trails in the region. He didn’t just build them. He maintained and promoted them for almost 50 years. He led hundreds of delighted hikers into his forest home, and hundreds more met him along the trail just by chance.
Bob was inspiring. He was a complex, intelligent man that chose to live in the simplest way possible. He had several tattered copies of Thoreau’s Walden in his cabin. Perhaps he had been inspired by this quote:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life . . . and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
The people lined up in the hallway to visit Bob knew that he had lived. The thousands of hikers who had enjoyed his paths into the forest knew that he had lived. And the unborn thousands more that will hike his trails in generations to come will know it too. When the doctor told Bob that he had terminal cancer and just a short time to live, he took the news with strength and grace. He knew that he had succeeded. He had lived.
(A forest program specialist with the Bureau of Forestry, Jim Hyland is among those fortunate to have called Bob Webber a close friend.)
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