News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Woods Queer

An excerpt from Pat Hogan’s memoir about his years as a Southern Maine hermit 

by | Oct 8, 2021

photos/Chris Becker

Editor’s note: As Mainer reported this summer, Pat Hogan was fired from Mathew’s, a Portland dive bar, for refusing to serve members of an extremist hate group during their monthly planning meetings there [“The Proud Boys vs. Ferdinand The Bull,” Aug. 2021]. That was the first job Hogan had landed after spending 29 months homeless in the Maine woods. This excerpt is from Hogan’s unpublished memoir of that experience, The 260-Pound Raccoon. 

I have two vivid memories from my days at Park Street School, the old public school in Kennebunk that’s since been converted into housing for impoverished seniors. The Challenger blew up while my class watched. That was a lot.

The other lasting memory is of a visit by Maine humorist and storyteller Tim Sample, who said things to us students that would never fly in today’s classrooms. I remember Mr. Sample telling us a story about someone becoming woods queer — a mental decline caused by long periods of isolation in our state’s vast forestland. Stephen King has also used this colloquialism effectively, but to hear it spoken with such a deep, cloying Maine accent burned the term into my brain.

Prior to moving to Portland and securing shelter last spring, I was homeless for 875 days. I spent 800 of those days and nights outdoors, hiding within the last scraps of forested wilderness remaining in and around Saco, the preppy little city between Kennebunk and Portland. 

During the first half of my hermithood, a period covering 14 months, I went absolutely woods queer. Just weird as fuck, living with no responsibility other than my own survival, and doing nothing to change or better myself. Instead, I sank into apathy, listening to books on tape and jerking off in my tent. Oh, and entertaining thoughts of suicide. My mental problems, left unchecked by medication or treatment, became a punishing sadness that turned me into a nothing man.

Before all this, even at my lowest points, I’d still had a roof over my head. But this rock bottom didn’t have the trampoline element that had helped me bounce back before. After my folks died and my trip to the hoosegow, my brothers and sisters lost interest in me, and I do not blame them. If anyone abused the rights of being in my family, I did. I was alone, save for the handful of friends who still considered me a person, and who ultimately helped get me out of there.

Isolation from society is hard. Isolation from your kids is harder. I was lying to my two boys about where I was, but, thanks to my Obama phone, I was able to keep up the ruse with frequent calls. 

The hardest form of isolation is isolation from yourself, and I was the Master P of that shit. Had hard drugs or alcohol played any part in the nonsense that was my life in the woods, this would be a very different story — most likely one I would not have survived to write. Admittedly, I loved smoking weed out there, and I do like tequila (blame Springsteen), but I’ve done so many stupid, horrible things while drinking when I was younger that I’m pretty chill with alcohol these days. Other drugs have never been my thing — except, of course, all the prescription pills I’m currently taking to help me steer this ship.  

The only big thing I accomplished during those first 14 months happened on what I called (and will always remember as) Moving Day. 

I’d half-assed the task of scouting a suitable location for my first campsite, settling just a few hundred yards off a seldom-used nature trail, on the grounds of a community farm that also had some sort of school associated with it. It was more of a gentleman’s farm — some cows, a donkey, a few horses and pigs — than an agricultural operation. I liked visiting the pigs at night and feeding them all kinds of crap I brought back from the trash bins behind the supermarket. Pigs are my favorite animals — not for eatin’, but for lovin’.

Once, while crossing the farm’s field late at night, in near total darkness, I found myself in a precarious position. My headlamp game was not strong at that point, and in its weak light I didn’t see the mare and her foal standing in the grass. I did hear her, though, and by that time I was straight fucked, caught beside a mother horse and her baby. I clenched my entire body in anticipation of impact. The mare hip-checked me, twice, then bolted, followed by her foal. Moving slowly, with wobbly knees, as though I’d just been in a car accident, my legs carried me to the gate, where I turned and, before leaving, thanked her for the lesson with a wave.

The night before Moving Day, I was inside the farm’s barn, charging my wares. This had been part of my routine for months, and aside from a couple cows and the occasional donkey, I’d had no interruptions by visitors. By this point I felt at ease, getting comfy-cozy on the beat-up couch by the sliding barn door where I imagined workers sat to take off their muck boots. 

I was nodding off while my laptop charged when the barn door wheeled open and in walked a teenage boy. It was well after 1 a.m. and this fucking kid was just standing there looking at me. He was clearly not as terrified as I was. He just looked confused. 

I flipped on my weak-ass headlamp and held it in my hand so as not to shine it in his eyes. He looked like a young Juggalo, circa 1998, with those giant pants, but he also had Kriss Kross braids. 

“You’re not gonna rape me, are you?” he said in a way that conveyed he knew full well I meant him no harm. But the barn must’ve reeked of herb, considering I’d just finished over-smoking a joint. 

“Nope, you’re good,” I replied matter-of-factly. 

As if he’d just solved an ancient riddle, the boy’s face changed. “You’re the guy who lives in the woods, right?” he knowingly said. 

I nodded an affirmative, and he broke down his story. He called himself Droop. He had just run away from the farm-school and its campus was now on full lockdown. Cars and vans were circling the area with their brights on, and soon the searchers would be here, wondering what in the fuck a grown-ass man was doing with a child in a barn reeking of grass.  

Realizing that in no universe would this situation be OK, I peaced out with the quickness. But before I left, I told him to go back, for his own sake, and just lie about what he’d found in the barn. As I sprinted away, my backpack clumsily stuffed with all my clutter, I heard Droop yell, “Take me with you!” And then, after I’d gained a few more yards, he called out to me again: “Well, fuck you, you fat bitch!”

I booked it back to camp and stayed awake till dawn in fear of flashlights and bloodhounds. It was a little after 9 a.m. when a resonant voice rousted me from slumber: “Police, please come out of the tent,” and, “You don’t have any weapons on you, do you?”

I crawled out of my hovel, anxious and fearful, but the four officers peering down at me bought the story I’d prepared for this occasion, a tale of pandemic hardship and woe. Then they ran my name, and as they did so (some of you know this impulse) I repeated this soothing mantra in my head: Please, no warrants. Please, no warrants. And it worked! 

After giving my campsite a pretty thorough once-over, the only flatfoot who spoke told me I’d had contact with a juvenile offender who identified me as “the dude in the woods.” The cop also informed me that I was on private property and it was time to skedaddle. He directed me to another forest where I could make camp and gave me 24 hours to beat feet. 

With that directive issued and our meeting adjourned, I asked him a final question: “Was it easy to find my camp?”

“Yeah, real fuckin’ easy,” he cheerily answered through his mask. 

That was crushing, as I’d come to believe I was pretty cunning. And when I looked at myself in their presence, embarrassment took the wheel. The gross-ass sweats I was wearing had obvious dick smears on the front. Every copper there absolutely saw that shit, and that image — with my face attached — will never leave their memory. It was really bad; I could have folded those sweats with a hammer.

I changed into new pants and went about finding a new campsite. It was a chilly but bright morning. Coronavirus had just ruined St. Patrick’s Day, and my obsession with writing Don Jr. jokes was becoming unsettling. 

The patch of woods the fuzz suggested was across a four-lane highway. Crossing during the daytime would be crazy, so I had to walk the long way around. Following the fence erected to keep wildlife off the road, I searched for gaps in the chain link and found one almost directly across from the camp I was leaving. By now it was getting dark, my Fitbit had registered 13,000 steps, and I hadn’t even begun the move. 

To be a successful hermit, it is paramount that you leave no trace, so I packed up the old campsite and left nothing but a note of thanks. As night fell, I waited at the forest’s edge for traffic to lighten, then started making trips. Wearing my backpack and holding two buckets full of stuff, I scampered to the shoulder and stayed low as cars and trucks rushed by. Once no headlights were in sight, I ran across and dumped my chattels in a temporary location, then sprinted back across the highway with the empty backpack and buckets. The move took six hours, 13 round trips, and 27,000 steps.  

The spring of 2020 was shitty for everyone, except hermits and others hoarding toilet paper. I was Mr. Social Distancing, and with fewer shoppers around, the bins around back offered a veritable cornucopia. A week or so after Moving Day, I finally had a functioning camp again. But it was also around this time that thoughts would creep into my head like, This is so fucked up, and What the fuck are you doing out here? and Why don’t you kill yourself? I felt like a feral 13-year-old boy living his best life, but it was already getting old.

Storms were scary. While visiting my old campsite one day, I noticed a huge limb had crashed into the area where I used to sleep. Lumberjacks call these widowmakers. I was no longer married, but neither did I wish to be crushed like a bug in my sleep. I thought about the poor hiker who’d discover what was left of me. Then I returned to my new camp and rearranged it to ensure I would not be smashed while in Dreamland by a falling branch.  

There were other things I was definitely afraid of. Mostly people: cops, hobos, teenagers, travelers. A possum once got in the tent while I was on my nocturnal adventures, and that scared the hell out of me. When I entered the tent with my headlamp on, I saw Miss Possum’s eyes flash. Then she keeled over, tongue out, and shit on my sleeping bag. 

There were nights so cold that frost formed inside my tent from the steam my body was producing. Some mornings I could draw a smiley face in the frost with my finger. I was determined to do things differently during my second winter out there. For months before the flakes flew again, I collected every piece of usable trash I could find. In my mind’s eye, I was building a custom tiny house using surrendered wood, discarded tarps, and any bits of insulating material I could scrounge. 

What I ended up with was a waterproof, well insulated and quite comfortable Frankenstein version of a harem tent, with battery powered lights and flexible silver ventilation tubes. I even had a washable piss tube that drained into a three-foot hole (which would have been deeper had I not broken the shovel). You’d be amazed what people throw away. My bed was made of a rescued futon pad, three racks of egg-crate foam, and a new cut of carpet from a construction dumpster. 

I’d raked my new campsite for hours, leaving a clean forest floor. The sizable hills of leaves and detritus that outlined my landscaping effort created a barrier of sorts that gave me the sense my new home now had a boundary. I was also convinced ticks would settle in the mounds and leave me alone. I think that worked, actually. What didn’t work were the ventilation tubes; turns out they’re wonderful habitat for mice and, yes, I did feel one run across my face before I humanely shut that shit down.

My daily routine started after 9 p.m., and the first task was always either a.) get Food or b.) get Whatever Else I Needed to Survive. According to my Fitbit, it was about 2,400 through-the-woods steps to the bins behind the market, and a round trip of roughly 2.4 miles. I’d usually return with two baskets of food, but there were nights I came back with nothing, because even as a hermit I would never eat dumpster pizza from Little Caesars. 

Becoming an opportunistic eater was really tough at first, but once I got into the intermittent-fasting craze all those holistic-health nuts rave about, it worked for me. I also got good at picking, preparing and storing food, so I never went hungry for long.

I found a building with an open Wi-Fi connection and the range was pretty good. There was a utility building nearby with an unlocked shed that had an outlet where I charged my assorted electronics. I’d sit in that shed in the dead of night, catching up with the world and downloading movies and podcasts. Turns out I love true crime more than I ever imagined I could.  

This place was also where I got water. For some reason, it remained lukewarm throughout the year. I’d fill 14 one-liter bottles and carry them back on my back, and this is what I used for drinking, cooking, brushing, washing, etc. The round trip for this task was about 2.2 miles, but the terrain was a bitch on the feet: woods, railroad tracks, a stream, more woods. 

I also lived in fear of broken bones and tooth pain. My teeth are fucked. I’m missing three in the front — not because of chemicals or hockey; it was the force of hitting a red sandstone wall on a bike, face-first. I have a denture (a flipper) that masks the horror of it all, but I broke that too. I’ve had posts in my gums and permanents and implants, and every two-to-five years I’d break those, my downfall being ribs and wings.

While living at my new campsite, a filling dislodged. It looked like a square BB, and it left a tooth with four walls and a hole in the middle to get jammed up with mouth funk. Within a couple days, it began to ache, and no amount of brushing, swishing, or expired Orajel from my dopp kit could take the ache away. But, you know, Aspirando et Perseverando, so I continued scavenging and surviving like a 260-pound raccoon.

The wheelie bins behind the supermarket were so bountiful on this particular night that had I been able to smile, I would have, ear to ear. Alas, my mouth hurt like I’d just taken a full fist with a slack jaw. The vacant tooth screamed when the cold night air was taken in too long. I had to keep my mouth constantly full of water to quell the discomfort — it was the only thing that kind of worked

As my gloved hands dug through the bins, I was getting pumped for the feast I’d prepare back at camp. I returned with two filets, three New York strips, some sausages, plus assorted vegetables, two rotisserie chickens (for the animals), a gallon of cider and a gallon of chocolate milk. None of it was beyond its expiration date, and it was cold enough outside to ensure freshness. My plan was to cook all the raw meat that night.  

The dry wood was already at hand, and it burned beautifully, leaving a pile of cinders that would roast everything to perfection. It was as simple as putting all the steaks in my large pot, drizzling olive oil, adding garlic powder, kosher salt and red pepper flakes, shaking it around for full coverage, then placing the steaks on the grill beside the links. 

Within minutes the smell of the barbeque made me forget about my tooth. I remembered I was famished, not having eaten anything substantial for two days. The witching hour was approaching and the woods by the highway were silent save for the creaking of trees tousled by a weak breeze, owls hooting on the hunt, the sizzle of fat dripping onto sighing embers.  

My headlamp was dimming, which made it hard to judge the texture of the steaks. Comically (in retrospect), I thought I could gauge their temperature by feel, and bullied by a mighty hunger, I took a bite. 

Wrong idea there. I was instantly in agony. What hubris had led me to believe was a butter-tender piece of beef was no such thing, and when the lukewarm chunk hit my tooth hole, I freaked and swallowed it whole. 

Right then, I knew I was a dead man. The unchewed, underdone hunk of cow was jammed in my throat, and it was not coming out. No air, dim headlamp, 3 a.m., freezing cold, alone in the woods. Gulps of water won’t move it. I’m guessing I panicked for more than a minute before I realized I knew what to do, and I thank 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon for showing me. 

The sturdy, metal-framed chair I’d pulled from a dumpster worked like a charm. I stepped a couple feet away from it and fell forward, legs and back stiff as a board, ramming the upper part of my belly into the chair’s rigid back. On the second try — as if the first was a practice swing — the obstruction was dislodged, and I definitely broke a rib.

I walked back to the grill and found the steaks were now definitely a wee bit over-done on one side, though the sausages were fine. I placed the meat on a sheet of tinfoil atop a tree stump, and while I methodically replaced the batteries in my headlamp the gravity of what had just happened began to dawn on me. It had been about 10 minutes since I’d almost died and, like some sort of psychopath, I hadn’t missed a beat. 

The panic attack that ensued lasted several minutes. I shook violently and hyperventilated. I sat on the ground and then lay back until I got the spins. I vomited the water I’d been swishing around my dental suck hole, and that was fucking gross. A strand of snot hung from my nose, through my beard and onto my jacket. The shaking of my body gradually settled into a low rumble, and the tears that had been falling sporadically now burst forth. 

It was like I had uploaded into the Matrix, and all the shitty deceptions and bad decisions I’d been trying to stash away suddenly rushed back into consciousness, to be reckoned with at last. The crust of the past 14 months was beginning to crumble. It was time to start again.

Wiping away the errant mucus, I made a simple deal with myself to change all this shit, to finally be the guy my parents tried to raise. But first there was one thing to do, and it had to be done immediately, because the adrenaline rush I was on would be necessary to complete the job.  

There’s a scene in the movie Cast Away in which the dude knocks out his own tooth with an ice skate and a rock. I used a hammer, a flat-head screwdriver and pliers. First I sterilized the screwdriver and pliers in the glowing bed of embers and poured rubbing alcohol on them once they cooled. The extraction was bloody, extremely painful, and, being a cutter from way back, cathartic as hell. It was also bug-nuts crazy and made much harder by the fact I didn’t use a mirror. 

When it was over, my mouth was a mess, but only temporarily. Switching peroxide for water to swish the wound worked wonders, and before long I was eating the very meat that had nearly been my doom. I was burning up from all the kinetic energy, so I took off most of my clothes and screamed into the cold moonlit night, “Someone’s making a comeback, baby!” — realizing even as I did so how fucking stupid I sounded. 

All of this happened in the span of 40 minutes.

So there I was, epiphany in tow, making a plan to fix this shit. The irony of the opportunity the universe gave me when I nearly choked on something delicious was not lost on me. I was standing in the woods, Pooh-like, wearing only a shirt and shoes, when I finally stopped being such an asshole. 

The “fix this shit” plan took almost three hours to write and wildly overestimated my abilities. There was so much to conquer, and I went at it all at once, but one little flip of the script really helped me get traction along this journey of self-discovery, acceptance and forgiveness: When I thought of who I was and what I do, I replaced the word but with and.

For example, “I do bad things, but I also do good things” became “I do bad things and I do good things.” I took out the earphones and got back in my own head. During my nightly campaigns, while I lay awake at dawn or sat on the toilet seat attached to the waste bucket, I’d go through the list of experiences I was most ashamed of. 

I am a monster and a mensch. I lied a lot — like, way too much — and now I lie as little as I can. I broke the trust of almost everyone I’ve ever loved and I am continually working to be impeccable in word and action. 

The list goes on longer than train smoke, and works in progress are still in progress. But after 14 months of hermithood, having saved my own life, removed my own tooth and attained my own measure of enlightenment, I was woods queer no more.

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