I met Mrs. Stevens around 1970. I was 20 years old and living with my parents in a small apartment while I attended college nearby.
She was a small, elderly lady that lived on the floor above us. I have no idea what sparked our conversation or even where our unlikely meeting took place. Quite possibly my mother invited her for coffee or we may have met in the laundry room. I do remember that our discussion very quickly turned to grizzly bears.
The moment Mrs. Stevens mentioned that her son-in-law was Frank Craighead, she had my complete attention. Frank and John Craighead were in the midst of a groundbreaking 12-year study of grizzly bears in Yellowstone Park. I was very familiar with their numerous National Geographic articles and television specials. Few who had seen these would forget the images of the Craighead twins tracking grizzlies over the mountains carrying enormous antennas.
If Frank and John Craighead captured my young imagination with their bear exploits, it was their sister, Jean Craighead George, that had already lit a fire in my soul. When I was ten or eleven years old I read George’s My Side of the Mountain, a story about a young boy that leaves his home to live in the mountains where he learns to live off the land. The book so affected my sense of independence and adventure that it inspired me to run away with my brother to a state park determined to live in a hollow tree just like the boy in the book. Though our incautious wilderness adventure did not last long, the influence of George’s book remains with me.
Yesterday I contacted Ms. George to tell her about my single conversation with Mrs. Stevens and to tell her that I was a fan. I had also hoped that she could provide confirmation that my memory had been correct.
I was thrilled this morning to receive an email from the 91-year-old author. She confirmed some information and clarified even more. Yes, Mrs. Stevens was John Craighead’s mother-in-law and she lived in Wheaton, Il during that period. And “she was a splendid woman.”
She ended her note with evidence that her book was, as I suspected, partly autobiographical. She said, “…I did write MSM after years of trailing behind my brothers and Dad living off the land, making lean-tos and fish hooks.”