Four Mile Creek meanders through the woodlands of Northern Erie County Pennsylvania and empties into Lake Erie. Over the eon's it's slow moving waters has cut a large swath of land, and one of the more spectacular creations of the small creek is a mile long ravine called Wintergreen Gorge.
From Prehistoric until Colonial times the Gorge and creeks path provided a clear route to the Lake for both the local Native Americans and European Settlers. Ancient Indian war trails line both sides of the Creek, trails that were used by the Seneca Indians as they waged their war with the local Eriez Indians before the white man entered the area. Many intrepid amateur archaeologist and even professionals from the local Penn State Erie have found a rich stash of pre-Colonial Native American artifacts lining the paths and cliffsides of the small waterway.
My friend Tim grew up in a small house on the banks of Four Mile Creek near the thousands of acres that made up the Penn State Erie's Wintergreen Gorge. Tim Randall grew up hiking and exploring the endless trails that crisscross the ivy covered cliffs of Four Mile. From the age of six onward there was hardly a day that passed that you would not find him with walking stick in hand on his way to have a new journey.
And many of his adventures were fruitful indeed.
He had found a treasure trove of arrowheads and discarded pottery near ancient Indian campsites, as well as early European coins and sword hilts. Perhaps the most spectacular discovery he made was an out of the way vale on the Westerns side of the Gorge far off any path that was covered in thick foliage and had hearty vines from which you could safely swing out into across the vale. In this mystic sanctuary it was hard to believe that you were less than a mile away from a major Interstate Highway and close to one of the largest cities in the State of Pennsylvania.
Most of the time in his journeys of exploration he had the constant companionship of a large Newfoundland Dog named 'Dutch'. 'Dutch' was a birthday gift for Tim from his father on his 10th birthday. From that day the two were inseparable. Despite its formidable and imposing size the large black canine was the most gentle of creatures that I had ever encountered. With thick webbed feet, the dog is specialized for water rescue and there were numerous times while traversing the slippery smile covered slate of the creek bottom that Tim would fall into a nearby pool. Dutch would inevitably jump into the pond no matter the depth, to rescue his little master. Dutch lived a very long life and died at the age of 14 years. Needless to say Tim was devastated. Though many women had come and gone in his life, Dutch was his best friend and constant companion. Moreover, the loyal Newfoundland was a constant assurance of unconditional love in a life filled with turmoil and difficulty.
For you see, throughout his life Tim was in and out of trouble in one way or another. In Grade School he was the practical joker who held the attention of the entire class. He ended up many times in the principles office and there were many calls to his parents concerning his disruptive behavior. In his teens Tim moved from being the class clown to be the chief stoner, sampling any kind of illicit substance that came his way. Gradually his meager funds could not keep up with his veracious appetite for illegal pharmaceuticals and he turned to crime. First it was shoplifting and then it escalated into burglary. Sadly,when he was 17 he was sent away to a juvenile detention facility a few months after he was caught shoplifting at the local mall.
But even this close brush with the law did not stop Tim's lust for mind altering pharmaceuticals. By his early 20's he was dealing drugs and breaking into houses to sustain his addiction. At age 24 when Dutch died, his downward spiral seemed to escalate. In response, he ventured into harder drugs in order to find the release that he could no longer find in marijuana and LSD.
In the fruitless attempt to numb his constant inner pain he turned into a ghost of himself.
As the effects of a hard life aged him far beyond his years, eventually he was no longer the happy go lucky jokester of his youth. By age 25 he was a morose and antisocial malcontent . The only legitimate earnings that he made during this time of his life was while working in a fast food restaurant.
Unfortunately after only working there 6 months he and his manager (who also had a drug habit) cooked up a phony robbery scheme so they could pocket the bi-weekly deposit. But the plan unraveled quicker than it was hatched and both Tim and his manager found themselves in jail before they could spend even a penny of their ill gotten gain.
Whether it was the forced detox of the prison stay or the new found faith he professed after serving his sentence, Tim was a changed man after his incarceration.
He began to attend church and devoted himself to make up for all the wrongs he had done in his short life. He even fell in love with a beautiful young girl who attended the Cathedral where he attended mass. Their courtship was short but a very romantic fairy tale relationship. Tim felt truly loved by a significant other for the first time in his life. The young lady loved him more and more each day. Within 6 short months of dating, they were engaged.
Unfortunately, Tim's Bachelor party was at a local bar and pressured by his old friends, he drank alcohol for the first time in many years. Like a dehydrated man who could not quench his long denied thirst, he drank too much, and on his way home he drove off the road and struck at tree at 65 miles per hour without wearing a seat belt and with no airbag.
He was dead on impact.
The funeral was the darkest day the Randall family had ever experienced. Their oldest son who had gone through so much heartache and grief was on the brink of experiencing everything he had ever wanted, but was cut just short of finding true fulfillment in life.
That dark day was almost 20 years ago.
I often think of Tim as I hike the miles of trails in the Wintergreen Gorge area of Four Mile Creek with my son. All those years ago when I was my son's age I was introduced to the beauty of the Gorge by Tim one Saturday afternoon. Though I lived only a half mile away from the woodland I had never explored that far down the creek. Its large imposing cliffs, waterfalls and dense conifer forests are a treasure; and I often thank him as I walk through the areas we frequented together in our youth.
One afternoon in 2006 I was walking the trails of Penn State Erie near the 'Devil's Backbone', an area near the Gorge's peak where the creek's path turns dramatically, leaving a narrow path with cliff faces of over 100 feet on either side. It was an area where Tim and I would sit for hours and talk about everything from movies to the latest school gossip. The trail gently slopes down from the peak and then after the barren area of the 'Backbone' it drops back into a fully wooded path. I was just coming onto the barren area when at the far edge where the path drops into the trees I saw a young boy and a large dog walking down that far edge and disappear. I was taken aback a bit because for the life of me I swore it looked just like Tim and Dutch did 20 years ago. With curiosily I quickly made my way to the other side of the clearing so I could watch as the boy and his dog descended the steep trail. But when I got to the other side mere seconds later they were nowhere to be seen.
Perhaps they had quickly made it down through the underbrush or else I was just seeing things. I logged it in the back of my mind and continued on with my hike, enjoying the refreshing walk in the wilderness.
It wasn't until months later while having coffee with an old high school friend Donna Bradburry that the significance of the event truly sank in. Donna and her husband Eric love to hike the Gorge as well. Donna grew up near the Creek and knew the grounds almost as well as Tim did. She knew Tim from both encounters in the woods and school but she never really liked him, for he had picked on her ruthlessly through Grade School and Junior High because of her weight. They did have a reconciling of sorts shortly before his death when they ran into each other at a social event. Tim had apologized profusely for treating her the way he did, and she saw him in a new light.
She was there a few months later at one of his viewings.
It was shortly a year afterward that she began seeing Tim and Dutch walking in the woods. At first like me she thought it was a figment of her imagination. She had seen them from a distance numerous times and she was sure that it was just another young boy with a large dog walking in the woods. But after seeing the same boy and dog a few times over the span of five years she began to realize that something strange was indeed happening in the thick woods of Wintergreen Gorge, for the boy never seemed to age and his clothing never changed. It was in the spring of 1999 while walking alone down the Creek that she had a closer encounter with the mysterious dog and boy. She was on the Creek bed coming around a bend when she saw the two of them walking parallel to her on the ridge pathway to her left. She was only twenty feet or less from them when she first caught sight of them. The boy turned to look her in the eyes before he quickly disappeared into the dense foliage next to the creek.
It was Tim.
Not the Tim she had met during the reconciliation years before or the bullying teen she remembered from her tortured High School days.
It was the little 12 year old Tim who was the young prankster. The innocent little boy before he had been severely ravaged by drugs and alcohol.
And Donna was sure that the dog was Dutch.
She wanted to run up the lip of the embankment and confirm her fears but she was too shaken by the experience. She knew what she had seen.
She had seen him twice after that close encounter but only from the back and at a distance, just as I had. But it was the same boy, in the same clothes with the same dog.
We sat there together in quiet contemplation for a while after she shared her story. Had Tim Randall finally found peace in the afterlife by endlessly repeating the only thing that ever gave him true happiness?
To some such a fate would seem akin to purgatory or even a form of hell. But knowing the tragic life of Tim it seemed a fitting rest if he could wander the Earth for a while with his faithful dog. After having such a tragic and unfulfilling short life it seems appropriate if he could be given a few extra years to relive and enjoy one of the only times he was loved unconditionally and lived fully.
Even if that time is relived in death.