Hidden lives

When I was in my teen years in the early 1980s, I had a lot of fun with amateur radio as General Class licensee N6KLV. One of my local radio friends was an 80+ year old hermit by the name of Ray. He lived alone in a remote mountain cabin, completely “off the grid”, on a homestead where he had a lively garden and a few farm animals. He was always up well before dawn – a habit he acquired in the military – and I tried to wake around 3:30am now and then to chat with him on the radio. That was the only time anyone could talk to Ray: once the sun was up and he finished his coffee, he was outdoors working. He had a raspy voice, was unfailingly cheerful, and despite very little education he was surprisingly articulate. And, yes, he was a little bit on the cranky and opinionated side, as you might expect a mountain man to be.

We both belonged to the “PDQ” radio club: I don’t remember his call number but I was PDQ 138. These radio clubs provided “call numbers” for those of us who operated on “illegal” (but largely unmonitored) frequencies.

Ray lived this way for many decades, but he wasn’t always alone. He had a wife, whom he loved dearly. She died tragically as a result of a violent robbery. Several young thugs invaded the cabin, tied both of them up, and abused them badly while demanding gold, for it was known that Ray had also mined for gold on the property. They survived the home invasion but his wife was traumatized somehow. She died in a hospital shortly thereafter. Ray would sometimes get choked up talking about her many years later.

After I left home and went off to college, I gave up ham radio and lost track of my radio friends. Once, while home visiting my parents, my dad told me about a news story he had just read. An octogenarian living on an isolated homestead above Yankee Hill set his cabin on fire, from the inside, and then shot himself to death before the flames consumed him. It was reported that the man was depressed about a newly diagnosed health condition that would have prevented him from living independently. He refused to leave his home. His name was Raymond Somebody, but all I heard was “Ray”, and I knew it was him.

I thought about Ray again when I read this story yesterday:

FOREST RANCH — The body of a man missing since Dec. 5 in the Forest Ranch area, but not reported missing until days later, was found about noon Thursday in a canyon off Doe Mill Road, not far from his isolated home.

Deputies with the Butte County Sheriff’s Office identified the man as Lowell Everett Sutton, 85. The cause of death is under investigation, but authorities suspect either a medical emergency or death from exposure. He was located by search and rescue crews using cadaver dogs.

Lowell’s wife, Martha Rowe, 60, said she and her husband had resided in a homestead in the canyon for 42 years. It includes multiple structures — basically tree houses — they built themselves, but have no electricity, running water or phones.

She said she didn’t see her husband on Dec. 6 or 7, but heard him calling to her from somewhere in the canyon on Dec. 8. She reportedly heard him calling again on Dec. 9. When he hadn’t returned by Sunday, Rowe said she hiked two miles to the nearest phone and called the Sheriff’s Office.

Deputies searched the area for hours Sunday and found nothing. They went up Monday in a helicopter equipped with a Forward Looking Infrared heat detection device, but had no success.

“We knew we’d have to get more people involved in this on the ground, and knew by this time we were likely conducting a recovery operation, not a rescue,” said sheriff’s Lt. Al Smith.

Rowe said her husband was wearing a windbreaker when he disappeared, but wasn’t dressed for repeated sub-freezing overnight temperatures in the canyon. He apparently survived at least five days on his own.

Smith said their were no signs of trauma to Sutton’s body, and foul play is not suspected. An autopsy will be conducted.

The couple moved to the canyon from Santa Clara County decades ago, and lived “completely off the grid,” Smith said.

He said it may not have been unusual for the couple to not see each other for days, and often left notes for one another along trails to communicate.

They reportedly walked up to two hours on a steep trail to get to Doe Mill Road, the nearest place they could park their vehicle. They walked another two hours to get back to their homestead.

Deputies participating in the search Thursday said there were spots on the trail where the couple had placed ropes to keep from slipping into the canyon.

Canyon view from Doe Mill Road.

4 thoughts on “Hidden lives

  1. I know, you wonder about people like that. They recently had a mass burial in Los Angeles county for 1600+ unclaimed bodies. This was only a few years’ accumulation as I recall. Anyway, I know that Ray has at least one son, with whom he was estranged. He often said that his son complained about him living as a hermit.


  2. Yes, that’s why I asked. I was thinking that even if they weren’t estranged, they might resent very much the difficulty involved in paying him a visit. We all want our independence, but I wonder if we can want it to excess. From the moment of conception we depend on others, and remain that way for the rest of our lives.


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