(NEW YORK) — A 72-year-old North Carolina man who disappeared while vacationing with his family in New Hampshire has been reunited with his family after what his loved ones call a miraculous journey home.
Hugh Armstrong says he lost his memory and traveled 1,000 miles to his home state, finding clues about his life along the way, including the initials inside his wedding band and overhearing the name of his granddaughter.
“I’ll tell you something, it’s very nice to know who you are,” Armstrong told ABC News on Monday.
Armstrong and his family were on vacation in Rumney, N.H., on July 25 when the outdoorsman decided to take a walk around a nearby lake before breakfast.
“I left a note saying I would be back by 9 because we were going to have pancakes with the grandkids,” Armstrong said, but he never returned.
He remembered a spot near two small waterfalls that he and his wife, Ellen, thought would be a good spot for a photo of the grandkids, but he struggles to remember what happened after that.
“I apparently slipped and fell and I do not remember that,” he said. “The next thing I remember was waking up after dark, not sure what time it was. …The only thing I could remember at that time was I didn’t know who I was, but I had to go south and west, so that’s where I started going.”
From there, Armstrong set out on an extraordinary journey home with little clue, he said, of who he was or where he was from. He used a pseudonym along the way, but knew that his initials were in his wedding band.
He spent time in an abandoned barn, in cheap motels and hitchhiking with cars and trucks. He said a farmer in Pennsylvania or Virginia hired him for two or three days to help him hay. Armstrong said the farmer paid him, fed him and drove him to Roanoke, Va.
One of his first big breakthroughs came when he was getting a ride from a truck driver. Armstrong told the truck driver he thought he was from North Carolina.
“He started naming off different towns and when he said Asheville, I said, ‘That’s it,'” Armstrong recalled.
He picked up another clue at a McDonald’s along the way.
“I heard a mother call her daughter Emma and that rang a bell,” Armstrong said, tearing up. “I knew I had a granddaughter named Emma in Wilmington [N.C.], but I didn’t have an address.”
When he was watching TV that night, he said someone on TV mentioned a .410 shotgun and that number reminded him of the number of Emma’s address.
“Hearing things that I recognized started bringing back information,” he said. “I got the rest of the address by just looking at the phone book and all of the street names.”
Armstrong said he went to parks and a shopping mall hoping that someone would recognize him, but no one did.
On Aug. 10 — 16 days after Armstrong disappeared — a sheriff’s deputy in McDowell, N.C., spotted Armstrong walking along a busy highway, carrying what appeared to be a pillowcase. McDowell is about 230 miles west of Armstrong’s home in Clayton, N.C.
“He told us he wasn’t sure that it is his name. He said, ‘I’m not sure. I think I’m about 71,'” McDowell County Sheriff’s Deputy Jacob Crowder told ABC News’ Asheville affiliate WLOS-TV. “He was very confused.”
Crowder said Armstrong told him that no law enforcement officers had checked him in any of the states he passed through.
At the station, authorities were able to use the initials in Armstrong’s wedding band and his inkling that he was from New Hampshire or New York to discover his identity. They found him in a missing person’s database online and authorities in New Hampshire were able to send them a photo that they matched to Armstrong.
“It was a perfect match,” Armstrong said through tears.
“This guy really seemed to be genuine and it all checked out and we have absolutely nothing to say that he’s not being completely honest with his story,” McDowell County Chief Deputy Sheriff Sam Arrowood told ABC News. “This is kind of that one-in-a-million story.”
Hundreds of miles away, Armstrong’s wife, Ellen, got the call she had been waiting for at 3:30 a.m.
“When they told me that they had my husband and had compared his pictures, I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe it,'” Ellen Armstrong told ABC News, growing emotional as she recalled the moment. “I talked to my husband. It was him. He knew my name and my middle name.”
She said she asked him questions about things that only he would know and he answered correctly. She picked up her daughter in Raleigh, N.C., and they went to pick Armstrong up.
“He said, ‘I recognize that vehicle,'” Deputy Brian Walker said, describing Armstrong’s reaction to his wife’s arrival. “As soon as his wife stepped out of the vehicle, he literally jumped up out of the chair and said, ‘That’s my wife.'”
“We got the biggest bear hug coming through the door,” Ellen Armstrong said.
An initial checkup and CAT scan showed that Hugh Armstrong was fine, aside from a bump on his head, scratches on his legs and blisters on his feet. He has been suffering from headaches and has been more emotional than usual, but Ellen Armstrong said doctors told them these were the symptoms of a mild concussion.
Now, the family is relishing their time together and beginning to heal.
“We had a quiet pizza party and we’re just trying to put our lives back together where they should be,” Ellen Armstrong said. “It’s a wonderful miracle and a wonderful happy ending.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Jennifer Graham, Deseret News
David Mark, CNN Newswire