BUTTE — There was something about the rarified heights of mountains that brought Robert E. Lee peace.
Don Heffington remembers hiking up Mount Evans in the Anaconda Range with Lee a few years ago. Another group of hikers happened to come to the same point right after them.
Heffington recalls Lee jokingly berating the newcomers, “What are you doing on my mountain?”
Lee, 55, was found dead near the top of the East Ridge last week — a victim of a possible fall. It is an area that Lee, according to Heffington, literally called his own.
Lee is a mystery to most local people, including police who haven’t been able to find any of his relatives since hikers discovered his body nearly a week ago.
But those who knew Lee described him as an intelligent, spiritual and private person who preferred the company of mountains rather than people.
The man felt like an outcast, according to Heffington, of Butte. He was a black man living in a predominately white town. (It can be ignored that he — an African American — had the same name as the top commander for the Confederate Army.) Heffington said his friend sometimes felt “picked on” and people saw him as a hermit.
“He was very talented,” Heffington said. “He wasn’t crazy; he was as sane as anybody.”
To escape public scrutiny, and to develop his spirituality, Heffington said Lee regularly lived in a manmade cave high on the East Ridge for the past decade. A practicing Buddhist, Lee spent his days meditating at his mountain lair.
Lee carved out his small, earthen den using small hand tools. It contained a bunk and cabinets that he had built to store his food. Heffington said the craftsmanship was impressive.
Lee even made a wood-burning stove out of a small can and had a chimney.
A stream ran near his den.
“He’d go down every morning with a bucket and collect water,” Heffington said.
Capt. George Skuletich said investigators plan to search Lee’s den to search for clues — like letters — that could point them to his relatives.
So far, police have had no luck.
Hikers found Lee’s body on the evening of May 16 while heading down from the Our Lady of the Rockies statue. Police went up the next morning and recovered his body. Investigators suspect Lee may have been injured after taking a fall and died from exposure. Coroner Lee LaBreche suspects Lee may have been dead for about 10 days before he was found. Lee was never reported missing.
This doesn’t surprise Heffington, because he believes Lee had been estranged from his family for many years. Though Lee rarely talked about his family, Heffington gleaned from his friend that he came from a family of successful, professional types.
“I think that’s one reason he chose the spiritual path. He never thought he lived up to his family’s expectations,” Heffington said.
Lee would live in town and do odd jobs and handyman work to make money. He helped Heffington build his house and assisted him in fixing washing machines at his laundry business.
“He worked just long enough to make enough money to buy food to last the winter,” Heffington said.
Martha Sorini, of Butte, said she used to rent a place to Lee whenever he was in town. She described him as a gracious and refined person who enjoyed spending time outdoors. She was sad when she learned about his death.
“We lost a really wonderful person,” she said.
Sorini said he was private and never talked about his family.
It was impressive to see Lee hike his way back up to his mountain den with his supplies, according to Heffington. He once saw Lee make two round trips in one day while hauling about 70 pounds of supplies.
The loss of this enigmatic and interesting man has been difficult for Heffington. When he thinks of his friend possibly languishing for days in the cold with an injury, Heffington tells himself that this was the way Lee would have wanted to go.
“He’d rather spend two days dying on a mountain than two years in a hospital bed slowing rotting away,” he said. “Robert was kind of a special guy.”