QUEENSBURY — It was the winter of 1980 or 1981 — Greg Burdo isn’t 100 percent sure which one. He had lost his job at a restaurant in Schenectady and had nowhere to go. He spent the winter in a car with no heat, just him and a dog he had taken in.
The Glens Falls High graduate eventually made his way to Saratoga Springs, living in horse stalls at Saratoga Race Course at one point, before he returned to the Glens Falls area where he had grown up and spent a summer in a tent in the woods behind the former Howard Johnson’s restaurant on Aviation Road.
The Army veteran who says he served in Vietnam as a medic thought it was a temporary arrangement. But more than 36 years later, Burdo is still living under tents and tarps in the woods of Queensbury, in the middle of the town’s commercial district, yards from bustling businesses.
“I’ve never had a place,” he said.
He is just yards from a number of major businesses, his encampment hidden from sight by thick woods, few people knowing he has called this particular area of green space home for about two decades. His living space sprawls over a 50- to 75-yard space — a series of tarps, a tent, lawn chairs and plastic bags of garbage. Piles of stuffed animals line the main path down a hill to his camp, neatly arranged to face those who walk in.
A tip earlier this year to The Post-Star newsroom about a “homeless” camp in the woods prompted a visit, and Burdo, at first standoffish, eventually opened up during a series of visits in the months that followed. He agreed to talk provided his location wasn’t revealed. His encampment is mainly on private property, owned by operators of a nearby shopping plaza, but it appears to spill onto land owned by the town of Queensbury.
Local police, and purportedly even some town officials, have known of his abode for years but choose to let him be.
There is no electricity, heating source or plumbing; he tends to his hygiene in the bathrooms of local businesses. He does have a mattress, bed sheets and box spring, all remarkably clean for the circumstances, under one of the tarps, which is held aloft by ropes, protecting his belongings from the rain. Particle board floors lined with cardboard cover the muddy ground.
If he is lucky, he gets to stay with a friend on the coldest winter days and nights, or inside one of the local businesses whose owners he has befriended. But there have been decades of frigid days and evenings when he was huddled under piles of blankets with some of the two dozen or so cats that share the woods with him. His weathered face shows the effects of years outside.
The 69-year-old has no regrets for the life he has lived, calling himself “lucky” as he talks about those he knew who battled tragedy and serious illness, including a deaf sibling, and the people he saw die in Vietnam.
But he is slowing down, battling a knee injury that makes it difficult at times to ride his bike to the local convenience stores and fast-food restaurants where he eats, socializes and waits out bad weather.
Money for cats
He survives on $300 a month in Social Security payments, much of which goes to caring for the 23 cats that share his woods, and the bottles and cans he pulls from dumpsters and trash cans during his near-nightly bike rides around the region to collect them. Some people call him “Bottle Bob” because of this habit, and it puts him in frequent contact with a number of police officers who have come to know of his lifestyle and buy him coffee or meals at times.
One retired Warren County sheriff’s sergeant who hadn’t seen Burdo on his bike around town for a few days called in to have officers check on Burdo’s welfare, prompting a visit to the camp by sheriff’s Lt. Steve Stockdale last month. Stockdale’s father and Burdo were Glens Falls High schoolmates years ago.
Stockdale said Burdo has been left alone by police because no one has complained about his situation. He has been offered help on numerous occasions, but he chooses to continue his way of life.
“It a tough line to walk, but it’s what he wants to do,” Stockdale said.
The cats greet you in a parking lot next to the woods. They sit on a retaining wall, or in the grass near the woods. When Burdo calls them, they come. When he leaves the woods, they will line the parking lot, waiting for him to return.
When you find the hidden path to his camp through thick brush into the woods, you are greeted by dozens of stuffed animals and plastic bags before you see tarps and a tent at the bottom of a hill.
Summer, winter, no matter the season, he has called the makeshift encampment in the woods home, riding out the coldest nights with no heat source. He said he made a fire once, but it illuminated the woods and he was worried the fire department would be called.
“There were some nights I thought I was going to die,” he said.
When being treated for a knee cyst years ago, he learned he had picked up Lyme disease over the years. He also had to get rabies shots after one of his cats tangled with a rabid raccoon years ago, he said.
He acknowledges a troubled past after his return from a 14-month combat stint in Southeast Asia, an era that included heavy drinking, fights, arrests and jail time. He put that life behind him when he headed into the woods, a decision he said has likely kept him from a worse fate.
“If I wasn’t living here, I would be dead or in jail,” he said.
He spent the first years of his outdoor habitation living in woods near Aviation Mall, but was forced out by the mall’s expansion. The folks at the former A-Plus Mini Mart nearby helped him then, providing work and meals, he said.
The construction pushed him out to a wooded area near Glen Street, an area he knew as “the ledge,” but he was forced to his current patch of woods about 20 years ago by another round of building.
He has called these woods home ever since, although he acknowledges that, despite having lived for so long in the same spot, he considers himself “homeless.”
He was initially apprehensive about a reporter coming to his home, concerned he would be exposed and forced out.
“You come here and talk to me when it’s 30 below,” he said angrily during my first visit.
But during a series of followup visits, when I agreed that his location would not be revealed, Burdo came around, and the conversations turned more genial. He said many people, including the owners of the business near where he stays, know he has been living there for years.
“Everybody knows I’m back here,” he said. “I help the owners out a lot. I shovel snow, keep the cardboard down. I pretty much look after the place.”
On an early July morning when I caught up with him, he was picking up garbage along the edge of a parking lot, followed by several of his cats.
Burdo hasn’t survived in the woods without street smarts and intelligence.
One day in June, he was scanning a horse racing program while classical music played from an old boom box. He is whip-smart and well-versed on current events, discussing the war against ISIS and the battle for Mosul.
His passion is playing the horses. He is a regular at the Off Track Betting parlor in Queensbury and says he invented a numeric system years ago that regularly picked winners, only to have OTB change its rules. He has piles of old spiral notebooks that include odds from races he has bet, which horse won and opening and closing odds.
He says he is close to developing a new betting system.
During another June visit, his camp was wet from a particularly bad thunderstorm that had roared through the night before. His forested location in a valley provides some protection, although he points warily at different trees that have fallen over the years.
“That one last night, that was nothing,” he said of the storm.
Burdo follows weather forecasts closely over the radio, fearing storms. His valley in the woods keeps the snow down and wards off much of the wind.
“Rain is worse for me than snow,” he said.
Burdo was a renowned athlete at Glens Falls High School, a member of the undefeated 1966 football team. He speaks fondly of teammates like Ed Bartholomew, currently a regional economic leader, and his former coach, the legendary Brent Steurwald.
He has an astonishing memory and still vividly recalls punt returns for touchdowns in high school (two against Granville in one game) and the college coaches who came calling for his basketball, baseball and football services. His skills led to stints playing hoops and baseball for Adirondack Community College.
Warren County Sheriff Bud York, a retired state trooper and senior investigator who worked in Warren County for decades, said he knows Burdo lives in the woods. The two have known each other going back to their teens, when they competed against each other in high school sports.
“Greg was a heck of an athlete,” York said.
Burdo still rides his bike to watch baseball games at Queensbury High or the next-door Little League field from time to time, and he asked about some recent high school playoff games and the whereabouts of former local stars.
He can rattle off names of current and former police officers he has run into over the years during his late-night bottle and dumpster-diving runs, and friends, politicos and business owners he has gotten to know. He reminisces about his years of drinking with the region’s bigwigs at The Pub on Glen Street back in the day. Some of these friends still visit his camp occasionally, bringing a meal or coffee. One even brings a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving.
Alcohol played a big part in the trouble he got into during his younger years, but it is no longer part of his life, Burdo said. Guilt over surviving in Vietnam when friends didn’t, and recalling the deaths and injuries he saw, played a part in his drinking problem, he said.
His priority now are the cats that inhabit his patch of woods. He frets about their care and maladies.
Warren County SPCA president Jim Fitzgerald said he has gotten calls about loose cats in the area over the years, but he has found that the cats that live with Burdo are generally healthy and well-cared for. A local veterinarian has made arrangements to provide free or discounted care. Burdo said the vet has even come to the forest camp to treat them for him. (Fitzgerald said he knows Burdo has lived at least 10 years or so in his current encampment, based on the calls about cats he investigated.)
The king of the cats is Papi, a big gray feline he named after his favorite baseball player, Red Sox slugger David “Big Papi” Ortiz. Papi sleeps on his bed on and off during the day and “swats” at other cats that intrude.
Those that linger around the camp are obviously well-fed and cared for. They look clean. Bags and cans of cat food are evident around the site.
Many, though, are missing tips of their ears, possibly from frostbite or rescue efforts to mark them as feral cats that have been neutered.
‘The girls all know me’
Employees of nearby businesses often gather near the woods for smoke breaks or lunch. He clears snow from their cars during storms, he says.
Burdo said he has gotten to know many of them, and they occasionally bring him cat food.
“He doesn’t bother anybody. That’s just the way he wants to live,” one of the women told me.
Many of the local police officers know of Burdo’s encampment, and they help him when they can. When they spot him at a convenience store or fast food spot, they often buy him a cup of coffee or a meal.
Years ago, a couple of kids found Burdo’s home and harassed him for a few days. He told a state trooper about it, and they didn’t return.
“Occasionally someone will come in here and steal from me. But I let them know where I came from, what I did,” he said, referring to his rough-and-tumble younger years.
Burdo is worried about slowing down as he grows older, and his ability to get around on his bike and collect returnables. A torn meniscus in one of his knees has left him in pain, and so far the U.S. Veterans Administration doctors he visits haven’t been able to solve the problem.
He is worried about what his aging means for his cats. A gum disease has afflicted a number of them, and he knows they are in pain. He tries to treat it, but because treatment hurts, the cats shy away.
A downstate animal welfare league recently intervened and left him a note at his camp, offering help. On a day in June, using Stockdale’s cellphone, he makes a call, and a few days later the organization sends personnel to take some kittens.
After decades of life in a tent and under tarps, he says he plans to continue the life he has chosen as long as he can.
“One of the things I got from the (military) service was courage to do what I want to do,” he said. “I don’t know what the future brings. I could stay here until I’m 80.”