Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Hedgehog At Sunset

Think back to the fairy tales of your childhood and how the rich, dark woods were as textured as the characters themselves. I have felt like I’ve stumbled into such an enchanted forest whenever entering the woods to climb Mount Hedgehog. They evoke a feeling of other worldliness and each step into nature and up the mountain is a step into a realm where mystery and magic meet and society is left behind. The child within me half expects to come face to face with a gnome or dwarf. And no matter how often I trod the familiar path and never see such a creature, I never doubt I could actually see one around the next bend in the trail.

I get to Hedgehog as often as I can because before too long many of the trees in the area will be wiped out by the lumber industry. I fear that not unlike the children who would be the kings in queens in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, there will come a time when I’ll never reach it again and all I’ll see will be the stubbled remains of where a forest used to stand and where magic used to live.

Oh, I know there are plenty of special places here in the mountains, but there’s something about this particular area that has always resonated with me. Why? I cannot say, other than to say it’s like love – you know it when you feel it and it is nearly impossible to describe in words. And while the Forest Service has always allowed logging in the White Mountains, there’s never been a time in recent years where they will level nature so close to a trail.

Last Saturday I was in the mood to visit those woods again but I didn’t want to deal with the crowds or the heat of August so we didn’t arrive at the trailhead until 5:00 p.m. and the only people we saw were those getting ready to leave. I had planned it right and Atticus and I had the mountain to ourselves. Whenever that happens, I enter the woods with a childlike trill running through my body, my senses tingling with excitement.

In the first mile and a half of the nearly five mile loop I saw numerous trees marked by tape revealing where the destruction will take place. It’s incredible when you consider how many will be removed and the generations that will pass until a person can stand where I was and see such mature trees again. As we passed these areas I felt like I was saying goodbye to old friends I’d gotten to know these last few years.

Hedgehog is only 2500 feet high, but like all mountains it makes you work. There are easy parts and there are parts where you have to push yourself. The discomfort takes over – shortness of breath, racing heart, sweating, low back pain – but it brings a gift with it. You cannot think of anything but what you are doing and where you are. Distractions evaporate. The mind becomes clear. It’s here in the stripping away that the senses become even more alive and on Hedgehog this happens just before you reach the breathtaking open Eastern Ledge. You leave the woods and yourself behind and scramble up large shelves of rock and suddenly you stand on the edge of the mountain. Far below the green carpet of the valley sweeps away and up towards Chocorua, Paugus, and Passaconaway – mountains even grander than the great Indian chiefs they were named for.

This is our favorite place on the loop and when we arrived we spent a great deal of time sitting and looking out at the views while growing shadows brought a welcomed coolness. Even in the shadows though, the scene in front of us was amazingly bright while the sinking sun cast everything in a golden hue.

After a lengthy visit we left the ledges and entered the woods for the climb up to the summit. Here the forest grew so dark I could barely see and I had to let my eyes adjust but where my sight failed my sense of smell grew strong. The musky smell of earth, pine and decaying wood entered me. The deeper we went the more we were enveloped by shadows so dark it felt like night. Then, on the western edge of the mountain the setting sun splashed through the trees like a breaking wave and the forest was flooded with that same golden light. We were bathed in it as we walked the twisting trail until we were face to face with Passaconaway. The name itself translates to ‘Son of the Bear’ and I could almost imagine it coming to life and looming above us like a giant bear.

The climb was done and we settled in for some more views before heading down to finish off the loop. But there was still one more stop to make. Just before night completely fell, we reached Allen’s Ledge. Here we sat for the third time and watched the night roll across the sky until the stars pin-pricked their way through the blue-black sea overhead. Here you really could count the stars, although I fear once you started you’d never finish.

Amazing, isn’t it, how the various facets of a journey come together like patches on a quilt? Each area of the mountain shared something different with us. And although night had fallen we still had one more to experience. The final pages of our journey came in the last mile when the mountain came to life even more with its mysterious smells and sounds. Trees creaked and groaned, beasts both big and small moved just out of sight – a scampering here, a crashing through brush there. That’s when we reached the place Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote about: “Night, the beloved. Night, when words fade and things come alive. When the destructive analysis of day is done, and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again. When man reassembles his fragmentary self and grows with the calm of a tree.”

There were times in that last mile when we stopped and I turned off my headlamp and we just enjoyed that ‘beloved’ night on this beloved mountain. I pledged that I would return again as often as I can before the forest is stripped bare and with it much of the magic. Perhaps each subsequent visit will allow me to build a replica of this world in my imagination so that this doomed forest will live on if only in my memory.


Anonymous said...

Felt like I was with you on this hike. Thank you.

Susan said...

That was so nice. Have a great weekend!

Lori Welles said...

Your posts make the mountains come to life. Very sensual and romantic like a love letter. That's a gift unique to you

Anonymous said...

Now I see why you like to hike alone with words like that. I want to go there and hike Hedgehog the same way you did at the end of the day.

Kristen said...

I agree with what Lori must write some kind of love letters to your special friend! Lucky her. :-)

Pam Prince said...

You touch my Soul with your Words...Thank you....

Anonymous said...

The mountains need someone to tell their story and through the years they have shown their magic to just the right person so that the splendor of the forest can be shared with others and appreciated for the gift that it is. You are our storyteller and we read each word and thought that you share with us. You inspire us and that is your gift. Thank you for making us more aware of what we would otherwise take for granted.