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.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Sweet Pierce Shows Her Wild Side: January 12, 2009

To know the best of January’s mountains is to see them dressed in a gleaming, virginal white under an azure sky. That contrast between heaven and earth shatters me; it blinds me and binds my heart in wordless rapture. It is what drew us out of the warmth of our little hobbit hole to hike on frigid Monday.

Crawford Notch was as it always seems to be in winter: bitter and threatening. The winds shrieked at us to return to the car and subzero temperatures bit at any exposed skin. But we’ve been in the Notch before in similar conditions and I understand the Notch’s bark is worst than its bite and soon we were sheltered by the trees while walking along a well-packed Crawford Path.

We’d left the wind behind but we couldn’t outdistance the cold but it didn’t seem to matter, not when I looked up at the snowy branches against the deep blue background. We were in an enchanted forest and as carefree as can be. But soon, that was to change. The bright aspect of the day was lost and dreariness draped itself over the tree tops and everything turned a lifeless gray. We had walked from a cartoon Technicolor world into an old black and white movie.

Others may say the most difficult part of winter is breaking trail or the dangerous conditions, but because I monitor both and choose the easiest routes for little Atticus in the best conditions, the biggest challenge for me is what happens when the lights go out. It’s not a physical condition but a mental one. All color bleeds out and the cheery magical trees coated heavily in snow become almost sinister. It is no more dangerous than trekking through a troubled dream at night, but still, just as in the dream, I feel it and it weighs on me.

And so when the color left the woods on Monday morning, the journey turned inward. We walked in silence: no sounds other than my snowshoes (not even the wings of the wicked wind flapped above the treetops could be heard); no scents: no vibrant colors – just a walk through a monotone landscape of strange and unusual shapes.

In spite of the more somber mood of the hike I found myself smiling from time to time at the sight of Atticus moving happily along. His purple Muttluks gave him an almost clownish look that was well-suited to the absurdity of his tiny body in these great mountains. How could I not smile? But even that could not warm me as much as I would have liked. I held onto myself by concentrating on by my breathing: the in and out rhythm needed to feed my cardiovascular system.

On my regular 10 or 20 second stops I found myself getting chilled. This is unusual for me. I took another break, put on the hat and gloves and layer I’d taken off earlier and set off again but still it was difficult to get warm. The higher we climbed the grayer, colder and harsher it became. But still, at least there was no wind.

We marched through the long tunnel of trees until at last we came to the curve in the trail where the trees fall off to the left. This is why I chose Pierce on this bluebird day: from this point on the views are beautiful. But where views typically come into place, there was nothing but a gray abyss. Then the wind was on us again. It was so gray it was hard to see. The trees, snow and sky looked all the same. Atticus stopped to let me go first and I broke through knee deep drifts and when we curled towards the trail junction and into the exposed shoulder of the mountain, I was rocked by the wind. We reached the junction and turned up towards the summit of Pierce but even though I’d been there many times before, it all looked foreign to me. The drifts funneled us towards the left, away from the trail, and after a few steps we righted ourselves even though the cairns had been enveloped by the fog.

The wind whipped and raged. Atticus was blown sideways and he staggered like a drunk. I called to him to keep close so that I could shield him from the wind but it robbed my voice from the air and Atti pressed ahead of me up towards the summit as he always does. His little spirit pressed on, as if it had a voice of its own that called out, “Wind be damned!”

I’d never seen gentle Pierce like that before and we hurried to touch the summit cairn. Once on top the wind died a bit and we collected ourselves and I fed my friend thick slices of ham and quickly drank a smoothie for my own strength. We found ourselves surrounded by a winter wasteland of hopelessness. We were just three miles from our car but it may as well have been a thousand.

It didn’t take long before we both started shaking and we set out to return the way we came. Stepping off the mountain’s crown and onto the exposed area again it was like stepping into a raging sea. It was savage, fierce and so overwhelming I was momentarily frightened.

It’s in moments like this that I find myself pushed beyond my comforts and it’s where I find some of the most beautiful treasures. Like all of us, I come from a processed world. The mountains, when they unleash themselves like that and we are taken by surprise; it’s a shock to the system. But in surrendering to it – what a gift to feel as savage as the wind, as strong as the ice and snow covered rocks, to feel one with the mountain even as it tried to shake us off of her. We rode the wind, faced its teeth and I found myself equally unleashed, roaring just as lustily. It was like that moment Walt Whitman describes in two telling lines from his “Song of Myself”:

“I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.”

This time, the wind did not eat my howl. I would be heard.

Time stood still, the wind seemed to freeze in place and I longed to live in that dangerous moment for a few more seconds, if not years, and be wild and unfettered. But madness soon eased and clear thinking returned and man and dog hurried down into the bellowing wind until we stood there looking into a vast gray abyss off the edge of the mountain where the world ended. Once again I stood still on the edge of reason and wanted to feel even more of what surrounded me. I wanted to feel that loneliness and the void. But coldness reeled me in and I realized we needed to get out of there.

We turned onto the Crawford Path and hurried back towards the Notch. Within a few minutes we were sheltered again. We moved quickly, trying to warm ourselves up. When we stopped for the first time we were a mile down the trail and back in the gray woods. From that safe but frozen haven I found the danger above to be amazing. I was awed by its power. I was frightened and exhilarated and fulfilled.

That night, safe and warm in my bed, with Atticus tangled in his favorite fleece blanket next to me, I was stirred by a thought – something Kierkegaard had written: “To venture causes anxiety, but not to venture is to lose one’s self. . . . And to venture in the highest is precisely to become conscious of one’s self.”

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Mt. Tecumseh: January 4, 2009

When I was ten years old and found a rare moment of alone time in the house I grew up in, I cracked open my father’s dusty and musty copy of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” and discovered the brilliance of Ralph Waldo Emerson. At that very first meeting Emerson’s words ran through me like a terrible ache, both beautiful and fierce – the way only truth and love can. It was a bold awakening for a little boy who never enjoyed reading children’s books.

In the years since that fateful meeting Emerson has often offered me stars to navigate by even on the darkest of nights. And yet, of all of the profound things the author said and wrote in his lifetime, the ones I find myself stumbling over again and again on the trail over the past three years come from his simple little poem titled “Fable”.

The mountain and the squirrel

Had a quarrel,

And the former called the latter, "little prig":

Bun replied,

You are doubtless very big,

But all sorts of things and weather

Must be taken in together

To make up a year,

And a sphere.

And I think it no disgrace

To occupy my place.

If I'm not so large as you,

You are not so small as I,

And not half so spry:

I'll not deny you make

A very pretty squirrel track;

Talents differ; all is well and wisely put;

If I cannot carry forests on my back,

Neither can you crack a nut.

It is a lesson in where we all fit. We have our places, no matter how big, no matter how small. In many ways it has become the anthem that often plays in my head when I follow Atticus into the woods on a way to the mountaintop:

“And I think it no disgrace to occupy my place.

If I’m not so large as you, you are not so small as I…”

My little friend carries that same audacity with him wherever he goes and refuses to apologize for his size, or better yet, lack of it.

On Sunday I watched Atticus bound from the road onto a snow bank, deftly cross the icy stones in the stream and charge happily into the woods at the beginning of our trip up Tecumseh on Sunday. I recognized something I haven’t seen since last winter. We walk in the woods nearly every day and while he obviously enjoys it, there’s something different about a hike when we are climbing a mountain…especially in winter. He senses this is where he belongs, as if he’s home again. Whenever I see it in his eyes I feel as though I’m witnessing the reunion of two long lost friends bound by something so intimate that I’ll never fully understand it but I cannot help but fully appreciate the beauty of the moment.

The barometer of his happiness is often his ears and on Sunday they were flying high as he passed along the packed snow through January’s dark, naked trees while catching their growing shadows on the white snow. Occasionally he would stop his bounding long enough for his ears to cease flopping and wait up for me. But it was clear he wanted me to move faster – such unmitigated joy! If he could he would have grabbed me by the hand and dragged me along in his excitement.

After dipping down into the last stream crossing he was just as eager as he waited for me in each bend of those switchbacks before we started that long steady ascent towards the summit. But even in his excitement he slowed down and we began our long-nurtured routine that comes naturally. He leads; I follow – usually a constant ten yards behind.

Tecumseh may be the smallest of the 4,000-footers and one of the shortest distances from road to summit, but that stretch of 1.2 miles is steep enough to cause me to trudge along, one foot in front of the other, a 10-second rest for every 200 steps taken. But on Sunday there was something different about our climb. Perhaps because it was the first of this winter and we were both happy to be out again. We made it through the steeps quicker than I had expected. Once beyond the junction of the Sosman Trail we entered into that wonderful corridor of evergreens that leads to the fork in the trail. As always I let Atti choose the way at the fork and as always he chose left. You see, it clearly goes up, more noticeably than the trail to the right, and for whatever the reason he understands we go up until there is no more up.

When we came into the sunshine and the views to Moosilauke draped in a sheer, thin blanket I chose my footing through the icy rocks carefully, letting the points of my microspikes dig in, but Atticus dodged and weaved and hopped along the craggy trail without much care. Then it was into one last corridor of trees for the short wind to the top. The trees were coated in pixie dust and it glinted in the fingers of sunshine that poked through the dense growth. That’s where I lost Atticus. That’s where I always lose him. It is the place in each hike where he no longer waits for me. He understands the top is near and cannot hold back.

When I caught up to him he gaily circled that row of angelic trees standing guard over the cairn. He was not sniffing or looking for any specific thing but frolicking in a queer little tap dance. Strange little dog, I’ve never quite seen anything like it from him on a mountaintop before but when you spend as much time together as we do you master the game of charades quite well and know how to read him. His message was simple – we’re home. We are home!

Just the other day a friend asked, “Which of the 48 is your favorite?”

Like many of you I have no one single favorite, but even I was surprised when Tecumseh made my list of favored peaks. For us it has never been ‘just Tecumseh’ or a simply a mandatory check mark on a list. Don’t ask me why for I cannot explain it. There’s just something about it that lights my senses afire and inspires me in the most primitive way. Watching my little friend dance around the breezy summit on Sunday, it’s clear he feels the exact same way.

Perhaps for me, part of the charm of Tecumseh is that it resembles Atticus or Emerson’s ‘little prig’; it may be small but it contains all the wonders of the Universe. Because of the little dog I go through life with I’m often reminded that the mass of a thing means little in defining the breadth of its spirit.

And so we came to Tecumseh once again and once again I was the better for it.