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.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Moon & Stars & Wind on Moriah

“It is in the compelling zest of high adventure and of victory, and in creative action, that man finds his supreme joys.”
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

With the sun already asleep, the temperature below 10 degrees and dropping and winds coming from the northwest strong enough to rattle window panes and roof shingles and still rising, I heard a whisper.

It made no sense, of course. Atticus and I were sitting in front of the fireplace, ready to have our dinner. The stew had been slow-cooking all day and it filled every nook and cranny of our home with a wonderful aroma and was joined by the sweetest strains of Duke Ellington and his band. There was no need to go out, especially on such a night. Except there was that whisper. That whisper, of course, was the call to adventure and when adventure calls it does not consider the time of day, the season or the temperature. And so defying all reason we answered the call.

Just over half an hour later Atticus and I were on the other side of Pinkham Notch leaving the warmth of our car – the last safety we would know that night – as we crossed a bridge and entered the frozen forest. (Notice how many fairy tales start in the exact same manner?) The woods were lit by the nearly full moon and there was no need to waste the batteries on my headlamp, so it was left off. Instead I followed little Atticus and that mischievous moon, which seemed to be smiling down at us.

When it came time to cross Stony Brook we stopped by the edge and picked out the safest way. At that moment the water itself pulsed with life. The moon, it seems, was lending all of us her magic. Once beyond the crossing the moon shadows breathed life into the trees and they appeared to be moving to let us pass. The wind was strong but it was still above the treetops and we were warmed by our movement and filled with the excitement of whatever it was that was calling us forward.

There is a wonderful place where the Stony Brook Trail ends and you are forced to choose to go either left or right on the Carter Moriah Trail. It seems to me to be an ancient place. The signs are weathered and pockmarked, as if they’ve been there for centuries, or better yet, as if you’ve climbed beyond civilization and entered a time long forgotten where roads were but forest paths and primitive signs marked the way. The intersection also marks the place in this hike where the most difficult part is over. It’s 3.3 miles from the car and 1.7 to the summit of Mount Moriah and most of the elevation gain is done.

Turning left we entered a tunnel through the forest and the wind was now beating down on the top of these hearty trees. We climbed up and down, moving along this roller coaster part of the trail and then as if we had come to the end of one world and now stood at the doorway of another we stepped out of the trees and onto the first of the ledges. It was like stepping into a photographic negative: enchanting, wild, mysterious and so very far away from our hot stew and fireplace and warm couch. And wildest of all was the wind! It roared at us, tossed us a bit from side to side, made us pay attention to each step as we looked down into the Wild River Valley and beyond to the mountains of Maine. It seemed mad to be out but we were both safe. (Atticus knows to turn back when he needs or wants to. He did so the very next day on our nightly constitutional around Jackson.) For some mysterious reason it was clear we both were called to this place and needed to be here in this wind, in these subfreezing temperatures under this magnificent moonlight.

We moved from ledge to ledge, from time to time turning around to look over our shoulders at the northern Presidentials. It was bitterly cold but we were dressed for it and pressed onwards, all the while the excitement of being someplace no one in their right mind would be at that moment was growing. We were in a world of our very own. Our hearts beat with breathless excitement as we crossed from one ledge to the next, submerging into the trees and then emerging again, each time into a more frenzied wind as loud as a dragon roaring at us on some mystical mountain.

At the end of ‘Walden’ Thoreau wrote: “I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.”

We were living those words, climbing into the cold and wind and refusing to ‘go below now’. We both wanted more!

Eventually we ducked into the trees for the last time and reached that chute that leads to the table-sized summit. We made our last climb and then reached the summit and we did our best to hold onto ourselves as the wind pushed and pulled at us. Atticus nudged me with his nose. I picked him up and we warmed one another and looked out at this fantastic world we were in. All time stopped. We were at a time and place most will never know and would rather not know.

In John Neihardt’s book “Black Elk Speaks”, the Oglala Sioux medicine man named Black Elk talks of having a vision where he saw himself on the “central mountain of the world…the highest place” and he was seeing the “sacred manner of the world”. That central mountain wasn’t Everest nor another of the highest peaks, nor was it a in a known holy land like Jerusalem. The sacred mountain in his vision was Harney Peak in South Dakota. What Black Elk was saying was that we all have our sacred mountains and sacred places.

Moriah may not be the highest mountain, but it’s where we needed to be, where we were called to. Under a nearly full moon, in conditions we wouldn’t typically be out in, we stood on our “highest place” and looked out on the world and it’s as if we knew everything we ever needed to know and felt all we’d ever need to feel.

Our adventures lately have taken place indoors and mostly at my desk and we needed something different. We had been called away from nearly every comfort we know and found ourselves in a bitter environment fully aware and alive. It was one of those moments that define us. We leave behind the world and chance losing ourselves only to find ourselves again and again.


Jason Berard said...

Tom, I've had that very same thought at that trail junction, but didn't have the words to express it. Reading that passage, I thought, "yes, thats exactly right!" thanks for "not going below!"


Thomas F. Ryan said...

Thanks Jason. it really is a neat little intersection. It feels almost medieval to me. Throughout the Whites I find these little places, which aren't supposed to be the highlights of the hike and yet they resonate with me often more than the summit view does.

paul abruzzi said...

This is the quintessential Tom and Atticus post. I know maybe 1 other person who would even consider stepping out on this adventure, but you make it clear with your words that we are all the worse for not being willing to take that step. Thankfully, the rest of us have you to put all the aspects of the experience into words for us.
Walk on, my friend.

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Paul, you way too kind with your praise. (But I thank you nevertheless, my friend.)