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, March 26, 2010

What A Little Moonlight Will Do

There is a cure for the malady known as writer’s block. It is called a deadline. And once the reality kicks in that time is running down all thoughts leave a clogged head and instincts take over. You write easiest this way, because it is at its purest form. There are no more filters, no giving it a lot of thought. You just put it down on paper and more often than not it turns out to be your best work. The manuscript for our book is due at the publishers by the end of May. That means our days are now filled with the barest of necessities. We take long walks or hikes and we write and that’s it. Actually, I write and when I’m typing away Atticus naps.

That’s what he’s doing as I’m writing at this moment. He’s snuggled up against me on the couch in front of the fireplace. It’s not a very cold night but the fire lends a cozy feel to our living room because it is late and we just got in.

You see, we went out for dinner. Being raised Irish Catholic I’m no food critic. If it’s edible it’s fine with me. So instead of seeking out gourmet cuisine I go in search of ambiance. I’m told there are several wonderful restaurants here in the Mount Washington Valley and yet I’ve hardly eaten at any of them. We keep returning to the same place. It’s where we were tonight. It’s a B.Y.O.B. establishment. As a matter of fact, it’s B.Y.O.F. as well. And best of all Atticus is allowed there. We had our dinner on the ledges of South Doublehead with the moon casting a mystical light from above and the stars of the village of Jackson twinkling in the valley below.

It was a perfect night for ‘eating out’. It wasn’t as warm as it will be in coming weeks and months but it’s much warmer than it was throughout the winter. It helped that there was no wind, not even a kiss of breeze. And so Atticus and I sat at the best table in the joint: right on the edge of a prominent ledge, my feet dangling over the edge while he sat Buddha-like on his plump rump next to me.

Between bites we took in our surroundings. A thin layer of clouds blocked out he stars above, but cast a ghostly pale over the mountaintops and valleys. Not too far away, their profiles defined clearly under the moonlight, were the Carters and the Wildcats and the sharp cleft of Carter Notch wedged tightly between them. To their left, standing like a pyramid was the top of Mount Madison. A bit closer to us was Washington herself. Touched by the magic of the moon, it was as if our greatest peak was alive and breathing, and with her white gown she glowed against the night.

Earlier in the week we took an early morning hike to Mount Isolation, one of the 4,000-footers, and unless snowy conditions are just right it can be very difficult to reach. So I planned that hike to take advantage of a trail broken out by a succession of hikers in the previous days. But more often than not where we find the best experiences are not in the planned hikes, but in the impromptu experiences like last minute dinner plans on South Doublehead. Earlier in the day I had no idea we’d be climbing it, but when darkness started to ease into Jackson and we were out on a walk along a wooded cross country ski trail now bare of snow and came to the end of a tunnel of trees the Doubleheads looked so inviting.

It’s like John Muir wrote in his simple, elegance: “The mountains are calling and I must go.” And so we went. We returned home, packed up the little bit we needed and drove across town.

The lower portion of the trail was easy going but before too long I took my snowshoes off my pack and put them on my feet. It’s an interesting spring. The valleys are bare but where there is the least amount of elevation there is still plenty of snow. It was a wonderful walk through the moon shadows of thousands of trees.

The trail to the saddle between North and South Doublehead is short but steep. It’s not much more than a mile but you have to work to plant yourself between the two peaks. But once there it is one of those underrated, almost primordial places you come to in the Whites when on the way to somewhere else. With the majority of the climb and the forest behind us and standing between the two peaks the trees suddenly thin and drop away and there is a grand view into Maine. What trees do stand here on the western side of the saddle are worn thin and many are scraped by the moose that congregate there.

(We’ve yet to see a moose in the saddle but I always expect to see one or two. I often imagine the forest is alive with their eyes watching us in silence. I wonder what they must think to see us nearly always at night, a party of two looking so different from one another: Me like a big-footed, hunched-back Cyclops with my snowshoes, backpack and headlamp on; Atticus like a miniature moose perhaps – sans antlers.)

It’s not too far from the saddle to the first of the ledges of South Doublehead and we made good time. The trees are denser and the trail snakes its way through rocks and roots now covered with snow. My headlamp cut through the darkness and led us to the ‘best table in town’. Once on the ledges Atticus and I sat and took in the views. We drank some water before I took out the food: chicken and apple sausages for me; raw beef for him. It was a leisurely dinner and the stars twinkling up at us from the valley below made me feel like we were higher than heaven and were keeping company with the great mountaintop spirits the Indians both revered and feared.

After a time we moved to the true summit of South Doublehead and another set of ledges. These look towards Kearsage and the Moats and the mountains beyond. It is another one of my favorite unheralded places for it shows North Conway the way it must have looked before it was North Conway. You can see the surrounding cliffs and valleys but there are no lights. It’s a perfect angle to look on Cathedral Ledge and its rocky edifice. At moments like that I often wish I had a time machine so I could go back to the days when the White Mountain Painters gathered in the mountains. I’ve seen so many of their paintings but I’ve yet to see one from this angle. How fun it would be to drag Ben Champney or Thomas Cole up there to give them a new perspective of a scene quite often painted. I’m sure they may never want to leave, which is exactly how we feel when we’re there – day or night.

And I do mean ‘we’. There are some summits Atticus doesn’t want to leave. He sits in protest, imaging that he is an anchor and I will be forced to stay if he refuses to budge. I cannot make rhyme or reason over why he favors some over others, but it is clear South Doublehead is one of his favorites. Typically when I get up to go he’s with me since we communicate in the same language without words, but not up there or on South Moat or Hedgehog. He sits, I stand; we look at each other. Sometimes I’ll give in; less seldom does he. Eventually we come to an agreement and move on, but not without him lagging behind.

That’s the way it was last night. He’s on new medication for his eyes and though the cataract surgery took place nearly three years ago they look clear and young again and I imagine he sees better than he has in a long time. Perhaps that’s why he wanted to stay up there or perhaps he wanted to converse with the moon or hang out with the great spirits.

Who knows? Even between the closest of friends there are some mysteries.


Bob C said...

You're making these little peaks sound really enticing, Tom. I've just gotta get out there.

unstrung said...

Awesome writing, awesome trip. Now I wanna go!

Sky said...

any chance atticus can't see as well along the trails of some peaks, and he is a little scared going back down?