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.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Mount Crescent

Recently I fear I may have unintentionally offended a Northcountry News reader. She wrote to tell me she was done teaching for the summer and wondered if Atticus and I would consider taking her and her father on a hike. I informed her we nearly always hike alone and offered to make a few suggestions of where she could hike but I never heard back from her.

I was thinking about her on Wednesday as Atticus and I ducked into the woods. It was a perfect day for hiking. The air was a clean, crisp autumn cool and a gentle breeze swayed the green canopy of leaves as we walked along. The gentle wind stirred life into the foliage. Even in the darkest reaches of tangled wood, where death and life mingled together on the forest floor and gave off a sweet, musky scent, and rocks were coated with a thick, lush green moss. There was birdsong and splashes of gold along the sun-dappled trail and the slightest bit of magic danced just out of sight around the bend of the trail or behind some ancient tree.

Those very enchantments are the reason we choose not to hike with others. It’s not a matter of disliking company so much as it is of loving nature and the experience that comes with climbing along a rocky path and leaving a bit of myself behind with each passing step. Even in those moments of exhaustion where my lungs gasp for more air, my heart beats wildly, sweat runs down my face and I need to sit and catch my breath and wipe the stinging salt from my eyes there is something in all of it that adds to the experience of being alone. Bring along another and there’s conversation, which is not a bad thing, but it’s something I can do without in the forest. It’s one of the reasons that Atticus is a perfect hiking partner. We communicate without words and walk along attached by an invisible chord that runs from dog to man. Everything is shared – wordlessly.

When it comes to conversation I have a phone, a favorite restaurant and coffeehouse. People are, after all, everywhere. But salvation, I’m convinced, comes when we break away from mankind’s world and give ourselves over to God’s. May Sarton, the poet, wrote, “Whatever peace I know rests in the natural world, in feeling myself a part of it, even in a small way.”

When I do this: break away for a few hours or for an entire day and leave society behind I inevitably stumble upon myself and spend time getting reacquainted. It’s finding my peace, or maybe I’m finding my religion. Some people drop to their knees to pray, I find myself in prayer without even realizing I started. All I know that there’s something about the natural world that brings it about and sends me back home again.

I’m one of those who think that God wasn’t fooled by Adam and Eve. He knew all along they’d screw up and their supposed “sin” would become our “sin”. The way I see it is we get a gift of life and in turn each of us has to find a way back to the Garden again, no matter what it takes. But distraction is everywhere. Some find their center in community; I’m just not one of them. I find it without other people around, in a verdant wood with a little floppy-eared dog by my side. It’s ritual of renewal again and again, step by step, mountain by mountain.

On Wednesday we found our renewal along the Crescent Range, a little place that thankfully is overlooked by most hikers. And there’s good reason for it stands across the road from the majestic Northern Presidentials and their lofty and rugged peaks. Relatively speaking, 3,251-foot Mount Crescent is small beans compared to Adams, Jefferson and Madison, the second, third and fifth highest peaks in New England. Luckily Mount Crescent, is a lot like Atticus, and doesn’t realize it’s not one of the “big dogs”. It stands without arrogance or apology.

The trails are lovingly cared for by the Randolph Mountain Club, and they are not so manically hiked so as to seem like you are in a well-traveled place. The mountain has a wild feel to it and we didn’t see another soul the entire day. As a matter of fact, there was a far better chance of seeing a moose than a human. I didn’t even see a solitary footprint, not even in the mud, but evidence of moose were numerous and seemingly everywhere. There were even moments I could swear the moose were watching us and after we passed I imagined them coming out from their hiding spots and considering us.

The mountain offers a steep enough climb gaining 1,400 feet in 1.7 miles and like most mountains the higher we reached the steeper the trail became. Once on top of Mount Crescent we found a wonderful little ledge with an unrivaled view towards Cabot and Waumbek and their brethren along the Pliny Range. We sat and were chilled by the cool wind and shared our lunch while watching clouds pass over the green range. Then we were off again along the pleasant Crescent Ridge Trail on our way to Mount Randolph. Occasionally we’d look to through the trees towards the open space to the north, and then other times we’d see the Northern Pressies to the south and throughout it all we were surrounded by the solitude of the forest.

Eventually we made our way back to the car and soon we were driving along the road, headed through Gorham, passing by Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, Burger King, Dunkin Donuts and other establishments. And just like that we were back again, back to society with its myriad of distractions and the hurrying from here to there. But that’s why we hike again and again, why we seek out the quiet of a stream; sit in a field; or atop a mountaintop. The perfect life may not be possible, but it’s the striving for it that reveals the magic.

Tennyson touched on that in the last line of his epic poem Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”


LM said...

Hey Tom,

What?.., you don't want to hike with me and my dog also? You would enjoy it. With the sounds of my pharaoh hound barking at every thing that moved, gnawing at trees in a wild panic trying to get at those chipmunks. Digging, digging and ripping the roots with his teeth to try try and try to get them chipmunks. It is quite the entertainment if you do not like peace and tranquility. Moo is a good ol' boy but he is such the hunter. Surely you are better off alone than with us....

Thomas F. Ryan said...

LM...oh the tempation to hike with Moo...NOT. I'm sure he's a good friend to you but I think he'd probably drive us crazy. But at least he loves the woods and has an owner who loves him. That's worth quite a bit.