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, February 12, 2011

Contentment in a Crazy World

Recently Amy Chua’s book about strict and demanding parenting, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has been riding high atop the bestselling charts. Her method stands in stark contrast to Claire Dederer, another recent bestselling author; whose book Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses espouses a gentler approach. In a recent New York Times Book Review Dederer was quoted: “Raising kids is the toughest temp job you’ll ever have. Maybe part of the job is teaching them the value of contentment in a disconcerted, grasping, climbing world.”

What does all this have to do with hiking? For me it has a lot to do with it.

You see, nature, and particularly hiking, offer me a connection to my late father, Jack Ryan. I may live in more complicated and faster paced times, but he lived in a harsher world. He grew up in the Depression, fought in World War II, raised nine children (some of us after my mother died), and his parenting technique fell somewhere between Chua’s and Dederer’s. In all honesty he was much more like Chua, but whenever he took us to the mountains we saw the best part of him emerge – the gentler side. We’d ride the tram up Cannon Mountain, stand on the viewing platform at the top of the mountain, look towards the Kinsmans to the southwest, Franconia Ridge to the southeast, and beyond both to a whole undulating sea of blue swells of never-ending mountains. It was there in the heart of Franconia Notch that I first noticed a rare look on his face. It was the look of contentment.

Jack Ryan never actually climbed a four thousand footer and he didn’t climb many mountains at all, but in some ways he actually has made it to the top of each one. For he has been with Atticus and me every step of the way. Sooner or later I feel his presence on each hike and it is so real I find myself saying aloud, “You would have loved this, Dad.”

Recently Atticus and I have been enjoying the simple act of tramping through the winter woods. Lately a favorite is to walk past the well-packed trail to Diana’s Baths and continue past the frozen falls along the trail towards North Moat. A mile into our walk we come to a stream that is covered tightly by the ice and all that can be heard of it are gentle murmurings. They sound almost like whispers and you only hear them when you stop and the snow is not crunching beneath your snowshoes with every step. Whenever we come to the stream crossing we pause and listen to that gentle song for a minute or more. It’s something that could easily go unnoticed when hiking with others. But when it’s just Atticus and me we not only hear the different sounds the forest makes, we seem to feel them.

Right around the stream crossing we turn onto the Red Ridge Trail. This will also take you to North Moat but in a more roundabout manner. Most people reach this point and turn back towards the falls giving themselves a nice two mile walk. But lately we’ve ventured further. It is a private piece of the forest, not so private that no one ever goes there, but it’s seldom enough that we’ve never seen anyone out there.

While walking out that way in the late afternoon the western sun slants through the woods and gives the dark bark of the winter trees more color and no matter how cold it feels things seem happier – more cheery. After a mile we come to another intersection and here we take a left onto the Red Ridge Connector. That’s where the climbing starts. It’s not horrendously steep, but it’s steep enough to make me sweat and occasionally stop to catch my breath. On this third leg of our journey there are very few snowshoe prints so we are promised even more privacy. We climb through the sun-lit forest, over crusty snow, into the waning afternoon and after a half mile or more of good work we come out on the backside of White Horse and Cathedral ledges. From there you can look down on the North Conway – both the quaint village and the bustling outlets stores.

We usually love our viewpoints, but on this regular trek it is the walk through the woods that is most special. I suppose it’s because it’s so close to the civilization we always enjoy escaping from. It’s not like when you are on the summit of Garfield or West Bond where you see nothing but everlasting nature. Here you can see Home Depot, Hannafords, and Lowe’s. And yet, it is a fine work out both for body and mind.

The return trip is easy and our strides are longer. We don’t have to stop while descending…and yet we often do. I find myself standing in the woods alone with Atticus, not another soul around, and I can feel that same thing my father introduced to me so long ago. It’s that feeling of contentment. It swells and warms me; it soothes and sings to me. It reminds of him at his best and reminds me that I’m on the journey he often dreamed of but never undertook.

I think Dederer had it right. My father was a beaten man by the time I got to know him. Life had worn him down. In spite of that he unknowingly passed onto me the value of contentment. As I near fifty I realize that it is perhaps the most valuable thing I have and the greatest gift he gave me.


cinnibell said...

Well written, of course (!) and beautifully conveyed sentiments, Tom. You say,"But when it’s just Atticus and me we not only hear the different sounds the forest makes, we seem to feel them." So quiet. So profound. Contentment. (Thank you, Tom's dad!)


Philip Werner said...

I love the solitude of the Red Ridge Trail. It can be a bit challenging to follow at times, all the better.