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, September 09, 2011

The Land of Faerie

A few years after Atticus and I started hiking in the White Mountains we found ourselves on an unusual trail, headed in a sharply different course. It wasn’t a miscalculation, but a change of direction that was carefully nurtured.

The reason for the change can be found in something Tolkien wrote: "Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants or dragons; it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are one in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted."

That quote, the very essence of it, is why we gave up a life in Newburyport where we’d become deeply-rooted. It was a city where I thought I would live my life. But that’s the thing about magic: if you open your eyes, mind, and heart to it, there’s no telling where you’ll end up.

Seven years ago this very weekend Atticus and I joined three of my brothers on a climb up Mount Garfield. They’d all been hiking up here for years, but for us it was something new. And yet after staggering up that final chute to the everlasting vistas on that incredible summit everything changed and I found myself in a vivid state of life and understood then and there that things would never be the same again. We’d came back that following summer and by hiking the 48 4,000-footers in eleven weeks I returned to my childhood. It was a walk across hundreds of miles and deep into that land of faerie Tolkien spoke of.

Because fate works as it does and our only job is to go along for the ride, we returned that winter – even though I planned for us to avoid the snowy peaks. Then came the next spring, summer, and fall, where we visited all 48 (and other peaks) once again. Over the following two winters we set out on our fundraising quests, first to raise money for the Jimmy Fund and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in memory of a friend who died of cancer by attempting to do two rounds of the 48 in the 90 days of winter. Then, the following winter, after Atticus had lost his sight and then had it restored because of the kindness of others, we attempted the 96 peaks in 90 days once again, this time for Angell Animal Medical Center.

Throughout all of this peakbagging we adhered to schedules and I found myself a daily visitor to various hiking websites where I could touch base with others who had been hooked by the same addiction. I’d check in several times a day, see what others were hiking, and would let them know what we’d been doing, and planned to do.

And then something happened.

In the midst of all that collecting of peaks, in the hurry to get them done, I grew proud of our accomplishments and the sheer numbers we were piling up.  I desired nothing more than to fit in with the hiking community and let them know what we were doing.  It was then that I realized I had taken this gift of another chance at innocence I’d been given in my forties and nearly thrown it away.

Those of us who come to the White Mountains from other places fall under their spell. We cannot get enough of them. It’s love gone mad. Enchantment falls upon us and this is all we care about. We hike the 48 the first time around because it serves the purpose they were set up to do – to get people to see peaks other than the Presidential Range and Franconia Ridge. And if when do the 48 again...and again, we begin to fall into a rut. At least I did. 

If we collect those peaks enough, we start to diminish the gift of returning to the magic of our youth when all was possible. We make the mistake of bringing along the very life of striving, competition, and ego that we were so very happy to leave behind when we first glimpsed this incredible place. And we do it all because we’re working towards yet another accomplishment – perhaps earning a scroll, a patch, or our names on a website. All so that we can say, “Look what I’ve done!”

I’m not sure when it clicked for me; perhaps there wasn’t a specific time but an accumulation of unease. But I finally came to realize that I’d turned my life in the mountains into the one I was so thrilled to leave behind. So I set a different course, away from the mania of accomplishment, and back again towards the land of faerie.

I’ve not regretted it. I no longer visit the hiking websites. As a matter of fact, I avoid them like the plague, for I see in many who post there the same mania I was urged on by and am reminded that what we dislike about others is what we recognize in ourselves.  This is not to say it's wrong for them; it was simply wrong for me.  There's a saying all hikers know: "Hike your own hike."  It means get whatever you need to get out of the mountains.  And while others are into collecting the same peaks over and over again, I'm not.  Although I must say that I don't believe there's anything wrong with either approach. 

Having experienced both types of hiking, I made a decision to get back to the more free form style of going where I want to go.  Perhaps it's because I'm not much of a joiner or a follower and I've always admired Emerson for writing, "Whose would be a man must be a nonconformist." 

Over the last three years Atticus and I no longer hike with a plan. Instead we visit the woods, get their good tidings, and fulfill our souls. It feels much better this way. It feels the way it is supposed to feel. Each walk in the woods, each summit reached is once again a gift. And now it’s done for the right reasons. Not so we can say to others, "Look what we’ve done," but so that we can feel the magic the way it was supposed to be felt, the way poets and painters have always felt about such places.

I returned to this area of my youth because of a seed planted in me by my father long ago. And I’ve been led from valley to peak by a little dog with a curious sense of place, self, and calmness. And now as we get ready to launch our book, the first ever nationally published about these magical White Mountains, I’m content in knowing that we’ve reclaimed much of what I nearly lost.

One of my pleasures this summer has come in the form a watching a duo quite similar to us – an adult and a little one – as they take the journey Atticus and I took six years ago. One is old enough to bare the trials and tribulations of life; the other is still wrapped in the innocence of childhood.

My two favorite hikers: Sierra Flagg
and Atticus M. Finch.
When this summer began, Sue Flagg, who owns and publishes both the NorthCountry News and Mountainside Guide with her husband, Bryan wanted to climb Mount Washington with their seven year old daughter, Sierra. They not only did that, but have now climbed 37 4,000-footers. In this incredible summer which will live on forever for them, mother and daughter only continue on because it’s still fun for Sierra. She cares more about spending time with her mother in the woods (and occasionally her father as well) and little about the patch and scroll the Appalachian Mountain Club awards finishers of the 48. They aren’t doing it for the notoriety and aren’t posting and boasting about what they’ve done. This is not a case of a little league dad or soccer mom pushing their child to the extreme so they can fulfill some emptiness within themselves.  Sue and Sierra are doing it simply for the joy of it.  

In watching them progress from mountain to mountain I am overjoyed by their experiences. And while Sue is happy to teach her daughter as much as she can during each of her hikes, I have the feeling that Sierra is doing her own fair share of teaching as well. For these mountains are for the innocent who can still appreciate magic. They are for little girls and little dogs and those of us they remind to be young and fresh and hopeful again.

The land of faerie exists. It’s wherever nature is. And if we allow it – it’s also within us.


Dave Olson said...

"...we start to diminish the gift of returning to the magic of our youth when all was possible. We make the mistake of bringing the very life of striving, competition, and ego that we were so very happy to leave behind when we first glimpsed this incredible place."
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I wish I had known that a few years ago.

Thomas F. Ryan said...

We live and learn, Dave. Good thing's never too late. I'm proof of that. Have great hikes this coming weekend and week.

Elena said...

Thanks, Tom -
This post could not have come at a better time. My boyfriend and I are up in the whites next week and were planning on cramming as many 4k's in as possible so he can catch up to me. Rarely do I have time to just BE there and enjoy my surroundings...Plans have been changed - we're going into vacation mode - hiking because we want to be there, not because we have to cross something off a list

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Great news, Elena. Listen, I'm glad we did the 48, but the best part of being up here is simply being up here. Now we go where we want to, some mountains are big, some are small. Sometimes we're not even on a mountain but at a pond or by a stream. It's the best. Have a great vacation.

Kevin Talbot said...

Once again you have been able to gracefully articulate what I have known and felt for several years now. The magic for me goes out the window when I start thinking about lists and accomplishments. Although I still post my TRs and photos I have given up on joining any of the discussions on the various boards as they always lead to arguments and misunderstandings. What is great about the mountains and woods is just what you described, nothing more, nothing less. The lists are behind us. What we like is covering new ground, or returning to ground we hold sacred in our memories. There is nothing better than being led there by a little dog... hope to see you two at Jabberwocky, it's been too long... - Kevin

Dave Olson said...

Just came across this quote in the new issue of Running Times, and I think it applies:

"Quantification is worth noting and enjoying, and wrestling against some days, most days, but what does it have to do with anything, with the sound of the wind or the color of the rain clouds blowing down from the north?"
-- James Shaprio, Meditations from the Breakdown Lane

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Yep, Dave. I think that aptly sums it up. Nice find. (And congrats on reading Running Times again!)

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Hey, Kevin, as you and I both know it's easy to get swept up into it. Recently I talked to people and asked what they were hiking and I've heard things like "Only Tecumseh," "Only Cannon," or "Only Hedgehog." Only? These are all great destinations by themselves.

It's too bad people feel they have to be going crazy whenever they do anything in the Whites. Glad to have left that behind me.

It would be great to see you in Nbpt if you can make it! It has been too long, indeed.

Librarylady said...

What a wonderful, lyrical post. As an avid reader I am not as often moved as I once was and truly your words struck deep. Today I was with you and Atticus on your journeys. So much of what you said applies to all of us. Skip the destination, live the journey! I look forward to reading your book.

Katie E. said...

I randomly came across your blog by hitting the oh so tempting "Next Blog" button. Now I can't wait to read your book. I am not from a mountainous region, but I remember so many wonderful hours spent fishing with my father in the back waters of Louisiana. So many hours we spent running lines and checking traps. Now my oldest son is old enough to go fishing, and I hope that I can do what my father did, and just enjoy the sunshine. Thank you and Atticus for helping me to remember to find peace when I am tempted to turn enjoyment into a task.