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, January 28, 2011

Walking into the Night

What a strange night it was.

I was in bed around ten reading the Autobiography of Mark Twain until about eleven, when I turned off the light and went to sleep. Not two hours later I woke up and was lying wide awake in bed. When I went to the bathroom for a glass of water I saw my reflection in the mirror above the sink and took a minute to really look. In the dim light I realized I’m not as young as I think I am.

I’ve never been one to think all that much about age and I definitely do not feel my own age. But when I looked at myself I saw the years leaving their signature in the soft lines around my eyes and saw a bit of salt and pepper in the stubble on my chin. I slowly ran my fingers over my face, then through the brown and gray curls in my hair and leaned in for a closer look.

Strange to be looking in the mirror at one in the morning and have lines from a poem drift into my head. It was the opening stanza to a Robert Herrick poem and I said them aloud.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.”

Atticus stuck his head around the corner and nudged my leg with his nose pulling me away from my thoughts. Dogs don’t worry so much about age, or so I’m told. Then again they don’t worry about much of anything. In Atti’s case it seems the only thing that he is concerned with is me.

Considering the early hour and my middle aged years and how fleeting life is I made the curious decision not to return to bed but to instead get dressed in my hiking clothes, grab my backpack and head out the door. It was 2:30 am and four degrees out when we parked the car in Crawford Notch and took off up the Crawford Path. We were kept company by a half moon and clouds drifting lazily across the sky. Occasionally the upper reaches of the trees thinned enough for me to turn off my headlamp.

“Weren’t you afraid,” a friend asked me later that day.

“Yeah,” I said, "It's kind of weird, I know. I used to be afraid of the dark when I was a kid and hid my head beneath the blankets when I went to bed. But I think that’s partially why I hike at night from time to time.”

“I don’t get it,” she said.

“Nothing bad is going to happen in the woods at night. What I fear more than anything is the black of the night and the thought that something bad could happen. But my thoughts aren’t rational.”

And it’s true; my trepidation is not about moose or coyotes or falling down and injuring myself. They are instead of the fears of my childhood imagination – of things that go bump in the night, albeit not quite as harsh as they used to be. Hiking at night brings about a rich paradox of ingredients that makes for a savory stew. On the trail I am filled with emptiness and loneliness, those haunting childhood fears, freedom, and exhilaration. I get the feeling that I’ve jumped head first into my shortcomings and I breathe deep and am reminded that I’m alive. In the dark there is nothing much out there, but that’s what can be so disarming about it. And yet I’m out there nevertheless.

The higher Atticus and I climbed the deeper the snow was on either side of the well-packed trail and my snowshoes slapped the frozen path with every step. After a while I took off my balaclava and my gloves. I’m rarely cold in the winter when I’m moving and on a hike I am a furnace. The icy air was invigorating and where it met the sweat on my scalp it tingled. From time to time we stopped so I could rest. I’m still not quite the same as I was before this summer’s surgery and because of that I struggle more than I used to – but I’m getting there.

Higher we climbed and trees morphed by winter storms into grotesque shapes lurked along the boundaries of the beam of light cast by my headlamp. And on those occasions when I turned it off and walked with only moonlight to light the way those trees, swollen into sordid creatures in the gloom appeared to be keeping a close watch on us.

Higher we climbed, farther away from our car, farther away from our warm home, and the comfort of our bed, and towards a reminder that I am alive and well even as the lines of my face remind me on rare occasions that I am no longer young. The farther we walked from all that we knew, the more I returned to me. It’s ironic how a walk in the woods does that to a man.

In the woods sooner or later you come face to face with who you are. There are no distractions and you are reminded about the simple but important things in life. And in return you return to nature and are welcomed home time and again.

Two hours after we left the notch Atticus and I made our way out of the trees and into an ethereal mountain mist. I could no longer see the moon but its glow gave the fog life and I decided to go without my headlamp and walked to the summit of Mount Pierce with nothing but Atticus and the eeriness of the moment for company. When we stood next to the cairn marking the high point I picked up Atticus as I always do and we looked off into the distance towards where Washington was even though we could not see anything. I imagined that if we were on top of Washington instead, just a few hours walk up the Crawford Path, we’d be looking down on the clouds and the moon would be bright and the night crisp and the undercast would be something that dreams are made of. But standing as we were it’s not like I felt we were cheated out of anything without a view for there is something wondrous about standing on top of a frozen mountain while the rest of the world sleeps.

I put down a fleece blanket and sat on it and Atticus climbed up on my lap and we split some cheese and chicken sausages. I drank water and Atticus ate snow and when we sat long enough to start to get chilled we packed up and returned the way we came.

I find little to be as invigorating as choosing to do something that may be out of the ordinary for it pushes the margin of what’s normal and predictable. We work our entire lives to feel safe and comfortable, and yet once we are there the only thing that truly keeps us there is to at times venture away from it into the unknown and out onto an edge.

The lines around my eyes may tell the stories of my years, but they are also full of life and the possibilities of what’s to come. Life may be fleeting but that’s all the more reason to fit as much into it as possible.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may…”

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Along the Red Ridge Trail

Yesterday, at 4:30 am Atticus and I stood shrouded in clouds and darkness on the summit of Mount Pierce. This afternoon we took a four mile hike along the Red Ridge Trail up the back side of Cathedral Ledge and the entire time we were awash in the golden light of a cold but wondrous winter afternoon. I've included a photo album on our facebook page.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

White Mountain Photographer Ken Stampfer

Our friend Ken Stampfer, a wonderful White Mountain photographer, the man responsible for the photo on the back cover of our upcoming book (above), and a good friend to Atticus, has started a website and you can now buy his photo cards featuring White Mountain scenes. You can see them here. And as always you can get his cards at Steve Smith's Mountain Wanderer in Lincoln, New Hampshire.

Atticus Finch, Meet Atticus M. Finch

The United States Postal Service is releasing a Gregory Peck stamp this year. The picture of him is from his role as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. A few months later our book Following Atticus will be introducing the world to the distinctive Atticus M. Finch. It take this as a good sign.

Last night, Atticus and I climbed Mount Pierce and my trip report will be up within the next day so check back.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Blue Dog

Not to be confused with George Rodrigue's Blue Dog, Atticus is looking a bit blue (not to mention small) at the end of today's hike.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Four Thousand Footers Of The White Mountains of New Hampshire Map

This map of the Four Thousand Footers of the White Mountains will appear in Following Atticus. It was lovingly created by Jackson, New Hampshire artist Kathy Speight Kraynak specifically for the book. She will be making some minor changes to the map and it will come out as a poster that will be available for purchase throughout the White Mountains. The poster will be available around the same time as the book is published. (It will not have the picture of Atticus or the Tom & Atticus logo on it.)

A Place I Return To Time And Again

I often poke fun of my hiking friends who are religious in their pursuit of the almighty "Grid," that once rare accomplishment where each of the four thousand footers is climbed in each of the twelve months. That's a total of 576 peaks and once upon a time it was only done by long time hikers who realized that through all their years of tramping through the woods that they were so close to accomplishing the goal that they decided to go for it. It was truly rare and admirable. But eventually new hikers started setting their sights on reaching the holy land of the "Grid" and now so many people are out to do it that it no longer seems like such a big deal. Dare I even say it will soon be passé?

(Now there's even a website for those who finish. Not only is their name bronzed for all time on the Internet, they each receive the hiker's equivalent of the Holy Grail - a patch. Hikers just cannot help themselves when it comes to getting patches. You receive one when you climb each of the 48, another if you do them in winter, another if you climb each of the 67 4,000-footers in New England, and yet another if you do the 67 them in winter. You can get a patch for the doing the Adirondacks’ 46 4,000-footers, doing them in winter, doing all those in New England and New York, and once again another for doing them all in winter. Getting dazed yet? There's more. Do each of New England's 100 highest peaks you get another patch, do them in winter - and you guessed it, you get yet another. The moral of the story is this: tell most hikers they'll get a patch for walking gerbil-like on a spinning wheel for a week and they'll do it.)

My zealous friends are so enamored with the exercise that many forsake any peak that doesn't top out above 4,000 feet. And God forbid if it’s January and they've already climbed Mount Lafayette in January - there's just simply no reason to do it again. Many of these folks miss out on the grandeur of Black Mountain, Chocorua, Hedgehog, or Pemigewasset simply because they aren't 4,000-footers. But chasing after the "Grid" reminds me too much of punching a time clock and heading off to work. As a poster on my blog once wrote, "Keeping track of peaks you've climbed is like keeping track of bowel movements." In the long run it simply doesn't matter. Hikers appear to chase after the "Grid" simply because others have done it and received notoriety for having done it. Monkey see, monkey do.

However, I should come clean and admit that I am no better than those I lampoon. You see, as of late I've been on top of Mount Waumbek not once, not twice, but thrice!

I returned again and again, not so much to see the summit, for I've been there so often I can sketch the setting from memory, but for that wondrous stretch of life and death that lies in the saddle found halfway between the woebegone peaks of Mount Starr King (topping out at a pathetic 3,907 feet) and Waumbek, which is 4,006 six feet. Who knew that ninety-nine feet would make such a big difference? Truth be told, to me it doesn't. I no longer climb for the sake of reaching check marks but for harvesting experiences and there is a section in that saddle between Starr King and Waumbek that is like no other. It is both enchanting and frightening. It is where life and death comingle. The northern wind blows through it with anguished moans and groans and has laid several older trees to waste. They lie strewn about the forest like dead soldiers on a battle field. On a dreary, dark, and forbidding day, it can seem almost haunted – New Hampshire's own version of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland.

I swear that you will not find many places in this world more desolate where loneliness wraps her bony arms around you on a stormy day.

On our first winter trek up there a few years ago Atticus and I had the trail to ourselves and shuffled half-heartedly through the snow. It was gray and the wind whipped at us and howled like a banshee. The tangle of trees is marked by the gothic Old Man's Beard, a cousin to Spanish moss, that dangles from the trees is writhes about in ghostly movements. All I could hear that day was the wind and the emptiness I felt within. At one point I sat down on a fallen tree simply because I didn't know if I wanted to go on. So alone. So lonely. When out of nowhere, in the frosty trees I heard life! It was a bright headed woodpecker busy at work. I was startled by his appearance and sat in rapt attention. His tap-tap-tapping broke the spell and after watching him until he flew away, Atticus and I continued on.

Other hikers look cross-eyed at me when I tell them of my love of Waumbek. It's a mountain with only a couple of views and it sits far away, joining Cabot as the only 4,000-footers above Route 2 in Jefferson. It’s a forgotten mountain in a forgotten town.

So why do I go back? Why do I return to that sad place where death is clearly evident? Because life is also evident as well. Not only are there many tall trees standing in that enchanted stretch of forest, but there are countless saplings springing up at the feet of their dead relatives. A tree tumbles to its death and leaves its seeds behind and, more importantly, space where the sun can reach new born trees and gives them a chance to grow. The cycle repeats itself again and again. It will be that way until the end of time.

In the eight dry days leading up to the snowstorm, Atticus and I were there three times because I just couldn't get my fill of that place. Once we were there at dawn, once at midday, and another at dusk. One of the days it was sunny and the enchantment didn't feel quite as strong. To appreciate that forest you need a windy, dark day. So we returned to see it in its various shades of light. It reminds me, as it always will, of the journey of life. From birth to death. Yes, it can be lonely and dismal, but it also reminds me that I'm alive. So when the world gets so crazy I feel numb and need to be reminded to breathe, or something as sinfully senseless as what just happened in Arizona takes place, I need to feel nature all around me. I need to remind myself of the cycle of life and the magic of that journey. So I return, as I imagine I always will.

And please don't tell those chasing the "Grid" this, for they would surely think me appalling - but I've been there far more than twelve times.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Snow...Finally

Snow if falling in Jackson...finally. It's only the second time this winter we've had snow and the last snowfall took place so long ago up until this morning we've had a lot of bare, brown ground up here. Forecasts call for up to ten inches up here, less than what they'll have along the coast. The area desperately needed this storm as the local cross country ski areas have been closed for business. The mountains had a bit more snow but the trees had been naked. Today's storm will bring winter at its best to the mountaintops over the next several days.

As I put off shoveling for as long as possible, someone (look above) is happy to have snow to play in again. For the full photo album you can check out our Following Atticus Facebook page, where you can keep up to date on everything going on with our book. You can
access that page here.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Follow 'Following Atticus' On Facebook

If you are on facebook make sure you check out our 'Following Atticus' page to keep up with what's going on with our upcoming book. Simply go to facebook and type in the search words "Following Atticus." Once you get to our page push "like" and you can follow the process of what it takes to put a book out.

It will be published by William Morrow in October of 2011. Once it is published you will be able to follow along through media appearances and book signings.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Following Atticus

This morning Atticus and I stopped off at the Jackson Public Library so that he could prepare himself for his big year.

As most of you know, our story Following Atticus: Forty Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, & and Extraordinary Friendship is being published by William Morrow in October of 2011. And just in case you didn't know - the last dog book Morrow published was John Grogan's Marley & Me. We are honored to be published by the same house and in some foreign countries as well. When this autumn rolls around you'll be able to read about our adventures here in North America, as well as throughout the United Kingdom, in Germany, and Italy.