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 05, 2007

Hiking with Atticus



(Originally posted on the Views From The Top hiking website last March.)

I recently wrote to my father that one of my favorite childhood memories was of standing with him and my brothers Stephen, Jeff and David on the cool pool of lawn in front of Lafayette Place campground in the creeping shade of a summer eve looking up at the monstrous spine of Mt. Lafayette. It is a moment etched permanently in my memory and one of those childhood moments where you look back upon some 35 years later and remember how safe and secure you felt. It was also one of those moments when I first realized just how beautiful the world was.
On Tuesday of last week I found myself standing on top of that spine. The temperature was in the teens but the wind drove it lower. It was noon but had I not had a watch on my altimeter I wouldn’t have known for it was dark and dreary and we were all alone. We had reached Little Haystack and were going towards Mt. Lincoln and beyond to Lafayette before heading back down via the Three Agonies. Gusts of wind toyed with us and pelted us with snow and ice and I had to put my goggles and balaclava on. The elements were such that there was not much to be seen at times. It is just shy of 2 miles of unprotected ridge. On a sunny day there are not many more beautiful places to be.
On a day such as last Tuesday it was simply desolate looking; a wasteland along a narrow path. As discomfort grew I kept thinking about simple pleasures: a cup of cocoa; a hot bath; a good book; a thick sweater; some sunshine. It’s a habit I’ve fallen into this winter. But reality came at us gust after gust and not for the first time this winter I questioned my ability and our adventurous path. There are moments I have come across where I am all alone up there, no sign of human life about, and I feel as weak as anyone ever has. I reached for strength I didn’t seem to have and found myself thinking about Guy Waterman who chose this ridge to lay down on to end his life. While I’m not saddled with the depression he was, this is the second time this winter I’ve been on this ridge in similar conditions (the other was on Christmas Day between Mt. Liberty and Mt. Flume) and I thought about how such weather can strip a man of hope and his good senses. It would be so easy to just sit down up there and stop moving through the wind and gloom, but to sit would make it harder for me to get up.

The mists make me tired and wreaks havoc with my motivation so I move ever onward. I was tired and dragging and in need of inspiration. Sometimes I find it difficult to be alone in these mountains, but I suppose that’s one of the reasons I’m doing it—to challenge myself and make myself stronger; to come face to face with myself in these elements and an environment I’ve always feared and I will hopefully come out a little bit different than when I went into it. Like many of you I’m asked by folks back home why I’m doing what I’m doing and while I can come up with many answers—all true—I’m not sure any of them are the answer. All I can say is that I feel like this is where I belong this winter.

Not for the first or last time that day I looked ahead at the shrouded path and could see very little. On either side, not too far away, the ridge dropped off into a mist and that was it. There was nothing. My fear of heights heckled me. I told myself that with a few wrong steps across the ice I would be sorry. I was careful as I stepped with my crampons and deliberate with each step, waiting to feel the bite of metal in ice before taking my next step. And while feeling all alone, the view of the landscape varying from 50 feet to a few hundred depending on the gusts and clouds, I was even more in need of inspiration.

Where’s the sun when you need it? I ask that question of myself a lot on stormy days up here. But just as I asked it all I had to do was let my gaze travel through the mist some 50 feet in front of me towards the cairn just revealed by a receding cloud, and there in front of me was my inspiration---a 20 lb. dog. Little Atticus had taken the lead, as he does most of the time, strong gusts be damned, ducking his head and flopping ears into them and marching forward with a sideways catch—John Wayne-like—thanks to the force of the wind. He is my ineluctable hero. He’s always there to lift my spirits and astonish me and even at times make me laugh. He’s not actually made for these kind of conditions, or so I’m told, and yet there he was, not only up there but leading the way. He marched on inexorably towards the two peaks. How could I not follow? How could I not be lifted by his persistence?

On Wednesday he led on again, this time on Carrigain, in much more favorable conditions on a 14-mile hike. Then on Saturday we climbed Moriah up the Stony Brook Trail. It was my first time on this trail since we had approached Moriah differently this summer. It was easy in the beginning, a film of snow over a sheet of ice. The higher we climbed, the more snow there was. At about 3,000 feet the trail got a lot steeper and at 3,500 the snow a lot deeper. But it was soft powder and snowshoes seemed to be worthless. Reaching the ridge we had to walk the 1.4 miles to the summit, the powder was often knee-deep. In some instances Atticus will wait for me to break trail for him when the snow is deep. Not on Saturday. The ice was slick underneath and the snow hadn’t fastened to it yet. There was lots of plunging with my feet and would have been slip-sliding so I switched from my Stablicers to crampons and they did the trick. On the ridge the wind picked up and the temperatures dropped to 14 degrees but Atticus never whimpered, never cowered in the cold. Instead he marched on in snow and sunk up to his armpits (is that what they are called on dogs?) time and time again.

He’s quite the Sherpa this winter and this little dog who is made more for sitting on laps or in a bicycle basket or car seats next to open windows, continues to remind me that limitations are something we put on ourselves. When I told friends of our winter goals they looked from my double chin to my large belly and down towards little Atticus and scratched their heads like they were appraising two fools. With this little dog in mind, I too was dubious about our chances. I wasn’t sure I would be up to the challenge and wasn’t sure I would be there to help him if he needed assistance too. So I made a contingency plan that at the first sign of duress I would leave Atticus with friends when I went off to hike. I figured maybe he’d be able to do a few of them but either way I would give him the choice to come along if he wanted and if he seemed adept at it. And sure enough, he has done well. He is simply amazing. I can honestly say that there is only one hike where I felt badly for him—East Osceola and Osceola—where there was deep powder over slick ice and I wore crampons instead of snowshoes and didn’t break the trail for him and he needed a lot of boosts, yet he never once acted like he wanted to turn back that day we hiked with Earl and Steve.

Over the next 10 days I am hoping we complete the goals I set. But as many a wise person has said, it’s all about the journey. And on this journey I’ve found out a lot about myself and a great deal about my traveling companion. This summer I returned to Newburyport with a love interest I met in the mountains. She came from a different culture—a less dog-friendly culture, and as we walked through the downtown she was troubled by the fact that when folks came upon us, more often than not they greeted Atticus first, and by name. “They treat him like he’s a person,” she said. Then added, “And he acts like he’s one too.”

I knew the relationship was in trouble when she asked me, “What would happen if I ever came to you and said it is either Atticus or me and you can choose only one?” Of course you know my answer. At least all the dog lovers do. Then again, he is more than just a dog. He’s my hiking partner and together we have faced challenges these past eight months I never could have imagined a year ago. I don’t suppose I could have come as far without him.

Recently, our hostess at the Pemi Motor Court, our home away from home last summer and this winter echoed my ex-lover’s phrase: “He’s not really a dog you know. I think he’s really a person.” My response was to simply say, “I’ve never known a person as wonderful as he.”

Tonight, with five big hikes stretched before us, I went out and spent $300 for a digital camera to replace the one I left on the roof of my car when we drove away from the Kinsmans long ago. When I bought the same camera in December it was for the purpose of taking video to show my dad the mountains he would never see the top off. But now another reason has surfaced. I could care less about putting myself in the video, but I wanted to capture this little dog on film for all of time so that some day when I’m old and gray I can look back on the videos and say, “I once knew the most amazing dog . . .”

Forgive me for prattling on, but you dog lovers know about what I speak.

1 comment:

Dawn Middlestead said...

Atticus will be remembered for so many things...but one thing really stands out...his ability to hike. He sure was an excellent hiking partner. I agree, he wasn't really a dog...he was a person in a dog suit. It warmed my heart, the paragraph about purchasing the new camera. All those videos you took over the years...so awesome. And yes, for sure...you will say, "I once knew the most amazing dog ..."