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.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Walking with friends

(Stopping at Middle Carter with thoughts of Christine V.)

"Sunny days and starry nights, and lazy afternoons
You're counting castles in the clouds, and humming little tunes
But somehow right before your eyes the sun fades away
Everything is different, and everything has changed"

~ By Kenny Loggins

How strange we must have looked to Agiochook last night while walking down the Polecat Ski Trail down off of the Wildcat Ridge following the narrow beam of a headlamp. Off in the darkness and across Pinkham Notch the great Agiochook could be seen as a dark outline against the night sky scratching his/her head at our curious sight.

We first came face to face with Agiochook last winter while walking down this same path in the glow of a late afternoon and after they closed the ski slope down and we had the mountain to ourselves we made fools of ourselves by playing on the slopes under the watchful giant and in fun I taunted Agiochook that we were coming to get her and would be upon her summit in the not so distant future. My playful arrogance was repaid by strong winds and flying snow and ice on more than one occasion while above tree line in subsequent weeks.

Last night Agiochook saw a more humble man walking down the slopes while anyone with more sanity was off the mountain and home and warm. Yet there we strode slowly down Wildcat, the unlikeliest of peakbaggers, a little lap dog and a middle aged fat guy. We had come up over the three Carters, descended into Carter Notch, climbed up the Wildcat Ridge Trail and darkness swallowed us up in the trees somewhere between Wildcat B and C. By the time we peaked out on Wildcat D we were happy to leave the ice bulges behind and walk on the thin and crispy snow even if it had stubbles of brown grass sticking up through it.

And yet there is something humbling about being out in the bare naked open night without stars and only the faint outline of the behemoth Agiochook towering over us across the way. On occasion I turned off my headlamp and looked at the profile of the rugged peak and shuddered with the return of my childhood fear of the dark and the monsters that come with the darkness. I simply didn’t have the courage to walk too far in the dark without aid of the light so I kept turning it back on as if its beam would keep Agiochook at a safe distance, or at least make it so that my eyes could not look beyond the narrow beam to make out the frighteningly awesome profile.

Oh for some good companionship, warm conversation, silly jokes. Instead I kept myself company with thoughts of days long gone, of women loved and women lost and the simple days of my childhood. These are the thoughts that enter ones mind while hiking with a companion like Atticus who does not waste time talking the miles away. These and so many more thoughts.

I took inventory of the day and the winter to this point and to battle against my loneliness on this cold, black night I recounted the simple pleasures of hiking alone with my most faithful companion. And then it hit me…we’re not hiking alone this winter at all. (And I don’t mean the good company we have found in Atticus’ new dog-parents, Cath Goodwin and Steve Martin either.) I’m talking about the other company we are keeping on the majority of our peaks.

As you know, Atticus and I are dedicating our winter hikes to those who have been lost to cancer and those who are fighting it. Most of the mountains have been dedicated by others but on the rare occasion they haven’t I’ve dedicated them myself to those I’ve known or I know who have done battle with cancer.

And so man and dog trekked on down the mountain under the watchful gaze of Agiochook with the good company of people we are walking with this winter. I thought of the tiny light on my head and the way it cuts through the darkness as the cause we are hiking for and the hope it brings. In the face of the great spirit I offered up the names, not just for my own company but in thinking that it meant a little more to say their names aloud with the hopes it would give me the courage I needed to face the darkness which is nothing compared to what they have faced.

Since winter started we’ve hiked to 24 summits and on nearly every one of them I’ve carried a person in my head and heart, most of whom I never knew and yet a strange bond has developed between us.

On Cannon, that night of the Winter Solstice, we hiked with a small fun-loving crowd but more importantly we hiked for John Giacolone, who was diagnose seven years ago but continues to fight on.

On Carrigain we hiked for the memory of Barrie Briggs, whose friend Mary Baker holds her in her heart.

Tecumseh was for Hailey Klein’s mother, Leonora Daniels Klein, who died of breast cancer in 1988. Hailey wrote to me that Leonora was “a huge animal person and gathered strays or supported them always. I think she would worry about Atticus but be happy to know he is so well outfitted and loved.”

That afternoon we hiked Waumbek and carried the memory of Martha Jennings with us. And much like Martha, Waumbek greeted us with gray skies and threatening winds but as the day drained away it gave us the most beautiful glimpses of gold and a peaceful night sky that was still and wondrous. It was an end that matched her end.

On Christmas Day we had one of our most emotional hikes while on the Kinsmans where one was in memory of Lucy Grogan, who died in her teens, and the other was in memory of Isabella
DeBethancourt who never made it to her teens.

Tom was in memory Katie Kozin’s mother, while Field was for a fellow I know here in Newburyport by the name of Ray Clarkson who is fighting cancer as I type this. Willey was for Connie Fletcher, whose daughter I was once in love with.

On the day we did the Bonds traverse I thought of Michael Cray who I’m told was found of saying, “And you too will be tested.” And we were as we passed Guyot and went on to West Bond, which was done in memory of Jamie Valente Richards. Bond was for Gert Jones’ nephew, Richard, who is fighting cancer and Bondcliff was done for a woman I never met but feel like I know something of by how much I’ve read about her in the words of her loving sister---Mary Lou Vallerand Powers.

On the day we did the Hancocks we did them in memory of Charlie Stramielo who is still remembered by his friend Bruce Menin.

The following day we did East Osceola, which was dedicated to Dave McFarlane’s daughter Laura Lippert, a survivor, and Osceola was done in memory of Kathy Miller’s mother who passed away this past summer.

On Cabot, when the wind and clouds swept over the summit I was warmed the by the thought of Carol Buckley who beat breast cancer.

On South Carter I thought of Billy Lemmler, who was lost too long ago, on Middle Carter my heart went to Christine Vallerand, who beat it and on Carter Dome I thought of Margaret Forney who also survived. On Wildcat A Atticus and I stood looking down upon Carter Notch thinking of Ray Dodge who survived and on Wildcat D I said a prayer for Christine and Mary Lou Vallerand’s father who is now dying from cancer.

The hike over the Carters and 'Cats was more than 15 miles and 6,000 feet in elevation gain. In the end, however, that seemed to be of little importance in considering all of these people, the people who loved and love them, the battles fought, lost and won, and what they’ve been through, the night didn’t seem as dark, didn’t scare me anymore. We had such wonderful company with us as we marched onward towards our waiting car.

When I decided to undertake this cause of raising money for the Jimmy Fund and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute this winter through our hikes I never realized the ramifications. Never realized we wouldn’t be hiking alone anymore, that we would have company every step of the way and there would be stars above us even on the darkest of nights.

I thank them for keeping us company on our journey.

"If you feel lost, and on your own
And far from home
You're never alone you know
Just think of your friends, the ones who care
They all will be waiting there
With love to share
And your heart will lead you home"

~ Kenny Loggins

No comments: