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, February 05, 2007

Tripyramids; February 3, 2007


Beyond the steep ravine on the Pine Bend Brook Trail on the way back to the car, Atticus and I bound happily along. It was late Saturday afternoon and while I strode through the naked, brown forest along the beaten path, Atticus padded ahead of me in a jaunty dance, his Muttluks slapping softly against the firm snow. In contrast to the stark white and brown beneath and surrounding us, peach blossom clouds floated easily through a powder blue sky above. We were in good spirits and it was a wonderful way to spend the last mile of our hike to the Tripyramids and back. How could we not feel light and airy under such a sky?

The end of a hike can often be overlooked or even dreaded, considered pedestrian or tedious. But I like the long wind-down from the day’s adventures and there are treasures to be recounted at the end of the day. There are no more worries; there is no more stress. It’s like sitting comfortably in a rocking chair on the porch as evening approaches, sipping something cold and sweet and taking stock of the day.

When it’s just Atticus and myself, I often start our hikes in a completely different mindset and lug with me the baggage of childhood. I once read a broad statement from a mythologist that the American Indians considered the greatest sins to be that of doubt and distraction. Those are the sins I’m most guilty of at the beginning of a hike.

To be perfectly honest, I harbor misgivings about nearly every hike when it’s just the two of us. In my family, we weren’t brought up to believe in ourselves or to flourish or rise to the occasion. Better to not be seen nor heard in this great, big world. Don’t get me wrong, I think my parents did the best they could and gave a lot of things to us that many other children never would be blessed with but confidence wasn’t one of them. And so the beginning of many of my hikes is a journey through the thick and tangled undergrowth of doubt and distraction and the murky shadows of childhood. Talk about bushwhacking.

Hike the Tripyramids? Not so easy, at least not in my mind’s eye. Starting out I wonder if I’ll be able to handle all that awaits us on any given hike, especially in winter. The child in me says, no. And so each hike is a battle with the me I was brought up to be and the man I am.

Once the work starts I struggle with my breath and with moving up the mountain. There are times when I gasp for breath and lean forward, my arms extended to hold onto the trekking poles while my head dangles between. There are times I think it has more to do with doubt and distraction than it does fatigue. I look up at a steep section and I say to myself, “There’s no f---ing way I can do that.”

Slipping and sliding up through the drifting snow in my MSR’s through the ravine on Saturday was one of those moments. I tried to convince myself not to look up, instead keeping my head down and just trudging along. I know I can handle discomfort, but add doubt to the equation and I’m nearly sunk.

Go figure, in the past year I’ve hiked the Tripyramids five times now, twice in the past three weeks and yet still there are moments in the beginning of each hike when I wonder if I’ll be able to do it. Somehow I outlast those doubts and always make it.

I relish in the beauty of my hikes, whether it is in a foggy forest or standing atop a peak looking out on the world from heights I only dreamed of ever doing. And yet each hike is more to me, more than checking another mountain off a list, more than just a communion with nature or with a little black and white dog, it is an exercise in pushing beyond what I was taught to believe about myself. The writer Richard Bach has a wonderful line in Illusions: “Argue for your limitations and surely they are yours.”

Sometimes I think Atticus picks up on my doubt and hesitates. And he likewise picks up on my celebratory mood in having vanquished the ghosts of childhood and the challenges of at least this day. Perhaps that’s why I relish the ease of the end of a hike. It’s a bit of taking stock on what we’ve accomplished throughout the day.

On Saturday we traveled under that beautiful soft sky back to the car and the daylight kept us company. On Thursday we had a later finish and a mile road walk under a brilliant full moon. On Sunday we got a late start for Isolation and were on the trail at noon. Because of that we walked along under the same peach blossom clouds and the same soft blue sky before night fell upon us like a comfortable blanket and by the time we returned to the car at 6:30 we were under the protective gaze of the brave Orion and stars so numerous it made my heart ache.

I find excitement and nervousness within at the journey’s beginning and comfort and reassurance in the return. For me, each hike is more than just a hike. It’s a journey within, and the higher I go, the deeper I go. There is an ancient school of thought that we are born close to perfect and life’s years tears us down. The journey in life, I sometimes think, is the experience of reclaiming, of losing the garden and then finding our way back to it again.


When I hike with others I often enjoy the camaraderie, the storytelling, the shared adventure. But when it’s just Atticus and me, well, there are challenges and along the way it seems I find out more about myself and uncover much of what twenty years of a sedentary life helped me to forget. Walking out under that beautiful painted sky on Saturday or under the stars poking holes in the darkness on the very next night I get to relive the day’s hike, but more than that it seems like I lay claim to a part of myself long lost and in those carefree and bouncing strides it’s like I’m coming home again.

1 comment:

Dawn Middlestead said...

What a picture! Atticus looked so comfortable sitting on all that snow. You have mentioned how nice it is to hike with others, but then...when it was just you and your best friend...Atticus...it was magical. He would lead and you would follow. He would give you the strength when you didn't think you had in it you to keep going. What a beautiful journey you and Atticus shared.