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.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Our Afternoon on Franconia Ridge

From the window in front of my desk I’m watching the snow softly falling. It was snowing heavier this morning and the pine trees outside are covered with a Christmas card-coating. The roads are a mess, even for up here, so it’s just as well we’re inside. I’ve been taking care of business while Atticus is curled up on the comforter snoring blissfully. Perhaps he is dreaming of yesterday.

Yesterday was a Blue Sky day. We started late and took our time crossing the icy rocks on the stream crossings, then with the dangerously iced ledges near the waterfalls on the Falling Waters Trail. There was a point where I had to hoist myself up on a rock using a fallen log that is wedged securely in place. We almost turned back here. However, by that point I had my Stabilicers on and they did the trick.

Once beyond the waterfalls we fell into our regular routine, with Atticus 20 to 30 feet ahead. It’s a constant. He moves easily while I plod upward. Sometimes, like yesterday, when I’m tired and feel like I’m moving even more slowly than I normally do, I count footsteps. “Just make 100,” I tell myself, “then take a five second break.” The trail was broken but not packed out and I found the other supportive muscles that usually just play a silent and accessorizing role came into play. There was the ache in the side of my gluteus, the twinge in my lower hamstring, the dull throb in my low back. It is in these painful moments that I find myself wondering just what I’m doing up here.

There are times in the midst of the struggle where I become toxic. My thoughts are littered with doubts and distractions and I feel like giving up hiking altogether. Mired in similar thoughts on the ascent of Hale a week ago I found myself taking numerous short breaks. However, on one break I stopped longer than usual. Fatigue got me to stop; but it was the silence of the November woods that kept me there. It was incredible. Sweet silence. Not the rustle of the wind or a bird song to be heard. Nothing. How often in life do you get to hear nothing? I fell into a peaceful appreciation of the woods, the kind I often forget in my uphill struggles but am constantly reminded of at times like this.

The same thing happened yesterday. A particularly steep uphill, loose snow underneath, and labored breathing got me to stop. It was the silence, the lack of anything whatsoever in my ears other than my own breath, that kept me there.

It is in these uphill struggles that I lose the pettiness of life and become centered squarely within myself. As if there is a choice. My breathing, my heartbeat, how I’m feeling, they all take center stage. Everything else evaporates. This occurrence itself, in the darkest part of every hike, is reason enough to leave the comfort of home and get out into the woods.

As morning follows night, there is always hope after struggle. The trail grew steeper but the trees werre shorter, foretelling of what is to come. Atop one large rock I stopped to gasp for breath, turned around to look down at the steep section we had just climbed and I gasped again, this time at the view of Cannon Mountain which dominated the scene like some huge hibernating beast curled up under a layer of snow.

After the pain of the climb came the awe. We popped out of the short, bedraggled trees and come face-to-face with even more awesome views. In light of the struggle to get there, the view is starkly emotional. It’s that beautiful.

There’s not another person in sight (and leaving the parking lot at 11:00 there was not another car in sight either so I figured we’d have the ridge to ourselves). Is there a more exciting and at the same time frightening moment? Here the world, the world that most will never see, is revealed as mountain after mountain stretches out before my eyes and I’m standing up here nearly shaking with excitement. There’s beauty and awe and the thought of being alone on the ridge with no one around for miles.

Part of me wishes I had another person to share this with but if someone were here we would ruin it all with words. Instead it is just Atticus and me. Without words there is silence even up here on the ridge. Not much wind at all. No birdsong nor whine of an 18-wheeler on the highway below.

I’ve brought my winter pack but only put on my windbreaker, light hat and gloves. I don’t even bother with Atti’s body suit or his Muttluks. It’s that kind of day.

I revisit the wonderful and familiar feeling of having a mountain to myself. I’m like a child in a candy store, not wanting to miss anything or leave anything behind. My eyes search the views hungrily; I’m snapping away with my camera and hoping this is not some dream but that we are really here.

Centuries ago Milton wrote: “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.” That’s exactly what I’m feeling…gratitude. This may well be another peak to check off a list, but it is so much more. It is, more than anything, a gift. Moments such as these help me get through the rest of my days when there are not such moments.

It was Emerson who pointed out that “Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual.” I need these moments of inspiration to help me overcome the rest of life, to make me remember the magic of life that often gets coated over and dulled by the grime of the mundane. For me that is what it is all about.

Struggles that existed on the climb up evaporate on the ridge. I looked at the time and realized we weren’t as slow as I thought and the climb to come up Little Haystack, Lincoln, Truman and Lafayette will be short-lived strife in comparison. I knew that even with all the “gasping for my breath” breaks I would have this incredible landscape to look out upon. No hurry. Just walk and enjoy.

Atticus and I set off towards Little Haystack. In front of us Owl’s Head slumbered, stretched out as if in a cocoon, and beyond are the Bonds, sunning themselves in the afternoon glow. Washington and the other Presidential’s are in the distance, shining brightly against the blue sky. To our left Moosilauke, the Kinsman’s and Cannon are dulled by the afternoon sun shining in our eyes but they are beautiful nonetheless.

This is one of the few places where Atticus gets ahead of me by more than 10 yards. He does especially well on the descent off of Lincoln (while I struggle), heading towards Lafayette. On this straight path I see him off in the distance, no need to call him back for he knows where he is going. He’s not running, just moving easily and freely. In the photos he appears as a black speck, his diminutive size made all the smaller by the contrast of Lafayette, glowing white with snow and afternoon glory, looming above him.

Recently, a trip report on the Views from the Top website talked about a steep climb up Mt. Washington. There was discussion on whether it was 4,000 feet of elevation gain (or something of the sort) when one hiker talked of the dog that was with them, “The dog did 8,000 feet” he deadpanned. I think that's the case with most dogs. But for some reason with Atticus is not an “out-and-backer”. He is a constant distance in front of me. I stop, he stops. If I sit or fall, he’ll come running back to check on me. But that’s it. Other than that he’s on his hike, I’m on mine. I get to a summit and he's waiting for me. He’s always within sight. It’s just up here on the ridge above treeline that he increases the distance between us, as if he is as intoxicated by the rare air and rare views as I am.

Our late start turned into a late afternoon treat. The glow of the sinking sun turned the snow to a soft golden white and while the temperature fell it appeared warmer because of the glow around us.

On Lafayette’s summit I sat down on the snow, my back against a large rock. Atticus climbed up on my lap and sat down and together we gazed for some 20 minutes out into the Pemi: no buildings, no roads, and no people to be seen. It was just us and the mountains. Atticus enjoyed some cheese while I had my second Stonyfield Smoothie of the day. Talk of a perfect way to end an afternoon: two friends enjoying the best that life has to offer.

After such an afternoon it was hard to say goodbye but begrudgingly we did. The descent from the summit cone came easily with enough snow to buffer the ice and rocks. We hopped into the western sun and were eventually greeted by an incredible corridor of conifers coated in thick white coats, made golden by the waning light: more gifts to take with us in our memories.
Halfway down the ridge known as the Three Agonies I donned my headlamp and snow glistened up at me like tiny diamonds as we walked on. But soon the moon climbed high enough and the stars grew bright enough for me to turn off the headlamp and we walked through the silent woods on the soft blue snow casting our own moon shadows. Through the naked woods there was Cannon again, this time above us, looking bigger than ever, that hibernating beast slightly pulsing so close to us my imagination saw its body rise and fall with each breath.

Our arrival back at the car came all too soon and so we lingered longer than normal. I picked up Atticus and together we looked up at Cannon and then back at the moon and the stars. A perfect afternoon had given way to a perfect night.

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