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, December 21, 2007

The Long Road Begins

“The Road goes ever on and on down from the door
where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, and
I must follow, if I can, pursuing it with eager feet, until
it joins some larger way where many paths and
errands meet. And whither then? I cannot say.”
~ Tolkien

And so it begins. Our journey through the winter in the Whites is upon us and here on the eve before we hit the trail it actually feels different. We have been here waiting for it all to begin and tomorrow it finally does. As for the feel itself, it feels an awful lot like purpose as anyone who undertakes a quest is filled with.

Joseph Campbell spent a lifetime exploring the Hero’s Journey. His definition of hero differs from the more recognizable meaning. He believed “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” To Campbell we all had a bit of the hero within for we all go through heroic journeys. Some are thrust upon us, some we choose. They can be as varied as a woman fighting breast cancer; an man chasing his dreams; a widower striving to raise his children the best way possible; a little dog and a middle aged man seeking to touch the summit of 96 peaks in 90 days.

To Campbell, the quest was everything. As you follow along our on journey you’ll see that I find great comfort in the words of Campbell and others like him. I believe life has to have purpose and that we all must undertake our quests, whatever they may be. For us it’s being up here, right now, in a life very different than the one we used to know, than any of the lives I used to know.

I like the photo above for its sheer simplicity. It was taken last winter. We set out to hike Galehead, South Twin and North Twin with our friend Aaron. The approach road is gated and where you can drive in summer you have to walk in winter. This ads miles to several winter hikes. In this photo Atticus is walking along, the “road goes ever on”.

On this particular day the morning was cold, crisp and mostly clear. By the time we started hiking up the Gale River Trail clouds had lowered and a faint flurry came down upon us. It didn’t take long for the snowflakes to get heavier and to fall faster. By the time we reached Galehead Hut, which is closed in the winter, we knew we had our work cut out for us. The steep climb up South Twin was very hard through the unbroken snow and the depth only grew in between South and North Twin. After reaching North Twin, however, the snow stopped and we were greeted by occasional rays of sun stabbing their way through the charcoal clouds. The walk down off of North Twin and back to the other waiting car was long and tiresome and we were all chilled to the bone by the time we stopped about 14 miles after we had started.

But what hits me about this is that it was so calm when we started, then we entered the mountain realm we were hit by snow that was heavy and deep and seemed like it would last forever. By the time we got to the car, however, it was clear that it hadn’t snowed at all down below. And while it the world looked like the same world we left behind, there was something different. We were different because of what we had experienced. We were different for being tested, for the hardship, for the fellowship under duress, for having left the safety of a warm and cozy cabin and venturing up into the mountains and whatever it was they held for us only to come back again.

I also like this photo because it shows Atticus in his most elemental form. He knows when I grab my backpack that we’re going hiking. He knows this is different than a half mile walk in the park or the woods. He also acts differently. He walks, as you see here, ahead of me and with a steady purpose. There is no running up and back, no leaving the trail to sniff this and that. It was Aaron who noticed the seriousness of Atticus that day and noted, “I don’t think he does anything without a purpose. He’s that kind of dog.”

And it’s true, he climbs until we reach a summit and then he stops. He knows to go up until there is no more up. Its instinctive I suppose. For me it is just what it is but there are others who remind me how strange it is to see such a little seek the peak with such purpose in weather most would never dream of leaving their homes in, unless it was to get to the nearest Starbucks.

If I were to tell you I knew why he was this way I’d be lying. There’s something within him that is meant to be up here, just as there is something within me that pulls me here, too. However, I have no idea if it is the same thing that pulls us but in our hiking we each seem to find what we are looking for.

At the end of such a long and tiresome hike Atti has a process he goes through when we get back to the car. After I peel off his boots and body suit (provided he’s wearing them), he sits in the front passenger seat and grabs each boot and pulls the ice from it with his teeth and licks each clean, then pushes each cleaned boot down onto the floor. Then comes his body suit. He pulls the ice from it, licks it in places and then pushes that to the floor. He will then clean himself for a good 10 or 20 minutes, come over to me and start licking me clean. After this he rolls up like a cat into a little ball and goes to sleep.

When we get home he is hungry and eats and drinks but then sleeps the heavy sleep of a drunk. When we wake up the next morning he moves slowly, taking inventory of his body parts with his various stretches. He will drink a lot of water and when I eat my omelet I’ll make him one too. When he sees me grab my pack he’s already by the door and ready to go and when we get to the trail he is so excited he hops out the car with eagerness and is ready to go again and I see him ahead of me, walking with a purpose just as you see him above.

Tomorrow morning when we get up we’ll drive a short way across the Kancamagus Highway to the hairpin turn, park in the lot and be on our way. Ten miles later we will return having been to the summit of North and South Hancock (provided all goes well) and we’ll be underway.

You are more than welcome to join us and follow along throughout the winter. Each day we hike I will post photos and a trip report of our journey. But there are two things to keep in mind. The first is that while we are on our own physical quest, we are also doing this for a cause…to raise money for Angell Animal Medical Center. Not everyone can afford to give, but if you can and haven’t yet, it would be appreciated. Either way you are welcome to follow along. The second thing you should realize, and you will come to realize this over time, is that this little dog that I hike with is the story. It’s not the man. If it weren’t for him I don’t think I could do this. He gives me strength, he gives me courage. Funny to think that a dog only the tenth of the size of the man he lives with and travels with can provide that kind of strength, but then again it was Tolkien who also said, “Courage is found in unlikely places.”

It is my hope to reach several goals this winter, some physical in nature, some financial for Angell, but also when all is said and done I’d like you to think you know something more about these magical mountains than you did before and about this little dog who has a spirit much larger than the body that holds it.

Enjoy the ride and thanks for reading along.

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