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 07, 2008

Mount Jackson

The weather has us behind schedule. Whether it has been all the snow or the plummeting temperatures of last week or now the melting snow, Atticus and I have yet to get into a rhythm this winter. However, this weekend, we were able to hike two days in a row for the first time and that felt good.

On Saturday we got a late start, hitting the trail at 1:00 pm for a hike to the top of Mt. Jackson, the smallest of the 4,000-footers in the Presidential Range. It is only 2.6 miles each way but the snow, while broken out by several other hikers wearing snowshoes, was still loose and the footing was not the best. And yet it was a pleasure to be out on a trail again after five days without hiking. One of the advantages of a late start in the day is that the trail is often well broken out by more ambitious hikers who believe in an early start. Those who wear snowshoes create a deep path cutting through the higher drifts on either side and create a snowy sidewalk. This makes it easier for Atticus and is the main reason I often plan later starts after recent snowfalls.

As we climbed Jackson we encountered many others on their way down. The higher we climbed the more magical the trees became, looking like snow covered creatures asleep on either side of the trail. And even dead or slumbering trees, bare and bleak in the winter months, are beautiful in their stark manner, covered in ice or snow. I stopped often to take photos…and to catch my breath. As always, when I stopped, Atticus stopped, too. He walks a consistent 10 yards in front of me and when I stop he stops where he is and doesn’t bother coming back to me. Then when I begin again so does he.

When we finally reached the summit cone of Jackson the sky was a beautiful charcoal gray but there were no winds. Being the last to hit the trail we had the summit to ourselves. After I took several photographs I picked up little Atticus and we sat down for a spell. It’s not too often you can do this on the top of a mountain in winter. We stayed there for quite some time, Atticus soaking in the views from my lap and me thinking about how lucky we are to be up on a peak looking at scenery some will never see.

A couple of years ago, a long-time reader of my Newburyport journal, The Undertoad, was dying in the hospital. I’d never met the elderly gentleman but the ‘Toad was delivered to his doorstep for as long as I can remember. (I know this because I delivered it, such is the life of a one man newspaper.) On one of the last days of his life his son asked him if there was anything special he wanted. I take it as a great compliment that he asked if the latest edition of my paper was out. The son called me to inquire when it would be out. (I published ever two weeks.) I informed him it was just about ready to be sent to the printers and it wouldn’t be out for a couple of days. I heard the disappointment in the son’s voice and so I told him I would bring my draft of the ‘Toad to the hospital myself and share it with his father.

After I read my latest edition to his father the elderly gentleman had a contented look on his face. He thanked me, then confessed that he had never been on top of a mountain but felt like he had ever since I’d started including columns about our mountain adventures in with all of the local politics.

“When you are on a mountain, is it like you said?” he asked.

“How so?”

“You once wrote that sitting on top of a mountain and looking out at all that surrounds you was like looking at the face of God.” He had a good memory for I had written that a year and a half prior to the date I sat with him.

“Yes, that’s what it is like.”He then asked me if I would do him a favor and think of him the next time I was on top of such a peak. It was my pleasure to say I would.

Before I left I told the gentleman that I heard he had recently celebrated his 60th wedding anniversary with his wife. I congratulated him on the accomplishment and noted that at my age, I’ll never experience that, “That’s amazing. What is it like?”

This old man who would be dead within 48 hours, dry skin hanging off his bones, eyes barely open, lips dry and cracked…he paused then a faint smile appeared and he said, “It’s a lot like being on top of a mountain.”

On top of Jackson the other day, under bruised skies with the day mostly spent, Atticus and I looked out towards Mt. Washington and I thought of that old man and our conversation. Magic is where you find it; the only thing that matters is that you take the time to look for it.

People ask me why I like to hike mostly with just Atticus. It is because such thoughts as this dying man come to me on a climb or at the top or walking through the thick woods on the way down into a golden sun or under bright stars. I am not a religious man but if I were the woods would be my church, the mountaintops my altar.

I can honestly say that not a hike goes by where I do not feel like my life is richer for having done it. And when I set a goal to hike 96 peaks in the 90 days of winter I sometimes worry that by pushing for such numbers in the game of peakbagging I’ll sacrifice the magic each mountain offers. I am happy to say that hasn’t happened yet; I hope it never will.