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, February 26, 2008

Trip Report For Our Franconia Ridge Hike

When the weekend arrived Saturday showed up like a welcome guest bringing with her the most beautiful weather. I’ve been waiting for such a day and was contemplating a hike from Washington through Jackson. The winds were close to what I was looking for but probably 10 miles an hour stronger than I would prefer for Atticus.

The calendar winter is waning and we’re behind where I would like to be in our current Winter Quest. We had hiked four days in a row and six of the previous seven but I was hoping to take advantage of the good weather. However, the day before we hiked Moriah with two friends and one of them had some troubles with cramping. The result being we were out in the wind and snow two to three hours more than I had anticipated and Atticus was tired.

Every winter I think I’m coming up here to bag peaks and yet it seems what we actually achieve is a stronger bond between us; Atticus and me, that is.

Considering how soundly he was sleeping when I woke up, how he drowsily lifted his head to watch me move around the room, I decided he could use the day off, much to the dismay of some friends and acquaintances.(“Why aren’t you our there on such a beautiful day?”)

Sunday came and brought a beautiful blue sky with her, too, but more wind, so we were off to Whiteface & Passaconaway. When Monday came I was happy to have waited for our pitch. The wind on Washington was going to be a bit much yet again but it was perfect for a hike over the Franconia Four.

What a pleasure it was to see Atticus in his element, happy, gamboling along, as if on a jaunt to the corner store. The day of rest was perfect. He did extremely well on Whiteface & Passaconaway and he was just as happy-go-lucky on our climb over the Three Agonies.

We were joined by Jeff Veino for the day and had the pleasure of running into Hillwalker and chatting for a bit on one of the Agonies, then at the hut, then again on the summit of Lafayette. (He’s an interesting man and offers good company.)

There was not a lick of wind as we climbed over the exposed rock and hard packed snow and small patches of ice. The sky above Lafayette was nearly as blue as it was on Sunday, a cerulean blue almost too perfect for my eyes and had it none been for the blemish of the thin wisps of feathery clouds the sky would have been maddening. The Romans linked the word cerulean to a heavenly sky. That’s what we were walking towards over the bony rocks.

With no wind, not even a breeze, we climbed under the bright sun and it climbed with us and brought a late spring warmth with it. There were times when it seemed almost too warm and I thought of how nice it would be to be in shorts instead of a Gore-Tex bib.

Often when I climb higher I drink in the views of mountains, but on Monday the sky was equally beautiful and noteworthy. I marveled at its lush depth, dreamed of diving into it to cool off, as if it were the Mediterranean, and oohed and ahhed at the occasional passing of whimsical clouds.

Upon reaching the top of Lafayette it was so pleasant we stayed longer than we should have for we had many more miles to go. The views were outstanding. The temperature so perfect that Atticus lay Sphinx-like on a cool rock and enjoyed the views from his belly, something he doesn’t normally do in winter.

It took a while to convince myself to go on, not because I was tired but because these are the kind of days up here you daydream of. Atticus and I had one such day this past fall on Cannon in the beginning of November. We took a long nap on the top of the tower and were never disturbed by another visitor. Two summers ago I parked my car at the Oliverian Brook parking lot, put Atticus in the basket on the handlebars and pedaled down to the Pine Bend Brook Trail. (The truckers going by in the early morning blew their horns at the little dog sitting ET-like in the basket.) We then hiked back to our car by way of the Tripyramids and Sleepers and Whiteface and Passaconaway. It was a perfect day but my favorite part was the casual nap we took under another blue sky, this one speckled with friendly white clouds. As Atticus slept, a chipmunk stole close to investigate him and to search for food. I fed him and we nurtured a temporary friendship in that hour and a half on the ledges of Whiteface.

That’s how tempting the day was on top of Lafayette. It would have been easy to stretch out right there and fall asleep; but to paraphrase Robert Frost, we had miles to go before we slept. We moved on over crispy patches of ice, some hard-packed snow and many an exposed rock. We made okay time in our climb over Truman and then Lincoln. Once on Lincoln there was another break, this one much shorter than the one we took on Lafayette. The sky was nowhere near as blue but the sun was still warm and the winds were out of town (I’m told they were still somewhat apparent on Washington).

On the southern side of Little Haystack and near the trail junction with the Falling Waters Trail we stopped and found ourselves chilled. The weather hadn’t changed our outlook had. We realized this was near where the two hikers were found, one dead, one now amazingly alive. How could this not chill us even on the warmest and stillest of winter days as we pictured ourselves in their shoes?

We donned snowshoes for the 2.2 miles over to Liberty. The walk through the woods was not the speediest but we avoided all spruce traps other than the one I fell into up to my chest just before entering into the woods. There I was, trapped in the snow, deep and helpless. When I fall in the winter, which happens from time to time, Atticus comes back from his lead position to check up on me and he did the same yesterday, stopping to lick me…his cure all for whatever ails me. He’s not a big licker, but when I’m down (physically or otherwise) he’ll approach and flick his tongue out and kiss my hand.

When we emerged from the woods after dodging eye level branches and weaving our way through tightly packed trees to see the edifice of Liberty we were buoyed by the return of the deep blue sky that had turned milky on our trip south along the spine from Lafayette to Little Haystack. We dropped off the summit, dropped our packs and made our way over to Flume, marveling again at the sky and now at the late afternoon sun’s glow on the vistas as seen through the trees. This section of trail, only 1.2 miles long, is particularly painful to me, because when I’m on it I’m typically going to have to return to Liberty the way I came, and the return visit brings with it 500 feet of elevation gain.

On the summit of Flume winter had returned. The sun had run out of steam about the same time I did. We were both tired and she was sinking to the west. But the colors and the views were magnificent all over again, the shadows, the peach and golden glow on clouds and white-caked mountains warmed us as much as our gloves and hats did.

One of the things I have come to understand about Atticus is that he appreciates these views as much as I do, if not more. If it is warm he takes a great vantage point and looks around. If it is cold, I pick him up and while I look out at the scenery he does too. He could do this for hours.

The hike back to Liberty was slow going, at least for me. Atticus likes to lead and he was followed by Jeff, but often the little dog would stop and come back looking for me even though I was only 20 yards behind. He seems to believe it is his job to look after me as much as I believe it’s mine to look after him. Each time, upon seeing I was okay, he would return to the front again, a little general leading us through the post-holed and pock-marked trail, through the trees and up the steep climb to Liberty.

On Liberty we said goodbye to the sun which lay so close to the horizon, said goodbye to any remaining warmth, said goodbye to mountaintops, to the incredible sky, to the clouds and this wondrous day and soon we were swallowed by the trees and then some time later, the night.

I had left my car at the Flume parking lot and I found the nearly mile long walk back to it along the bike path to be mentally torturous. To pass the time I let my mind wander all the way back to my childhood visits up to the White Mountains with my family. We had a tent trailer and would often set it up at Lafayette Campground or in a place called Campers World, the overgrown remains of which lie right outside the window on the far side of my desk if you look across the Pemigewasset Wilderness.

Our entertainment was mainly sitting around the fireplace, telling stories, recanting our day’s adventures or leafing through booklets of White Mountain legends, both factual and tall tales. Those great stories would surround us as the mystery and magic of the cool summer nights fell down all around us and followed us into our dreams when we finally succumbed to sleep.

Walking on the bike path I thought back to those days, about the stories I read and the mountains we looked up at and wondered about and the woods that were everywhere, especially from that patch of lawn in front of Lafayette Place.

We grow up, grow older, life losses its luster, our heroes aren’t as heroic as they once appeared to be, if at all, and we are left longing for the innocence of so long ago. But on this day, on all the days we are up here in the woods, sitting by streams, sweating and swearing my way up to the top of a mountain, or meandering along a flat wooded trail, I am reminded that up here I have encountered something in my life that has not faded with familiarity. These mountains are still magical, even after a long and challenging day. The more time I spend with them, the more I feel that way, the more I am reminded to appreciate the daily miracles of nature.

Looking into the darkness through the tunnel-beam of my headlamp at the happy trot of the little dog in front of me, I can also say the same for him. He continues to impress me, continues to seem to get as much out of this place as I do. Nearly a year ago he was going blind and we feared that thyroid cancer would take him away, and now I watch with stars in my eyes as he wends his way through life with the same innocence I used to have, with an innocence I can often see through his eyes and actions. I’ve come to understand that as much as he needs me, I need him, too. We’re two unlikely travelers matched up together for wherever this journey is taking us.

It’s good to live with such a dog, good to live in the mountains, and good to wait for the perfect days above treeline.