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.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Day in the Mountains

My face is still warm from the sunburn from the warm sun and the glare off the snow and ice. And yet outside it is snowing. The forecast calls for mixed precipitation, which translates in my mind to a fine mess.

In looking out the window at the fine flakes traveling by I am reminded of how remarkable yesterday was weather-wise, and otherwise. After a good night’s sleep I see it more clearly now.

I still have no idea why I felt so sick on the climb. It is not the first time I’ve felt like that this winter, but it was perhaps the worst I felt. I’m feeling fine now so it is nothing lasting. As much as I didn’t like losing my breakfast on the trail, I find comedy that at the moment I was doing that the gray jays discovered me and watched intently and then continued to follow me and Atti through the woods.

Yesterday Mt. Jefferson was a popular destination. The group of six Atticus and I couldn’t keep up, headed off to Jefferson. Then a group of somewhere between 12-14 people followed them up there, too, as well as a few others we encountered at the trail junction where the split took place and they headed off to Jefferson and Atticus and I headed off to Washington.

Just below that junction Atticus and I ran into a man hiking with a German Sheppard. The dog was playful, loud and rambunctious and quite puppy-like at two years of age. She couldn’t get enough of Atticus, running up to catch up to him then batting him with a paw to try to get him to play or chase after her. He wouldn’t. I think if we were on flat ground he would have, but in the mountains he’s even more serious than he is in the day-to-day. He was intent on marching on.

The German Sheppard belonged to a fellow who’d spent 20 years as a salesman and was now minister. Our talk spent together was too brief but the conversation was delicious as we walked we talked of spirituality and Christianity. He was from somewhere in the middle of the State of New Hampshire. At one point during our conversation he came out and said that he’d read a column of mine in the Northcountry News about our Bonds traverse and enjoyed it. He recognized us from the start. I should say he recognized Atticus.

At one point during our conversation we moved off the trail to let the large group go by and it was funny to be above treeline, on a winter day, in our new life, and have more than half of the people, all strangers to me, stop and call Atticus by name. We were sitting on a rock and several of them stopped as the passed by to greet him.

I wonder what this is like for Atticus. But then again because of The Undertoad and our life in Newburyport, it is but par for the course. People have always known him so it doesn’t appear to surprise him that when we are out and about that people we don’t know, seem to know him and call him by name.

At the trail junction I said my goodbyes to the minister and his dog and waited for Rolly, a friend from an on-line hiking site. He was coming up the trail behind us, and he and his hiking companion were headed for Jefferson, too. Then came another hiker from one of the on-line hiking sites who recognized us as we recognized him.

Again, how strange to be out there so high up in this otherworldly place and have so many people knowing us. I guess this is home.

The climb to Washington was difficult. I tried to go with my microspikes but when I hit one snowfield I started to slide and envisioned an untimely death so I switched to my crampons. I don’t like walking in crampons and don’t find them comfortable. You have to be careful with every step as the teeth are long and sharp and many an unwitting wearer has gashed his or her own leg.

While we were on the last climb to the summit, 100 steps, rest, 100 steps, rest, we encountered another hiker who knew of us. He was on his way off the summit and happy to hear about the conditions of the Jewell Trail, the one we’d started up on.

On the summit we were by ourselves until we were gathered by four rather obnoxious college-aged students, three males, one female. They pulled out their cell phones to call their friends but when they didn’t get reception one of them pulled out a satellite phone and they all made calls to people they knew saying, “You’ll never guess where I am right now.”

It is a strange experience to struggle to the top of a mountain, to find yourself in a place so out of the ordinary and in a state of mind so out of the ordinary and yet find obnoxious shopping mall like behavior. Our company hastened our departure.

The climb down to Monroe went easily enough. It’s a nice 1.5 mile stretch but yesterday was rather icy. Atticus had to pay attention to his footing. I much rather would have been wearing my snowshoes but they wouldn’t have gripped as much as the crampons did.

At the closed Lake of the Clouds hut there was a man sitting with his back to us, the hood of his jacket pulled up, and he was holding a newspaper and pencil. Atticus startled him when he walked by and the man looked up. He was thin and weathered, wearing glasses with a tanned face. I guessed him to be in his sixties. His coat was a mess. A faded orange winter coat with large slices of gray duct tape covering a great deal of it, placed where rips and worn fabric had been.

He was working on a newspaper word puzzle and deep in thought.

Imagine that, coming off of Washington, standing at the base of Mt. Monroe, the fourth highest peak in New England, encountering a man in such worn clothing that if he were in downtown Boston would pass easily for a street person, and here he was sitting on a rock working on a word puzzle in a newspaper as if he were waiting for a bus.

He wasn’t in the mood to talk much so I didn’t bother him as I readjusted my crampons, took off my pack and fed Atticus and swallowed the contents of a GU energy packet. When we were getting ready to set off he asked about Atticus. A few conservative questions turned into a wonderful conversation.

The man was Richard, 78 years of age, and he climbed Washington because he and his wife had climbed Washington every year. I asked where his wife was and he told me she had died a year earlier. He told me she was the first woman to ever hike all the Adirondack 4,000-footers in winter and did them three times during the years they lived in New York. She was originally from Switzerland. He was a physicist. She also did something of the sort. They shared their love of the mountains together and got married so long ago. They had two children, the son lives in Switzerland, the daughter in Boston.

Richard and his wife had made the move from New York to Glen, New Hampshire 15 years ago. Even though he is alone he likes where he lives and would never leave. He loves the mountains, climbs them whenever he can but doesn’t bother with lists anymore. He also appreciates snowmobilers.

“Most people don’t like them,” he said. “I like them because I can use my mountain bike on the groomed trails.”

As for his coat, he told me it was at least 50 years old and his wife always wanted him to get rid of it but he refused. His crampons were just as old, if not older, he told me. They had leather straps but the spikes he kept sharp. His ice ax was equally old, most of it wood.

He proudly showed me his mittens when he took them out of his backpack. They were oversized and looked like the wool from a sheep and were liberally patched with duct tape, too. His wife wanted him to get rid of those, too, but he reminded her they once saved her nose so she suggested he keep them.

“We were up on Mt. Marcy in the winter and I was having a conversation with a man when he pointed out that my wife’s nose was turning white,” Richard said. “So I just held one of my big mitts up over her nose and continued my conversation. She got to keep her nose.”

My conversation with Richard was enlivening and just the opposite of what I had experienced with the college students on Washington. It left me warm, gave me more energy and we then pushed on from that moment with more energy than I’d had all day.

The sky had turned a leaden gray and my camera was of no use now. I have grown in my photography just to the level of wanting to be able to take nice photos. I have no use; it seems, for a photo for photo’s sake. I mourned the loss of the deep blue sky as we made our way over Monroe and Franklin, one of my favorite passages in the Whites. On the climb to Eisenhower, after dropping off of Franklin, I tried to not let my head get the best of me and instead thought of Richard, who I found to be quite remarkable. As Atticus and I made our way up to the round summit I felt like I was sleepwalking through the last of it.

After Eisenhower it was easy. The climb down was easy enough as was the path over to Pierce with a slight detour to the summit, then back to the Crawford Path. Finally I took off my crampons and was able to walk the last few miles without incident, shuffling along, tired, sore, and yet filled with the events of the day.