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, March 03, 2008

Lastest Column For Northcountry News: Our Faith Comes In Moments...

Tonight the wind is tired and the night is quiet and the stars are bright over the mountains. It belies what has led up to this day and what will follow. We have not hiked for eight days. We’ve been held captive by the weather and the snow conditions and as we sit inside day after day winters slip away.

This weekend several parties ventured out only to have most turned back by deep snow. That’s one of the weaknesses in our quest. Atticus is a small dog and we do most of our hiking alone and breaking trail is simply not feasible when the drifts are two to four feet deep up high. We have to wait for them to be broken out. Because of that we are stuck on 55 peaks after another wonderful waltz across a windless Franconia Ridge a week ago as we traversed Lafayette, Lincoln, Liberty and Flume.

With the days growing longer, and winter shorter, we are losing our battle to hike 96 peaks in 90 days. It is nearly certain we will not attain the goal I set but we will hike on. There’s been just too much snow this winter for such attempts. But even if winter ends before we reach our goal we will continue on into the spring in our efforts to reach all 48 twice and in the process continue raising money for Angell Animal Medical Center.

Our next goal will be to better the 81 4,000-footers we reached last winter. And if we fall short of that goal…oh well, it has still been a great adventure.

In his essay, “The Over-Soul” Emerson wrote, “Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual.” Emerson was writing about those miraculous moments that lift the soul, that make the dreariness of the day-to-day worth it.

Throughout the winter, as we have fallen behind in the numbers game, I am continuously reminded of “our faith comes in moments” as I am lifted up time and again by something that happens on the trail.

A week ago Sunday, Atticus and I hiked over Whiteface & Passaconaway in the Sandwich Wilderness. The snow was beautifully pure and white, the sky bluer than any blue I’ve ever known, so blue it hurt me to try to define it.

We moved clockwise on this loop hike, going up the Blueberry Ledge Trail first after leaving Ferncroft Road. The approach is gentle for the first couple of miles and then beautiful. But the beautiful part is also the painful part. The scramble up the ledges is steep and a test for the cardiovascular system. The ledges are like climbing giant steps and for the uninitiated this hike can be frustrating because of all the false summits. You see the top, reach it, and then realize there’s yet another top ahead.

My strength in hiking is in my endurance. My weakness comes in my climbing. Because I’m heavier it is often very painful and slow going. With each ledge attained on the climb up Whiteface I found myself with my hands my knees, gasping for air, resting to slow my heart rate. For his part Atticus scampered easily up these steep sections with his four-paw drive. Then he disappeared into the bushes on the way to the next ledge scramble. When I didn’t come along right away he would come back to look for me. This happens whenever he gets ahead of me and I struggle.

He was very patient with me as we climbed towards the highest ledges on Whiteface. When we reached the next to the last ledge and he disappeared into the tunnel of trees towards the highest ledge, however, he never came back for me. This was surprising and out of the ordinary. I had seen another set of human and dog prints and thought that maybe he had gone ahead and met the man and dog ahead of us and was visiting. Still, typically he wouldn’t leave me behind so long, even though it was only a minute or two up to the next ledge.

When I regained my breath and went on my way and finally emerged from the trees to the highest ledges I looked straight ahead and could not see Atticus. I then looked to my left to the popular bump people stand and sit on to look out over the Lakes Region below. He was not there. I thought for a moment he may have gone down the path to the right, towards the slightly higher summit, hidden in the trees, but for some reason I hesitated. I don’t know what made me do it but I turned around and looked behind me in the direction of 8 o’clock to the highest bump on the ledges, one I’ve never stood on top of, and there was Atticus, gazing out through the deep blue sea of a sky towards the miles and miles of lakes below.

People ask me all the time if Atticus has a say in all of this hiking, or if he enjoys it. There’s the answer. It’s clear he loves these views, loves the magic of the mountains as much as I do.

I have no children, but I understand how pleased a parent is when they bring a son or daughter to such a beautiful place and see them appreciate it as much as they do. There is wonder in seeing, but also wonder in sharing. That’s how I felt, like a proud father, I suppose, when I saw him sitting there in such a placid and contented state drinking in as far as his eyes could see like some small Buddha high atop a mountain in peaceful meditation.

I have told my friends time and again that I have known many wonderful dogs and had some incredible dogs myself, but I’ve never known one quite like this little guy I hike with.

It is such moments like this when I realize the $4,000 raised for his cataract surgery was well worth every penny that was generously donated by the group known as the Friends of Atticus. It’s also moments like this that define this winter more so than the number of peaks we will reach.

Emerson was right, “our faith comes in moments…”