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, April 23, 2008

Spring On Welch-Dickey

In this age of emails, joy is getting a letter. A letter; handwritten and lengthy, filled with true sentiment and genuine communication, coming straight from the heart. One soul reaching halfway across the country to another. Half the pleasure of receiving a letter from a kind soul is finding the right place to read it.

When I plucked it out of my mailbox at the North Woodstock post office this morning I opened it immediately, then thought better of it. Back at the car I tucked it into my backpack for the right time and place, which I already had decided upon.

Today was a little warm, a little humid, a little unseasonable for this time of the year, but oh, what a pleasure to hit the trail with shorts and t-shirt and low-cut hiking shoes and little else. Atticus was thrilled to be on another trail with no snow, the scents excited him as he sniffed along the earth, along the base of trees and on rocks. In winter he leads, a constant distance in front of me, with a methodical and sober march. It’s all business. But today, today while the earth is waking up, even if it isn’t showing it yet, the scents were calling out to him and he ran from one to the next like a child running from one Christmas present to another on Christmas morning.

He hopped over rocks, splashed a little in the streams, drank from them (another thing he doesn’t do in winter) and gamboled about lightheartedly.

I followed along, noting the trees are still bare and the forests mostly gray. To the eye it could be late fall, but my nose is smart enough to pick up on the scent of spring. We worked through the forest, picking our way over rock and root, sometimes slippery, sometimes not. Before long we were at the ledges looking down on the Mad River and across to Jennings Peak and Sandwich Dome. Stunning.

It was warm enough that Atticus’ pink tongue was out. We sat on the first ledges for a little while, Atticus drinking his water, me drinking from one of the liters of frozen Gatorade that was quickly thawing. We watched the clouds float by and beneath them watched two hawks riding the wind just off the ledges.

Neither Welch nor Dickey is a 4,000-footer but it has views that rival many of the best 4,000-footers and dwarfs others. It also offers quite a workout working up the steeply angled ledges to Welch. But we were in no hurry so we took our time and stopped when we felt the need or when Atticus was tempted by a mossy, shady area.

Just below the summit he found a patch of shade protecting a crusty, laggard plate of snow and Atticus lay down upon it with his limbs splayed out. He was in no hurry to move forward and I was in no great hurry myself so we sat until he was ready to go. When we reached the summit we drank some more and Atticus ate some of his treats. While he sat on the edge of a ledge looking out at the dramatic lower shelves of Dickey, I took out my letter and read it. It was that kind of letter; a letter written with care; a letter that should also be read with care and with the same reverence that went into writing it. What a pleasure to sit up there on this wonderful afternoon, in no great rush to be anywhere, with enough time to read the 10 pages more than once; enough time to take out pen and paper and start a response.

After a while I took out Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation and read through several pages, my pen underlining a sentence here, bracketing a paragraph there. All the while Atticus sat on the ledge and looked out towards the horizon. How long we sat like that, me reading, then writing, then reading again, and he looking out at the mountains, I have no idea. Our silent revelry was broken by a more joyous one as a large group of spirited young women from Plymouth State reached our little perch, first with their excited squeals and then in person. Oh, to be that young again.

After quick greetings and much fawning over Atticus they soon disappeared into the scrub and down into the dip on the way over to Dickey. Some had on hiking shoes, a few wore only Tevas, all of them wore shorts and skimpy, summery tops. Listening to their song of spring as they chattered on in good spirits long after they disappeared, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s wood nymphs. (And how appropriate since Shakespeare’s birthday is this week, as best as anyone can guess.)

Atticus and I were soon on our way, too. We bid adieu to the great view of Sandwich Dome and the Tripyramids, Sleepers and Whiteface and descended into the hollow between the peaks. It is a steep climb down off of Welch and there are times it looks like the trail leads to the edge of a cliff but as soon as my faith wavered a sudden foothold appeared. To our right Tecumseh looked impressive and massive. (How often do you hear that about Tecumseh?)

We met some more snow between the peaks but it was of little consequence and only served to cool us both down a bit. It was like standing above an air conditioner. Soon we were back into the woods and climbing Dickey. It is a short but steep ascent, ledge leading to ledge. On top, even through the haze we could see Franconia Ridge, a jagged edge in the distance; and the Kinsmans and Cannon. Soon we saw Moosilauke, too. To our right Tecumseh loomed up. (How often do you hear that about Tecumseh?) Seeing the shortest 4,000-footer like that always gets me to stop and sit. And that’s what we did again. More sitting, more cloud counting, more reading for me, while Atticus watched Tecumseh to make sure it didn’t rise up on us.

The descent along the ledges is very dramatic. We walked towards the sun and the fading layers of blue-gray mountain after blue-gray mountain in the distance. The ledges continue on for a while, a precipitous drop off to the left offering a great view over at Welch.

And then we came to that pyramid rock and the mysterious circle cut into the stone in the distance in front of it. I’m told there is a legend to this circle, something to do with ancient times, but I forget what it is and I make a mental not to ask Thom Davis, (Dr. D, VFTT resident geologist) about it.

Entering the woods the path was gentle, the grade easy to maneuver down even while my mind wandered from daydream to daydream. Off in the distance the giggles and peels laughter of the young women rang through the woods. About half way down I ran into a young man, college aged, I guessed. He was on his way up and looked drunk with pleasure. He looked at me and asked with a big grin, “Did you see all those girls? Awesome.”

I smiled back at him, no words were needed. Then he went up the trail and I went down the trail falling once more into daydreams and the blissful warmth of the afternoon.

Spring is in the air. Thank goodness.


Mark said...

Sounds like a great hike and not too long. We have a 10 and 12 year old, would this be okay for them?

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Mark, it is a great hike for kids. This is my fourth time on this loop and all but one of them I've seen numerous kids. Besides, who says you have to do the entire loop? You can just go up to the first ledge and decided whether or not to go on from there.

Ari said...

Welch and Dickey. Wow! I haven't thought of those mountains in a good 20 years. I remember hiking those two mountains, along with Sandwich and Tripyramid in the late 1980s with a summer camp contingent from Cape Cod as we spent a few days each summer in Waterville Valley.

I like your writing style, as I can picture things happening as you describe them!

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Ari, thank you for visiting the blog and reading along. When I first started hiking three years ago a friend told me I would come to love the mountains down along the Sandwich Range. She was right. Even "little" Welch and Dickey are treats.

It's only a 100 minute ride from Newburyport to Exit 28 should you ever decide to visit these two wonderful peaks for the day.

The first time I did them I drove up in the morning with John Allison of John Farley Clothiers and after hiking and stopping for lunch we were still back in Newburyport by 1:30 or 2:00.