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, April 28, 2008

The LL Bean Fellow Wasn't Impressed By Atticus

My reluctance to hike through rotting spring snow, along a thin and further withering monorail, and my refusal to put Atticus through the post-holing nightmare that many higher peaks would ensure him off having has driven us to smaller, mostly snow-less peaks as of late. I cannot express how much I have enjoyed these smaller but no less wondrous peaks over the last couple of weeks.

On Saturday we were introduced to Mt. Israel. I’d seen the panoramic photo of the Sandwich Range taken from Israel’s summit by Ken Stampfer and on display at the Mountain Wanderer. Since first laying eyes on it decided I wanted to go there. As good fortune would have it, Atticus and I were invited to join Ken and his wife, Ann, for a leisurely hike to the summit.

To say it is only a four mile round trip seems to discount this hike unfairly. It is a real treasure, especially if you don’t get fooled by the false summit and continue on to the true summit, a rocky cone that offers up even better views than the false summit. (However, it is easy to see why some don’t get beyond the first viewpoint, for it seems that the view cannot get better.)

But the charms of this hike lay not just in the views from the summit, but in the gradual climb through the open forest. When we started our hike we did so by walking under the outstretched arms of a magnificent tree just starting to bud. From there we walked along a earthen path strewn with dried brown leaves and made our way along the dips and rises of a man-made stonewall and a God-made stream. They both offered charming boundaries to the trail, and at times we crossed them in our ascent.

On the climb we were greeted by trees just giving birth to leaves and yellow wildflowers escaping the brown earth. Spring had just kissed this place and awakened the flora and the fauna and it was a pleasure to be among the first to witness some of their initials yawns and stretches of the season. Most of the trees, I should point out, are still bare and just getting ready to explode, but that was just as well as it gave us an unobstructed view up at a charming blue sky on another delightfully pleasant temperature day.

We ran into a few other hikers but were glad to have let them get an earlier start than us. There was the fellow with the new Bean boots, and his wife with the new boots, too. And all the gear they had appeared to be the greatest gear ever made, or so we were told by the gentleman who appraised our worn gear with less than charitable eyes. They had a nice but somewhat high strung dog. She was introduced to us as the greatest hiking dog ever. I smiled and offered their dog some water and told them I hoped that Atticus would some day be half the hiking dog theirs was.

It has been my experience in meeting dogs along the trails that they are typically good company but their owners fall under one of three categories: people who love all dogs, including the other dogs they meet along the trail; people who like to think their dog is the best dog ever and don‘t seem to think it is possible any other dog could be half as special as theirs; and people who live out their lives through their dogs, much like a “Little League Dad” pushes a child to fulfill his own shortcomings and in the process are threatened by other dogs (the owners are, not the canines).

I did not find the man to be insulting even when he continued to praise his dog and discounted Atticus by suggesting he looked more suited to napping than hiking. And while I’m cannot say for sure, I am fairly confident Atticus was not put off by this either.

The next couple we came upon did not step out of the LL Bean catalogue, but from the pages of J Crew‘s spring offerings. The man was especially well-attired, in white trousers, white sneakers, and a crisp button-down Oxford. They had a dog, too. An Akita mix, I believe. But they didn’t think their dog was the greatest in the world, or for that matter the worse. But I took notice that the dog was quite happy to be in the woods and in my mind that makes him a very lucky dog.

The third couple we encountered was the most interesting. She had a voice like a Screech Owl and it carried through the woods just as easily. They were the reason we took our time reaching the summit. However, on their descent we chatted with them and they proved to be quite pleasant. Nevertheless, it was great not to have that voice on a summit day made for napping.

In meeting these couples and their varied backgrounds and shared love of the woods and views from up high I have no idea how they appraised our party, if at all (other than the gentlemen’s comment about Atticus and the telling glances he gave to our worn gear). Perhaps they looked at me and wondered why so slovenly a man was out in the woods, ruining their view of this great beauty.

In meeting people along the trail I am often reminded of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Each person has a story. Some days it’s fun to hear them. Other days I fall deeply into meditation and the walk and climb seems more like a prayer. Both are edifying experiences that add to the day, it’s just that they are different in how they tickle me.

We had timed our hike just right and reached the top as the day was stretching into the afternoon and we took a more than leisurely rest atop the stone dome. We ate, drank and chatted quietly. Atticus moved about checking out the view towards Moosilauke, then to the behemoth of Sandwich Dome right in front of us, then the Tripyramids, Sleepers, Whiteface, Passaconaway, and all the way east towards Chocurua. He then found a bush that offered some shade, scraped up some cool dirt with his paws, and lay down for a nap. It was one of our longest summit visits ever. We were in no hurry to get going and instead took a lesson from the wildflowers we had met earlier and raised our happy faces towards the sun in languid pleasure.

I find these trips to the so-called “lesser peaks” to be quite fortifying this time of year. They are mostly snow-free and it’s good not to get frustrated tromping through snow that is giving out, or about ready to. I like a physical test as much as the next person, but I want to be able to enjoy it. Sloppy footing does nothing but take away pleasure from my hike, but that’s just my opinion.

The other thing that hits me about these smaller peaks, is that when I do them, I’m doing them simply for me and the pleasure of it. When I do a 4,000-footer, as much as I enjoy it, I find myself checking it off a list, for this season or this month and in that way it almost resembles a chore to have hiked it. It may be a pleasurable experience, but nevertheless, I’m still checking it off. In hiking Black or Israel or Welch-Dickey as I‘ve done this past week, I’m doing it simply for the views and the experience of being out there.

I enjoy the walk through the woods, the conversation with select people, or the meditation when on my own. I also find myself relating more to these new peaks, these first-time climbs, as I would when I was a child and playing in the woods not far from our home. And much like those woods back home, no matter how near they are to the road and civilization, it doesn’t feel that way. Stepping into them is like melting into them, and finding myself in a magical story where nature is the leading character and my imagination flies making all things possible.

In Carl Jung’s “The Holiness of Mountains”, I am reminded of two things. First that Jung believed that the collective unconscious was simply nature. He believed that when we removed ourselves from nature we lost touch with the magic of life. The other is a direct quote from that essay: “Knowledge does not enrich us; it removes us more and more from the mythic world in which we once at home by the right of birth.”

These sojourns into the woods and up the mountains are for me a chance to get back to that innocence of more feeling and less knowledge. It reconnects me to much of what I have forgotten to hold onto through the years. It brings me back to that place where I was when while unaware of much that I now know, I was more aware in other ways.

We left the woods six hours after embarking and covered only four miles, but what a wonderful four miles they were.

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