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.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A Walk in the Ossipees: May 15, 2008

For all the stark and at times overwhelming beauty that comes while traipsing through tunnels of snow-covered trees in the winter, I was at first taken aback by the grayness of the mountains not covered with snow above treeline. I think when Atticus and I first started hiking in the winter it was the one thing that I was disappointed with. In my ignorance I expected all mountains to look bright and shiny white from a distance. But where the coniferous trees climb the slopes and shed their leaves they can look a dismal and bald blue. This stands in stark contrast to the snowy and dramatic peaks of the Presidential Range and Franconia Ridge that actually glow when the sun catches their white picketed ridges.

But that was last season. In my first spring living in the Whites I am now awed by the soft lush colors I see. I cannot describe them well as they fall somewhere between green and yellow, other than to say it is the color of new life. Were I an artist with brush and paint and canvas and accurately captured the exact colors of the trees fleshing out these past two weeks, the painting would look contrived, as if I was reaching to make some dramatic statement.

I like that I cannot define the colors of spring. There may have been a time in my past when I’ve encountered a lone tree that would give off this hopeful color, but never have I been as moved by it or so utterly surrounded by it as I was last weekend on a hike in the Ossipee Range. Atticus and I, who typically prefer to hike as a private duo, have grown fond of the trips we’ve taken with Ken and Ann Stampfer as of late. Since winter’s close they’ve taken us to so-called “lesser peaks” and introduced us to new wonders that lift and inspire.

Last weekend’s hike was to Mt. Roberts and over Faraway Mountain before looping back to where we started nine miles later. The climb up Roberts is gentle and as it climbs it offers views back down into the lakes region. The higher we climbed the more the view drove a stake into my heart that made me mourn that I am not an artist and would never be able to capture the scene. All that dark blue water ringed by mountains in this new color topped off by a sky set free between storms where magnificent white Maxfield Parrish clouds sailed a blue sea of their own – stunning.

And just as the climb is gentle, so are the spring colors of the mountains coming into view the higher we reached. Clouds cast their shadows creating more variations of green and my camera clicked away, even though I knew the magic would elude the lens.

Towards the top of Mt. Roberts we encountered a world of short, twisted trees, their tops cut flat by wind and ice, sprouting vibrant leaves. I imagined this might be the one day of the year when such a walk would outdo even the best autumn day ripe with foliage.

The climb to the summit offers easy ledges to cross but the marriage of rock and twisted but colorful trees and the views behind to the lakes and faraway mountains caused us to stop and drink it in as much as possible, that is until the black flies caught up to us. At times a breeze sent them scattering, but for the most part we had to endure their bites and their overwhelming presence. They, and the ticks we were to gather along the way – Atticus ended up with over 20! – were the only drawbacks.

Just before the summit we stepped from a leafy spring into an old an untended evergreen forest. If I were blind and on this walk I would know the change simply by the evergreen scent in the air. But I’m not blind and my eyes were captivated by dark green trees that created shadowed corridors. It was like walking into a fairy tale through woods both ominous and mysterious. This led us to an open ringed path. Either way would take us to the summit and we chose the left. Within minutes we were at the top.

When we reached the viewpoint towards the north the black flies allowed us a few minutes to eat our lunch. From the rock makeshift bench we had a great view of the Sandwich Range, from the mountain of that same name to the west across the Osceolas, Tripyramids, Sleepers, Whiteface, Passaconaway and Chocurua in the east. Beyond that we could see Carrigain’s great whale-like hump breaching in the distance and to the northeast Mt. Washington.

The hike over to Faraway Mountain followed an old grassy road that made for easy going. Along the way we marveled at the white clouds casting forth across the blue sky and the scarred birch trees. Eventually we came to one last outlook, across to the ledges of Mt. Roberts and out across the lakes.

It’s easy to be wowed by the higher peaks of the White Mountains, and deservedly so, but I’m enjoying getting to know some of the shorter peaks that have the same talent to touch me with their beauty. Because of the color of the season, the unique ledge walk through those bright stunted trees, the views of the lakes, I felt I stumbled upon something new and exciting that I would not find farther north.

Emerson was talking of men when he wrote, “He is great who is what he is from Nature, and never reminds us of others.” How wonderful and rare to meet such a person; and how wonderful and rare to discover a place that reminds us of no other. This month marks the third year Atticus and I have been hiking and the trip to Roberts and Faraway was different than anything else we’d ever encountered. In a world where pleasant surprises can be too few, this was one.

(Photos, which you probably already saw on a previous post, can be found here.)

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