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.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Walk Along the Southern Presidentials: June 21, 2008

I love the almost tropic feel of a summer morning in the mountains. The cool night giving way to a fresh day that slowly warms while the sun follows its arc. When Atticus and I step foot on a trail we are swallowed whole by the green forest and enter a mythic realm. Earthy scents greet us, dew clings to the undergrowth and glimmers like small jewels, mist rises like the mysteries of the ages from the moist ground.

We walk together, he and I, watched by invisible eyes. The forest whispers. It whispers to me to remember. It beckons me to come closer and to remember what I have forgotten. I cannot help but respond to the call of a brook’s lyric murmuring and the birdsong from inspired but unseen messengers. It’s hard not to find myself in those lines from that Federico Garcia Lorca poem:
Give me back the soul I had
Of old, when I was a child
Ripened with legends,
With a feathered cap
And a wooden sword

That’s me, the one with the soul I had when I was a child. And how could it not be with this little dog by my side? He’s a fine guide and immune to the things I count as troubles. He could care less about money stresses, failed and failing relationships, dreams dented and graying. He trundles over moist rock and root happily traveling through my childhood. Through a place I once knew but almost forgot to remember. The Garden I didn’t weed and didn’t water. But where there is purity there is no forgetting. By watching Atticus, by following him and seeing him fit right in with Mother Nature I’m allowed entrance to this place I have always loved; even if I have at times forsaken it.

I’d like to think we all have at least one great love in our lives. (If you haven’t, I pray you will.) Entering the forest for me, any forest, but especially any forest in these mountains, is like remembering the one special love that got away, or falling in love all over again with the one who is still by your side. It’s a dream: delicious, textured, sweet. Life was never so good, so simple and clean, so ripe and fragrant.

I love the forest for all I see in front of me. I love it for all I don’t see but can imagine. To walk through these leafy corridors how does one not understand we are one with it all no matter how hard we may have tried to forget it?

In its simplest form this is what a hike is for me.

It is going to a very special place for the first time all over again. It’s peeling back the layers, peeling back the years, washing way the sins and the regrets. Maybe you were five or seven or nine the first time you entered a forest alone, or with friends; either way you brought with you more than you do as an adult. But listen to the forest, really listen to it and it wraps its arms around you and pulls you gently back. Welcome home.

If that was all a hike entailed it would be enough.

On Saturday that’s what we had in the beginning and in the end. But for us it was even more special in the middle of our journey. We took a leap of faith that the clouds over the Presidentials would rise and take flight and give us a grand day by the time we traveled the three miles from Crawford Notch up to that lovely place where the trees grow short and sparse and the trail to the summit of Mt. Pierce is on the right. By the time we reached that place the clouds started to shift. We could see Mt. Eisenhower in front of us and Monroe, too. Beyond that Washington’s head was still in the clouds but we hoped for more.

In the best of times walks through a forest are like stumbling into C.S. Lewis’ magical wardrobe and pushing through the rows of clothes, at first maybe to hide from something or someone but then moving deeper because an inkling arises that there is something special beyond it all. Stepping out of the trees and onto that ridge is like exiting the back of the wardrobe and entering our own special Narnia. It is a world apart.

There are more dramatic places in these mountains but few offer a more beautiful walk than along the spine of the Southern Presidentials. The stretch from Pierce to Monroe is a special place.

On Pierce we debated whether or not to continue on. Dark clouds came from the west and threatened us but when they let loose their bark was worse than their bite and the rain fell briefly and gently. The decision was made to head to Eisenhower.

Upon leaving Pierce we descended into short scraggly trees until about a third of the way across. We then climbed out of them and up onto the great ledges. We were center stage and in every direction our eyes feasted on marvelous delicacies from the now fully revealed Washington, Clay and Jefferson to the distant waves of mountains, first green then in the distance blue, a vast ocean of peaks below fairy tale clouds puffed and fluffed as if they had floated out of the pages of a children’s book.

Along the way we stopped often. There was much to see and we were in no hurry. Too often we’ve hit this ridge – yes, hit is the right word – from the other direction, first climbing Washington and then continuing in a hurry over Monroe, Little Monroe, Franklin, Eisenhower and then Pierce in a peak-bagging fever. But not on Saturday. We came from the “other way” and enjoyed our trip over the ledges we used to scurry over. Atticus approved, as he always does when offered the chance look around at the views. I think if he could speak, like we do I mean, he would say there is no difference between then and now. With his old eyes and his re-done eyes there is no difference. He still cherishes what he sees, he sits and soaks it all in, taking his time to see it all as if he were Benjamin Champney, Thomas Cole or one of the other White Mountain Artists re-incarnated.

When we reached the top of Mount Eisenhower I picked up Atticus as I always do on the summits, holding him like a ventriloquist holds his sidekick, and we turned in a circle to see it all together. When we faced the bigger peaks glowing in the afternoon sun, under a blue sky and those magnificent white clouds and I heard that sound I love the best. At times like that, in places like that, he breathes deep, slowly exhales and as he does he sighs, his little body relaxing into mine, two souls spanning the distance between our species, moved by these mountains.

There are days and places where words will not do and cannot be stretched upon a canvas to paint a picture. There are days too perfect, too special to be believed or described. There are days where only a sigh will do. Saturday was a day best summed up by a sigh.

Photos can be found here.

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