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.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hello from Writer's Heaven

Good morning,

There was nearly frost on the pumpkin here in the country this morning. I knew it was cold when I woke up in the middle of the night and had to grab another blanket and when I pulled it up over us, Atticus didn’t bother to climb out from beneath it. He was still undercover when I woke up this morning.

I love the fall. Yes, I know it’s not really fall yet but I swear I heard Autumn giggling behind a tree when I took Atti outside for a tour of the yard. I look forward to the fall season here in our temporary home. I cannot imagine a more bucolic and perfect place for haystacks and cornfields and pumpkins on the porch. The farms here meld into the mountains and the mountains, other than Chocorua, who loves the attention, are gentle but beautiful green arcs. They may not be as dramatic as the jutting peaks of Franconia Ridge, but they are striking nonetheless. What makes the Wonalancet region even more beautiful than the area near Franconia Notch is the land below the mountains is bucolic and at ease with itself. Here there are no tourist attractions, natural or otherwise. There is no long five-fingered paved parking lot at the entrance to the Flume, nor are there the skeletal remains of a garish water park (that runs only three months of the year) fronting the ridge.

Here tourists are outnumbered by the small number of headstones sprinkled throughout the area in nook and cranny graveyards and farms set a scene both nostalgic and poetic. The White Mountain artists of the 1800s discovered Chocorua but I’ve seen no evidence that they moved inland along the rest of the Sandwich Range. United States President Grover Cleveland made his summer home here and John Greenleaf Whittier wrote his love letters to the mountains just down the road. But the beauty of this place is such that I can imagine Frost in a farmhouse whittling his words; Yeats, sauntering along the mushrooms and ferns of the woodland streams composing ballads to the little people, or Melville looking up at one of these mountains instead of Greylock to write of his great white whale. Here you can see Washington Irving penning the “Tales of Sleepy Hollow” or picture E. B. White looking up at a spider in the doorway of his barn and spinning a tale about Charlotte. This is a writer’s idea of heaven.

The people here are hearty but much friendlier than in other isolated places in the mountains. They welcome you to town with earnest smiles on their face and are genuinely glad to see you. At the general store they ask about your particulars with a laid back grace that makes you want to stay for a while and put your feet up. On three different occasions people have come up to me at trailheads to introduce themselves. The conversation usually goes like this: “This must be Atticus! Hello Tom, I heard you two were moving into the area.” They are friendly but not so much so as to break the spell of the place.

When I was walking along rustic Ferncroft Road the other day, I saw a woman building tiny stone cairns on the wooden footbridge connecting her home to the dirt road. I told her I liked her row of cairns. “Oh,” she said, a gentle smile easing across her lips, “these are my rock people. It’s good to have them around.” Then, while standing down next to the stream bed and leaning on the bridge had a comfortable face-to-face conversation with Atticus as if she’s known him her entire life. As she spoke he sat and watched her animated face and the soft movement of her hands.

Atticus loves the area because there are so many footpaths to discover I don’t think we’d get to all of them even if we lived here for 20 years. So far our favorite is the Brook Path. It runs for two miles and there is never a place where you can look up at the mountains. The view is of the woods and of the Wonalancet River it traces. In my three years in these mountains I’ve yet to find a more beautiful trail.

The graceful path up to Mt. Katherine is an easy walk but it’s still three miles of exercise to the ledge overlooking a farm that stretches towards the skyward peak of Chocorua. Seated on the summit rock there are also wonderful views toward the tops of Passaconaway, Wonalancet and Whiteface.

Within a quarter of a mile from where I’m sitting, Hemenway State Forest sits on either side of us. We often enter on a snowmobile path and walk through a forest dotted with mushrooms and ferns and the murmur of the river. We constantly find signs of bear and moose here and the trail ascends until it meets up with another trail for another short climb that ends at a fire tower. The stairs are thin and steep and I have to carry Atticus to the top but once on the top of Great Hill there are views in every direction and the view of the Sandwich Range, from Sandwich Dome in the west, all the way over to Chocorua in the east, are unbeatable.

Perhaps what I love most about this place is that it feels like a secret, like a soft whisper from one lover into the ear of another at a crowded gathering. Here the world softens, it lingers, you can feel yourself breathe, you can hear your heart beat. The mountains are startling, but not just because of their size and shape and their green grandeur. They literally startle you because you don’t know when you will see them. You can be walking along the road or a trail or through a cornfield or by a cemetery and out of nowhere you will sense you are being watched. You look up and see nothing but the clean blue sky or dense trees and you walk on. Take a few more steps and literally out of nowhere a peak has come out from its hiding place and is watching you with the curiosity of a child.

When my friend Paul came up for a hike I asked him if he wanted to get some ice cream. We drove by mountains, through open fields and by the occasional house and cemetery but no stores. I turned down a rutted dirt road, then an even ruttier dirt road and ten miles after leaving the house we arrived at a small dairy open 24 hours. You take your pick from of ice cream and cheeses at the Sandwich Creamery and they trust you will put the right amount of cash for your purchase through a mail slot in the wall. If you don’t have change, not to worry, there’s a vat of loose change in which you can find the correct amount.

Recently a friend wrote to note that Atticus and I were now in the boonies. She added, “You probably don’t even have streetlights where you are.” She is right, about the boonies and the streetlights. But we can see the stars here as I’ve never seen them and the moon climbs the sky like a ghost on a haunt. At night I half expect to stumble upon a scene like the one in Will Moses’ “Girls Night Out” where witches gather around a cauldron in back of a farmhouse, kept company by black cats, ghosts and pumpkins.

Now you can see why I’m so excited about autumn here where the landscape plays like a Danny Elfman tune, both spooky and pastoral.

1 comment:

Ruth said...

Sounds idyllically eerie. Sleepy hollow, charlottes web, witches & caldrons, ooooooh spine tingling. Wish I could see it & top it off with fresh dairy ice cream. Yum xx