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, October 06, 2008

Hedgehog Mountain: October 5, 2008

“Have you ever wandered lonely through the woods?
And everything there feels just as it should
You're part of the life there
You're part of something good
If you've ever wandered lonely through the woods”
~ Brandi Carlisle

I can think of nothing I do in my life now that gives me the same feeling it did as when I was a child – other than entering a forest. I know of nothing more comforting than those first steps. The contrivances of a civilized life are left at the doorstep of the natural world. In the forest I can be as naked as I want to be, relieved of my self and my sins and I can be the man I dreamed of becoming when I was a child. Money, work, responsibilities, relationships…they mean nothing.

A gentle trill murmurs in my adrenals when the woods swallow me whole and I follow Atticus into a darkness that becomes light. Such is the joy of hiking alone on a gray October day with him. But try as I might, I cannot completely express the sensation. In my struggle to come up with my own words, I lean on those from Robert Louis Stevenson: “It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men's hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”

He’s right, it is that mysterious ‘subtle something’ that makes me excited and calm at the same time. From the moment I step on the path that ‘subtle something’ is always around, and yet just out of sight, as if traveling with us but hiding behind each tree and moving just quick enough that I can only glimpse it out of the corner of my eye but never face on to see what it is. It plays with my senses and seduces me enough so that even the decay of death is sweet and comforting in the forest. That in itself tells me what we find here in the mountains is more worthwhile than what awaits us when we leave them. A world where death is not only not feared; but gives off a fragrant scent and then feeds what continues to grow.

Yesterday, under sullen clouds, Atticus and I made our way into the dark mythic world that awaits us at the start of each hike. It’s this experience that makes the forest as special as the summit. I felt it yesterday on the way to Allen’s Ledge, the summit of Hedgehog and the highlight of our hike: the wondrous East Ledge. I’ve done this hike before but never in October; never when the colors from the ledges are far below us, the way some clouds are seen from above when inside an airplane. I wanted to see the ripe forest spread out beneath us and let it permeate me…in silence.

For silent contemplation in the forest, it helps to get a late start when most are just finishing their day. It also helps to hike with a silent partner. Many of our hikes are this way: there are no need for words between Atticus and me. It’s like what Thomas Merton said in the days leading up to his death: “The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. We are already one. But we imagine that we are not. What we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”

That’s exactly what the two of us share. We often communicate equally with wordless gestures. A knowing look and taking a seat means we’re going to be here for a while. A toss of the head means it’s time to move on, and this can come from either of us. Seriously. When I first saw Atticus do this – toss his head – after a winter of mostly wordless communication on the trail, I realized what we share in the mountains is common ground.

Even with our late start we encountered a few people on their way down while we were on our way up, and one group that was ahead of us, but mostly we were by ourselves. Each time we came upon others I caught snippets of conversations: jobs; politics; sports. I’ve done the same thing on trails when in the company of others and find joy in doing it but nothing compares to the silence we find in the wild.

Hedgehog is a small mountain, but it is still a mountain and up means up. For me this translates into sweating and praying and confessing my Ben & Jerry sins and leaning against trees on my oft-required breaks while cursing my body. I’m told by those who know better that we are not climbing but hiking. The definition doesn’t really matter to me; either way it’s work. Besides, if I climb stairs, I climb a mountain.

It’s in this work in going up that I am broken down and everything that is not needed within is stripped away. Once brought to my base self – deep breaths, a fast beating heart, muscles warm and supple, sweat on my brow and down my spine – I feel the forest pulsing around me, then in me; feel myself much more in tune with Atticus, who moves more effortlessly than I do. (Okay, so while the woods make us equal when it comes to communication, we are not equals when it comes to hiking.) Here he is more at home and by watching him I learn from him. The natural world is his turf and he navigates it the way I lead us down a busy city street.

We have lived in the mountains for a year now. Some business brought me back to Newburyport this past week and I enjoyed a few days with friends and the familiar faces and places of a town that was my home for a dozen years. There was a time when I thought it was a place I’d never leave. But that was before I remembered the mountains of my childhood and was re-introduced to them. People change; so do cities. I left when I changed and the city was changing into something I didn’t like; escaping the khaki wave of new Newburyporters. Still, whenever we return we are embraced. And as much as it has already changed, it seems like we know nearly half of everyone we see in that little city where the Merrimac meets the Atlantic.

I thought about that world we used to know and compared it to the one we presently know while sitting alone on the East Ledge of Hedgehog yesterday, sipping a grape soda and looking at the carpet of trees beneath my dangling feet. I from Passaconaway over to Chocorua and all the undulations between the two and compared them to the trials and tribulations of this past year. And yet there is no doubt: trading that very public life for this very private one shared with forests, streams, mountains and that ‘subtle something’, along with this curious but comfortable little dog was well worth it. There is, after all, something to be said for living the life I dreamed of living.

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