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.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A November Walk In The Woods

There is never a time when I'm alone in the woods, thanks to my four-legged talisman. He leads, I follow, until, that is, we come to a trail junction and he wants to know which path we will take next. Then he looks at me expectantly, waiting for me to point either right or left. As great as it is to have Atticus for company, I’m even more blessed because my hiking partner is the best kind of company – silent; and he takes as much joy in the woods as I do. Ralph Waldo Emerson liked the church best when it was empty. I am the same way with the woods: reverence through solitude.

On Sunday morning, it was bitterly cold and we were early enough to have the woods to ourselves. The only sounds were the crunch of frozen leaves underfoot, an occasional melancholy birdsong, the rhythm of my breathing and the wind hissing through the trees. The plan was for a quick hike along the Morgan-Percival loop in Holderness overlooking Squam Lake before heading over to Newfound Lake to join two of my brothers for lunch. However, after the mild meanderings of the lower portion of the trail and the short steeper section in the last portion of the Mt. Morgan Trail, I changed my mind.

Atticus sat by a trail junction sign: Straight ahead (and up) to Mt. Morgan (0.4 miles and eventually over to Mt. Percival); or left to Mt. Webster (1.4 miles) along the Crawford Ridgepole Trail. Because we were now higher and more exposed and the wind was strong enough to make me pull my balaclava over my head and cover everything other than my eyes and we were in a hurry, the logical thing would have been to climb Mt. Morgan and then hop over to Mt. Percival and finish the loop with plenty of time to get to my brother's. But a funny thing happens to me in the woods – even when they are naked and so cold it's uncomfortable to stand still for more than a minute. I become a child again.

I'd never been to Mt. Webster (nor even heard of it) and decided it would be a fine time to go. And so Atticus and I followed our hearts instead of our plans and headed to points unknown.

The trail rolled pleasantly along through the November woods and we walked quickly in the cold, dark shadows of the ridge to the south with little protection from the bitter wind coming from the north. Soon, ice crystals formed on my eyebrows and eyelashes. If there had been snow on the ground it would have passed for the heart of winter instead of the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

While alone with Atticus in the frozen woods with gusts bearing down on us something wild was awakened in me. It had to do with making the choice to leave a warm bed and the Sunday paper behind to be out in elements most would never venture out in and until three years ago I wouldn't have either. We were suddenly as feral as our surroundings, out in untamed world, and perversely I found comfort in my discomfort. It came from within…and without. For the woods were frozen and harsh but still seemed to pulse with unseen life; just as my body did under several layers of clothing.

A friend of mine recently described a feeling she had deep within when she was moved to tears by something warm and beautiful and unexpected. It wasn't a pang in her heart but lower, but not in her gut either; perhaps, I surmise, it was in her soul. That's what it was like for me on Sunday morning. I felt a pang in my soul standing on the mountainside and thought of something the painter Andrew Wyeth said: "I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape – the loneliness of it – the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it – the whole story doesn't show."

There's something about there being more to the story, to the mystery of nature and what happens when we become part of the story simply by participating in it.

I could write on and on, I suppose, about how we eventually found the spur path to the summit of Mt. Webster and then two-tenths of a mile later found a nice outlook with a view down on the lake and over towards Whiteface's snowy white face and the pointed peak of Chocorua. Or I could tell you how when we turned back and made it to the summit of Morgan that there was a river of ice along the trail and we had to rock and root hop our way to the top and when we reached it we sat shielded from the wind in a warm sun overlooking a brilliant Squam Lake rippled by the wind. However, to me the day was defined by a whimsical decision to stray from the route and we found ourselves enjoying this most unlikely weather on a lesser-used portion of trail. It is special indeed when you find yourself graced to become part of what you love, as wild as the wind and as primitive as the mountainside itself. And we were there not because we went with friends or because I was checking it off this or that list but simply because something within stirred me out of bed and urged me on. It is the story of why we go to the woods in the first place, even as children. It is the feeling of being part of something not available to us anywhere else but in the forest.

Some of our best journeys outside take me inside. Such is the simple and uncomplicated joy of being in the woods.

1 comment:

LM said...

"Often I feel an inexplicable sense of wellbeing when in contact with the inner sanctum of nature that we call the woods. Indeed, when I fail to bath myself in its emotionally cleansing quality for an extended period, I suffer and feel ill at ease. It's a common experience that I've heard others mention. There is an obvious intercourse with nature that occurs for the fortunate person who has learned to see and feel its effects. Nevertheless, I fear not enough of our species has made the relation and, as a result, live more poorly and squalidly in spirit for it."

Jack Walsh