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, January 06, 2009

Mt. Tecumseh: January 4, 2009

When I was ten years old and found a rare moment of alone time in the house I grew up in, I cracked open my father’s dusty and musty copy of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” and discovered the brilliance of Ralph Waldo Emerson. At that very first meeting Emerson’s words ran through me like a terrible ache, both beautiful and fierce – the way only truth and love can. It was a bold awakening for a little boy who never enjoyed reading children’s books.

In the years since that fateful meeting Emerson has often offered me stars to navigate by even on the darkest of nights. And yet, of all of the profound things the author said and wrote in his lifetime, the ones I find myself stumbling over again and again on the trail over the past three years come from his simple little poem titled “Fable”.

The mountain and the squirrel

Had a quarrel,

And the former called the latter, "little prig":

Bun replied,

You are doubtless very big,

But all sorts of things and weather

Must be taken in together

To make up a year,

And a sphere.

And I think it no disgrace

To occupy my place.

If I'm not so large as you,

You are not so small as I,

And not half so spry:

I'll not deny you make

A very pretty squirrel track;

Talents differ; all is well and wisely put;

If I cannot carry forests on my back,

Neither can you crack a nut.

It is a lesson in where we all fit. We have our places, no matter how big, no matter how small. In many ways it has become the anthem that often plays in my head when I follow Atticus into the woods on a way to the mountaintop:

“And I think it no disgrace to occupy my place.

If I’m not so large as you, you are not so small as I…”

My little friend carries that same audacity with him wherever he goes and refuses to apologize for his size, or better yet, lack of it.

On Sunday I watched Atticus bound from the road onto a snow bank, deftly cross the icy stones in the stream and charge happily into the woods at the beginning of our trip up Tecumseh on Sunday. I recognized something I haven’t seen since last winter. We walk in the woods nearly every day and while he obviously enjoys it, there’s something different about a hike when we are climbing a mountain…especially in winter. He senses this is where he belongs, as if he’s home again. Whenever I see it in his eyes I feel as though I’m witnessing the reunion of two long lost friends bound by something so intimate that I’ll never fully understand it but I cannot help but fully appreciate the beauty of the moment.

The barometer of his happiness is often his ears and on Sunday they were flying high as he passed along the packed snow through January’s dark, naked trees while catching their growing shadows on the white snow. Occasionally he would stop his bounding long enough for his ears to cease flopping and wait up for me. But it was clear he wanted me to move faster – such unmitigated joy! If he could he would have grabbed me by the hand and dragged me along in his excitement.

After dipping down into the last stream crossing he was just as eager as he waited for me in each bend of those switchbacks before we started that long steady ascent towards the summit. But even in his excitement he slowed down and we began our long-nurtured routine that comes naturally. He leads; I follow – usually a constant ten yards behind.

Tecumseh may be the smallest of the 4,000-footers and one of the shortest distances from road to summit, but that stretch of 1.2 miles is steep enough to cause me to trudge along, one foot in front of the other, a 10-second rest for every 200 steps taken. But on Sunday there was something different about our climb. Perhaps because it was the first of this winter and we were both happy to be out again. We made it through the steeps quicker than I had expected. Once beyond the junction of the Sosman Trail we entered into that wonderful corridor of evergreens that leads to the fork in the trail. As always I let Atti choose the way at the fork and as always he chose left. You see, it clearly goes up, more noticeably than the trail to the right, and for whatever the reason he understands we go up until there is no more up.

When we came into the sunshine and the views to Moosilauke draped in a sheer, thin blanket I chose my footing through the icy rocks carefully, letting the points of my microspikes dig in, but Atticus dodged and weaved and hopped along the craggy trail without much care. Then it was into one last corridor of trees for the short wind to the top. The trees were coated in pixie dust and it glinted in the fingers of sunshine that poked through the dense growth. That’s where I lost Atticus. That’s where I always lose him. It is the place in each hike where he no longer waits for me. He understands the top is near and cannot hold back.

When I caught up to him he gaily circled that row of angelic trees standing guard over the cairn. He was not sniffing or looking for any specific thing but frolicking in a queer little tap dance. Strange little dog, I’ve never quite seen anything like it from him on a mountaintop before but when you spend as much time together as we do you master the game of charades quite well and know how to read him. His message was simple – we’re home. We are home!

Just the other day a friend asked, “Which of the 48 is your favorite?”

Like many of you I have no one single favorite, but even I was surprised when Tecumseh made my list of favored peaks. For us it has never been ‘just Tecumseh’ or a simply a mandatory check mark on a list. Don’t ask me why for I cannot explain it. There’s just something about it that lights my senses afire and inspires me in the most primitive way. Watching my little friend dance around the breezy summit on Sunday, it’s clear he feels the exact same way.

Perhaps for me, part of the charm of Tecumseh is that it resembles Atticus or Emerson’s ‘little prig’; it may be small but it contains all the wonders of the Universe. Because of the little dog I go through life with I’m often reminded that the mass of a thing means little in defining the breadth of its spirit.

And so we came to Tecumseh once again and once again I was the better for it.


LM said...

Hey Tom,

Tecumseh is one of my fav's as well. It was the first 4K mountains I ever started up at the age of maybe 14. Our family use to take a week vacation in the Valley. I didn't make it to the top due to lack of drive, physically and emotionally. We camped out out on one of the open ski trails. Years later I have made it to it's top maybe 6 times now. Camping near the top is the best.

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Now that's a great idea...camping high on the ski slopes under the stars. You know, I'm thinking of getting into camping this summer and that would be a great place to start out. Thanks for the idea!