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, May 04, 2009

The Enchantment of Peaked Mountain

While a young boy, I was often cuffed up the back of my head on Sunday mornings while kneeling in the unforgiving pews of St. Joseph’s Church. My father, and everyone else at Mass, hung their heads in prayer; but I looked upward.

In a hoarse whisper my father would say, “Hang your head – now!”

When I wouldn’t he’d slap the back of my head. When I still refused to look down he’d do it again. Again I’d refuse and he’d give me a look that said, “Wait until we get out of here, boy.”

At the end of Mass I would explain to him that I didn’t want to hang my head. I told him more than once, “I want to see God; and I want him to see me, too.”

That never seemed to be sufficient explanation so like all good Irish Catholic fathers mine attempted to beat the audacity out of me. Yet still, the next Sunday, I’d look up again, perhaps a bit more sheepishly, but nevertheless, I looked up.

That’s what I was thinking while walking along the Peaked Mountain Trail this morning. Hope, in the form of light green chutes, pierced the barren forest floor; and new leaves hung from long-gray tree branches. The morning sun backlit the greenery and drew my eyes up through the trees towards the light and I was in church again. Or more like church the way it was supposed to be, the way prophets and holy men envisioned it when they found their religion.

I followed Atticus on the sing-song up-and-down trail for the first mile and raised my head into the beaming light of the forest, “I want to see God…”

It is that time of year when the forest yawns and stretches and is ready to get out of bed. Here in the North Country those first breaths come later than in other parts but that makes it all the more memorable when they do come. Always, winter wanes but hangs on for another six weeks and there is that thought, “Will spring ever get here?”

Today, it got here.
Oh, I know there have been warmer days and wild flowers have dotted forest floors, but this is the first day I felt myself wrapped in green and sensed the warm tendrils of summer carried through the breeze. Summer, after all, like all seasons, has a smell, and a hint of it was carried in this morning’s spring breeze.

The easygoing, gently rolling, somewhat uphill trail ended after a mile when we reached the second information kiosk. (This is where the original Peaked Mountain Trail comes in from the old but now-extinct Thompson Road trailhead.) The trail turned right and it turned up, as steep, at least for a bit, as any trail climbing a 4,000-footer. I was thankful for rocks to plant my feet on and the occasional twists and turns to the trail that broke the uphill struggle. While still cool, a summer sweat ran down my back. Even Atticus was feeling the push up the trail and his pink tongue made its first appearance of the season.

The trail eased when we reached the exposed granite slabs and the stands of red and pitch pine and turning around we had views of Mount Washington, Mount Adams, and the entire length of the Southern Presidentials. That was good enough reason to take more breaks to catch my breath and take a drink of water, and feel the joy of solitude.

The trail was marked well with blue blazes and eventually we reached a false summit. From here on…well, from here on the last quarter of a mile to the top of Peaked Mountain is a little steep in places, but it’s also a special place. We walked through emerald and gold plants and twisted pines and over great slabs of stone working our way towards the summit.

G. K. Chesterton, an English writer, once wrote: “The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in fairy books, charm, spell, enchantment. They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery.” Here on this little peak, we found ourselves in such a place.

There are moments in the mountains when I’m alone with Atticus where I feel all the magic of childhood gather within my chest with a sudden breath. I cannot tell you why some places are this way and others are not. There are certainly higher peaks and while the view from Peaked Mountain was fine, there are greater views in the Whites, but still there is something about the summit that weaves enchantment. In two miles we had only climbed 1,100 feet and stood at 1,793 feet but it may as well have been a different world altogether.

Not far below the flat roofs of outlet stores and big box stores and hotels dotted the valley floor, but above them stood the likes of Chocorua, Passaconaway, the three Moats. We may as well have been miles above the hustle and bustle of commerce below for that world did not exist. Instead, we sat alone on the mountaintop with the world at our feet and the magical pulse of nature everywhere around us.

Alone on these peaks with Atticus, I take inventory of my self and catalogue my thoughts. In the struggle to get to the top of even the smallest peak, I find myself renewed. It is my own communion, a return to childhood, a renewal of faith in feeling the magic wisps of nature. And, it is my way of striking out against the mundane in life.

At the end of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s memoir Wind, Sun and Stars he writes about a long journey by train. The train’s first class and the sleeping cars were empty when he took a late night walk the length of the train. Eventually he came to the third-class cars and found them packed with thousands of Polish peasants, asleep, but not peacefully. He walked through this rubble of life and saw the human and the inhumane.

He wrote: “And I thought: The problem does not reside in this poverty, in this filth, in this ugliness. But this same man and this same woman met one day. This man must have smiled at this woman. He may, after his work was done, have brought her flowers. Timid and awkward, perhaps he trembled lest she disdain him. And this woman, out of natural coquetry, this woman sure of her charms, perhaps took pleasure in teasing him. And this man, this man who is now no more than a machine for swinging a pick or a sledge-hammer, must have felt in his heart a delicious anguish. The mystery is that they should have become these lumps of clay. Into what terrible mould were they forced? What was it that marked them like this as if they had been put through a monstrous stamping machine? A deer, a gazelle, any animal grown old, preserves its grace. What is it that corrupts this wonderful clay of which man is kneaded?”

Eventually he came to something that captured his thoughts: "I sat down face to face with one couple. Between the man and the woman a child had hollowed himself out a place and fallen asleep. He turned in his slumber, and in the dim lamplight I saw his face. What an adorable face! A golden fruit had been born of these two peasants. Forth from this sluggish scum had sprung this miracle of delight and grace. I bent over the smooth brow, over those mildly pouting lips, and I said to myself: This is a musician's face. This is the child Mozart. This is a life full of beautiful promise. Little princes in legends are not different from this. Protected, sheltered, cultivated, what could not this child become? When by mutation a new rose is born in a garden, all the gardeners rejoice. They isolate the rose, tend it, foster it. But there is no gardener for men. This little Mozart will be shaped like the rest by the common stamping machine. This little Mozart will love shoddy music in the stench of night dives. This little Mozart is condemned .”

Troubled and sleepless, Saint-Exupery returned to his private compartment on the train and thought about the troubled tangle of men, women and children he’d just seen: “What torments me is not the humps nor hollows nor the ugliness. It is the sight, a little bit in all these men, of Mozart murdered.”

I suppose, my entire life has been a fight not to give in and give up like many have. I’ve been horrified by the idea of being ‘stamped’ or having the Mozart in me murdered.

These climbs to magical mountains – big or small – ensure me that I am still alive and I am renewed time and again.

I’m now 48 years old, I’m still that little boy in church: I want to see God; and I want him to see me, too.

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