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, July 07, 2009

Simply Tecumseh

This morning, while comparing notes with a friend and book lover on the main character from Rief Larson’s book, “The Selected Stories from T. S. Spivet”: Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, I told him about my favorite Tecumseh. At 4,003 feet it’s the smallest of the 4,000-footers. And yet whenever I return to climb it, the mountain speaks to me. Strange? To some I suppose it is. But think about something John Muir once wrote: “Society speaks and all men listen, mountains speak and wise men listen.” Here’s what I wrote about Tecumseh a few years ago.

Think of the last carefree moment you surrendered to recently and you will appreciate how we felt while stretched out on two comfortable rocks in the high grass while a mischievous wind played with us under an overcast sky. I sat back and watched Atticus watch the wind. There are times it appears he sees things I cannot, for when the wind blows he follows it as if he can see sprites riding the currents.

On Saturday we were in no hurry so after only a mile on the trail we took the short spur path to the ski slope, took a seat and let our minds wander. Talk of the simplest of joys: A man and his dog---which on this day could just as easily have been a boy and his dog. We were Huck Finn and Jim floating down the Mississippi, me with a long blade of grass stuck between my teeth as if it were a corncob pipe. We just sat there and watched the day pass by as if it were the shores along the mighty Mississippi.

While Atticus sat up and watched the wind and gazed at the Tripyramids I thought of Tecumseh, the man, not the mountain. I thought of him while taking inventory of the clouds and the red berries on the trees and I listened to the song of the wind as it carried the words of the great Tecumseh himself, “When you rise in the morning, give thanks for the light, for your life, for your strength. Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason to give thanks, the fault lies in yourself.”

I gave thanks. Thanks for that quiet and private moment, thanks for the unhurried day…thanks for this pondering dog.

It’s easy to overlook Mt. Tecumseh, especially while tangled up in the mania of peak bagging or in seeking out the greatest views but there’s something about this mountain that draws me closer. I find rich experiences whenever I take to its trail, walk through its woods, climb to the small summit where I am surrounded by those wonderful trees.

On this afternoon I lay back with my hands behind my head, elbows splayed to the side, not too far up this least notable of the 4,000-footers and listened as the wind continued to sing to us, carrying more words from Tecumseh, “When the legends die, the dreams end; there is no more greatness.”

I love those words. They speak of awe, the importance of this wonderful moment and why I am called to these mountains. Oh, there have been times when I have stumbled and lost track of the beautiful while crossing numbers off a list or in making sure I can cover so many miles or climb so many feet of elevation in a day, but in the end, when I peel back the ego and the ambition, this is what it all comes down to…at least for me. I like the way I feel when I am here.

As a boy the legends of these mountains called to me. When I sat by a stream or around the campfire or slid into my sleeping bag my senses were aroused by the stories whispered in the wind, hidden behind trees just out of sight in the thick woods, floated upon the streams and brooks, and carried from mountaintop to mountaintop. They found their way into my dreams and found a way to stay with me even after I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. And they stayed with me through all those years I stopped coming to the mountains, dormant while awake, seductive while asleep. For years they called to me in my dreams until I returned to the mountains last year and started to walk through the woods, along the streams, and sit atop the mountaintops. Slowly the stories replayed themselves with me, whispers from the wind straight into my heart and I found myself falling in love with these wondrous mountains that continue to awe me, that continue to inspire me.

There is a wonderful term that speaks of the pervading spirit of a special place---genius loci. The Romans believed protective spirits watched over special places. I have no doubt that there is something special that watches over these mountains for I feel the magic of these mountains when I stop and just let myself be, whether it is on Franconia Ridge to watch the sunrise or under cloudy skies on a ski slope on Mt. Tecumseh. In the Whites the genius loci is rich and tangible.

I had a list of much more ambitious hikes to do but on Saturday I relaxed with Atticus and spent a lot of time remembering why I love the mountains. Eventually we left the ski slope and made our way up the trail until we came to the Sosman Trail. We meandered down to the bench and sat there for a while. There were no hurries and no worries on this day. But there was a chill near the top of Tecumseh, enough for me to put on my fleece and my hat. The last time we walked from the bench back to the main trail and up to the summit someone turned out the lights and left us in the dark on my first winter hike. That wouldn’t happen on this day and we enjoyed the views we found through the trees. When we reached the fork in the trail where you can reach the summit by going either left or right, Atticus led the way by choosing left, because it goes uphill and he seems to know we have to go up, at least until we reach the top. After a few minutes we reached the summit and encountered five other hikers. We passed the time in pleasant conversation before starting down on our own.

It was on the trip down that I came to think about why I like hiking alone. As pleasant as each of the people we met on the summit were, as soon as we encountered them and engaged in conversation, the wind, the trees, the mountain, the entire magical sense of place took a back seat and became only a supporting character. My friends think of me as antisocial when I hike alone, but I’m just silly enough to want to hear what the mountain has to say to me and when I’m talking with someone else, it is clear I don’t hear the wind, or the creaking of the trees, or the mountain talking of mysteries or the legends of the hills that don’t always get passed on by words and I am left wanting more.

We didn’t hike much this weekend but one lazy day visiting with Tecumseh seemed to be just what I needed as I awoke once again to the voices of the hills and they will carry me through until I return next week. I pray I will never lose this sense of wonder I find in the Whites.

(Tecumseh is pictured in a spring photo from the Welch-Dickey loop.)

No comments: