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.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Night, the beloved.

When Atticus and I lived in Newburyport we often took lengthy nighttime walks weaving our way through the tightly-knit South End of the city. There was something soothing about those strolls. As we walked up and down the streets nearly every house looked like a warm and inviting home as the lights glowed within. When I owned my own newspaper at the same time, every two weeks we would venture out delivering my papers, starting at 9:30 at night and going non-stop deep into the next afternoon. Those loneliest of hours were often the most peaceful I knew.

Lately I’ve been getting reacquainted with that nocturnal peace. On a very windy night under a nearly-full moon we hiked Moriah. Then came a hike to the top of Mount Hale. Once on the summit we sat on top of the giant rock cairn with only the moon and a few stars overhead. Off in the distance we could see the spine of the Willey Range and the bulges of the Twins. It was cold but we were warmed by the beauty and the quietude. With no wind the only thing I could hear was the beat of my own heart.

During the next week we climbed Black Mountain and gazed out at Carter Notch and towards Mount Washington and then we climbed North and South Doublehead. Once on the ledges of South Doublehead I felt like a woodland spirit stuck between two heavens – that which flickered above me and the lights of Jackson below me. I didn’t want to leave and we would have sat there until daybreak had we not been spurred on by the cold.

In each of these instances it was only Atticus and me but there was not a thread of loneliness to be tugged. There is something different about the night and when tucked comfortably away as a member of society we’re taught to fear it. But far away from neon signs, the sound of rushing traffic and even the comfort of our own homes there’s more peace in the woods at night than any other place I’ve ever known. Sure, there is the occasional unsettling unidentified sound in the forest at night and the narrow beam of light from my headlamp lights the way in such a way it casts haunting shadows and brings tree branches to life. But even though I may be far away from my fellow man I feel comfort there. Once I surrender to the darkness and the quiet and being out there by ourselves something wondrous happens: I get closer to myself. I begin to understand more about my life. Things I’ve puzzled over or prayed about become clearer and I feel renewed. It’s as if I needed to pull myself away from all the comforts I know to be out in the dark and the cold.

One of my favorite writers is the late Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of “The Little Prince” (and other books). He had a thing for the night as well and summed up its enchantment: “Night, the beloved. Night when words fade and things come alive. When the destructive analysis of day is done, and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again. When man reassembles his fragmentary self and grows with the calm of a tree.”

“When man reassembles his fragmentary self…” That says it. In order to become whole again we need to get far enough away from our comforts and feel what it is like to simply breathe and move through the forest as the simplest of beasts do.

I used to be afraid of the woods at night because it’s nothing like walking through the neighborhoods of Newburyport at night. And yet even though an excited trill and a glimpse of uncertainty courses through me when I enter the forest, I feel like I’m on my way back to myself. When I was first out at night I was always relieved by returning to the safety of my car but that’s now changed. The return to the car almost comes too soon now, as does arriving at home. Adventure is where we grow and live and thrive. But more than adventure it’s about the seclusion.

After those series of nocturnal adventures we hiked Mount Jackson last Saturday. We started at the more conventional hour of 9:00 in the morning. It was cold and breezy but we were dressed for it. What we weren’t ready for was number of people we saw that day. There were at least 40 coming and going on this little trail. One Appalachian Mountain Club organized hike had 19 members! I suppose some find comfort in numbers but I couldn’t help wondering what these people get out of being out there in masse.

When the trails are that busy it’s difficult to find wilderness within you or around you. If anything it’s more like walking in a shopping mall. Occasionally you leapfrog a group and eventually they pass you back again. It goes on and on this way until eventually you all end up at the summit around the same time and politely you chat with each other, maybe make a passing joke or two, and eventually turn to head down and by the time you’re back at your car you think and before you know it you realize you’ve missed most of the reason for heading off to the mountains in the first place.

I’m not so arrogant as to think Atticus and I own these mountains, but there’s a reason we enjoy night hikes and day hikes where other hikers aren’t. Alone with each other the mountain reveals much more to us and of us. When it’s crowded like it was on Mount Jackson it’s simply more of what we are trying to get away from.

This is as perfect a place to end since the sun has now set and people are making their way home or are already home. That means it’s a perfect time for Atticus and me to head to Mount Pickering and Mount Stanton where I’ll “reassemble my fragmentary self.”

No comments: