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, March 12, 2010

The Enchanted Wood of Waumbek

The other night I woke up in the wee hours of the morning. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t sleep; it was as if I wasn’t supposed to be sleeping. I had the strongest desire to be on a mountain for sunrise and before too long Atticus and I were up and getting ready.

Now most people would think we’d be headed to the summit of Madison or Moriah, Washington or Adams – all great places to watch the sun come up. But we weren’t headed for a mountaintop. From the moment I woke up I knew where I wanted to be, first in darkness under the stars then when the woods were awash in the soft pink, orange and gold of the early morning. We were headed for the space between two mountains, one of my favorite places in the White Mountains.

Most people think little of Mount Waumbek and wouldn’t bother climbing the mostly viewless mountain if it didn’t stand 4,006 feet tall and be required to finish all 48 4,000-foot peaks. I’m the exception. But it’s not the summit that draws me there. It’s the saddle of land that lies between the slightly shorter Mount Starr King (3,907 feet) and Waumbek. It’s a mile-long stretch through the most enchanted woods in the White Mountains – at least in my opinion.

That forest primeval is not all that ancient, I suppose, it just seems that way because of the way the north wind slices through the saddle and has left a wreckage of trees. It is weather beaten and scarred. Nature is not kind to its own. Old pines are torn and tattered, some are toppled over, their roots upended, and nearly all the trees – both dead and alive – are hung with a lichen called Old Man’s Beard that looks like a cross between Spanish Moss and cobwebs in a haunted house.

During our first winter hiking we were alone on the mountain and that stretch was particularly windy and bitterly cold. All life was frozen and at that moment I felt lonelier than I’ve ever felt in my entire life. And yet there was something enthralling about it even then. It’s been the same way each time I return. It’s as if you were to hang out there long enough you would see things that would cause you to question your sanity. Perhaps it would be trooping fairies, a coven of witches or the trees themselves coming to life. It is a forest straight from the pages of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and it is dark and dense and magical and frightening. And yet I love it there and was drawn there in the dark of night, the only light being my headlamp and the stars above.

After leaving the warmth and comfort of the car Atticus and I were swallowed by the forest. The only noise came from the crunch of my snowshoes (it may be mud season in the valleys but the mountains still have several feet of snow in them) and my breathing. Occasionally we’d stop so I could catch my breath and I’d look up through the bare trees and see the stars more alive than I’ve ever seen them. It was as if I could see them swirling above and we stood at the center of the universe as each constellation breathed life into the night. The further we climbed the deeper the snow became and pine trees took over the forest and eventually I needed to switch my headlamp on. We hugged the side of the mountain and then turned towards the summit of Starr King. At an opening just beyond the summit the snow was deep enough that I could see over the trees and see the Presidential Range looming black against a tapestry of stars. Then it was back into the darkness again, into the saddle that leads to Waumbek.

The light from my headlamp made the forest leap to and fro with each shadow cast. At times I was startled by their quick movements and I’d spin this way or that just to make sure we were alone. Of course Atticus would note any movement before I could and he was calm and collected and leading the way as he always does, reminding me that dogs aren’t haunted by the same fears we are.

We made our way through the saddle, occasionally stopping to touch a toppled tree or a low lying branch and let my finger feel the cold lichen. We took our time and eventually started climbing up again and reached the summit of Waumbek. The sky was beginning to lighten as night was ebbing and day was preparing to flow in. We hurried back down the trail again, Atticus confused by my hurry. But this is what drew me here. I wanted to be in the thick of the forest primeval between the two peaks when the first light day came upon it.

Eventually we stood in the middle of that tangle of trees, looking like the place had been through years of war. Darkness faded and the slightest of pales softened the night. Then, ever so quickly the show began and the day was born.

In that little stretch of woods you can see your life from beginning to end. Many trees are dead or dying, a forest is decaying; and at the same time on the forest floor, even through the thick snow, there are the tiniest pine trees just starting their lives. The contrast is stunning. Walking through that area makes me feel like I’m walking through a metaphor of my own life. There is a clear cut end to some trees and a clearly defined beginning for others. In between the two ends are all the chapters of life in its different stages played out by nature. It’s as if this place above all others I’ve ever been tells me, “This is how you began and this is how you will end up; now show me what you want to be in that space between being born and dying. How will you live your life? Will you seize the day or let it slip away?”

I’ve been there during mid morning, at noon, in the afternoon. I’ve been there at day and night and I’ve been there at sunset but I’ve never been there at dawn. All art is light and now it affects a scene and as soon as I woke up I was drawn to being in that spot between the two mountains for dawn to see its pale light tell the story from a different angle. It’s not unlike returning to a favorite book or poem at different stages of your life.

Some go to church, some to therapy, but I find myself defined time and again by how I’m touched by nature and how I'm reflected in it. For me this is one of the places where I face my truth.

I had no say about being born and in the end I’ll have no say about death. But where I have say is in is how I live my life. This enchanting and at times uncomfortable place reminds me of all of that. And at times what we all need is a little reminding.

That night, in bed and ready for a full night's sleep, I came upon a quote by Kofi Annan that reminded me of our trip to the Waumbek woods: "To live is to choose. But to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there."

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