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, August 27, 2010

Our Hedgehog Hike

When it comes to the start of a hike Atticus and I are very different. I sit in the car at the trailhead, taking inventory in my head to see if I remembered everything and I consider the challenges awaiting us once we enter the woods.

I'm not sure how he knows it, but shortly before we arrive wherever we are heading to, Atticus ceases to sit and stands at the side window, looking off into the distance like the captain of a ship in days gone by seeking out land after so many weeks at sea. But as soon as we pull in he has happy feet and is anxious to get going. Watching his unbridled enthusiasm I always think of something Hafiz, the Persian poet, wrote: "The earth braces itself for the feet of a lover of God about to dance." For that's what he looks like: filled with joy and expectancy; a child on Christmas Eve. And yet as soon as we enter the woods our roles switch again. He's no longer the child; I am. He moves by rock and root, stream and tree with a calmness of one who is at home. I lose my mature self in the magic of the forest where birds I cannot see serenade us and the breeze shakes the leaves. No matter how often I enter the woods I am forever a visitor, awakening to the strangest of dreams for the very first time.

I've missed our hikes lately and watching Atticus on Tuesday I realized I am not the only one. He entered the woods, stopped and inhaled. I heard him sigh like he often does on a mountaintop. And I stood and watch him looking about that verdant land as if waiting to be recognized.

A lot of people ask me if Atticus acts differently since my surgery.

"Only on the trail," I tell them. "He stays closer to me than he used to."

Oh, it's not like he acted like some dogs who romp and roll through the forest and do the trail three our four times with all their galloping back and forth. He usually stays a constant 20 yards or so in front of me. But since the surgery he's now much closer. He knows it hurts for me to breathe deeply and he stops and looks back on me often with a concerned look on his face. He also seems to understand that I have to stop more often than I used to but this doesn't seem to bother him. He's home again, happy to be where he is, happy to be leading me towards the mountaintop.

On Tuesday we hiked Hedgehog. It's a favorite and we do it every year, sometimes twice. I chose it because it was step up from Black Cap in both elevation gain and distance, but not too much of a step up. As much as I'd like to be doing something longer and higher this drainage tube in myside reminds me not to get too ambitious. As it turned out, Hedgehog was ambitious enough. We went around the loop counter clockwise and stopped for a much needed break on the summit. We drank, shared almonds and a roast beef sandwich. We took in the views of the Tripyramids, Sleepers and Passaconaway (which looms above Hedgehog and looks more massive than it does from any other place I've seen it). There was a breeze and there were beautiful white clouds riding across the blue sky. In a few minutes I forgot all the pain I went through getting to the top.

From the summit we moved down to the next challenging part, a partly steep decent into the forest and there were places where I had to leap or run down a few strides. With each of these Atticus stayed behind and watched me with an appraising eye. Then when it was clear I was okay he'd join me. For the numerous times we've done the Hedgehog loop I never thought of that section as particularly challenging but everything's different these days. We're starting from scratch, learning to walk again by putting one foot in front of the other.

I decided to go counter clockwise because I knew fatigue would grow and I saved my favorite part of the hike for the second half. The East Ledges of Hedgehog are one of my favorite places in the Whites. There is a naturally formed stone couch that sits on a wide and deep flat porch of mountain rock. It drops off suddenly into rolling sea of lush green forest and that flows along until it starts to climb again, leading towards mountains named after some of the greatest Indian chiefs this land has known: Chocorua; Wonalancet; Passaconaway. We sat on the couch, drank some water and took in the view. We visited for a while and were pleased to have it to ourselves.

That's the great thing about a mountain. No matter how hard you have to work to get to the beautiful places, all difficulty is forgotten and all that remains is the grandeur. It doesn't matter whether the mountains is 6,000 feet or 2,500 feet. It's always the same.

Legend has it that when Passaconaway, the father of Wonalancet and the grandfather of Kancamagus, died in 1666, a sleigh pulled by wolves rose up flew through the sky, delivering him to Agiogochook, which is now known as Mount Washington. I took a long look at the mountain named after him, closed my eyes and imagined that sleigh flying overhead on its way towards Passaconaway's heaven. I then though about Passaconaway. I'm sure he would be relieved knowing that most of the mountains he loved were spared and protected from development, just as he would have wanted.

After spending time on the East Ledges and bidding adieu to Passaconaway we entered the forest again and worked our way back towards the car. It was slow down the trail but since we had nowhere to go it didn't matter. We simply had to make it down the mountain and back to our car.

That night as Atticus and I sat on the couch together a cool autumn wind teased us through the open window and I thought about how content we were. Six weeks prior doctors wondered if I was going to live. Now, we're back to climbing mountains again. Now we are back home again.

No comments: