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.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

“Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” ~ John Muir

The mountains remain a mystery to me. It’s deep in December here in Jackson and it feels like winter with temperatures dipping close to zero nearly every night. The ground is frozen solid. Rivers and ponds are well on their way too. The only thing missing is snow. How strange to be this close to the holidays and be faced with a completely brown Christmas. Usually there is at least a trace of snow, but not here.

Just twenty miles up the road though – or ten miles as the crow flies – in Crawford Notch, winter rages daily. I know well the icy winds in the upper reaches, just a stone’s through from the Gateway to the Notch, but yesterday it was so bracing that Atticus and I nearly got right back into our car and headed home.

Weather in the notch can fool the uninitiated. It is not unlike a dog whose bark is worse than his bite. You simply have to put your head down, ignore the hungry howls of the wind, the whipping flecks of snow and ice, and head with faith towards the woods. But it’s not always an easy journey. That was the case yesterday. The storm fought us every step.

With Atticus in his Muttluks and me in my snowshoes we pushed through snowdrifts and snow flying directly into our eyes and hurried towards the shelter of the woods. The wind roared. The cold found its way into our bones and joints. But just as is nearly always the case, once stepping over the threshold into the forest everything stopped. I couldn’t even hear the wind and the snow drifted harmlessly about us. We had entered that realm that comes with the winter woods. It is a separate world. Sure it was still cold, but not to us. If anything it was like returning to an old friend whose been gone for nine months.

The trees were caked with thick, fluffy icing and the ground was soft beneath his boots and my snowshoes. I’m always amazed by this phenomenon – how the outside world literally disappears. You leave everything behind.

John Muir once wrote, “Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” That new world is called enchantment.

At a junction we turned left for the trail to the summit of Mount Willard but recent rainstorms had turned the shallow stream into a large pond and there was no getting around it. We tramped around in the woods a bit just to make sure there wasn’t an easier crossing but after finding none we turned back. Once back on the main trail I figured Atticus would head for the car, knowing his post hike snack was be waiting for him.

I should have known better. After all, he and I have been at this for a while. Instead he turned up the trail towards the Willey Range. I let him lead. It didn’t matter to me where we went and since he seemed to know where he wanted to go I followed. Our next stream crossing was easier to negotiate but still too deep and wide for Atticus so he hitched a ride on top of my backpack.

At the next trail junction we had another decision to make: right towards Mount Tom, left towards Mount Avalon and Mount Field. Atticus chose left and I followed. The climb gets steeper in that section of the Avalon Trail and the snow grew deeper. At the next intersection the wind was audible above the trees but not able to get at us and Atticus had another decision to make. It was up the short steep pitch to the summit of Avalon or continue on towards Field. He stopped, waited for a minute as if trying to decide, then turned back at me looking for direction.

“It’s up to you,” I said. “Go ahead.”

He chose Avalon. There had been on-line reports that someone had climbed it recently but with the new snow it was impossible to tell. We pushed through the virgin power and when Atticus topped out his ears took flight in the wind. Now others might feel the frozen fury and step back behind the rocks, but Atticus stepped out towards the edge of the mountain where he was more exposed. He stood on the edge and looked back at me to make sure I was there. When I cleared the top he turned his face and looked off into the storm.

There were no views and it’s not like this is the weather or the time of the year for summit sitting, but he seemed content looking off into the gray abyss. For the first time since we had entered the woods I felt a shiver run through me and I wondered how much longer he wanted to stay. But Atticus didn’t seem to mind the cold. Watching him like that, it was one of those moments that seem a lot longer than it actually is, where time slowly moves forward. I shivered; he faced the wind, his back towards me. Then, as if satisfied, he turned towards me, looked up at me and then pushed gently by and made his way down the mountain back into the refuge of the trees.

On the drive home, just four miles down the road we were back out of the storm and there was no more snow on the ground. In the rear view mirror I could see it still raging behind us. But here we were driving towards a partly cloudy blue sky.

It is days like this where you might not want to get out of your car, where there are no views, and it feels as cold as death that you are happiest that you decided to venture further. It reminds you that you’re alive and everything has much more meaning.


My Life Outdoors said...

I'm glad you both braved the cold and then wrote about it here! I felt like I was with you seeking shelter from the cold wind among the trees. Great post!

Unknown said...

I love this idea that Atticus chooses where to go.

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Thanks, M.L.O. Used to dislike winter, now it's like coming home again.

Bob, it helps that Atticus is much smarter than I am. ;-)

Ellen Snyder said...

Such strength you two have. You both keep going when many would turn back or not even try...