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, January 14, 2011

A Place I Return To Time And Again

I often poke fun of my hiking friends who are religious in their pursuit of the almighty "Grid," that once rare accomplishment where each of the four thousand footers is climbed in each of the twelve months. That's a total of 576 peaks and once upon a time it was only done by long time hikers who realized that through all their years of tramping through the woods that they were so close to accomplishing the goal that they decided to go for it. It was truly rare and admirable. But eventually new hikers started setting their sights on reaching the holy land of the "Grid" and now so many people are out to do it that it no longer seems like such a big deal. Dare I even say it will soon be passé?

(Now there's even a website for those who finish. Not only is their name bronzed for all time on the Internet, they each receive the hiker's equivalent of the Holy Grail - a patch. Hikers just cannot help themselves when it comes to getting patches. You receive one when you climb each of the 48, another if you do them in winter, another if you climb each of the 67 4,000-footers in New England, and yet another if you do the 67 them in winter. You can get a patch for the doing the Adirondacks’ 46 4,000-footers, doing them in winter, doing all those in New England and New York, and once again another for doing them all in winter. Getting dazed yet? There's more. Do each of New England's 100 highest peaks you get another patch, do them in winter - and you guessed it, you get yet another. The moral of the story is this: tell most hikers they'll get a patch for walking gerbil-like on a spinning wheel for a week and they'll do it.)

My zealous friends are so enamored with the exercise that many forsake any peak that doesn't top out above 4,000 feet. And God forbid if it’s January and they've already climbed Mount Lafayette in January - there's just simply no reason to do it again. Many of these folks miss out on the grandeur of Black Mountain, Chocorua, Hedgehog, or Pemigewasset simply because they aren't 4,000-footers. But chasing after the "Grid" reminds me too much of punching a time clock and heading off to work. As a poster on my blog once wrote, "Keeping track of peaks you've climbed is like keeping track of bowel movements." In the long run it simply doesn't matter. Hikers appear to chase after the "Grid" simply because others have done it and received notoriety for having done it. Monkey see, monkey do.

However, I should come clean and admit that I am no better than those I lampoon. You see, as of late I've been on top of Mount Waumbek not once, not twice, but thrice!

I returned again and again, not so much to see the summit, for I've been there so often I can sketch the setting from memory, but for that wondrous stretch of life and death that lies in the saddle found halfway between the woebegone peaks of Mount Starr King (topping out at a pathetic 3,907 feet) and Waumbek, which is 4,006 six feet. Who knew that ninety-nine feet would make such a big difference? Truth be told, to me it doesn't. I no longer climb for the sake of reaching check marks but for harvesting experiences and there is a section in that saddle between Starr King and Waumbek that is like no other. It is both enchanting and frightening. It is where life and death comingle. The northern wind blows through it with anguished moans and groans and has laid several older trees to waste. They lie strewn about the forest like dead soldiers on a battle field. On a dreary, dark, and forbidding day, it can seem almost haunted – New Hampshire's own version of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland.

I swear that you will not find many places in this world more desolate where loneliness wraps her bony arms around you on a stormy day.

On our first winter trek up there a few years ago Atticus and I had the trail to ourselves and shuffled half-heartedly through the snow. It was gray and the wind whipped at us and howled like a banshee. The tangle of trees is marked by the gothic Old Man's Beard, a cousin to Spanish moss, that dangles from the trees is writhes about in ghostly movements. All I could hear that day was the wind and the emptiness I felt within. At one point I sat down on a fallen tree simply because I didn't know if I wanted to go on. So alone. So lonely. When out of nowhere, in the frosty trees I heard life! It was a bright headed woodpecker busy at work. I was startled by his appearance and sat in rapt attention. His tap-tap-tapping broke the spell and after watching him until he flew away, Atticus and I continued on.

Other hikers look cross-eyed at me when I tell them of my love of Waumbek. It's a mountain with only a couple of views and it sits far away, joining Cabot as the only 4,000-footers above Route 2 in Jefferson. It’s a forgotten mountain in a forgotten town.

So why do I go back? Why do I return to that sad place where death is clearly evident? Because life is also evident as well. Not only are there many tall trees standing in that enchanted stretch of forest, but there are countless saplings springing up at the feet of their dead relatives. A tree tumbles to its death and leaves its seeds behind and, more importantly, space where the sun can reach new born trees and gives them a chance to grow. The cycle repeats itself again and again. It will be that way until the end of time.

In the eight dry days leading up to the snowstorm, Atticus and I were there three times because I just couldn't get my fill of that place. Once we were there at dawn, once at midday, and another at dusk. One of the days it was sunny and the enchantment didn't feel quite as strong. To appreciate that forest you need a windy, dark day. So we returned to see it in its various shades of light. It reminds me, as it always will, of the journey of life. From birth to death. Yes, it can be lonely and dismal, but it also reminds me that I'm alive. So when the world gets so crazy I feel numb and need to be reminded to breathe, or something as sinfully senseless as what just happened in Arizona takes place, I need to feel nature all around me. I need to remind myself of the cycle of life and the magic of that journey. So I return, as I imagine I always will.

And please don't tell those chasing the "Grid" this, for they would surely think me appalling - but I've been there far more than twelve times.


Dave Olson said...

Yes! I know exactly what you're talking about. For some reason I'm drawn to the stretches beteen mountains. Two of my other favorite spots are the Lend-a-Hand trail between Hale and the Zealand Hut and the Willey Range Trail between Field and Willey (where I actually stopped to take a nap two years ago).

Thomas F. Ryan said...

I like those spots as well, Dave. They are very special. And wait until you get to the Sleepers. Try to do a traverse over the Tripyramids over to Whiteface and Passaconaway. The Sleepers are amazing. More moose than people. And with a name like "Sleepers" I imagine they would be a fine place for a nap as well!

LM said...

Ah, wow I was quoted, that is a first for me. Thanks Tom.

Thomas F. Ryan said...

This is actually my column for this week's Northcountry News so you are doubly quoted. (BTW, my editor at NCN loved your quote.)