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 25, 2011

Pierce in the Clouds

We’re happy to be inside today wrapped in all the comforts of home. Outside the wind blows and snow is falling. The forecast call for perhaps ten inches in what could be one of the last storms of the winter. The season is drawing to an end. Of course here in the White Mountains spring doesn’t arrive when the calendar tells it to. It takes its own sweet time coming around again. Call it a bit of Yankee stubbornness. Nevertheless, it always gets here.

Yesterday, while climbing Mount Pierce by way of the Crawford Path, with hopes of also making it over to Mount Eisenhower, we started out under blue skies. I’d hoped that Atticus and I would get great views from both summits but that was not to be the case. The clouds preceding today’s storm came early and by the time we reached the halfway mark to Pierce a couple of bold gray jays appeared and ate some snacks out of my hand, but the sun was already gone. Cloud cover, first vaguely opaque then increasingly darker, filled the sky.

It’s been a while since we had snow and the popularity of the Crawford Path helped to make the trail as flat and firm as a city sidewalk. Surprisingly, yesterday we had it to ourselves. Whenever I pull into a parking lot to hike and see that there are no other cars there is an excited feeling – a rush, ripe with anticipation, tingling with delight, and a wee bit of nervousness as well – that courses through me. It’s always a distinct pleasure to have a mountain to ourselves. It’s exceptionally rare to be alone on the Crawford Path since it is a major thoroughfare that sits right across from the AMC’s Highland Center and is the oldest continually used hiking trail in the country. Then again the last time we were on the same trail we had it to ourselves as well, but that was a night hike.

The closer we got to treeline the darker and windier it became. Trees long frozen into grotesque forms and coated by layers of snow and ice stood as silent witnesses to our progress, and the wind howled and hissed at us just above the treetops. Even more eerie was the thick and moist fog that descended on the mountaintop. It was almost spectral, like a large snake coiled up around the upper reaches of the peak slowly tightening its grip. I could feel it moving by me – feel the damp of its underbelly, feel it creep along the skin of my face. We stopped to put on Atticus’s Muttluks and my balaclava and only my eyes were revealed but still I could feel the clouds coiling around us taking hold of the mountain. When we reached the last section of trees, a place where the views of the highest peaks in New England are first revealed, there was nothing to see but the inside of the cloud.

This is one of the things I enjoy about having a mountain to ourselves in winter. It could turn out to be the most picturesque day I’ve ever seen, so pretty it makes my heart ache with unutterable joy; or it could evolve into a lonely wasteland of frozen shapes, gray skies, and haunting mists, where the banshee cry of the wind is all there is for company.

There is a side trail off of the Crawford Path that leads to the summit of Pierce and the slant of the mountain plays tricks on your eyes. Many hikers are fooled by where they think the trail is supposed to go and they veer left. But it’s a hard turn to the right. All mountains look different in varied weather and I have also been fooled on more than one occasion, but Atticus never is. I simply have to follow his little body with his legs bowed against the wind, and his ears taking flight like little flags.

He put his head down and marched forth toward the summit. He never misses when he knows where he’s going. Once we reached it he sat by the cairn to have his picture taken – yes, this has become a routine for us on every mountaintop and he knows where he sits for the summit shot. But when we had stopped a way back I put my camera away, safe from the elements. He kept waiting for me to take the shot until I told him there was no camera. So he stopped posing and went onto the next step, which is coming over so I can pick him up and we looked off into the distance together. Of course there was no distance to see. But still, ritual is ritual. After a minute of standing up holding him he nudged me with his nose.

Spend enough time with an animal and you no longer are man and animal, instead you meet somewhere in between and communication is much easier. I knew his nose nudge meant it was time to have our lunch so I put him down and opened up the backpack while he sat peering over its open mouth with anticipation. He was not disappointed. I’m on the South Beach Diet these days and that means it’s chicken sausages and cheese on the summit. He loves both.

The original plan was to head over to the dome of Mount Eisenhower but without views there was no reason to go. Nevertheless, when we returned the way we came and reached the Crawford Path Atticus turned to walk towards Eisenhower.

“Not today, my friend. No reason to go.”

He stopped and looked at me as if to say, “We’re not done yet.”

“Let’s go home,” I said. When I turned and started walking down the trail I noticed he was protesting. He wanted to go on. “Not today. Let’s go home.”

At that he trotted over and took the lead position again working our way down the mountain.

There’s much to think of on a hike but it occurs to me that my thoughts going up and coming down are often different. Going up I think of the hike more. I think about the work of getting up a mountain and I take inventory of my body. Since this past summer’s surgery that’s even more the case as I still don’t feel quite right. However, so long as I pay attention to my body I make do. On the descent my mind is freer. We’ve reached the summit and the easy part begins. My mind flows and thoughts come and go.

Yesterday, on the way down I was thinking about horizons and what we see. On a mountaintop in beautiful weather there are other mountains to see – mountains and valleys, rivers, lakes, and ponds. Occasionally there will be a dramatic cliff, or the long black line of a distant road fading off into the distance. But there’s rarely a clean view of the horizon. However, just last week, for the second winter in a row, Atticus and I went to the Outer Cape. It’s less expensive in winter, there are no crowds, and it feels as though my soul is crying out for more light. We get it there. Most days we walk the beach at sunrise and sunset. And Provincetown is one of the few places in the world where you can see both.

There was something fitting about yesterday’s hike to a cloud-covered peak that stood in stark contrast to the wide expanse of horizon from our beach walks. It reminded me that here in New England we are blessed to have such a varied landscape with everything within driving distance. And no matter where you are – mountaintops or seaside – nature is beautiful wherever you encounter it.

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