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 11, 2011

In Praise of Midnight Mike's Oddity

There’s a fellow named “Midnight” Mike Bromberg who has earned quite a name for himself in our White Mountains through the years. He is a skilled cartographer and his map of the Sandwich Range is a thing of beauty. He was only the fifth person to hike all 48 4,000-footers in each of the twelve months (and he did it long before it became the latest “monkey see, monkey do” craze that it is today). And he has hiked each of the 4,000-footers at night, standing on their summits at midnight – hence, the nickname.

That’s how Midnight Mike first caught my attention. I’d read his name in the back of Steve Smith and Mike Dickerman’s Four Thousand Footers of the White Mountains in a section called “Feats & Oddities.” My first thought was why would anyone in their right mind want to climb mountains at night?

That was way back when Atticus and I first started hiking and the Smith and Dickerman book was the last thing I read before drifting off to sleep – assuring me sweet, mountain dreams of places we’d never been, but would soon see.

Some five years later we’ve been up more than a hundred different mountains and I’ve decided that my favorite thing to do is to climb them at night. It’s a special treat, a chance to see the trails in an entirely different manner. And an opportunity for Atticus and I to experience them on our own. There’s little chance we’ll run into people on these hikes. There’s even less chance we’d ever emulate Midnight Mike’s feat (or is it oddity?), but I can now see the pleasure he derived from it. It’s no longer unusual for me to wait until the sun sinks behind the mountain ranges before grabbing my pack and starting out.

Strangely enough the urge to do this often comes later at night, when I should be settling down and getting ready for bed, or when I’m already in bed. A faint whisper calls out to me and Atticus puts up with this madness, even if it wakes me in the middle of the night. He’s come to think little of going to bed and then rising with me two or three hours later.

Such was the case the other night. I awakened with so clear and clean a thought it was as if I hadn’t been sleeping. Winter is almost over. Soon the snow will be gone.

You see, night hiking is richest in winter, when the ground is white, rocks and roots are smoothed over in layers of snow and ice, the trees bare, and the night cold, but crystal clear.

Once again I got dressed, grabbed my backpack, snowshoes, and poles, made certain I brought all three of my headlamps along. All the while Atticus looked at my appraisingly until I finally asked him, “Well, are you coming?”

Our latest nighttime rendezvous came on the small but beautiful peaks of Stanton and Pickering. They’re only five miles away from the house and an easy enough climb. Stanton comes first at 1.4 miles and along the way it offers cliff-top views of Mount Attitash to the south long after the last skier has departed. But the better outlook comes on Pickering, just another 0.7 of a mile along the trail. On the summit there were trees between us, the ski area, and the town of Bartlett. With civilization literally behind us, Atticus and I stood under brilliant stars piercing the black sheet of night. Looking north up at the multitude of unadulterated lights I tingled and butterflies took flight between my heart and my gut.

“My God, it’s beautiful,” I said aloud, as Atticus was tucked in a sitting position in the crook of my arm.
How often I’ve uttered some semblance of those words here in the Whites! He’s so used to it he no longer looks at me when I speak of such things. Instead he sits looking raptly out as if taking inventory of every last bit of heaven before us. Then, as always, he allows his weight to sit fully against me and, relaxing his body, he sighs. Often we both sigh.

The contrast of the night sky and the mountains below was spectacular. In front of us stood the hulking shadow of Iron Mountain, looking bigger from the top of Pickering than it does from anywhere else. Its enormity makes me see its full force. Beyond that, its white gown glowing majestically and flowing down into the dark valley below, sits Agiochook. That was the name the Abenaki gave her, long before “civilized” man changed it Mount Washington. But there are times when you see our highest peak - she with the wicked winds, frozen temperatures, lives taken, and the stuff of legends and lore – and Agiochook fits better.

Recently I came upon a John Muir quote: “Civilized man chokes his soul.” It’s true. We try to tame the wild places, to best them in some way instead of just appreciating them. Nature teaches us things and often the best we can do is to just let her be. Let her inspire us without putting some kind of stamp on her. And let her be Agiochook: home of the Great Spirit.

The next morning Atticus and I stopped in at the White Mountain Café here in Jackson and Crystal, who works the counter most days, asked, “Are you guys going hiking today?”

“Already been,” I said. “We got in about 3:00 this morning.”

She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. “You two are crazy!”

Perhaps we are, I suppose. Just crazy enough to be happy living a life that most might think a little odd. Although I think Midnight Mike would approve.


Unknown said...

Beautiful writing, Tom.

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Thanks, Jess!

Tim said...

Great story Tom. I know that look you speak of with Atticus. Our Clover gives us that same look or I guess it's more of anticipation anytime we start getting ready to go anywhere.


Thomas F. Ryan said...

Hey, Tim. Yes, I know what look you are speaking of, but this is something a bit different. When he knows we are going somewhere he perks up with ears flying at full mast. But this look has more to do with a look that says, "What are you up to now?" Almost like an old school teacher peering over the glasses at the end of his nose.

Jan said...

Sounds like a beautiful hike!! Do you see any wildlife (like bear), while on your hikes?

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Hello, Jan. It was a beautiful hike. And yes, we do see wildlife on occasion. Strangely enough we've seen more bears than moose but rarely do we see either.

Kay said...

Hi Tom, Great writing!
Lovely connection between you and Atticus. It's also darling that Crystal refers to you and him as "both crazy".

Found your blog via a commenter posting on a NY Times article.

Keep climbing!

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Hey, Kay. Thanks for visiting our blog. And thank you for reading along.

Scott Badenoch said...

I walked the Hiawatha Trail in Michigan's Upper Peninsula in Winter, about this time of year. Baptized myself in Lake Superior at the start and Lake Michigan at the end. Walked day and night without eating, sang an old blessing song and put down Tobacco along the way (an Indian thing). I was amazed at the wildlife that I saw. First, a Compton's Tortoise Shell Butterfly flew along with me for a couple of hours -- an Indian decree of transformation and direction. Then I had a grouse fly overhead, only to be plucked out of midair by a hawk, close enough that the feathers fell at my feet. Had a wild turkey fly across my path about fifty feet in front of me. Sat down on a stump after walking across a field of crusty snow (difficult, requiring sensitivity and speed). When I realized I was lost, my knees were swelling and I was in trouble, I looked around to see Wolf tracks all around me. A good sign. So, I started singing a Wolf clan song and slowly started walking one step at a time. Yah tah hey yo high ya, yah tah yo yo hi ya, Ya tah hay yo high ya, Ya tah hay yo yo hi ya, Hay ya high yah hay hi yoy. (repeat) The strength of the Wolf came to me and I was able to continue. Then at Night, the Manitous came.