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.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

A Breakfast of Blueberries and an Approaching Storm...August Is Here!

On the trail this morning the air felt different – cooler, cleaner, with a tiny snap of mystery to it. Then I remembered that we are now in August, and smiled. The bugs of early summer are gone and the high heat of July is thankfully also a memory. In August it can still get hot, but not as oppressive as July, and there hints of the next season come here and there. On the downhill slope of summer things just feel a bit better, more comfortable, and fresher.

I believe that when it comes to hiking there are only two months better than August: September and October. These are the prime hiking months. Long before the leaves change, the air does. Back in Newburyport the old timers used to look forward to what they called a sea change. The wind shifted and so did the atmosphere, if only for a short while, and so much freshness filled the city that you wanted to spend all your time outside drinking it in, filling your lungs with it. Here in the White Mountains this is the month when we get that same kind of change, but it’s different than it was back on the coast. Here it is not fleeting.

Our original plans for the day were scuttled when the forecast called for midday thunderstorms. When it comes to hiking the first and most important rule to follow is to take only what the Mountain Gods offer. And thunder and lightning is not an invitation to be on a mountaintop.

With the longer hike out the window, we settled for a leisurely walk up Black Cap in North Conway. It’s an easy climb with just over 500 feet of elevation gain, but the trailhead sits so high on Hurricane Mountain Road that by the time you reach the summit you’re standing at 2,369 feet and there are grand views unobstructed by the trees.

It’s easy to get lost on the rocky summit and the numerous ledges of Black Cap. Not lost as in “I don’t know where the trail is,” but lost as in a meditative way. About the only thing that has hastened our departure from there in the past are the number of people who can be on the trail at any one time. But this morning there was no one. Just us, the wonderful second day of August, and hints of the oncoming storm.

On the way up there is a fork in the trail and you can either reach the summit by those ledges in about a quarter of a mile, or take a half mile to loop round and come at it from the reverse side. We always take the longer, but easier route to the right. It’s not because it’s easier, because the ledges really aren’t all that difficult, it’s just because it brings us to a less traveled trail that has a nice out-of-the-way ledge that looks over at Chocorua and the Moats, and beyond to parts of the Sandwich Range. We have stopped there so often Atticus knows to turn down the little side path whenever we reach it.

Out of the trees and in the open, the air cooled us and we both sat and drank some water. I took out a few treats for Atticus and brought my knees up to my chest and wrapped my arms around them. I could almost hear the whisper of autumn in the music made by the turning and twisting and flipping leaves. Then I noticed we were surrounded by a tangle of blueberry bushes.

Like a child at Christmas I crouched down among the plants and excitedly plucked blueberries out of the bushes. I’d get ten or twenty in my hand and offer them to Atticus. Now let me tell you, Atticus has always loved blueberries so this was a welcome treat. Then the next handful was for me and we took turns that way. We were quite content in that spot for half an hour before heading back to the trail and to the mountaintop.

On the summit we settled down again and the breeze grew to be a gentle wind. Occasionally it would pick up and send Atticus’s floppy ears flying and we both relished the sweet coolness. While off in the distance, beyond the great hump of Mount Kearsage, the storm had rolled onto Mount Washington and the high peaks of the Presidential Range. We heard the roll of thunder, the boom, boom, boom echoing through the valleys and various ranges. The air was charged with the approaching storm and the two of us sat transfixed watching her approach.

There is nothing more exciting that an oncoming storm, especially up here...especially up high.

She hovered and seemed to grow over the Pressies, giving an occasional clap that was louder than the rest. Once she gained strength she moved south through Pinkham Notch, towards Jackson, and spread her great wings until I was awed by her reach.

She was coming and we were her witnesses. God, she was beautiful, casting the mountains in her shadow and mists.

She grew larger, fanning out as she approached. She was coming for us but I knew we had plenty of time to take cover and I figured we’d be back at our car when the downpour started. So we stayed just a little longer.

People wonder at the height of mountain peaks, at the raging rivers in spring when the snow melts, at seeing both moose and bear, but there is nothing as ferocious or enchanting as a storm flying wicked and determined on her route. Nothing stops a her when she is unleashed.

That’s what we were watching, feeling the tingle in the air and inside my bones. The boom, boom, boom grew louder like great kettle drums. Singular thunder claps sounded like gun shots whenever they exploded. Clouds grew darker, more dimensional, and day crept towards night at ten o’clock in the morning. How glorious!

By now Atticus was sitting right next to me, leaning into me. I’m not sure how long he’d been doing that or if he even realized he was doing it. We were both watching and it seemed as though neither of us wanted to leave the open ledges and our front row seats. But it wouldn’t be long before she was upon us so I said to Atticus, “Let’s go home.” At that we both got up. I grabbed my pack and we stood for a while longer to watch that great wing span of darkness looming over all those mountains.

Atticus nudged my leg with his nose. I picked him up and held him and still we watched her flying towards us. We did not want to leave. We wanted to spend time with her, to see her up close, but eventually common sense took over and I took a few steps down the ledges and put him down.

“Let’s go home, Pump.”

With those words he dropped his eyes from the sky to the trail and led us off the exposed rock and toward the trees. In the forest the air was even cooler and occasionally we would here the rat-a-tat-tat of rain drops falling on the leaves but we didn’t get wet. The storm was starting in earnest. She would save her best for a little later after we were back in the car.

And so our day started on a mountain with a breakfast of blueberries and Mother Nature putting on a great show. This was one of those mornings when I remembered just how lucky we are.


Jordan said...

Wow this is great. You're an incredible writer. Not to mention an incredible friend to Atticus.

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Hey, Jordan. Thank you for your nice comments. It was an incredible morning up there watching the storm come in!

cooperhill said...

I was up on last Friday and had hopes of going up to the Moats. The weather rules the mountains tho and it was down low for me.

Maggie has floppy ears too. It's funny to watch them go when she's hiking.

Sounds like a wonderful time. Thanks for sharing.

1HappyHiker said...

Tom, regarding your statement: "Long before the leaves change, the air does." Yes my blog-friend, that is yet another of your very insightful truisms!

I've especially noticed that change over the past few days. It seems to me that these changes in the air are manifested in many subtle ways, such as slight shifts in fragrances, and acoustics that can be perceived when hiking at this time of year.


Thomas F. Ryan said...

It's a great time of the year, John. When I step into the woods during such a weather change I have a spring in my step that wasn't there when it was hot and steamy.