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, February 20, 2014

Today's Walk

The abandoned farmhouse.
Every two weeks I decide what outdoor experience has moved me the most so I can write about it for our column in the NorthCountry News.  Until this morning, I thought what I was going to write about was a hike we took earlier in the week.  It was a crazy cold day with roaring gusts of non-stop wind, and when the sun dropped below the mountains the day became forlorn and the wind grew stronger and became more harsh and even more vociferous.  We did the smart thing and retreated inside where we were safe and warm.  Atticus and I took to the couch; Will to his dog bed, covered by layers of soft blankets. 

But about ten o’clock something strange happened.  It became noticeably quiet and still.  The full moon was shining brilliantly and the night, sans wind, was as pleasant as a February night has ever been.  After taking Will outside one last time, then tucking him back into bed, Atticus and I set out to hike Stanton and Pickering.  Two mountains just four miles away in Bartlett. 

They are standby peaks for us and with all the fresh snow they were perfect for a night hike with a ripe moon overhead.  I rarely needed my headlamp, and we took advantage of the broken path to make our way to the ledges of Stanton with views over to Attitash.  Then we turned our backs on the lights of the ski area and followed the well-packed path through the snow-laden woods to the views from Pickering.  There, glowing as beautifully as a bride all in her white gown stood Mount Washington.  She caught the moonbeams and danced beneath the stars.  We stood there taking her in for a while before turning around and heading back the way we came.  We were home and in bed by 1:30 in the morning all the better for living our dreams instead of getting fleeting glimpses of them while sleeping.

I thought of that hike over the next few days, and I felt like I was walking around with a pleasant secret hidden away in my pocket.  Night hikes do that to a person. You see things hardly anyone else sees in places no one else is, and you can’t help but feel fortunate to have what amounts to a private showing of some of New Hampshire’s best scenery.  It was like walking in a dark gallery with the masterpiece being lit by the only spotlight in the room. 

That was the experience which enlivened me the most this week – until today. 

It’s Thursday, and the sun is out and the wind is mostly quiet.  The skies are blue and, as is always the case in winter, here in Jackson the sidewalks are impassable.  In order to find a place to walk with Atticus on days we are not hiking we drive the ten mile commute to one of the few places in North Conway where the trails are mostly packed out: Pudding Pond; Diana’s Baths; or Echo Lake.  It helps that the scenery is gorgeous, but two trips a day puts forty-miles on the car only to go for walks. 

But this is the week of February school vacation and the roads in Jackson, much like in most of our small mountain towns, are more dangerous than ever with a neverending fleet of oversized out-of-state SUVs being driven by people who seem to forget that the idea of a vacation is to leave your stress behind and not bring it with you. The invading Huns are so great in number this week each winter that they typically spill into our peaceful walking areas.  So today, looking for a quiet place to go for a walk with Atticus, I came up with a new idea.

We drove to Passaconaway Road and parked at the empty lot for the trail to South Moat. We then returned to the road and started walking west.  Two miles down Passaconaway Road runs into a gate that is closed for the winter, and there aren’t many houses along that stretch of road.  So we took advantage of the bright blue sky, the wind not being able to reach us between the trees, and the warmth of the sun hinting that there may be a spring after all and we simply walked. 

I cannot tell you how luxurious it was not to walk through snow or on top of it.  How nice it was to be outside without having to wear Microspikes, snowshoes, or crampons and to be able to just saunter along. The little snow left on the road was melting underfoot, and it felt grand to have pavement underfoot and to stretch out our legs. Heading west, the road rises a bit in elevation but even that slight grade felt good. I could feel my muscles stretching out in a carefree flight up the road like we haven’t had in months. 

Oh that glorious sun was a treat to behold!  It warmed everything, including us, and I took of my sweater and walked with only a shirt on. Atticus skipped along happily. On either side of us snow was piled deep and the gold beech leaves quivered and waved at us when we passed.  We could hear the roar of the Swift River down the bank as it followed the road and when there was an opening and we could look down there wasn’t much to see.  Occasionally the water was revealed but mostly the Swift was covered by snow over the rocks and it looked pure and serene. 

There is a month left to winter but on this walk, on this day of elongating our legs and elevating our spirits and not seeing a vehicle nor another person, I could feel that winter was in the last depths of its slumber, that place where we all know when we are somewhere between sleep and being awake when dreams, at times, can still be remembered. 

Often when we walk the roads I wear my ear buds and listen to music, and I gave some thought to it on our walk, but the roar of the river below and the sound of the toothless wind above the trees and the otherworldly silence on a week where mania is typically the rule I wanted to listen to nothing but nature. 

Eventually, we came to a farmhouse that looked abandoned. There were “No Trespassing” signs up, and I fancied how nice it would be to live there in peace and quiet, no matter the time of year.  Even in summer when Passaconaway Road runs straight through to the other end where it’s known as Dugway Road and crosses a covered bridge to reach the Kancamagus Highway, it is not all that busy nor is it loud. 

We didn’t trespass onto the property, not physically anyway. But in my imagination we lived there and walked the open porch and sprawling yard and through the weathered barn and the small apple trees sprinkled at the foot of the cliffs in the background and my dream of owning a small farm to take in abused and neglected farm animals sprung to life.

Walking under a moonlit sky on two mountains all to ourselves is always a special gift. But to walk with the promise of a new season and in the possibility of dreams is even greater.