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, January 22, 2015

The Stars Never Cease To Amaze

There was a time when night hikes were highly uncomfortable for me, but all these years later I seem to find more enjoyment out of them than I do when hiking in daylight.  It’s ironic.  The same trepidation resides upon entering the woods.  The same feeling of unease and nervousness.  The same childhood fears, tinged with fervent imagination of things that go bump in the dark.  But add to that feelings of pleasant mystery and expectation.  It’s spending time with a mountain when everyone else has gone home. 
At night, the branches, bare in winter, grope at us as we pass, feeling like the bony hands of witches as they brush up against my backpack or jacket. At higher elevations the conifers are misshapen like sinister wraiths. 

But at this age, after ten years of hiking with Atticus, I now realize how much I appreciate the night sky.  The contrast from seeing nothing in the woods, to the euphoria of seeing the stars burst from the blackness as we leave the trees behind is breathtaking.  Constellations come to life.  Giant bears and fish and mythological heroes dance on top of the shadowy profiles of the mountaintops.  They look down on us, and all of mankind.

As for hiking at night in the winter, it’s the best season of all for it.  The sky is clearer than in summer.  The other night, while on such a trek through the woods, I stopped to catch my breath and to offer Atticus a treat, looked skyward, and the following came to mind:  “Here in New Hampshire, what we lack in daylight in the winter we more than make up for by starlight.” 

Has anyone ever seen the moon and stars more clearly than in these three months of cold where nights stretch on and on? 

We’ve been out twice after dark enjoying the trails recently.  The first time was after a recent thaw when Echo Lake in North Conway was freezing again.  We circled the shore, and then climbed up between Cathedral Ledge and Whitehorse Ledge.  Once on top of the sprawling snow and ice covered rocks of Whitehorse, we could hear the sound below of ice forming.  Air bubbles being forced out and reminding me of the song of whales.  It added to the night.  Not only were we seeing the mountains in a different light – where there is very little light, but the sounds were very different as well.  We sat on a blanket on the ledges and listened to the songs and watched the stars swirl slowly above us. 

Then, just the other night, after a day where we hadn’t gotten outside much, Atticus and I left home at about eight o’clock and drove along the Kancamagus Highway until we reached the trail for Potash.  It’s a simple enough mountain and less than four miles round trip, but it is also a peak, in the right conditions, where winter hikes are easier than those in the other three seasons.  A massive network of roots and large slabs of rock often slick with run-off are covered with snow and all is smooth.  The other night, after this past weekend’s rain, it felt like Styrofoam as my MicroSpikes bit in and held firm.  Atticus moved easily along the snow.  His eyes struggle as he ages with darkness and dimension, but I wore two headlamps and all was bright for him and he felt comfortable. 

There is a section of Potash where the trail ascends steeply through thick woods until it comes to a small, open ledge with a view out to Passaconaway.  When we reached that spot that massive mountain seemed all the bigger, highlighted by the heavens as it was.  We wove our way back into a twisted trail through the woods again, with some steeper pitches before we reached the next set of ledges.  It was all I could do not to fall over due to the overwhelming view of the constellations.  It was intoxicating and I had to stop moving to look up.  I spread my arms as if to embrace the experience and drink it in to make it a permanent memory. 

Atticus doesn’t always lead like he used to.  There are times he follows me now.  But not on the inclines.  He still feels comfortable going first and I follow as I always have.  The higher we climbed, the more we saw of Passaconaway again, but then also East and West Sleeper, the three peaks of the Tripyramids, and finally, cresting the summit, a view over to the rising hump of Carrigain, the double mounds of the Hancocks, and the expansive sea of peaks and valleys of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. 

Atticus was two and a half when we climbed our first mountain.  We’ve now been at it for just over a decade.  In all of that time something has never changed.  Once we reach the top he expects to be picked up so he can sit in the crook of my elbow, our heads at equal height, and together we look out at all that nature has spread before us.  I wait.  Sometimes it comes right away and at other times I wait for up to ten seconds.  Then I hear it and feel it.  My little friend lets out a deep sigh and his body settles into mine and together we fall into the scenery together. 

During the daylight, each season lends its own strokes of the paintbrush to the scenes we take in and become part of.  But at night, especially in winter, things are starker.  They are cleaner.  It’s a black and white vivid photograph and the stars never fail us. 
When we return home after a night hike, especially when it is cold out, our tiny home never feels more ready to welcome us.  Outside adventure leads to indoor comfort.  We sleep well and after we awaken the next morning I often look back at what took place on the mountaintops the night before as a dream.  Thankfully, it is a dream that doesn’t fade with the coming of the sun and we are more content - more filled with both life and peace.     


Anne Criscitiello said...

Idyllic and Beautiful is this life you have made for you and your soul friend, thank you for these words of appreciation and awe which you share with us to give us a glimpse of the wonder!

Anonymous said...

weather has been good for getting out into the winter woods. beautiful story to share. An amazing dog and h
is friend

Memere and Papa said...

Thanks so much Tom for bringing us on your journey up the mountain. After being outside tonight and being in awe of the sliver of a moon, reading your post brings it all into focus. I could feel, hear and see everything you and Atticus saw and heard. Reading your posts always take me there and I feel refreshed. Thanks again and have a good night, Btw, my dog, Tia had her tumor removed and it came back benign. I am praising God for that. Just thought I'd bring you up to date. Take care, Joan T.

Carter W Rae said...

Tom what beautiful thoughts.. I have been a serious backyard star gazer for a long time so this was very special to me ... I can only imagine these beautiful walks and savoring the beauty if it all . I wish I could have been there for the gratitude hike and had the little green laser pointer to make the night sky have more meaning to you and the guests These posts mean much to me and Stacy at this time and appreciate you taking the time to share it all with us Stay safe and we can only wish the choicest of blessings to you and Atticus and your future efforts !!! From to us to you Tom :-) PS Be sure and check out the "Dog" star next to Orion in the southern winter sky ;-)

Anonymous said...

I finally read "Following Atticus" -- and the timing was right. I have also been following Will's life story with you and Atticus. After six years of divorce, my dogs gone because of that event and other assorted unwelcomed changes in my immediate life; this book was a welcomed respite for my tired soul. There is hope and grace to be had in this world. My mind is made up about those facts. Thank you, Tom Ryan!

Ann Gately said...

Another post of being on the trail with you and Atticus. I could see the stars and feel the cold air on my face. Thank you for taking me on your bike. said...

Sounds like very special times at night in the mountains. Not many other people to run into. The sounds of the ice freezing sound amazing and ethereal.

Terry Oliver said...

I anticipate the part of your story when Atticus lets out his deep audible sigh. It reminds me that breath is everything. Little Buddah knows!

Terri Middlemiss said...

Your sheer eloquence and love of what you do and see bring me into your world in the forest on the mountain at night. I live out where the dark night sky brings me a sense of wonder as I become part of it on cold crisp nights. I melt at the thought of Atticus and you bonding with the wonder of it all. I enjoy the contented sighs that I hear from my animals.
Thank you.
Terri Middlemiss

Rick Hunckler said...

Hey Tom, I just finished reading "Following Atticus", and I loved it. It is amazing the connections we can have with our little friends. I was happy to find your BlogSpot also and to know that you and Atticus are still hiking! Wonderful.

Bettyjo Gagnon said...

I just stumbled upon this post and cannot agree with you more. As a fellow New Hampshirite, I had such an occasion the other night that you described. As I returned home late at night from school, I leashed up my pups to take their last walk before retiring for the night. Instead of rushing the walk to return to the warmth of our home, we ended up lingering in the woods as we took in the starry sky. The white of the snow guided our way through the woods. The sky was filled with dancing stars that mesmerized me. There was nothing but stillness and silence. I love winter nights here in the mountains. I hope I never fail to stop and pause in the dazzling array of stars above us. Thank you for a lovely post!