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, May 29, 2008

Tomorrow's Forecast: Pefect for Summit Sitting

Tomorrow's forecast calls for perfect weather - even above treeline.

There’s still plenty of snow to be found on most of the bigger mountains, especially under the shade of trees, however, the Old Bridle Path going up Mt. Lafayette is in pretty good shape and what snow there is easily skirted. With that in mind we’ll head up there tomorrow and take our time. Normally we would continue from Lafayette over to Lincoln, then Little Haystack, and either down the Falling Waters Trail or across Franconia Ridge, reaching both Liberty and Flume. But tomorrow is not a peak-bagging day. We may just be happy with Lafayette. We shall see.

I know the Falling Waters Trail still has snow and ice on it. We could climb it and work our way across to Lincoln and Lafayette and down the Old Bridle Path but I’m not sure I want to go near much snow at all. I just feel like getting a workout in and doing some summit sitting on a beautiful day where the views could very well be endless, and either bring a book or a notebook, depending on whether I feel like reading or writing.

I find myself in a new space these days. Other than reaching the peaks that were sponsored this past winter, and not yet hiked, I have no real set plans for what we will do. More than anything I want to continue just enjoying the mountains and avoiding the power play and politics of peak-bagging, as it’s grown to become up here. I came here because I love the mountains. Finishing the list of 48 4,000-foot peaks that first summer was a great thing to do as it took me all over the Whites and had me explore mountains I never would have made it to otherwise. The list of 48 was a guideline to follow.

During the last two winters I’ve attempted to push my limits to see what Atticus and I could do and at the same time we raised money for two wonderful non-profit agencies. But these days I’m finding more peace of mind reading the likes of Lucy Crawford and Thomas Starr King, two old-time White Mountain scribes, than the two popular websites devoted to the hiking community. The difference is clear: Crawford, Starr King, and others of their kind wrote lovingly and reverentially about these great mountains, while the websites, while informative, are littered with some needing to be noticed for their “accomplishments”. For some time I even got tied up in this mess myself, but now it feels healthy to be free of such things.

I came here not to pay attention to those singing their solipsistic rants of how great they are, how many mountains they’ve knocked off and how fast they’ve climbed them, but to pay attention to the mountains and learn what they have to teach me. I’m sure it’s possible to do both, although more complicated and filled with pitfalls, but for me the crossover is no longer necessary. (And while I’m jumping that ship, I have no problem with others riding it for as long as they can. It’s just isn’t what moves me.) I’d rather enjoy the mountains. This doesn’t mean that I’ll stop doing long hikes or cease pushing myself with new challenges; I just won’t do it for some list or the notoriety for having accomplished something so others can see what I’ve done.

These mountains offer great soul and body work and it is clear over the past couple of months that I’m finally where I want to be. The mountains, and nature herself, are inclusive. We are all equal in our right to be awed by their breathtaking beauty. Hiking from mountain to mountain for the simple joy of it seems to fall more in line with what I need these days and more of what I‘ve always wanted.

Thoreau once wrote: “It’s a fine art to saunter.” Last weekend was a sauntering weekend for Atticus and me. We climbed Mt. Pemigewasset (less than 3,000-feet) on Saturday and then on Sunday took a lovely eight mile hike in and out of Zealand Notch with very little elevation gain. Atticus and I were invited along with Ken and Ann Stampfer (our weekly hiking double date these past two months) for the second hike.

I’ve often stood atop Zeacliff and looked down on the rock-strewn floor of the Notch and the scarred side of Whitewall Mountain, but I’d never been down there looking up. Our original plan was to hike up to Zealand Falls and perhaps Zeacliff but being the holiday weekend it was crowded and we smartly avoided the crowd. Instead we reached the boulders where the mountain had fallen down long ago and plunked ourselves down for a leisurely lunch and conversation. Under the expansive blue sky it we encountered relatively few people. We were in no hurry to get anywhere and simply enjoyed views Atticus and I had never seen. At the end of the day our souls were as filled as if we’d climbed any 4,000-footer.

It’s taken me three years but I think I’ve finally caught up to Atticus in this regard.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

For One Hiker, The Ulitmate Peak

My six year old friend Patrick is a good boy…most of the time. When he’s not a good boy there’s little he can do about it. Suffering from bi-polar disorder is hell on the little guy. It’s also hell on his family. There are times when the house turns into a war zone as it was Saturday morning. He exploded, then imploded and collapsed into an exhaustive sleep on the couch, leaving his family in shambles as is often the case.

When he woke up I told him I was taking Atticus for a long walk and invited him to join us. As always, he jumped at the opportunity to be with us.

Taking a walk with Patrick is an interesting experience. He is six going on 76. He is brighter than most kids, very manipulative, and not as physically active. His imagination runs towards the dark side of things and he harbors irrational fears. At his young age, he likes to be in control. Part of the challenge of having a relationship with him is in knowing this and finding ways around his control issues.

And so on Saturday we set out for a long walk in the woods. We parked at the Flume Visitor Center, walked for a short way along the bike path, and then turned left onto the Mt. Pemigewasset Trail. When we walked under the three bridges Patrick wondered if anyone had ever been killed there or what creatures lived in the underpasses when night fell. Upon entering each one he’d yell violently in an attempt to frighten away whatever evil lurked nearby.

We trundled through the open woods, crossing a bridge, hopping over a stream, balancing our way across primitive log bridges further along. We talked a little but mostly soaked in the surrounding nature. Where I had seen wildflowers just days before, I saw only their green remains. But the forest had woken up in other ways. The wind rustled the trees and young leaves and kept the black flies at bay.

Patrick, Atticus and I had been on this trail before. We had twice tried to climb to the top of Indian Head, the jutting profile he sees from his house every day. But on both occasions he chose to turn back. Because of this he has a love-hate relationship with hiking to the top of a mountain. He wants to get there but he doesn’t like the discomfort associated with it. Our two failed attempts came last year. When we turned back he talked of incredible pain which I later learned was just his way to control the situation.

On our walk, we were about a third of the way up the trail when he once again suggested he was hurting. He described stabbing pains in his legs and belly. I suggested we sit for a while. When we started up again he did well for a few minutes but wanted to sit again. I gave him some chocolate. It helped his pain. He wanted more.

“We’ll save it for later,” I told him.

“Not later. I want it now,” he said. “Let’s eat it now and just turn back.”

I agreed, not to the chocolate part, but cocked my head until he asked what I was doing.

“I’m just making sure it’s okay to go back now. I think bears are following us.”

Patrick then suggested we continue on our way.

“Don’t you want to turn back?” I asked.

“No, I think I’m fine now,” he replied, while looking back over his shoulder.

We reached the halfway point and he wondered if the bears were still behind us. I suggested there was one way to find out. We could return the way we came. Instead he led the way up the trail, eyes wide, and certain to keep me between the bears and him.

Eventually he decided he’d rather face the bears than be tired. I coaxed him along telling him about the views we’d see on our walk.

“When we get to the viewpoint we can turn back then.”

But views to a six-year old with bi-polar disorder mean very little. It wasn’t long before he suggested we turn back again. We sat for a bit, Atticus sitting right in front of Patrick, appraising him as only a wise little dog can do. This led to an interesting conversation – albeit a one-way one.

Patrick: “Atticus, I know you want to walk, but I’m tired.”

Atticus: [He sat and stared at Patrick.]

Patrick: “I know you want to get going but I want to go back. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to ruin your walk.”

Atticus: [Continued sitting, continued staring.]

Patrick: “Oh, okay, we’ll keep going, but you owe me one, Atticus.”

Atticus: [He looked at Patrick for a moment then headed up the trail.]

In a few minutes Patrick was falling behind in a sulk. Then as fate would have it, three young women appeared, making their way down the mountain. They fawned over both Atticus and Patrick. This sat well with Patrick and seemed to matter little to Atticus. After they left Patrick asked me, “Will there be more girls at the viewpoint?”

“I imagine so.”

“Hot girls?”

“You mean with fevers?”

“No, Mr. Ryan, I mean girls that look ‘hot’!”

What a mind. “What do you know about hot girls?”

“I know you can think they’re hot, you just can’t tell them that.”

Just my luck, I was in the woods with a six-year old who knew more about women then I do. As you might guess, we pressed on.

When we left the leafy trees behind and entered into the evergreens, the cool scent of earth and greens refreshed us. We moved a little quicker, Patrick, I imagined, in search of hot girls, and me not wanting to slow down while he was enthusiastically climbing. (Hey, we get our motivation where we can.)

After we reached the intersection with the Indian Head Trail I decided to tell Patrick what he was in the process of doing.

“Patrick, do you remember that mountain you’ve always wanted to climb – Indian Head?”

“Yes, do you think I can climb it with you and Atticus this summer?”

“No, I think we should climb another mountain this summer.”

He stopped in the trail and looked cross with me, “But I want to climb Indian Head.”

I smiled and paused. Then I said, “You just did. The summit is just ahead.”

Now if you know anything about six-year olds with bi-polar disorder you know more than many of the experts do. First off, it has to be really bad to be detected at such an early age. Then, when they do, a life of hell is fully documented and much of what comes out of it is what such a troubled child cannot do. They are separated in many ways, an asterisk placed next to their names in everything they do. Because of their behavior, children like Patrick don’t always get to do the things they wish they could do. The demons are just too loud, too lively as they dance in their troubled heads. It is for this reason that I was happy to have given up my plans to be on Moosilauke on this bright, blue day.

In all the mountains Atticus and I have climbed these past three years, none gave me the satisfaction little Pemigewasset did at that moment when Patrick forgot about his demons, forgot about restrictions – those he places on himself and those placed on him – and he thrust his arms up in the air as an Olympic champion would and let out a triumphant howl. Such unmitigated joy! Such freedom for my little friend! He let out two more howls and did a little dance.

In watching Patrick burst through that last stretch of woods toward that doorway to a mountaintop world where ledges fall off to reveal a sea of mountains, heaven on earth and the place where dreams come true, I don’t think I ever felt so happy about getting to the top of a peak.

In watching him sit on the ledges – after surrendering to his fear of heights – I wondered if this little boy will ever have as triumphant and yet peaceful a moment as he found that day, sitting with a little dog next to him, the world before him, and for once, his limitations far behind him. He sat and looked, as did Atticus, out across the mountains while I watched these two six year olds.
In watching them I thought of something written by Thich Nhat Hanh, the wondrous Vietnamese monk: “People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child – our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”

Here in the White Mountains the legends I care about are those of the mountains themselves, they are the stars of this show, and on occasion, we get to experience that anew through fresh eyes.

Photos From Ken Stampfer

On Saturday we hiked into the Zealand Valley with Ken and Ann Stampfer. Here are some of the talented photographer's photos from that day.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Spring Folliage

Autumn folliage gets the good press, but I'm learning that the colors of spring are quite beautiful in their own right. Here are some shots today from the ledges on Indian Head.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A Walk in the Ossipees: May 15, 2008

For all the stark and at times overwhelming beauty that comes while traipsing through tunnels of snow-covered trees in the winter, I was at first taken aback by the grayness of the mountains not covered with snow above treeline. I think when Atticus and I first started hiking in the winter it was the one thing that I was disappointed with. In my ignorance I expected all mountains to look bright and shiny white from a distance. But where the coniferous trees climb the slopes and shed their leaves they can look a dismal and bald blue. This stands in stark contrast to the snowy and dramatic peaks of the Presidential Range and Franconia Ridge that actually glow when the sun catches their white picketed ridges.

But that was last season. In my first spring living in the Whites I am now awed by the soft lush colors I see. I cannot describe them well as they fall somewhere between green and yellow, other than to say it is the color of new life. Were I an artist with brush and paint and canvas and accurately captured the exact colors of the trees fleshing out these past two weeks, the painting would look contrived, as if I was reaching to make some dramatic statement.

I like that I cannot define the colors of spring. There may have been a time in my past when I’ve encountered a lone tree that would give off this hopeful color, but never have I been as moved by it or so utterly surrounded by it as I was last weekend on a hike in the Ossipee Range. Atticus and I, who typically prefer to hike as a private duo, have grown fond of the trips we’ve taken with Ken and Ann Stampfer as of late. Since winter’s close they’ve taken us to so-called “lesser peaks” and introduced us to new wonders that lift and inspire.

Last weekend’s hike was to Mt. Roberts and over Faraway Mountain before looping back to where we started nine miles later. The climb up Roberts is gentle and as it climbs it offers views back down into the lakes region. The higher we climbed the more the view drove a stake into my heart that made me mourn that I am not an artist and would never be able to capture the scene. All that dark blue water ringed by mountains in this new color topped off by a sky set free between storms where magnificent white Maxfield Parrish clouds sailed a blue sea of their own – stunning.

And just as the climb is gentle, so are the spring colors of the mountains coming into view the higher we reached. Clouds cast their shadows creating more variations of green and my camera clicked away, even though I knew the magic would elude the lens.

Towards the top of Mt. Roberts we encountered a world of short, twisted trees, their tops cut flat by wind and ice, sprouting vibrant leaves. I imagined this might be the one day of the year when such a walk would outdo even the best autumn day ripe with foliage.

The climb to the summit offers easy ledges to cross but the marriage of rock and twisted but colorful trees and the views behind to the lakes and faraway mountains caused us to stop and drink it in as much as possible, that is until the black flies caught up to us. At times a breeze sent them scattering, but for the most part we had to endure their bites and their overwhelming presence. They, and the ticks we were to gather along the way – Atticus ended up with over 20! – were the only drawbacks.

Just before the summit we stepped from a leafy spring into an old an untended evergreen forest. If I were blind and on this walk I would know the change simply by the evergreen scent in the air. But I’m not blind and my eyes were captivated by dark green trees that created shadowed corridors. It was like walking into a fairy tale through woods both ominous and mysterious. This led us to an open ringed path. Either way would take us to the summit and we chose the left. Within minutes we were at the top.

When we reached the viewpoint towards the north the black flies allowed us a few minutes to eat our lunch. From the rock makeshift bench we had a great view of the Sandwich Range, from the mountain of that same name to the west across the Osceolas, Tripyramids, Sleepers, Whiteface, Passaconaway and Chocurua in the east. Beyond that we could see Carrigain’s great whale-like hump breaching in the distance and to the northeast Mt. Washington.

The hike over to Faraway Mountain followed an old grassy road that made for easy going. Along the way we marveled at the white clouds casting forth across the blue sky and the scarred birch trees. Eventually we came to one last outlook, across to the ledges of Mt. Roberts and out across the lakes.

It’s easy to be wowed by the higher peaks of the White Mountains, and deservedly so, but I’m enjoying getting to know some of the shorter peaks that have the same talent to touch me with their beauty. Because of the color of the season, the unique ledge walk through those bright stunted trees, the views of the lakes, I felt I stumbled upon something new and exciting that I would not find farther north.

Emerson was talking of men when he wrote, “He is great who is what he is from Nature, and never reminds us of others.” How wonderful and rare to meet such a person; and how wonderful and rare to discover a place that reminds us of no other. This month marks the third year Atticus and I have been hiking and the trip to Roberts and Faraway was different than anything else we’d ever encountered. In a world where pleasant surprises can be too few, this was one.

(Photos, which you probably already saw on a previous post, can be found here.)

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Our Hike In The Ossipee Range

Today the rain clouds turned to beautiful, fluffy white clouds floating across blue skies and Atticus and I joined Ken and Ann Stampfer for a 9 mile hike over Mount Roberts and Faraway Mountain. If it wasn't for the black flies, which were out and biting today, this would have been a perfect hike. As it was, it was a pretty special hike. The slide show of today's hike can be found here.

Mt. Roberts & Faraway Mountain

Today Atticus and I visited the Ossipee Range for the first time. Great views of lakes everywhere we were looking today. More on this hike later. (The above photo was taken by Ken Stampfer.)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Thanks for Bearing With Us: Our Fundraising Quest Will Start Again In June

This morning we took a walk in a cool spring rain. It was as if someone had peeled back the fresh skin of the mountains and let all the freshness out. It smelled that way, like a ripe fruit. Meanwhile she clouds sit heavily atop the peaks. Here in the notch rain clouds often stick around a while reminding me of clothing snagged on a jagged edge. It appears the weather is here to stay for a few days.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that some mountains, even bigger ones like Lafayette, are now stripped of their snow, at least if you are going up the Old Bridle Path, which unravels beneath on open forest and faces to the southwest where the sun has been bright. Go just around the corner and above 3,500 feet on the approach of Mt. Garfield and you will run into several feet of snow still, since that main trail faces to the north.

Yesterday some hikers climbed up Lafayette and were happy to report there was no snow and none on the ridge across Lincoln and Little Haystack. They decided not to descend on the Falling Waters Trail, partially because of the great weather, because of the recent trail conditions report ice and snow still and from reading between the lines, because of the recent death of the young Chinese woman who died when a boulder fell on her while she was climbing the Falling Waters Trail.

The person writing the report on the Views from the Top on-line hiking site, said his party continued on to Mt. Liberty and strongly suggested no one else follow their path. It seems that once you enter the trees between Little Haystack and Liberty there is very deep snow under the trees.

But at least some mountains are now freeing up. This is good news for Atticus and me as I’ve put off the 4,000-footers since winter ended and the full two rounds were out of reach. I didn’t want to have to put Atti through the deep, deep snow. We still have some 4,000-footers to hike in our fundraising efforts for Angell Animal Medical Center and will continue on when June arrives, which is not to far away.

So, if you would still like to contribute to Angell through our efforts, please check out this link to see how to do so. If you would like to donate a peak to the animal in your life, check out this list.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Bald Mountain & Artist's Bluff

More shots from our "neighborhood". Plans for a longer hike were scrapped after a weird night of little sleep. Therefore the amended plan was to keep it local and short. A 10 minute ride up the road is Bald Mountain with its breathtaking views into the belly of Franconia Notch The first shots from a peak is from Bald Mountain. Then after ducking into the woods for a bit, we surfaced on the aptly named Artist's Bluff, where many a White Mountain artist set up and spent their days painting the Notch. The ski mountain to the right is Cannon. To the left of that, in many of the shots, and the one mountain that dominates most of the photos is Lafayette with Eagle Cliff in the foreground. Photos from today's little journey are here.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Another Hiking Death in the Whites

Yesterday, while Atticus and I were out visiting Franconia Notch, we stopped in at the trailhead for the Lafayette, Lincoln, and Little Haystack loop and were surprised to see several official green trucks. They had just been there for a rescue and were busy together. All but one eventually left and we talked for a moment and was ashen-faced by what had just transpired. He didn't feel comfortable talking about it and I didn't press. He told me I'd read about it in the papers. This morning I came upon this. (The photo shows Lafayette and Lincoln late yesterday.)

Our Car Is In The Garage and That Got Me Thinking

It’s Friday morning and the Honda Fit is over at Jarrett’s across the street getting inspected, the oil's being changed, and the snow tires are coming off.

Jarrett Ham is what some would call a rarity: a trustworthy and goodhearted auto mechanic. In my numerous travels to the White Mountains over the last three years, I got to know Jarrett because my Ford Focus lasted longer than it should have. It was due to Jarrett’s efforts up here, and Phil & Sons efforts down in Newburyport, that it continued to run as long as it did. For the first 60,000 it was a fine car. The last 66,000 miles, well, it’s fair to say it had its issues.

When I sold my paper I put half down on a Honda Fit, a similar sized car with better mileage and being a Honda, an assurance it will run a lot longer and with fewer repair bills than the Focus had. However, I cannot complain too much about the Focus, it was my first new car and only the second car I ever owned. I bought it with money made running my paper, The Undertoad, and it took us to the mountains in all four seasons over the last two and a half years of its existence.

John Kelley, who owns a gas station on High Street in Newburyport, said something that stuck with me. When I was bemoaning the number of repairs the Focus needed at the end of its run he said, “That car doesn’t owe you anything.”


“You got your money’s worth out of it. It no longer owes you anything.”

He was right, of course. I got my money out of it…and more.

That Ford Focus took me to see my father almost every weekend I wasn’t hiking. It took me and Atticus back and forth to Vermont several times before I rediscovered the White Mountains. Every other Thursday night/Friday morning and day it carried Atticus (and Max before him) and me about 120 miles while delivering The Undertoad throughout Newburyport and Newbury.

It was the car I drove out to Plum Island and then to Maudslay, then onto Turkey Hill Road, and back up High Street in a long loop when I would canvas the community before elections, asking people how they were voting.  (Now you know the secret of how I could predict political races so easily in the city.) It was the car I made the same drive around town with on the night Lisa Mead lost to Al Lavender before calling my father to tell him the news.

“You did it!” he said.

“No, Lisa did it to herself.”

“But you were the one who pointed it all out to people, and you were the one who told her to change or lose.”

It was a dark night. From behind the wheel of the Focus I saw a former friend tumble out of power after she lost touch with Newburyport, and for the first time I understood the influence of The Undertoad.

It was the car I drove Atticus and me to and from my family reunion seven years ago, the last two days all ten of us would all be together again.

It was the car I fell in love in, then the car I fell out of love in. Twice.   (At least I thought it was love back then.)

It was the car I picked Maxwell G. Gillis up in on the day I adopted an elderly dog. And it was the car I drove Max around town in during his last ride before finally driving up State Street toward Dr. Grillo’s office when Kenny Loggins’ “Whenever I Call You Friend” came on the radio and I broke down in tears. It was the car I drove home alone in that same day.

It was the car I drove when I took a five-pound puppy Atticus to the beach on Plum Island on our first day together. It was the car that carried Max’s ashes along for that same ride before I spread some of them on Atti’s paws, over his heart, his spine, and his forehead before flinging a handful into the churning Atlantic.

It was the car I drove from Lincoln, NH to Medway, MA the day after Atticus and I finished the forty-eight four thousand footers in during our first eleven weeks of hiking and delivered a shirt with the names of all those mountains to my Dad. I had dedicated those first forty-eight to him and it was one of the few times I saw him happy to receive a gift. And it was the car I drove on all our mountain trips, including the winter we did eight-one peaks, until I traded it in last August.

It was the car that had eight tires slashed and an exhaust pipe filled with insulating foam by critics of my journal back in Newburyport.  It was the car informants would leave information on (under the windshield wipers) and the car I received death threats on in the same manner. And it was the car the police set up a stake out for on the day my registration lapsed because I hadn’t paid my car insurance in time. It was the car I received a ticket for worn tire tread depth by a cross-eyed police officer going in the other direction on High Street during those days when I was pointing out unethical behavior of various officers.

It was the car I used to drive Atticus to North Andover for his cataract surgery and the car that drove him home again that night after the surgery and back to the hospital the next morning because they wouldn’t let me stay with him overnight while he recovered (so we recovered on our own). And it was the car I drove to Dr. Grillo’s office on the day they shaved Atticus’ chest, belly and throat while looking for tumors. And the car I drove to Angell the day they gave him the blood tests that would confirm all the horrible things we’d been told he probably had only to have the tests come back reporting he had none of it.

It was the car I drove to the bank with a check in hand and tears in my eyes the day I sold The Undertoad.

It was the car I laughed in, was tailed in, and dreamed in. It took me places and it set me free. It was the car of a dying dog, the car of a new dog; it was the car that, like John Kelley said, owed me nothing in the end.

On the day I traded in my Focus I was so excited about getting a new car I completely forgot about my old one. It sat outside with a hole in the driver’s side floorboard, its tired body, and stained interior; while I spent hours getting my new car. When the sale went through and my Honda Fit was pulled around to the front so I could transfer items from the old to the new, that's when it hit me.

I’m a sentimental fool. We’d been through a lot together, that car and I. It felt strange to just leave it there while it awaited a trip to a place where they would strip it for parts. I know it was not an animate object but it was alive with my memories. I was saying goodbye to an old friend and eight years together.

Driving away that day in my new car with Atticus, I looked back in the rearview mirror and the Ford Focus looked lonely sitting by itself. When I pulled onto the highway and headed home I wondered just where our new car would take Atticus and me.

So far it’s doing well.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Slide Show from a Spring Day

Today was another writing day. (Yes, Atticus is restless on these days.) However, I kept the peace by getting outside a few times with him. And you will note how happy he is to be in the woods in these shots. We got to the Flume where we sat on our favored fallen tree. What I noticed was how spring exploded sometime between yesterday and today. Green buds were everywhere! Then, just after dinner, we took the ten minute ride up to Franconia Notch and walked around a bit. It crossed my mind that in the time it used to take me to drive from my downtown Newburyport apartment to Moseley Pines, I was in the Notch. Each of these photos were taken so close to our home that you in Newburyport, or those checking in from places other than in the mountains, can understand why we love it up here. The natural beauty is breathtaking. Here's the slide show.

The Sweet Smell of Spring

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Life's A Little Less Complicated Up Here

This morning we rose when the sun made its way over the ridge behind us and filled the living room with its golden light. On occasion I sleep on the couch. Last night was one such night. I slept in the shape of the letter “S” and Atticus curled himself into a ball behind the back of my knees. It was a deep sleep for the first time since my cold arrived.

I opened all the windows wide and we feel asleep to the sound of the Pemi rushing by and then awoke with our lungs filled with cool mountain air. We got out the door earlier than usual and drove down to the many fingered parking lot at the Flume. First we walked along the little 0.3 mile loop through the woods, coming to a stop at the gazebo with a view down into the raging river and up at Flume and Liberty.

On the mound of land leading up from the river towards the higher land but before the evergreens dominated the mountains, I noticed the soft bloom of spring on the deciduous trees, as if they were softly, colored tufts of cotton. While I was watching spring, Atticus was sniffing around for it on some dead leaves and pine needles flattened in one small area, as if an animal had slept upon them.

I soon joined him there in hopes he wasn’t checking out a moose bed for fear it would be a minefield of ticks, but I could see none.

This little dog loves the spring and all the awakening scents of the forest. He rarely leaves the trail; instead he stands towards one side with his front paws off the trail and he casts his nose about. I wonder what he catches and fill myself with pleasure at the way he peacefully reels whatever it is in and then sets off in a contented jaunt along the trail until he stops and throws his nose into the air again.

At the end of the short loop he stands at the intersection like a child with a look that says, “Can we go around one more time?” But I just keep moving and he holds back in minor protest before hopping along after me and when he passes me again his sulk, if it could actually be called one, is forgotten. He bounces when he walks, his bottom swaying along from side to side. If I were a musician I would compose something that goes with his happy trot. Alas, I’m not and must find amusement in the light comedy it provides.

On a frigid December hike up Mt. Garfield in 2006, we were joined by a tough hiker, one who I consider to be well-established and one of the first three people to ever hike all the 48 in one winter. We shared great conversation along with laughter and insights. Because it was as cold as it was I put Atticus in his body suit when we neared the summit and left it on him on the way down. It was snug fitting and when he wears it he moves along with a “Scatman Crothers” shuffle. In watching him bounce down the trail ahead of us, our companion for the day traded in his tough man demeanor and commented, “He does have kind of a cute butt.”

I can tell much about Atticus by his butt. If it is swaying gently with a little bounce in his stride it means he is happy and fresh. That’s the way it is on most occasions, but this morning he was happier than most days. He moved along in a carefree manner sending his ears bouncing like a couple of happy drunks.

He walked ahead of me while we moved up and down the various parking lots. While I walked in the middle of the empty pavement reading my book and taking notes he visited the buffer of trees between each lot, sniffing and squirting.

On the third finger of pavement a large crow was off on the side poking around in a clump of leaves gathered by the curb. Atticus moseyed towards him and just before he got to the crow it lifted off with ease to a branch just five feet off the ground directly above Atticus. I stopped reading and stopped walking. There was a silent and peaceful interaction between the two as the crow watched Atticus and Atticus watched the crow. They appeared to be mildly interested in each other and neither was in a hurry to move on or to stop studying one another.

I gave them their space until Atticus decided he would move on. The large black bird watched him leave; cocking his head in what I imagined was amusement of his swaying butt and that pair of drunken ears.

I gave the crow a wide birth but even then he took flight landing in a young tree with dusty red buds. It was right above where Atticus was headed. As Atticus moved beneath him he didn’t seem to notice the crow but it watched him pass.

Finally we came to large rock on the end of the last parking strip and just behind that, off into the woods, a small and possibly nameless stream. It has become one of my favorite stopping places. Atticus entered the woods and drank from the water and I waited until he was done and cleared the water, with the help of a stepping stone and ended up on the other side. There I sat on my usual fallen tree, my feet propped up on some rocks beside the stream.

Sunlight filtered through the trees and looked happy to be dancing in the water. I returned to my book and Atticus stood on the opposite side of the rivulet, once again casting his nose into the air. When we reach this place he knows we will stop for a while. He surrenders happily to the laziness of the moment.

The soft cascade of water over small rocks is sweet music and I fall deeply into my book. While I read words, Atticus reads the woods. It’s here, in this place that Atticus seems to be overcoming his dislike of water. There are rocks he can hop over to come over to my side. He could make it by hopping on just one rock if he wanted to. I find it curious that he never crosses by way of the stones as he would on a hike or wait for me to pick him up. Instead when he crosses, and he did it again this morning, he wades slowly across. Not slowly because of nerves or because he is unsure of his footing, but slowly as if enjoying the wetness against leathery pads.

Once across he hopped over the log and explored the woods for a little while, never straying too far. Eventually he came back to me and as he does every morning he hopped up next to me and sat on the fallen tree watching the stream pass. He pushed his nose towards a small sapling coming out from beneath the tree. It stood maybe standing two feet high with sparse branches. Out of the corner of my eye I see him studying a junction of branches just inches from his nose. He’s not sniffing; he’s watching.

I can’t help but wonder what he’s doing. When I pay closer attention to the tiny tree I notice there is a movement. A tiny spider is traversing along a high wire of web between the two branches. It stops in the middle and it’s too small for me to tell but I imagine it is watching Atticus watch him (or her).

Atticus is not a head-tilter. When he watches things he studies them almost humanly. There is seriousness to his curiosity.

Once back in our apartment in Newburyport, a large spider scuttled across the floor. It was large enough for Atticus to see from the bed and he jumped down for a closer look. I wondered if he would eat it or play with it as some of my past dogs would have done. He did neither. Instead he lay down and watched it. When it moved farther away he moved closer, again to watch. When it reached the wall and started to climb up, my curious friend sat up and watched the spider crawl up onto the window sill.

This was the same window he sat at the previous year as a pigeon hatched her chicks in the window box. Every day Atticus would sit and watch over those chicks, just inches below his nose while he stood on his hind legs and leaned on the ‘elbows’ of his front legs like he was standing at a bar. He’d watch them for hours on end when the mother was gone. And when the day came that they took off and didn’t return he would still return to look down into the window box and I wondered if he missed having them there.

That’s what this morning in the woods reminded me of. It reminded me of the way he watched those new-born pigeons in the window box or that spider crossing the carpet.

Laugh if you want, but watching Atticus sit this way, on top of mountains, on the beach, in the woods, or on a busy sidewalk; caused me to sit and relax more. The first summer we climbed the 48 I’d start my hike after starting my stopwatch. I’d hurry along as if I was impressing someone. When we reached a view point I’d stop for a moment, gulp some water and then get ready to move on again. But Atticus would stop and look…really look at the view. Sometimes he’d move close to the ledge and look down and then outward towards the horizon. Other times he’d sit on his plump behind as if in meditation.

We stayed like that for a while this morning, him not getting bored with his spider, me not getting bored with him, the stream, the woods, or my book. Eventually he rose and crossed back over the stream and went out to the large rock bordering the sidewalk and the parking area. He climbed up and sat down looking at the hunchback of Mt. Pemigewasset.

Some time later a woman and a man were walking along the sidewalk and she was startled to see Atti sitting there by himself. I didn’t bother to respond because he can take care of himself. When she reached him he continued to sit but she had the looks of a woman who likes to be concerned with something and said to her husband, “He doesn’t have a collar or a tag!”

The husband didn’t say anything. I wondered if he ever did. I sat silently in the woods with my book. And Atticus wasn’t about to say anything either.

The women’s agitation grew and she moved around the rock while Atticus watched her looking all over him. I wanted to laugh as she and Atticus looked at each other, she with concern and furrowed brow; he with mild bemusement. Her irritation with his placement on the rock was evident, as was the fact that he was without leash or collar. I would have intervened but she didn’t have the look of a good-hearted rescuer, but of a complainer.

I don’t know how long it took her but she finally saw me sitting about fifteen feet from her. The look on her face was priceless. It was one of shock turning into revulsion as if she had caught me masturbating instead of reading.

I simply smiled and said, “I’m with him.”

She said nothing, moving on with a huff, her husband in tow. All I heard her say to her husband was something along the lines of, “That’s just weird.”

I went back to my book. Atticus went back to looking at the mountain.

As you can see, our lives up here are a bit less complicated than they used to be.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Fighting A Cold While Fighting With Words

If there are good days to be sick, today is one of them. Yesterday was a pretty good day to be sick, too, with rain showers and a raw feel to the day. But today is better, as far as being worse. It is pouring out and I don’t feel as if I’m missing out on anything in the outside world as I look out at it from my window. Yesterday I made chicken soup, pots of tea and took some cold medicine. Today I woke up feeling a bit better, but the pull is still there in my joints, my nose still clogged, and my sore throat is not quite as sore but not right either.

Yesterday we were supposed to hike Mt. Cube but my cold and the weather put an end to that. Instead I continued working on the summary for each chapter that is to appear in the book. It’s now up to 32 chapters. Each summary is a meaty paragraph describing what is to be in the chapter. In this section alone I am now up to 14 pages single spaced!

That should tell you something about the depth and breadth of this book proposal I‘m working on. In getting ready to put the proposal together, I purposefully put it off because of this section. I wondered, how am I supposed to know what will go into Chapter 14, or Chapter 4 for that matter? But strangely enough it has worked out. I wrote Chapter 1 then moved on from there and I’m surprised but pleased with what the results have been.

One pitfall in writing these summaries is that they all roll into one another and if I do too many at a time they becomes a succession of blurs. How does one write chapter summaries about a chapter they’ve not written and make it sound anything but a dull drone? I found the only way possible is to do maybe two at a time, then take a slight break before coming back and doing two more.

Today will be more of the same. While it rains outside, I’ll be inside, kept company by some Chocolate Tea from Licorice & Sloe, a small snoring dog, and a box of Kleenex. I will write and re-write.

The mountains have been a great inspiration to me since I re-encountered them in middle-aged. I was introduced to them as a child by my father who took us up here often. We stayed in a tent trailer, but before I was born, my father built bunks into the back of a U-Haul trailer and the gang of 10 slept either in the car or in the suffocating trailer. Dad loved these mountains, but as was the case with nearly everything he loved, including writing, I ran far away from them. One goal I had was to be as different form him as possible. While I should have been writing and studying the craft and literature in school I studied sports medicine. It was something he couldn’t lay claim to. But words crept in, nonetheless.

Recently, Beth Maddaus posted something on her blog about her favorite book, To Kill A Mockingbird. She asked what books played the biggest roles in other people’s lives. I shared the following story.

My father was an oppressive man. He could be an ogre, dominant and abusive. However, there were also good qualities about him, too. For one, he loved to read and pushed us towards books. Unfortunately, my father didn’t do anything gently. It turned me off to reading and I refused to read, even when he made us sit in a room with him and read silently to ourselves from whatever book we each held. In my stubbornness I faked reading. I would turn the page every couple of minutes as if I had been soaking it all in but I didn’t read a word.

I’m not sure when, but I had to look up something in his copy of Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett when I was still young enough to be impressionable. When I opened the book and went in search of what I was looking for, words flew at me like dreams in the night and I was stunned and suddenly in love with the written word. In that book I could see what all the great men and women in history had written and/or said and their words and thoughts were intoxicating. But having fallen head over heels for this book and the brilliance it contained, I could not give my father the satisfaction of knowing this. We were at war with each, he and I, as he was with most of his children. And so I would wait for him to go out and I would steal the book off the shelf and plunge into its pages. Here Thoreau and Emerson and Whitman and Plato and Roosevelt and Shakespeare and Tennyson came to life. When he’d return home and pull into the driveway I would dash to put the book back on the shelf above his bedroom doorway and retreat quickly to my room, or turn on the television, so that he would never know, even though I would be punished for watching television. Better to be punished than to admit that I loved something he loved.

After my father’s funeral a month ago, his nine children gathered in his house and were allowed to grab some things. One of my brothers got my father’s car. Another got his television. Many grabbed photographs. I grabbed that old copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I have another copy, the most recent one, but there’s just something right about that old one sitting here, side-by-side with Atticus on my desk, both watching me write.

That’s how the mountains were to me. They reminded me of him so I withdrew from them.
Now that I’ve been drawn back here I see them as I used to see them, as he used to see them. For centuries writers, poets and painters saw them the same way, although as of late it doesn’t seem that way. There was a time when Thoreau and Emerson and Hawthorne would be up here writing beautiful words. There was a time when artists flocked here and the White Mountain Artists were famous. But those days are long ago. Sure, Robert Frost was here, but it seems like he was everywhere.

When I write about these mountains I want to write about them in the same way they wrote and painted, with the same passion, the same inspiration. Although their education was better than mine and the minds brilliant, I do have one advantage, as I see it. I’ve seen more of these mountains than they did. I’ve traveled to the four-corners of the 4,000-footers more than once and have been able to see things they didn’t see.

Last night I stumbled upon an article on by Steven Hart discussing the friendship between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. It talked of their shared interests, intellectual exchanges and about their time together. It’s initial focus was of a night-long debate about Christianity which was the trigger than brought Lewis back to the church. (Both The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and The Lord of the Rings were works where Christian-themes coursed through them; although they were well hidden in Tolkien’s work.)

In a discussion about literature between the two men the article has the following:

Lewis is at his most charming and approachable in his stories, and his journey into fiction -- like his return to faith -- was in large part guided by Tolkien. In 1937, on the eve of publication for "The Hobbit," the friends found themselves deploring the state of contemporary writing. "Tollers," Lewis said, "there is too little of that we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves."
That’s how I feel about these mountains. They deserve to have words written about them that capture their essence…words that soar as some of these peaks do. In writing a trip report about ‘lowly’ Tecumseh a year and a half ago I wrote:

“There is a wonderful term that speaks of the pervading spirit of a special place---genius loci.The Romans believed protective spirits watched over special places. I have no doubt that there is something special that watches over these mountains for I feel the magic when I stop and just let myself be, whether it is on Franconia Ridge to watch the sunrise or under cloudy skies on a ski slope on Mt. Tecumseh. In the Whites the genius loci is rich and tangible.”

In writing about the adventures Atticus and I have shared up here, I often find myself praying that I can do these mountains and our experiences justice with the written word. At times it seems an impossible task for who has words to describe heaven? My main goal is to capture the genius loci of this place.

In writing the chapter summaries it is my job to create a blueprint to show the publisher what will follow when the book is done. But blueprints are dispassionate and I find it difficult to write flatly about such a place that both lifts and inspires me. That’s the challenge I face, even in putting the proposal together.
Today I will work on that: being soulful and thorough at the same time.
I'd better make some more tea.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Dreamer, The Writer

Poor Atticus. He’s trying to be patient in this week of rain and writing. The rain stopped yesterday, the writing is continuing. He’d rather be hiking.

I’m close to the completion of the lengthy book proposal I’ll be sending out to the publisher next week along with my sample chapter, the first one. Putting together a proposal was intimidating for me and it has little to do with actual writing and everything to do with how a publisher can justify investing money into you with first an advance and then the publishing of the book.

Much of the focus is on the market place and audience for the book as well as the marketing and promotion. I had to do a lot of research to back up my claims and put factual information out there concerning the demographics I am aiming at. It’s not unlike writing a grant, or so I am told.
However, the toughest part was a summary of each chapter of the proposed book. Each summary was one or two paragraphs long. The challenging part was writing these summaries about chapters that have not been written yet and may or not end up in the book. What it all comes down to is that the publishing companies want to know they investing their money in a person who has put a lot of thought into the book.

I must admit, that as daunting as that part of the proposal seemed, it wasn’t all that bad. I kept putting it off but once I started writing the summaries the chapters fell into place.

For years I dreamed of writing a book but always doubted my ability. I lacked the same audacity that served me well in publishing The Undertoad or taking to these mountains. I knew nothing about either venture before embarking on them but I went at them with all I had. For many reasons I lacked the same intensity in putting together a book. I lacked confidence and thought I just wasn’t good enough. However, in the past few weeks, that has all changed.

The old audacity is now present. Where I used to walk into bookstores and dream and then say, “Wouldn’t it be nice to make my living as a writer,” I now have no doubt in my mind that I can and will succeed. Dropping into the well and writing intensely has made all the difference. I stopped wishing for what I wanted to become and just became it.

An employee from a major publishing house requested that I send in a proposal about our adventures up north but various things got in the way. Now those hurdles have either been cleared or cleared away. Everything to me these days is writing. No more doubts. No more reluctance. No more distractions.

If the original intended publisher does not go for the book, I now have little doubt another will. The focus group of critics I put together for the first chapter all had pretty positive things to say about the book, especially the ones I put the most stock in. The weakest response I have received was still a good one. “Terrific,” she wrote.

But I have to tell you, this new found confidence doesn’t emanate from their responses to what I wrote, but instead to my own belief. As I wrote to my friend Sarah a couple of weeks ago: “For the first time in my life I feel like a writer.” The change came about by deciding it was time to throw myself into the fire completely. Much of this was triggered by Liz Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love,” but it was also just time for me to follow the advice of that Nike commercial: “Just do it.”
The other day I walked into a bookstore and instead of wishing that could me, I said, “Soon, very soon.”

Now you’ll excuse me while I go back to writing and polishing what I write.