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.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

My Most Recent Column In The Northcountry News

My friend Ann is fond of saying her most memorable hikes are often the ones when the wheels fall off the cart.

Last week Atticus and I entered the woods at the hairpin turn on the Kancamagus Highway. We were with a friend who was up from Portsmouth for the day. We were a mile and a half along the trail and headed for the Hancocks when the wheels fell off the cart. Our friend was moving along well; I wasn't.

I was suffering from a temporary discomfort. I wasn't going to make it to the top of the Hancocks but I wasn't in any danger so I told our friend to go ahead. We'd wait for him. He pointed out he would be gone for about three hours. Not a problem. It was a beautiful day and there were several streams to sit by or in.

Atticus was a bit confused as to why we weren't going on but he soon relaxed when I did. I found a boulder in the middle of a clear, cool stream and took a seat on top of it. Before long Atticus was sitting next to me. We didn't move for more than an hour. What a joy to relax in the woods under the shade of great trees and under a blue sky on a perfect day with no hurry to get anywhere. Time flew by as did my thoughts. They'd settle in for a bit and then like the breeze they'd take flight again.

Before I moved up here this past October my daydreams of living in the mountains had much to do with just such a scene. In the past I always come up for a day or a weekend, and crammed as many miles and mountains in as I could. There was no time to sit by a gentle stream on a summer day. But once I decided to move north that became one of my fantasies, to find myself alone with Atticus in the middle of the woods by a sun-dappled stream with no agenda in front of us.

Mary Oliver, the wonderful poet from Provincetown has a poem called, "The Summer Day". In it there are some lines that kept repeating in my head when I was sitting on that rock watching the water swim by:

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

That's what it was like to sit there and not fidget or be bored or stressed. It was like a prayer, like we'd fallen into the middle of the woods as if into a dream.

Decades ago I worked for a landscaper who specialized in building water gardens in the yards of the wealthy. In each of them he would incorporate a small waterfall. People paid tens of thousands of dollars for one of these. But here in the White Mountains I encounter such streams on a daily basis. They flow freely along, untouched by human hands. And natural waterfalls, some large, some small, far outdo anything I ever saw made by even the best and most talented man.

Funny, isn't it? We were on our way to a mountaintop, on a day when the views were perfect and the eyes could see for miles and even though we didn't make it we probably had a more memorable hike than had we made it to the top.

Our friend was right, it took him about three hours to go up and touch the summits and make his way back down to us. However, it didn't seem like that long. Instead the time seemed all too fleeting. After all, how often do we get the chance to take our shoes and socks off and dangle our feet in a cool stream as if we are kids on summer vacation again?

I'm all for reaching the top of these storied mountains to see what there is to see, but the summits aren't the only places treasures to be found. In the days that followed our aborted hike I found myself writing better than I had in a long time. And I found myself returning to that boulder in the stream many times a day while I sat at my desk typing away. Sometimes the best adventures are the ones that don’t turn out as planned.

Ken Stampfer's Photos From Our Hike Over Galehead & The Twins From Two Weeks Ago

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Nice Spot for a Daydream

While waiting for Jeff to go up and tag North and South Hancock today, Atticus and I spent much of our time sitting by streams. This was my favorite setting. It was refreshing and cool - just the setting my daydreams needed.

Just because we were sitting there doing nothing, it doesn’t mean we were actually sitting there doing nothing. Not really. This is actually how I do my writing. The notes I take, the drafts I write, they are in my head and not on paper. I either walk or mosey or hurry along; or else I sit by a stream or on top of a mountain; or lay on my back counting clouds. Thoughts come to me this way. And if someone were to come up and surprise me, they might actually be surprised because when I write to myself, in my head I mean, there are times it spills out and I’m talking to myself.

Today, while sitting there, that wonderful poem by Provincetown poet Mary Oliver kept nudging its way into my daydreams. It’s called The Summer Day and can be found in her book The Truro Bear and Other Adventures: Poems and Essays. © Beacon Press, 2008

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention,
how to fall down into the grass,
how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed,
how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

This Dog Cracks Me Up

Yes, I’m aware someone needs a haircut and a bath and could maybe stand to lose a few pounds. (I mean besides me.)

Today we were off to hike North and South Hancock with Jeff Veino. It was a beautiful day but I wasn’t feeling so well. As a matter of fact I was feeling so bad I stopped a couple of miles in and let Jeff go on by himself since he had driven all the way up from Portsmouth. Instead, Atticus and I spent the day sitting by or in the various streams, counting clouds, and just relaxing while waiting for his return.

It was a welcome change from the last few days, even though I wasn’t feeling well, as I’ve been busy educating myself on finding the right literary agent, how to query one, and then started the querying process.

It was good to be outside and Atticus appreciated it. Any day that is not a writing day for me is a better day for him. Funny dog, he just loves being in nature, sitting, running or walking. These shots are taken by a stream we were sitting by for about an hour.

Now we are home and he’s back to his summer sleeping place, under my desk near my feet. This is something new. He used to prefer napping on the bed behind my chair when I was writing and when he felt it was time for me to take a break he would startle me by standing up on his hind legs, placing his front paws on the top of the back of my chair and pushing his nose into the back of my head. Now he simply noses my leg when he thinks I’ve been writing too long.

Mt. Flume will be Hiked in Memory of Spot

“In Loving Memory of our best friend, Spot!
For although we may not be together in the way we used to be,
We are still connected by a cord no eye can see.
So whenever you need to find me, we’re never far apart
If you look beyond the Rainbow and listen with your heart.”

Given by Susan Turner

North Twin was Hiked for Dazy

"In memory of my Dazy dog. I adopted Dazy from a family in Campton, NH shortly after I graduated from college. She was 10 months old at the time, and came with the name Daisy (which I changed to Dazy as she was a bit of a basket case). Dazy had been given away as a pup, but later returned to the family—something about a boyfriend who wasn’t very kind to her. It would take a long time for her to fully learn to trust. She would always be a shy dog. Dazy and I spent our life together in Ashland, NH. Her ashes are buried at the top of the hill that overlooks I93 and Burger King. It was our favorite after work walk/hike. Dazy always liked to sit high and take in the view." Given by June Rogier and John Gutowski.

South Twin Was Hiked In Memory of Shanena

"In memory of our neighbors' collie Shanena; who passed away several years ago at the age of 13. Of all the collies she owned, Shanena will always have a special place in her heart. And to everyone who knew her." Given by Michael and Donna Serdehely.

Galehead Was Dedicated Diane Wald's Cat & Dog Friends

"I dedicate Galehead to all my cat and dog friends, past and present (and that’s a lot!). I've attached is a photo of the present clan of five." Donated by Diane Wald.

Monday, July 14, 2008

We're Back

Sorry to be missing as of late but I escaped the high humidity of the mountains with a much-needed trip down to Newburyport between Wednesday and Friday of last week. It was good to catch up with people I’m friendly with, good to see smiling faces, and good to see people who actually waved and said hello. Much like the Cheers theme song goes, it’s good to go where people know your name. When I woke up on Thursday morning I was told to look at Mary Eaton’s popular blog and when I did I saw the following (reprinted with her permission). And she didn’t even know I was in town.

When Tom Ryan came to town and started his local politi- cal journal in 1996, Newburyport, MA was somewhere between “at the beginning” and “in the middle” of a very interesting transition. A transition from a working class, blue collar town, to a professional, upper to upper middleclass destination.

Newburyport had literally rebuilt its downtown from destitution, and that renaissance had begun to spread gradually to the rest of the city. In 20/20 it was almost certain that it would become the desirable place to live, work, visit and play, that it is today.

Lisa Mead, a then Newburyport City Councilor, an intelligent, strong, interesting, young woman, became mayor, and started (consciously or unconsciously, probably a little bit of both) to move the city from its blue collar sensibility.And folks didn’t like that, and there were some very strong and colorful characters who resisted Mayor Mead with vigor.

Tom Ryan, really and truly, had some real life drama to write about. He not only created a “niche” for himself and the Undertoad, but he was in the right place at the right time, with a gift for chronically a story, in a compelling way, that was gradually unfolding.

Not only did Tom Ryan have the talent for telling dramatic stories of Newburyport’s “heroes” and “villains” (see previous post), but he also had some real interesting folks and times to write about.

The dramatic internal struggles and power-plays that Tom Ryan wrote about in earlier years, seem to me, to be pretty much mitigated. A lot of the very colorful characters, might now occasionally, verging on never, make a “guest appearance.”

It seems to me (and I could definitely be wrong here) that this could make it more difficult for local journals (and blogs) to engage folks in the story and the issues of our small New England seaport city.

And, ironically, for me, Jim Roy, the editor of the latest political journal, The Newburyport Liberator, could be one of the most colorful characters in town.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Galehead & Twins Slide Show is Posted

It took a few days but the slide show from last Saturday's hike to Galehead and South and North Twin is finally up. You can access it by clicking here.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Climbing Jacob's Ladder to the Twins

“And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” ~ The Book of Genesis

There is a segment of trail that stretches from Galehead Hut up to the summit of South Twin rising 1,200 feet in eight-tenths of a mile. The climb is tortuous on the best of days; much worse in the early afternoon on a hot summer day. It makes you question your sanity in choosing to go for a ‘walk’ in the mountains and stresses your heart and lungs to the point where you feel closer to death than life.

But after the steep climb, after all the swearing and sweating and gasping your way to the top as you struggle over the tumble of boulders making up the trail, all anguish dissolves as soon as you take a moment and look at the view from on high. You are now breathless for a different reason. It is indeed a breathtaking place and climbing Jacob’s Ladder to get to it is worth what it takes out of you, even if that doesn’t seem possible in the middle of the ascent.

As it says in the Book of Genesis: “…and the top of it reached to heaven.” So it is when you top out on the summit of South Twin. The world spreads out at your feet and little can be seen that's spoiled by man.

We had planned to hike North and South Twin the previous Saturday but decided against it when we saw the heavy, smudge of low-flying storm clouds. You don’t hike the Twins on gray day for it is a crime to miss out on some of the best views in the Whites. Saturday’s forecast called for a great day above tree-line and I was glad we waited.

On the way to South Twin we stopped at Galehead Hut, 4.6 miles from the road, then made the one mile round trip to the view-less summit of Galehead. What Galehead lacks in the way of decor South Twin more than makes up for. No matter where you look it's stunning! Franconia Ridge’s jagged profile is off to the west, before it sits the long slumbering lump of Owl’s Head, and at the northern end of the Pemigewasset Wilderness’ most frustrating peak sits a deep rich pool of green forest slowly wending its way up to towards the spire of dramatic Garfield. To the south Guyot, West Bond and Bond appear so close you can hear them whisper to you. Off in the far distance Carrigain rises, as it always does, like a large whale in the sea of green, and the Hancocks spread out and make themselves at home. Beyond them are the mountains to the south of the Kancamagus Highway. If I didn’t know better, by looking at the seemingly endless rows of mountains I’d think they never ended. (That's the way I saw the Whites as a child - a never ending world of mountains. That's still the way I like to think of them now. Being up on South Twin gives me permission to ignore reality and replace it with fantasy.) To the east lie Hale and the Willey Range and then the Presidential Range, which from this angle, highlighted by Washington in the center as it is, could just as well be a rendition of the Last Supper.
What a place this South Twin is!

A week earlier we wouldn’t have seen a thing other than the inside of a cloud. But on Saturday we could see for a hundred miles and the clouds floating blissfully overhead were not a hindrance but a highlight of the blue sky. Their shadows also added depth to the mountains and valleys below, creating differing shades of green.

You could stay on top of South Twin for a year and never get bored by the view so spending anything less than that feels like the painful parting that comes when we say goodnight to a new lover.

After our reluctant departure from South Twin we headed down into the lush green forest lining the smooth trail that drops 450 feet before rising another 350 feet to the summit of North Twin in just over a mile. There are places in the Whites where you feel like you are walking through fairy tale woods. This is one of them. At least it is for me. A forest primeval is the gift you get in return for leaving South Twin. The short but steep scrambling to the top of North Twin is just enough to make you feel like you’ve earned the views from this special place, too.

If there was no such place as South Twin the view would seem all the more remarkable from North Twin, but it is a bit less dramatic than it’s sibling as the higher Twin hides much of the view to the south. But still, on our stop we were treated to late afternoon landscapes any painter or poet would be wrecked by.

I’m reminded of that line by Robert Frost, as I often am while hiking up here: “A poem...begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.” That’s what it is like to be up on the Twins, especially on a perfect day when you can see farther than the borders of your imagination.

The descent from North Twin can be cruel and is almost as steep as the climb up South Twin. It is knee and hip-jarring, especially after a long day. The trail plays tricks with my mind and seems to go on and on until it fools me to thinking it may never end. But then it eventually comes to the Little River. Here the trail crosses the river and here is where we took a lengthy break on Saturday.

The river was so beautiful, the large rocks so inviting, we sat right smack dab in the middle of the river on large, smooth stones. Atticus first drinking from the passing water and then eating peanut butter and cheese crackers before stretching out and enjoying this peaceful oasis after all the miles we’d come.

It was late enough in the day that the sun had tired from its hard work and was heading home to rest. There is something special about this time of day in the mountains, when the sun drops behind a ridge and the shadows grow long and cool. If you are lucky enough to have spent the whole day in the mountains, climbing up, then along, and then down them; and you are thirsty, tired and sweaty; with salt clinging to skin that’s red and warm, it seems all the more special, this time when the smell of shade hits you. It makes me feel like I'm swimming in the cool air.
I never thought that shade had a smell until I found the mountains but now I know it exists and it is clean and renewing and as sacred as anything I have ever known.

After our break, the last two miles went quickly as we walked along eastern shore of the Little River and listened to her joyful song and followed the golden light at day’s end.

My feet, my knees, my ankles are often pleased to be done with a day on the trails, but ending comes with its own price. To say goodbye to such a day is never easy. That’s the cruel trick Mother Nature plays on all of us. We work so hard to get to these places and while we are there it’s like we were always meant to be there and it seems so permanent, like it will always be that way. But then the day comes to an end and we go home and all we have left are the dreams that such places exist. It can be both comforting and maddening to know they are there and we are not. Thank goodness for memories. May they keep me company until the day I die.

Twins/Galehead Slide Show Will Soon Be Up

Just catching up on a few things from over the weekend. Before too long I'll have the slide show from this past weekend's hike over Galehead, South Twin and North Twin.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Chocorua Slide Show is Up

Just a quick post to announce the slide show from today's hike up Chocorua is up. More to follow on this trip tonight and into tomorrow (well, at least into tomorrow). But for now, here's the slide show. (BTW: I know someone in Newfound Lake who will really appreciate this music.) Next hike will be on Friday. Most likely Carrigain for a donor to the Angell Animal Medical Center. Also hope to get to the Twins and Galehead this weekend. We need to get there twice for pledges made.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Legend of Chocorua

If the weather holds out tomorrow, we’re off to hike Mt. Chocorua by way of the Champney Falls Trail. It is named after the influential head of the White Mountain Painters, Benjamin Champney. I think it is appropriate to take this route because of Mr. Champney as my fascination with the White Mountain Artists continues to grow and several of them focused much of their time on painting Chocorua. The route leaves the Kancamagus Highway from the north and is reportedly the easiest way to get to the top of the summit.

While not one of the highest peaks in the Whites (it’s not even a 4,000-footer), it is one of the most storied, beautiful and dramatic peaks. Its jagged pinnacle can be seen from most of the 4,000-footers. And even better, Chocorua even has its own legend.

The following appears on the Appalachian Mountain Club’s website:
If this narrative portrays the power over nature as expressed through prophesy, then the well-known legend of Chocorua conveys the power of the curse. This legend unfolds in the Sandwich Mountain range, some twenty miles south of Crawford Notch. In 1725 the Abenaki left the region after losing a battle with white soldiers, but one of their chieftains, Chocorua, would not leave because this had been the home of his people for generations and the burial ground of his ancestors. He stayed and reared his beloved young son and formed friendships with some of the neighboring white settlers in the region, including a man named Campbell.

One time Chocorua had to travel to Canada to meet with those of his people who had migrated north, and he left his son in Campbell's care. The boy found some poison that Campbell had concocted to kill a pesky fox, and he drank part of it and soon died. When Chocorua returned to find his son dead and buried, he was overcome with grief. Quickly, though, grief turned to rage and a vow of revenge. Soon after, Campbell returned to his cabin from working in the fields and found the slain bodies of his wife and children on the cabin floor.

Now it was the white man's turn for fury and revenge. He chased Chocorua to the top of the mountain that now bears his name and shot him there. But before dying, Chocorua placed a curse upon Campbell and the other white settlers. One chronicler of this legend describes the curse in most vivid terms.

A curse upon ye, white men! May the Great Spirit curse ye when he speaks in the clouds, and his words are fire! Chocorua had a son—and ye killed him while the sky looked bright! Lightning blast your crops! Wind and fire destroy your dwellings! The Evil Spirit breathe death upon your cattle! Your graves lie in the war path of the Indian! Panthers howl, and wolves fatten over your bones! Chocorua goes to the Great Spirit—his curse stays with the white man! (qtd. in Kilbourne, 12).

According to the legend, Chocorua's curse resulted in the poisoning of the water supply of several nearby towns, and cattle that drank the water died. Eventually those deaths were traced to the presence of muriate of lime in the water supply. Even so, this resilient legend has remained a famous part of the folklore of the White Mountains.