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.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Mt. Wonalancet

One of us is losing weight. Unfortunately, it’s not the one who needs it most. Atticus is on a high protein/low carb diet. He’s now eating “GO! Natural”. His nutritionist suggested it. I’m also on a high protein/low carb diet. (That is if you ignore the ice cream and pasta. No wonder only one of us is losing weight.)

Having no interest in dodging raindrops or lightening bolts we haven’t been on the trails as much as of late. We did, however, squeeze in a hike up Mt. Wonalancet in the lower, eastern part of the Sandwich Range. It sits in front of two 4,000-footers: Whiteface and Passaconaway. In relation to them it looks harmless enough. Heck, it looks more like a hill than a mountain. Some hill. No, make that some mountain. The steep climb left me breathless.

The lower portion of the trail leaves the scenic Ferncroft Road parking area and meanders easily along a soft earthen path. Just before a stream the flat trail takes a sharp left and twists up some gentle switchbacks. Perhaps it was the way the dense forest held the humidity from all that rain or maybe I’m just too out of shape because of too much writing and not enough hiking but after we made our way through the switchbacks the climb seemed nearly as tough as anything we’ve encountered on our way to the top of a 4,000-footer. There were precipitous scrambles over rock and root – both being slippery due to all the rain – that led to even steeper inclines.

We stopped more often than I can remember ever stopping on a short hike. The svelte one (I’ll give you a hint – it’s not me) climbed easily, looking more like a chimpanzee than a miniature schnauzer. He hopped from rock to rock; bound over the tangle of roots looking like petrified rope; and balanced cavalierly on the narrowest and slickest rock crossings. In short, he made it look easy while I huffed and puffed and finally sat red-faced…more than once. How humbling it is to hike with a dog one tenth my size and see him above me looking so restful. His tongue wasn’t even hanging out. I wish I could say the same.

I always forget; a climb is a climb. It doesn’t matter whether it is scaling Mt. Washington or ten flights of stairs. It is not supposed to be easy. And yet I have a tendency to underestimate the shorter peaks and think they’ll be easy because they are shorter. I forget my rule – 1,000 feet of elevation gain per mile constitutes a tough enough hike.

In the case of Mt. Wonalancet, it only stands 2,780 feet high but the elevation gain is 1,650 feet in 1.8 miles. The first portion of the hike is flat and then ascends gently. The upper half makes up for the temperate parts. It’s tough going.

The joy of reaching the top means enduring the exertion it takes to get there. Effort expended plays a part in the end result. If it weren’t for the difficulty and having all thoughts other than where my next step is going to go or where my next breath is going to come from stripped away, I wouldn’t appreciate the view from the top as much.

Heart, lungs, legs, arms: I take inventory of them all and little else.

In my deep and labored breathing I remind myself that Wonalancet literally translates to “pleasant breathing”. This doesn’t compute, not at this time.

The arrival at the top signals the end of my discomfort. Thoughts of continuing onward to some grander peak soon retreat and I follow suit. Just below the summit sits an open ledge with views to the south. Sitting on the ledges feeding peanut butter crackers to Atticus, with sweat running down by face and back, I find my breath and it slows.

Slowly it comes…pleasant breathing. Wonalancet.

With no where else to go we sit and ponder the sooty clouds spilling onto the Ossipees like black ink. How lovely to sit and sit just watching a storm roll in, hearing and feeling the boom of the thunder and we are cooled by a breeze whispering in her soft voice “A storm is coming.” We both watch it fill the distant sky.

Eventually Atticus lies down. He is now watching ants parade along the rocks, a search party, I imagine, looking for the crumbs he’s left behind.

I’m reminded of something a friend, a proper Bostonian, just shared with me. She and her husband own places in the city and up in the mountains. The first is their base camp for their professional lives. The second is used to feed their hiking addiction. Introduce a spider, ants, mouse in either home and this woman goes to war. Traps, sprays, exterminators. You name it.

Recently, while sitting on the east ledges of Mt. Hedgehog, she watched an ant struggle with a large piece of popcorn someone had left behind. The ant couldn’t manage it and tipped over backwards. It tried again and again, each time teetering, then tottering, then tumbling over. This woman’s husband watched in amazement when she reached down, picked up the piece of popcorn and broke it into smaller, manageable pieces. Her loving smile was evident when the ant picked up a smaller piece and made its way home.

That’s what great about the mountains. They touch us in many ways: a majestic view from a stunning peak, an approaching storm, a parade of ants. Music may sooth the savage beast but nature soothes the civilized man (or woman) and makes him whole again.

Two years ago I was told by a friend I would grow to love the Sandwich Range. She was right. I particularly look forward to coming treks in October through those fertile woods and hills as the colorful quilt of autumn grows richer and spreads south across the landscape.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

"A Beautiful Place To Die"

Today's Boston Sunday Globe Magazine has a good article on the White Mountains: "A Beautiful Place to Die". It's well worth the time it takes to read it. You can find it here.

Travels With Charlie Goes Traveling

“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked.” ~ John Steinbeck

Here in Franconia Notch the summer winds on. Halfway through August the mornings and evenings are taking on a hint of autumn cool. Nights are perfect for sleeping with the windows open. Being this late in the summer, it also means that the number of Appalachian Trail through hikers stopping off in Lincoln are becoming fewer and fewer.

I’ve given many rides to those who come off the AT a couple of miles north from here on Route 3 and are looking to re-supply and spend a night in Lincoln. (That means I’ve learned to carry a bottle of Frebreze fabric freshener in my car for when they leave the car but leave their ripe body odors behind.)

A few weeks ago I crammed three hikers and a dog into the car with Atticus and me. The poor dog, an older Australian Cattle Dog, looked very tired. When I found out where they hikers were staying in town I made a return visit and dropped off a steak for the dog.

This morning I gave two more hikers a ride from downtown Lincoln back into the Notch. One of the fellows, a 20-something from Arkansas, saw that I had a copy of Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charlie” in the car.

“Oh, ‘Travels with Charlie’, I’ve always wanted to read that,” he said.

I thought for a moment and then said, “Why don’t you take it along on the trail with you? It’s small and doesn’t weigh much. I think you’ll enjoy it.”

He was as giddy with me offering him Steinbeck as the Cattle Dog was happy with the steak.

“Travels with Charlie”, the story of his 10,000 mile journey around the United States with his poodle, Charlie, in a camping trailer on the back of his pick-up truck, is one of the few books I want to keep in my library. There will come a day when I get another copy for myself but for now I’m content in knowing that the young man carrying it with him across the White Mountains on his way to Baxter State Park in Maine, will find a kinship with Steinbeck, another restless traveler nearly half a century earlier. There's something fitting about my worn paperback going on this journey.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Which One Doesn't Fit?

We're just back from a rainy week in Tamworth. We did get one hike in, a tough little scramble up to Mt. Wonalancet in the Sandwich Range. Yesterday, after returning from an Internet Cafe in Conway I passed a general store in Tamworth and couldn't resist these photos. (Excuse the slight haze. There's a scratch in my camera lens.)

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

I've Been Spoiled By Atticus

Well…this is a new experience for the two of us. We’re house sitting in Tamworth, a small town on the eastern side of the White Mountains just south of the Kancamagus Highway. We’re in the middle of nowhere, if nowhere is a beautiful place. The house sitting part’s new, but not the big part of the new experience. Atticus and I are also dog sitting. I feel like we’ve dropped right into the pages of Marley & Me.

Geneva is a sweet and cute but undisciplined and rowdy dog. Lock up the valuables, the baubles, the loose socks or drafts of anything important on paper, because if you don’t, well, Geneva gets it and often keeps it. I’m hoping some of Atticus rubs off on her.

I forget how difficult and exhausting it is to have a puppy in the house. Geneva’s 11 months old and I now realize how easy I had it with Atticus. He didn’t chew things, didn’t get into the trash, and didn’t grab food of the counters. Of course he wasn’t tall enough to reach the kitchen counter and still isn’t, but even when food was within reach, if it wasn’t his, he has always respected it. This morning, Geneva, a combination of Australian Cattle Dog, Husky and Whirling Dervish, tried to dislodge the frying pan from the top of the stove while bacon sizzled in it!

Earlier when I climbed into the tub for a good soak and some reading time, Geneva decided she wanted to join me and tried to hop in also. I really have been spoiled by Atticus and his quiet, gentle and respectful ways.

When the three of us went outside and made a slow loop around this big green yard I was stunned when a car passed and she took off after it like a greyhound. The only way to get her back was for me and Atticus to run in the opposite direction so she’d chase us. Then a car came in the opposite direction and she pivoted and chased after that!

When she finally came back I grabbed her by the collar and attached the leash. Inside we went. She climbed up on the couch next to Atticus but he wants little to do with her. He tolerates her at best. Occasionally he’ll lose it and growl and shock me with a piercing bark – Atticus doesn’t bark typically – to let her know she’s crossed over some line of appropriate interaction. Instead he came over and wanted me to lift him up. He’s now sleeping on the desk next to my typing fingers while she sleeps in a tight black circle at my feet.

I will admit, however, that she has calmed down a great deal since Christine, her owner left. It will be interesting to see how this relationship between the three of us works out over the next seven days. By the time all is said and done I’m hoping I don’t have to give back the award I’ve yet to receive from the good people at the MSPCA.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Atticus Mentioned In Latest Edition Of "The 4,000-Footers Of The White Mountains"

Three summers ago Atticus and I threw ourselves into climbing each of the 48 4,000-footers in the White Mountains and finished the list in 11 weeks.

On one of the earlier hikes we were joined by three of my brothers: Eddie, David and Jeff. A friend lent me her A-frame so the all four of us (and Atticus) could spend the night together. The next morning we arose, drove up to Polly’s Pancake Parlor in Sugar Hill for breakfast and then over to Mt. Waumbek. We summited together on a very uncomfortable day, the air so hot and thick it felt like we were trying to breathe soup.

The night before we hiked, we all went out to eat and then returned to the A-frame. We talked and read. My brother Eddie picked up my copy of Steve Smith and Mike Dickerman’s 4,000-Footers of the White Mountains and was leafing through it. When he came to the “Feats and Oddities” section in the back of the book he joked, “We’ll be seeing your name in this section in a few years, Tom.”

It was all in good fun. He was joking about my ability to obsess over goals and chase after dreams.

Little did any of us know how prophetic Ed was in his comments. The second edition of the Smith and Dickerman book came out this past weekend. Sure enough, in the “Feats and Oddities” section, my name is listed, for having accompanied Atticus to the top of 81 4,000-footers in the winter of 2006 – 2007. Atticus makes it because he’s one of two dogs to have hiked them all in winter, joining Brutus, who not only was the first to hike all 48 in winter. Brutus was also the first dog to hike them in one winter.

I find pleasure in something the authors point out: Brutus is a Newfoundland (around 160 lbs); and Atticus is a Miniature Schnauzer weighing 20 lbs. They pretty much cover both ends of the spectrum and further prove that all shapes and sizes can hike, even in winter. And that’s true of people and dogs.

Latest Article for the Northcountry News

I love August. It’s my favorite month of the year, until September gets here. Then September is my favorite month of the year, until October arrives. There’s something about the high heat of July taking a vacation every August. Each morning begins with a gentle kiss of autumn in the air, each evening ends the same way as we slink happily towards the cool, cool months of the year when the air is crisp and clear and not heavy with humidity.

This is prime hiking weather. The bugs are mostly gone, or at least they seem to be gone because they are not out in mass as they had been before. The humidity drops, as do the chances of late afternoon thunder boomers. And once this rain we’ve been having finally stops, the streams and rivers will drop a bit and be safer to cross. No sense chancing stream crossings when the water runs wild. (But if you do, make sure to undo the straps on your backpack before crossing, just in case you become upended. You don’t want to be held down by the weight of your pack. It’s a good way to drown.)

Recently, Atticus and I drove over to Pinkham Notch and took off up the Nineteen Mile Brook Trail. Eventually we made our way to Carter Notch, then up the steep, steep climb to Wildcat A. In the winter we couldn’t get there. The slide on the way up Wildcat A was too dangerous to chance with Atticus along. But winter is only a memory these days. It is safe to cross in the summer. Once on top of Wildcat A we looked across the notch and over at Carter Dome, a huge mass of rock that adds dimension to the view. Then we looked straight down into the notch at Carter Hut, which appeared to be a miniature replica from that distance and height. (With my fear of heights, I look down only while hugging the trunk of a small tree.)

After a snack Atticus and I made our way over the most bi-polar trail in the Whites – the Wildcat Ridge Trail. It is an undulating rollercoaster of ups and downs. On the ridge only Wildcat A and D count as 4,000-foot peaks. It’s just as well since I can never seem to keep track of just where B and C come into play with the various false summits along the way. On a good day it is a pleasant walk along a treed ridge with hardly any views. Until, that is, you get to Wildcat D, which sits right next to the Wildcat Ski Slopes. From there you get to see Mt. Washington towering above and across Pinkham Notch.

Let me tell you right now, if you want to take a perfect hike in the peak of autumn, follow the same route we did. The stroll along Nineteen Mile Brook Trail is refreshing and the autumn berries and foliage are astoundingly beautiful under a bright blue sky. But what’s perfect about this hike in early October is the view you get when you get off of Wildcat D and hop onto the ski slopes. Stay to the far right for the gentlest descent and be ready to be thrilled by the colors along the way. There are no rocks to trip over, just clumps of grass easily maneuvered around. You can walk and look up at the same time and as you do you will then be thrilled by the optical illusion of Mt. Washington and the Northern Presidentials looking bigger than they actually are. There’s something about heading down and looking up that makes them appear to tower even higher than they actually do.

It is an ideal autumn hike, but it’s also a great hike on a summer day, too, so long as the clouds are high enough so they don’t obstruct the views of Washington. From the Wildcat ski slopes, Huntington and Tuckerman’s Ravine seem to pulse before your very eyes. The depth of their gaping wounds of rock is impressive when looking straight into them in the lengthening shadows of the afternoon.

Atticus always bounds down the grassy slopes. At any moment, the way he runs and twirls, I half expect him to throw up his front paws and start singing “The Hills Are Alive”. He’s that joyous and carefree on these slopes. It’s easy to be. As much as he bounds along, we take our time going down and enjoy the views. The more we descend, the more Washington seems to grow, and the more impressive the view.

After several leisurely stops along the way, once we got down to the parking lot of the ski area, we made our way out into the road and I threw out my thumb to catch a ride back to Nineteen Mile Brook. This does not always work. Once, on Gale River Road three years ago, a strange woman stopped and offered me a ride when I was hitchhiking, hoping to get back to the car on the Little River Road. “I’ll give you a ride, but not the dog,” she said.

I was a bit taken aback by her comment and pointed out that anyone who knew the two of us would have said just the opposite. But as much as I vouched for Atticus’ character the woman refused to change her mind.

Thankfully that wasn’t the case on our way back to our car at the Nineteen Mile Brook Trailhead. The woman who stopped said, “Is that Atticus?”

“It is if you are giving us a ride,” I told her. (She recognized him from reading the Northcountry News.) And this woman, unlike the other woman, had the good sense to welcome Atticus into her car but gave me a sideways glance. She’s clearly, a woman of discriminating taste.

Although most of the hike along the Wildcats is not the most scenic, there are parts of it that are downright spectacular. It’s underrated and often underappreciated. However, if you follow our route and choose a good day to do it, you’ll consider it neither of those.

On another note: The latest version of Steve Smith and Mike Dickerman’s 4,000-Footers of the White Mountains came out this week. It is beefed up with a couple of hundred more pages. For those who like hiking 4,000-footers, there is no better guide. It’s the book that changed our lives and in the long run got us to move up here. Stop by the Mountain Wanderer, located on the Kanc in Lincoln, to pick up your copy. (If you look closely, you’ll even see Atticus’ name in the last section of the book “Feats and Oddities” as being one of only two dogs to hike all the Fours in winter. Steve and Mike point out that Brutus, the 160 lb Newfoundland, came first; then came 20 lb Atticus in the winter he reached 81 of them in the 90 days. It just goes to show you that hiking is meant for all shapes and sizes. That’s true for dogs and people.)