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 04, 2008

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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.)

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