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.


LM said...

After I did the 4000 footers twice I found the small peaks very very rewarding. Glad to see you relaxing and hiking for the soul not the goal. In Jackson there are quite a few of my fav's. Have ya been up Kearsage North yet? I loved staying in the fire tower over night. Once at night up there saw the most amazing lightning show right on top of us. Thanks to the lightning rod on the tower we made it through the night. Too bad we couldn't get pictures of it to prove it. Needed a pro to photo it.

LM said...

Tom ? Where ya been?