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, December 30, 2010

The Winter Woods on Waumbek

"The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature." ~ Joseph Campbell

On a recent morning a few days prior to the first storm of winter when the snow fell and the wind roared, Atticus and I woke up long before the sun. Whenever we wake up that early I figure we should make the most of the day. So instead of pulling the covers up, rolling over, and going back to sleep, we got out of bed, had breakfast, grabbed my backpack, got in the car and headed off to hike.

It was a cold morning, a mere seven degrees, and we were on the trail before sunrise, my headlamp pushing the darkness away. We moved quickly over the hard frozen trail to warm ourselves up and it wasn't long before I was taking off my jacket, then my hat and gloves. Soon my outer shirt came off as well and we were well on our way.

When it comes to winter hiking one of the hardest things to do is to simply get out of bed. It's cold and dark and my first inclination is to sit down to a nice hot breakfast, put on a sweater, and stay warm and safe inside. But on those early mornings when I put off comfort for adventure I'm ultimately glad I did.

And on this morning as we climbed the mountain while the sun was just cresting the horizon I was doubly happy to be out and about. The woods were empty, not just of people, but of other life as well. Oh, I suppose something somewhere was stirring, but not that we could tell. In other seasons bird song greats you or chipmunks scurry by. Even the trees themselves are different because of their lush leaves and their softer bark, and the earthen path has a scent to it. But in winter before the snows fall, especially at such an early hour, there is nothing. No sound, no smell, nothing moving. It's simply the dark gray of tree bark and the unyielding trail below our feet. Being alone in the cold like that you'd think I'd long for the comforts of home all the more, but that’s not the case. There was the gentle thrill of being "out there" by ourselves.

When we reached the first set of ledges after a mild but sweat-inducing climb, we watched the sunrise. It was warm and golden and we sat for several minutes admiring it. It's not rare that we get to see the sunrise, at least not in winter because it comes so late, but often we think so little of it. We witness it because we have to, because we are up early for work or off on some errand. But to sit on the side of a mountain and welcome the day - well, it's a wondrous thing. It is a gift to great the day on your own terms.

We were climbing South Moat and much of the upper two thirds of the hike are ledges. While there was no snow there was plenty of ice, just not enough to wear my crampons. Instead I wore Microspikes but they weren't always hardy enough and I slipped and fell three times on our climb. Atticus had little trouble. He picked his way around the icy slabs and often sat above me bemused as I slipped and slid down the mountain for the third time. I went a good ten yards before I could grab onto a tree. As I lay there gasping for breath, taking inventory of my bones, making sure I was merely bruised and not broken, he sauntered down the way he came and looked down at me. I laid there for a moment longer, got to my feet, and then followed him up the trail.

Because of my falls I considered turning back but I was doing okay and the ice was diminishing and the views started to come into play. Never underestimate how your spirits soar when you are tired and bruised but seeing stunning sights.

There was Chocorua peering up over the shoulder of South Moat. There were the views down towards the Ossipees and the sea of thin clouds filling in the valleys to the south. Then came Whiteface and Passaconaway, the Sleepers, Tripyramids, and Osceolas of the Sandwich Range stretching off to west just below the Kancamagus Highway. The higher we climbed the more we saw and the happier I was that we’d continued on. Eventually, with one last push, we stood on top of the mountain and the world revealed herself to us. Everywhere we looked there were mountains and they were bathed in the early morning glow of the sun. The higher peaks were topped with snow but none more so than Washington.

South, Middle, and North Moat have turned into my favorite mountains for that very reason. There is not a place in the White Mountains are the views more fulfilling for me. And no place is more underrated. You can see so many of the great peaks of New Hampshire without restriction and yet it is so close to the hustle and bustle of North Conway. The contrast is telling. Nature towers above the outlet stores, hotels, and restaurants, making them insignificant. Turn to the west and you put society behind you and the Pemigewasset Wilderness in front of you and life feels as it should.

We stayed on the summit for quite some time and then walked over to Middle Moat. There we lay on our backs under the sun and fell into a blissful nap. It no longer felt like winter, but more like spring.

After a couple of hours of enjoying the top of the Moats we made our way down. Once again I slipped and slid while Atticus wondered why I had so much trouble, but after we passed the last of the ice and I started to relax we encountered our first company of the day. Other hikers were making their way up the mountain. We ran into four groups, the last was just leaving the parking lot as we returned to it. Each time I warned them of the ice but also told them of the views.

Oh, there’s something grand about taking a great adventure and yet being home at noon. It’s part of the joy of living in these mountains, and of getting up before the sun.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Anatomy of a View

As many times as I seen it, I'm still moved by how much this little dog loves the mountains, specifically the views. I'm impressed by the lengths he'll go to, the heights he'll scale, and the amount of time he sits and ponders. Check out this short slide show of the Little Buddha. He ended up sitting on this perch for about fifteen minutes and only came down when I told him it was time to leave.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Slide Show: South & Middle Moat

Our slide show from Saturday's early morning hike to South and Middle Moat mountains can be found here.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

“Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” ~ John Muir

The mountains remain a mystery to me. It’s deep in December here in Jackson and it feels like winter with temperatures dipping close to zero nearly every night. The ground is frozen solid. Rivers and ponds are well on their way too. The only thing missing is snow. How strange to be this close to the holidays and be faced with a completely brown Christmas. Usually there is at least a trace of snow, but not here.

Just twenty miles up the road though – or ten miles as the crow flies – in Crawford Notch, winter rages daily. I know well the icy winds in the upper reaches, just a stone’s through from the Gateway to the Notch, but yesterday it was so bracing that Atticus and I nearly got right back into our car and headed home.

Weather in the notch can fool the uninitiated. It is not unlike a dog whose bark is worse than his bite. You simply have to put your head down, ignore the hungry howls of the wind, the whipping flecks of snow and ice, and head with faith towards the woods. But it’s not always an easy journey. That was the case yesterday. The storm fought us every step.

With Atticus in his Muttluks and me in my snowshoes we pushed through snowdrifts and snow flying directly into our eyes and hurried towards the shelter of the woods. The wind roared. The cold found its way into our bones and joints. But just as is nearly always the case, once stepping over the threshold into the forest everything stopped. I couldn’t even hear the wind and the snow drifted harmlessly about us. We had entered that realm that comes with the winter woods. It is a separate world. Sure it was still cold, but not to us. If anything it was like returning to an old friend whose been gone for nine months.

The trees were caked with thick, fluffy icing and the ground was soft beneath his boots and my snowshoes. I’m always amazed by this phenomenon – how the outside world literally disappears. You leave everything behind.

John Muir once wrote, “Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” That new world is called enchantment.

At a junction we turned left for the trail to the summit of Mount Willard but recent rainstorms had turned the shallow stream into a large pond and there was no getting around it. We tramped around in the woods a bit just to make sure there wasn’t an easier crossing but after finding none we turned back. Once back on the main trail I figured Atticus would head for the car, knowing his post hike snack was be waiting for him.

I should have known better. After all, he and I have been at this for a while. Instead he turned up the trail towards the Willey Range. I let him lead. It didn’t matter to me where we went and since he seemed to know where he wanted to go I followed. Our next stream crossing was easier to negotiate but still too deep and wide for Atticus so he hitched a ride on top of my backpack.

At the next trail junction we had another decision to make: right towards Mount Tom, left towards Mount Avalon and Mount Field. Atticus chose left and I followed. The climb gets steeper in that section of the Avalon Trail and the snow grew deeper. At the next intersection the wind was audible above the trees but not able to get at us and Atticus had another decision to make. It was up the short steep pitch to the summit of Avalon or continue on towards Field. He stopped, waited for a minute as if trying to decide, then turned back at me looking for direction.

“It’s up to you,” I said. “Go ahead.”

He chose Avalon. There had been on-line reports that someone had climbed it recently but with the new snow it was impossible to tell. We pushed through the virgin power and when Atticus topped out his ears took flight in the wind. Now others might feel the frozen fury and step back behind the rocks, but Atticus stepped out towards the edge of the mountain where he was more exposed. He stood on the edge and looked back at me to make sure I was there. When I cleared the top he turned his face and looked off into the storm.

There were no views and it’s not like this is the weather or the time of the year for summit sitting, but he seemed content looking off into the gray abyss. For the first time since we had entered the woods I felt a shiver run through me and I wondered how much longer he wanted to stay. But Atticus didn’t seem to mind the cold. Watching him like that, it was one of those moments that seem a lot longer than it actually is, where time slowly moves forward. I shivered; he faced the wind, his back towards me. Then, as if satisfied, he turned towards me, looked up at me and then pushed gently by and made his way down the mountain back into the refuge of the trees.

On the drive home, just four miles down the road we were back out of the storm and there was no more snow on the ground. In the rear view mirror I could see it still raging behind us. But here we were driving towards a partly cloudy blue sky.

It is days like this where you might not want to get out of your car, where there are no views, and it feels as cold as death that you are happiest that you decided to venture further. It reminds you that you’re alive and everything has much more meaning.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Our Thanksgiving Column for the Northcountry News

(Photo by Ken Stampfer.)

Three years ago, when Atticus and I moved north from Newburyport, we lived in a small apartment in Lincoln. One of the first hikes we set out to do was Mount Hale which wasn’t all that far a drive. Hale is one of the four thousand footers but it’s not too steep nor all that challenging, and the distance to the top is just over two miles. It had rained the night before and all throughout the morning, but by early afternoon the sun arrived and it turned into a golden October day so we hit the trail.

We were happily walking under the colorful canopy of trees and making good time until we came to a small stream which is never deep but it cuts a rocky trough across the trail and eventually falls into a little gorge. We had climbed Hale several times before and it is so narrow at that point that Atticus always leaped across the sleepy stream. But after the rain it was making a ruckus and running higher than usual. I easily hopped from one side to the other and I waited for Atticus to do the same. However, for the first time ever on that trail he didn’t hop across it. Instead he stood looking at me from the other side of the water. It was clear he wanted nothing to do with the crossing. So I hopped back across and went to pick him up but instead of arching his back up like a cat as he always has so I could reach under his belly and lift him, he lowered himself into a sphinx position on the rock. He not only refused to cross, he didn’t want me picking him up either. We sat there for a few minutes and when nothing changed we returned to the car and drove back to Lincoln.

The next day we returned. When we came to the same stream Atticus refused to cross once again. He lay down and the message was loud and clear, “I don’t want to go across to the other side.” For the second day in a row we turned back.

We returned on the third day and the water was no longer running high nor was it roaring by us. This time Atticus went ahead of me and in a single bound made the other side and we went on to climb to the top. On the way down the mountain we ran into a friend, an incurable peakbagger. When I told him how we turned back twice in the previous days he couldn’t believe it. “Why didn’t you just pick him up and make him come?” he said.

“Because Atticus has a say in all of this,” I told him. “If he wants to turn back, we turn back.”

People often want to know the secret of our success up here when it comes to the number of mountains we’ve climbed in each of the four seasons. Well, that’s the way it was from the very beginning. Atticus has never been spoiled but he’s always been allowed to have a say on whether or not he felt comfortable with challenges found on a hike. In the past several years he’s only turned back six or seven times on hundreds of hikes and I smile when he does it, simply because I know he takes advantage of his right to make a decision.

To us it’s all about trust. And that was ingrained from the very beginning when he arrived as a five pound puppy just eight weeks old. His breeder told me, “Carry him everywhere you go…and don’t let anyone else hold him for the first month. Y’all will bond that way.” I followed every bit of advice she gave me, including that little morsel, and she was always right. We bonded from the very beginning and that has made all the difference in every aspect of our life together.

Friends in and out of the hiking community often marvel about Atticus’ almost human demeanor, his sense of security and his comfort, and they ask me how I got him to be that way. I joke that the key is to have a dog that is smarter than me, but then I tell them about how I was told to carry him around that first month. But there was another component to the way I raised him from the very beginning and I don’t go into it because its roots are complicated. The truth is I’ve always treated Atticus the way I wish I’d been treated when I was growing up. I don’t typically tell him to do anything. I often ask him and always say “please” and “thank you.”

You can laugh if you want, but it’s gone a long way in allowing him to be the dog he wants to be. It even led Maureen Carroll, one of Atticus’ doctors at Angell Animal Medical Center, to say to the people on Animal Planet that Atticus is a little different than other dogs, “He speaks English with his actions.”

I’m often asked by other hikers, “What’s the key to developing a relationship with a dog in the mountains when hiking?” It’s simple. Don’t treat him like a dog. Treat him like a friend. My old Catholic upbringing reminds me this is simply the Golden Rule: treat others as you wish to be treated.

Interestingly enough, years after I got Atticus, I approached his breeder about her advice to carry him wherever I went and not let anyone else hold him. “That worked so well,” I told her. “Where does it come from?”

She smiled, paused as if wondering whether she really wanted to tell me, and then said in a soft, almost vulnerable voice. “That’s the way I always wanted to be loved.”

In this complicated day and age when the world seems crazier with each passing month and the American Family has gone through change after dysfunctional change, we’ve come to understand that families come in all shapes and sizes. And sometimes the family you end up with is not exactly what you pictured when you were growing up and watching all those Hallmark commercials.

Atti’s breeder put it best a couple of years ago, “Love is love. God tells us we are supposed to have love in our life. He doesn’t say it just has to be between a man and a woman. Seems to me Atticus gave you the family you always wanted.”

And she was right. I often think about that when he and I are standing atop a mountain and looking off into the distance together. It’s a place where two individuals from different species cross over and have found our own little world. It’s kind of like Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, “Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking together in the same direction.”

On Thanksgiving Day this little dog and I will pack up some turkey, stuffing, vegetables, apple cider, and water, and head to a mountaintop. We will share the view, our meal, and our good fortune in finding what nearly everyone is looking for.

Here’s hoping all of you spend Thanksgiving in the way you wish and with those you love.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Some November Shots (Today's)

Some October Shots

It's now mid November and the leaves are gone, but these shots are from a morning walk through the Pudding Pond area. Going through my files today I found them and decided to put them up.

Where Are You Guys Going?

During our afternoon walk up Black Cap today, we ran into two wonderful dogs, Spike (L) and Jessie (R). When we tried to get them to pose for a picture today Spike and Jessie had a difficult time sitting still for a shot, which made Atticus give them this look. Even if they didn't get the concept, they were very cute and good company.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lost Dog Was Found! Read Comments Section Below Post

I just received this email. Tomorrow Atticus and I will head out there looking for Gary. But hopefully he'll be found by then.

Hi Tom-
I’ve followed your blog for a while and I know you post on views from the top and like dogs. I wanted to post something on views from the top but I’m not a member. My husband lost our dog in Conway today at noon. At the green Hills preserve TNC property in Conway. He is 30 pounds and friendly, looks like a border collie with keeshond coloring. His name is Gary. My phone number is 908-887-3809 or 603-724-5264. He is about 2 feet tall at the shoulder. He has an orange ‘don’t shoot me jacket’ on today. He was last seen near the top of the peaked mountain at the green hills preserve off of Thompson road in Conway. I’m 3 hours away from there and have no idea what to do other than to get the word out to anyway who might be willing to help.

Lisa Bowman

Friday, November 05, 2010

Chocorua in the Clouds

Now that we aren't constrained by any of the various hiking lists (all 48 4,000-footers; all 48 in one winter; all 48 during each of the twelve months; 52 peaks with a view), I let the day dictate where we will hike. If it is sunny and beautiful and there are views to be had, we head to a peak where we can take advantage of the day and look out at a sea of choppy mountains fading to blue as they ride off into the horizon. On a cloudy day we hike places like Waumbek, Hale, or Cabot, where there are views - but they're not all that great.

But the other day we switched things up. It was cloudy and there was a threat of rain in the air and the woods were haunted by a mist that crept through the trees like restless specters. The woods can be extra magical on such days because you stop using your eyes and your other senses take over. You hear, smell, and feel every bit of mystery and the woods can seem truly enchanted.

However, on that day, a voice within me urged me to go up a mountain, high enough that we were above the trees and standing on solid rock, wrapped in the clouds. On such days, on a foggy mountaintop, you can feel as though you are standing on the edge of the world and all else disappears. It's an illusion, of course. The world is still there and mountains are nearby and down in the valleys people go about their business as they always do. However, in a cloud on a rocky summit you can easily forget that and everything becomes surreal.

So it was that Atticus and I drove over to eastern end of the Kancamagus Highway and climbed up Mount Chocorua by way of the Champney Falls Trail. The trail is named for Benjamin Champney who is considered to be the founder of the North Conway Colony of artists who came to the White Mountains during the 1800s. Champney was one of the most prolific painters and he welcomed others to the area. His paintings, along with those of other White Mountain Artists were some of the greatest landscape paintings in the world at the time and they would influence generations of people. Artists like Champney, and writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Thomas Starr King, and poets such as John Greenleaf Whittier and Lucy Larcom brought visitors to the mountains and for those who would never see them, they brought the mountains to them. Their works of art was part of the reason that the forests were ultimately wrested from the hands of the timber barons and given back to the people in the form of the White Mountain National Forest by way of the Weeks Act. But that’s a story for another time.

At first the woods had that mysterious feeling I just mentioned. Fog wreathed in and out of the trees. The trunks of trees were moist and the bark very dark while the evergreens looked lush. We walked along a stream that was rushing by and we stopped for a bit to listen to its song. Then we started to climb in earnest. That's the great thing about the Champney Falls Trail. You're going up and you can feel your body working but it's never to the point where you feel you are exhausting yourself. Along the way we stopped to check out the falls. We sat and listened to the water pounding on the rocks and watched the spray fill the air around the water. Then it was back up again and we kept going, climbing along some switchbacks until we came to the edge of the trees. Having been to that specific point before, I remembered the fine view of the summit you get on a clear day. But standing there in the clouds, seeing nothing but still knowing the rocky edifice was near, was almost thrilling. And that feeling of mystery we'd encountered in the woods surfaced once again. We dipped back into the cover of the trees before at surfacing above the evergreens for the last time.

The rocks were slick with moisture and we took our time maneuvering over them. Step by step we climbed through the clouds and Atticus led as he always has. That we had no view didn't matter in the least to him. If anything it gave him a reason to keep moving because there was nothing to stop to look at. Upward we climbed, higher and higher until we came to the last pitch up to the great cone that has been captured by hundreds of artists and in thousands upon thousands of photographs. When we finally reached the top Atticus took a look around and then sat at the highest point. There was nothing to see but it was clear he wanted to enjoy the summit.

He drank some water, then I drank. We then shared our lunch. Moisture was everywhere. It wasn't raining but everything was wet and I was happy I'd tucked my camera inside a plastic bag in my backpack. There would be no need to take it out. And yet sitting upon one of the most glorious peaks in the state, a place where the views are simply breathtaking, we still enjoyed our summit experience.

First off, the typical Chocorua crowd was not there. The mountain was all ours. And while the views were obscured, the feelings weren't. In the end, that's the reason we climb. It's not for the views or the number of peaks we can reach or check off a list. It's about the feeling we get up there. It is special one – the closest I’ve ever known to sublime. The mountaintops are where earth and heaven meet, where deities were once believed to dwell, where legends were created.

We stayed on top longer than usual, even though there was nothing to see and as we slowly made our way down the great mountain and returned to our waiting car, I felt renewed and ready to go back to the world where we often forget the sublime, where business and politics rule, where our greatest hopes are often lost. But that’s the reason we climb mountains, to bring that feeling home with us. Even on cloudy days. I suppose it’s a lot like faith in that way. You believe in how special the world is even if at times it doesn’t always feel that way.

(The photo is from a hike a few years back. It was taken on Mount Truman. Atticus hasn't had a color on since we moved to the mountains three years ago. Oh my....has it really been that long?)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Colors of the Woods in Late October

"There are unknown forces in nature; when we give ourselves
wholly to her, without
reserve, she leads them to us; she
shows us those forms which our watching eyes
do not see,
which our intelligence does not understand or suspect."

~ Auguste Rodin

I love the woods these days. They are long forgotten by most, but it's not unlike the love of your life who often reveals her truest self to you when you are alone together. Those are the moments when true beauty reveals itself. It's in the nuance and the quiet whisper. It's when the walls come tumbling down and there is no pretense, no colorful clothing, no makeup. It's simply seeing her for what she is. That's what walking in nature is like at this time of the year.

To the south of here there are still plenty of leaves in the trees, but up here only the stubborn elms capture my eye. This is especially true in a dark, brooding, and, these days, wet woods. They shine like stars in the night. Occasionally there will be a cluster of them forming a tunnel over the earthen path and it feels like I am walking where only angels have been. And it feels as though a secret is being shared with us. A secret Atticus already knew, but is being revealed to me one fleeting glimpse at a time.

I am transfixed by the colorful elm leaves as the leap off the dark canvas and into the eye, but they are not the only colors in the forest in late October. This morning, during our walk along the edges of Pudding Pond, there were colors everywhere we looked. It's just that they are not the type that capture the attention of most people nor bring tourists. They exist, I imagine, only for those who are ready to see it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Pudding Pond

On writing days Atticus and I seek out any number of woods walks in our area. One of our favorites is the two mile loop at Pudding Pond in North Conway. The trail does not go around the scenic pond, thankfully. If it did I'm sure we'd see more people. Typically, however, we don't see another soul. This constantly amazes me because I think of the area as a hidden treasure that's not too far from the main drag in town.

It lies off of Thompson Road, which is just off of Artists Falls Road. This area was once the North Conway center for the great White Mountain artists who proliferated here during the 1800s. An inn was run by a fellow named Thompson (Thompson Road) and it became the lodging of choice for some of the greatest landscape artists in the world at the time.

This morning, after a night of rain, the forest's floor - a rusty red due to the years' worth of fallen pine needles - looked richer than normal, and felt more spongy. The bark of the trees, soaked through, looked nearly black. In contrast, the lone remaining leaves (elm leaves) seemed to shine. They exist in three bright hues: a brown, that is anything but dull; a soft mint green; and an electric yellow. They almost seem unnatural and there are avenues where you would not realize the forest is nearly bare of all leaves because your eyes are drawn towards these colorful characters. I find myself wondering how and why they hang on longer than the rest of the leaves. No matter the reason, I'm glad they do for in a dark and naked wood they are a touch of the sublime and bring to mind those words written by Tennyson in his Ulysses: "How dull it is to pause, to make an end, to rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!"

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Enchanted Forest

“How beautiful the leaves grow old. How full of light and colors are their last days.” ~ John Burroughs

The sky is heavy and it’s gray. The temperature is dropping. So are leaves. They drift almost leisurely toward the ground, twisting in a slow, swirling dance. Almost as an afterthought, a few sparse snowflakes make their appearance. A cold wind whistles through the forest and heralds what’s to come. All New England the seasons well. But here in the mountains it seems we are even closer to those seasons and we get to know the months as well. They not only have their own names, each also has a distinct feel to them. And each month sends along a calling card to let us know what is just around the corner. So it is that November occasionally makes an October appearance. So it is on this day, in the cold, nearly naked woods. There’s still sunshine and warmth to come – but not for long. Today is a November day – raw, bare and basic to the senses.

On sunny days Atticus and I seek out hikes and walks where there are views. But on days like this when the clouds descend upon the landscape and swallow the mountains whole we look for something different. Into the woods we go. In mythic terms it’s like descending into some forbidden land. Or perhaps a journey deep into our own souls where the journey does not emulate that vision of your eyes as they look up towards a glorious, sun-splashed summit, but rather inside to the heart of the dark forest and inside to our own selves.

Those of us who love the mountains tend to seek the peaks and we often forget the simple glorious sensation that comes with a walk in the woods. What I noticed today was the smell of the forest floor. The earth, damp and cool, and littered with seeds the trees have shed, offered up a scent that reminds me that life begets life. The forest feeds itself. It sheds its dying existence and after a winter’s sleep it will come to life again. What was old gives us what is new. The fragrance is nostalgic…almost tangible. It smells of childhood when innocence was all we knew and the simplest walk in a forest was a supernatural trip to a place where magic pulsed in the darkness, and seemed unseen eyes were watching us and the strangest creatures and spirits were everywhere – but always just out of sight.

Atticus and I have been climbing local Iron Mountain lately. We’ve been up there a few times this past week. It offered us a beautiful view north to Mount Washington and the multilayered rolling colored blanket that spread out at her feet and flowed forever on. It gave us that rare moment we cherish where our eyes drink in the snow on Washington under a blue sky in contrast to the colorful leaves of October. But cold winds and old age have forced the trees to drop their colors and now the hills seem almost dusty. A week makes a huge difference this time of year. Nevertheless, it’s still beautiful. But so is the forest, trending towards green and brown and that wonderful aroma that permeates all woods this time of year. I appreciate the smell more these days because soon it will be gone. Our wild world will be covered in snow and ice and be frozen and sterile. It will offer up a different but starker beauty but there will be no scent wafting through the air other than the occasional hint of Christmas given off by an occasional evergreen.

I love this time of the year. The forest is quieter. Leaf peepers have come and gone and we are alone again. Many hikers even retreat this time of year with visions of next spring dancing in their heads and winter enthusiasts are still six weeks away. For now the forest is bare, thrilling, and all ours. It welcomes us home, I truly believe, because we appreciate it as much as we do no matter what the season.

Today we ambled happily along. When we came to a muddy path we followed it to the edge of a pond and the song of Canadian geese. They were making a racket for no reason whatsoever and Atticus sat and watched them. They could care less that we were close by and went about their old lady squawking and talked of the flight to come. In the mud we saw bear prints. They were a good size and my childlike imagination wondered if he was watching us without us knowing it. The forest makes you feel that way. Some are frightened by it, others renewed.

The snow continued to fall. Small flakes. But they were coming faster and Atticus looked like he had powdered sugar on his back. He gave a full body shake, the kind where one of his legs leaves the ground and his ears take flight, and all the snow went flying off of him. He would shake again a few minutes later and then bound down the trail. Unlike the bear, who was somewhere nearby, we weren’t getting sleepy and readying for hibernation. Instead we were filled with the gifts of late October and a forest that will go mostly unnoticed until the real snow falls. Until then we’ll have it to ourselves and return again and again before we have to find a new private place. Or maybe with the snow on the ground we’ll take to night hiking again.

Leaves and snow fall all around us and we are reminded that no matter how long we live, life is fleeting. It will never be enough. When the forest “dies” and gets ready for its long sleep it saves the best for last – first with its amazing leaves, then with the scent of her carpet. It inspires me to want just such an end to my own life when the time comes.

Our Red Headed Friends Are Back

I cannot help but think of Tom Robbins' Still Life With Woodpecker when our woodpeckers show up. We haven't seen Amelia, our wayward friend who frequented the suet feeder in the spring, yet, but we have two large males showing up. This fellow, with his shocking red hair, fits Tom Robbins' novel perfectly.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Calm After the Storm in the Valley

While the falling snow is caught in the wind on top of Mount Washington as a curtain of clouds hides her from view, the valley is calm after the storm. Skies are a soft blue, clouds are equally soft and oh so fleeting and a little dog is happy to be out in the sunshine.

Friday, October 15, 2010

As Our October Nor'easter Hits the Wildcat River Rages

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. ~Rachel Carson
From the comfort of our homes it's easy to forget the power of nature. That's one of the reasons Atticus and I left behind the sweet smell of recently baked pumpkin bread and the cozy feeling of our warm dry abode to seek out today's storm. We went where we could see it firsthand.

We parked along the road at Jackson Falls and watched the Wildcat River rage against the constraints of its borders. It through itself upon the rocks, crashed along the shore, smashed into trees and even overflowed onto the walking paths, deputizing them as rivers for a short while.

Tomorrow the rivers will still be high but the violence will be over. The crashing, thrashing, and smashing of anything in its way will be done. Then, in a couple of days, there will be no sign whatsoever that there was ever an October Nor-easter here in the mountains. Such is the way of nature. Catch her at her wildest when you can for soon she will lull you to sleep with her peacefulness.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Slide Show: Happiness on Iron Mountain

Hey, what's with all the running and jumping around, Atticus?

Simple, he was excited about getting out on a writing day. Sure we're busy with a deadline looming, but this is autumn in the White Mountains and that doesn't come around but once a year, not to mention a peak foliage day when there is also snow atop Mount Washington.

Here in Jackson we're blessed to have several close hiking options to choose from. This was especially important this morning since I wanted to get back to my desk and I also had no desire to fight with the crazed leaf peepers clogging our scenic byways.

I wanted some shots of Washington's snow summit so our choice in staying local was either the Doubleheads or Iron Mountain. Since we've done the Doubleheads more often, I opted for Iron Mountain, which is less than four miles away. It was a great choice.

As for those of you who haven't been to Iron Mountain, it's probably the only hike in the Whites where the view from the road may be better than the view from above.

The slide show can be seen by clicking here.