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.

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.

Friday, October 08, 2010

John Muir: "...cares will drop off like autumn leaves."

While many of our fellow hikers were out fulfilling their ambitions (or addictions) by running up and down various mountains on Sunday afternoon, Atticus and I were taking a nap. And why not? Is there any better time for a nap than a slow-rolling Sunday afternoon? The only difference between the two of us and other weekend nappers is that we weren’t snoring away on the living room couch but on top of a mountain. As for comfort, I used my backpack as my pillow while Atticus used me as his.

Now you may be thinking, as some of our friends do, “You take naps on mountains?”

Hey, don’t knock it until you try it. Find just the right quiet peak and lie down. Watch the clouds drift by, listen to the breeze, the song of the birds, and let yourself go. When you wake up it’s as if you are waking up to a dream. You open your eyes not to an alarm clock but to an incredible sky and equally stunning mountain vista. I guarantee your visits to the local shrink and the number of anti-depressants you take will decrease, if not cease altogether.

Don’t get me wrong, Atti and I still do some intense hikes but I’ve learned to relax a bit more in the mountains. I suppose this came from Atticus, who likes to sit on a ledge and cast his thoughts out onto the wind. When he first did this I often hurried him along but after our first summer of hiking the forty-eight four thousand footers in a mere eleven weeks, I realized I’d missed most a lot. Instead of enjoying the mountains and the gifts they had to offer our summer became a quest that centered around me and what I could accomplish: how fast or far I could hike or how many mountains we could climb in a limited time. It wasn’t until our second summer that I started following his lead and learned to sit and relax for a spell. From that moment my mountain experiences became more fulfilling.

In the days leading up to our mountainside nap Atticus and I climbed Mount Hale and, on a separate hike, North and South Hancock, three four thousand footers. But on Sunday, when we avoid the peak-bagging hordes on the higher peaks as we do each weekend, we sought out a local favorite – Pine Mountain, elevation 2,404 feet. What little Pine Mountain lacks in height, it more than makes up for in views. Not to mention its numerous ledges, any of which are perfect for private little cat naps (no offense, Atticus).

Franconia Notch has Cannon Cliffs and Crawford Notch has Mount Crawford as their signature viewpoints of the respective notches. Over here on the eastern side of the White Mountains, the third great notch – Pinkham - which is admittedly less dramatic than its western cousins but still quite stunning, has Pine Mountain. From its ledges one can look south and take in the entire breadth of the notch. To the east stands an astounding array of mountains: Moriah; North, Middle, and South Carter; Hight; Carter Dome and the rolling ridge that makes up the five Wildcats. To the west Madison, the fifth highest mountain in the state, towers over the ledges and is the star of the show. It even appears to dwarf Washington, whose summit is forced to peer over Madison’s shoulder.

We climbed Pine Mountain for the first time this summer. That day I swore we’d return to take in the October foliage. I fulfilled that promise on Sunday when Atticus and I had the mountain to ourselves, and then again on Tuesday when we brought our friends, Ken and Ann Stampfer with us. Ken and Ann have been hiking up here for years and there aren’t many places they haven’t been, so it was a pleasure to introduce them to our private little peak. They were suitably impressed and Ken, one of the regions better photographers, had a field day with his camera.

Those of you who are reading this because you live up here, or because you’ve stumbled upon this paper during a weekend trip to the White Mountains, realize we are all blessed. We are blessed to be in these mountains that Lucy Crawford, of the famed Crawford Notch family, long ago referred to as this “grand and magnificent place.” It’s true year round but it is never more evident than it is during the current month.

If you lose track of where we live and how beautiful it is, all you have to do is check out the leaf peepers emerging from the endless caravan of buses coursing along our scenic byways this week. Or you can follow John Muir’s advice: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

And if you want to get radical about it, leave behind the insanity of reality television shows; local, state, and national politics (especially tea parties and mama grizzlies); and find your own private mountain, take a nap and wake up to the wonders of this world.

(Photo by Ken Stampfer.)

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Pine Mountain Redux

Today, we did two things out of the ordinary.

First, we returned to Pine Mountain, which we hiked just two days ago. We wanted to introduce our friends Ken and Ann Stampfer to the peak, which at only 2,404 feet, is dwarfed by Mount Madison, it's neighbor, but its stunning views are the very best view of Pinkham Notch. The second thing was to take Ken and Ann someplace in the Whites they'd never been before. That's very difficult to do since throughout their wonderful marriage they've been just about everywhere.

It was a beautiful day to return. The lighting was a bit different than it was the other day and it made it feel almost as if we were seeing different views. And as always, when we get together with Ken and Ann and break out of our private hikes, the company was great and Ken, who is a gifted photographer, took plenty of shots. One of them is among my all-time favorites. (That's it above.) I like it so much I believe it will be among the select color photos I'll be sending along to my publisher to be printed in our book.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Dropping In On A Couple of Moose

We finished our hike on Pine Mountain on Sunday by bumping into these two. Atticus and I spent about twenty minutes with them, watching them gently eating. They didn't seem all that concerned with us, until at one point another party came up on us and startled the youngster for a bit.

This was just one more reminder about how our lives are truly blessed to be able to live up in this incredible land that seems like a world away from anything I've ever known.

Think Someone Was Excited To Hike Today?

And what a beautiful late afternoon hike we had! This summer we introduced ourselves to Pine Mountain and promised to come back to see autumn's glory. Since we hiked four thousand footers twice this past week it was great to get off the higher peaks while the weekend warriors crowded the trails. We timed our hike so that we could start when others were finishing and we had the mountain to ourselves. Enjoy the slide show by clicking here.