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, November 15, 2012

The Bare Necessities of November

There’s a charm to the November woods and it is found in their simplicity. They are the secret warmth that lasts after a long weekend when everyone else has gone home; the woman you love who is even more beautiful lying next to you at night after the day is spent and her makeup is off. The November woods are pristine in their nakedness.

In November the crowds who flock to enjoy October’s colorful flourish are gone. New Hampshire – the real New Hampshire –where wood and rock and running water meet far from the outlet stores and restaurants the true charm of our state lives like a secret.

Within the past month everything has reversed. All the decorative leaves that had burst forth overhead now form a luxurious (if at times slippery), bronze carpet underfoot. And where once there was the pleasant clutter of millions of leaves now there’s nothing but bare bark and open air. The forest has shed her clothes and stands there as stark and stunning as can be.

In the Irish fairytales of old, the Little People were always just out of sight around the next corner. They could be felt, almost imaginatively heard, but never seen, and the essence of their magic hung like a wisp of a disappearing dream. They were forever hidden because nature knew how to keep their secret, but not so much so that you couldn’t feel their presence. There was always the belief you’d come around a bend and there they would be sitting, a startling bit of enchantment looking you right in the eye, causing your heart to race, and reality to swirl. In November you see through the forest, you see the secret places, at times beyond to the great views you never knew existed. Take a turn in the trail you’ve taken ten times before but now because there are no more leaves to block the view you look up and see a mountain towering close by. It catches you by surprise in just the same way. It fills your heart with quivering excitement.

It’s these private moments on the trail before I even get to the mountaintop that draws me in this time of year. Solitude is the song that plays from tree to tree in the open spaces of the formerly dense forest.

When I was younger and less sure of myself, I found loneliness in the woods this time of year.  Now that I’m older and know who I am, it’s just the opposite. There is the murmur of the thrill that races through me as I feel myself in a place most know nothing of. It’s an escape from a hectic and drama filled world where everything is fast-paced, loud, and blaring.  At the same time it’s a coming home to a place safe and secure.

This past weekend we took the simplest of hikes – a local loop we’ve taken many times up from the shores of Pudding Pond to the small “jutting” peaks that sit like an understated backdrop to the big box stores of North Conway. I wonder, at times, how many even know they are there or even bother to look up at them. But they are forever a part of our landscape and I think even those who don’t notice them would miss them if they were to disappear.

As we trod the earthen paths that loop up over both summits affording views from the mountaintops of Middle and Peaked, it feels to me like we are visiting a familiar friend. It’s the kind of friend you can be yourself with and this is a come-as-you-are kind of hike –not so taxing or dangerous that you feel the need to plan ahead or get geared up for it. It’s more like a simple walk with backpack and water and little else needed other than a summit snack, not so much for energy, but for enjoyment. Oh, you have to work to get to the prize at the top so it’s a workout after all; it’s just not the hike one takes to get to the more challenging peaks.
But that’s the allure of such a hike.  It lies in its simplicity. 

My favorite mountain is one we can be alone on, and while we did see three people on this day, for the most part we had the trails to ourselves.  When we reached the top of Middle Mountain we sat down, shared some treats, and soaked in the sun.  It felt warmer than November and stood in contrast to the cooler, shady parts of the hike up where an inch or so of snow crunched underfoot.  The view is wonderful, but again, on this day, at this time of the year the best part for me Is how the forest allows me to feel alone but not lonely.  It’s stripped of everything that is not essential and the silver and brown trees connected the vibrant blue sky and the brown leaves on the ground. 

I’m still getting acquainted with my renewed body that weighs eighty pounds less than it used to, and the ease with I now move.  I’m amazed at how stress-free the climbs are now compared to what they used to be and as we curled up from the cleavage between the two peaks around to the northern side of Peaked and worked our way up the ledges Atticus was is in his glory pushing up toward the summit and I followed happily along.  By this time the white-capped Presidential Range came into view behind us as did views up into faraway Crawford Notch.  It was the best of all worlds. We were alone in the woods, with views far and near, dear friends doing what they like and do best – being together while the craziness and entanglements of the world were left behind. 

We took in the views from the summit of Peaked Mountain for a good long while and then I leaned back against the pine tree that stands like a sentinel , and took a nap while Atticus lay his head on my leg and did the same. 

These are the days and hikes we like best - the simple days. Put enough of them together and you get a humble but happy life.  And surprisingly, these November days have now become a favorite of mine for the same reason – their simplicity.


Colleen said...

Sounds like another love letter. Beautiful thoughts, and what a wonderful way to say it. I never thought of November as being a beautiful month, more like one to escape from. I will look at it in another way, now.

Pretty is a Dark Pleasure Author Lori Meckley said...

I have a Mini Schnauzer, Sully. I just love your blog and I can't wait to read your book.

Anonymous said...

I truly enjoy the way you describe your ventures. I felt much the same way when I visited the area at the end of October. I loved seeing the leaves at their peak earlier in the month but was pleasantly surprised at the stark beauty when I returned. Most of the leaves were gone and while Diana and I couldn't do any strenuous hikes, we drove many of the back roads and were amazed at the beauty of the leaves as they blanketed the forest floor. We also loved the stark contrast of the white birches against the other trees. In one of the pictures I captured of a double rainbow we were lucky enough to see the birches look like they are almost glowing. It was an amazing time in a magical place. Thank you so much for sharing it with us!

Silvia G. Soos-Kazel said...

Beautiful Blog~~so very soothing to read these lovely descriptions of such a heavenly place on earth. Tom's words do transport one to another world. A world of peace, love and contentment.

Patricia Simon said...

This was a beautifully eloquent column, or perhaps eloquently beautiful. I read it slowly because I could tell right away it was something I wanted to savor. Then I read it slowly again, finding it even more lovely than the first time. Your writing on the simplest of experiences gives me much joy. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and observations with us in such a gifted and meaningful fashion.

Carter W Rae said...

Tom what a beautiful tribute to beauty and love... You are the wordsmith as always from our pack thanks for sharing with us ....Our very best to you ( your pack) ♥♥♥♥

Steve Smith said...

Beautifully written, Tom! November is a special time in the hardwoods.


Anonymous said...

You nailed it Tom. Perfect. I could be worried it would attract enough people to lose the solitude, but November also has its rancorous side, and that usually keeps out the unprepared. They'll still have your words, however, to enjoy.

Anonymous said...

Such a wonderful blog entry! I am reading "Following Atticus"., and I must ask you to give Atticus a hug from me. Thank you for writing your and Atticus' story.

Anonymous said...

I just started reading Following Atticus. It is a wonderfully written story. It has taken me to places I have missed being in my life. Thank you for engaging me back to my roots. I hope to meet both you and Atticus someday. Until then.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your eloquent choice of words in describing a month most of see as dark, dreary, and the onset of winter. You and Atticus have taught many of us to look at the world around us with different eyes. God bless you both and keep sharing your adventures with us.
Vickie Williams

Christina Traven said...

Once again, thank you for sharing.
Recently, I've been thinking of you and Atticus while walking my two dogs at the metro park across the street. We do early morning walks and so often my fear of walking alone in the woods surfaces .... Lately I've been saying over and over - if Tom Ryan can conquer his fear of walking at night in the mountains of NH, I can certainly make it through the woods of OH in the pre dawn hours. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Tom, I was up in N. Conway over the summer. I didn't know the names of those peaks, but I did notice them - as the sun set, heavy and low.