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Little Middle Mountain by Tom Ryan

Tom and Atticus
Tom and Atticus

Yesterday, on the side of a mountain on a rare patch of bare ground above a rushing stream, Atticus and I could feel the change of the seasons. We sat under an old, twisted tree in the warm sun for more than an hour listening to the song of the water now freed from winter’s icy grip. Occasionally a breeze so slight I didn’t even notice it made the faded gold leaves of small nearby beech trees quiver as if the tiniest wood sprites danced on top of them. We sat, we stretched, we yawned, and I’m happy to say we even napped. It was the stuff that daydreams are made of.

These are the moments I find myself living for these days. Used to be I had my lists and could hardly wait to check off one of the higher peaks from this list or that one. But that was a few years ago. I’ve been cured of that curious mania and now instead of the highest peaks or most notable ones, I seek out the most beautiful places. There are times Atticus I still hike the four thousand footers quite often, but now it’s because I want to hike a mountain and not because I need it.

My wakeup call came after several peak-bagging seasons when my friend Steve Smith, the noted White Mountain author and columnist and owner of the Mountain Wanderer Map & Book Store in Lincoln, New Hampshire, said, “You know, Tom, there are other places to hike below 4,000-feet.”

Begrudgingly I took his suggestion and Atticus and I climbed Hedgehog. Something strange happened that day. I was introduced to hiking for the joy of it and from that moment on I’ve been hooked. Hedgehog is not a very high peak but it offers stunning views from Chocorua over to Passaconaway, then to the Sleepers, Tripyramids, and an assortment of other peaks to the south, east, and west. Then there are the views to the north as well. That little hike changed things for Atticus and me. We have become experts at finding such places and wringing every last bit of pleasure out of them.

That’s why we were on little Middle Mountain yesterday. The Green Hill Preserve, where Middle Mountain sits, is home to some wonderful peaks and it’s right in North Conway. Head into Hannaford’s or one of the numerous outlets and you can’t miss seeing them peering over the top of the stores. The mountains are shaped like breaking waves coming from the north. Over the past two years we’ve explored every bit of the area.

Not only do these little peaks offer up some splendid views and a good workout, the woods are no different than the woods that lead to any of the other mountains here in the Whites. They are filled with the same enchantment Robert Louis Stevenson noted about all forests: “It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”

That “subtle something” is alive and well in the Green Hill Preserve even though it’s amazingly close to the strip in North Conway. Turn down Artist Falls Road right across from the Muddy Moose Restaurant, turn right again on Thompson Road, and park in the small lot on the side of the road. Step out of your car, walk into the woods, and you are wrapped in nature’s embrace just as many of the famed White Mountain artists who stayed in that neighborhood back in the 1800s had been.

The network of trails is well-mapped and well-marked and you can cobble together longer, more challenging hikes, or simply take it easy as we did yesterday. We were in no hurry and took our time hiking along Middle Mountain Trail. About a mile and a half in where a trail to the left leads to Peaked Mountain and the other to Middle, we stayed to the right, walked along the stream until it disappeared, and then entered into a nice glade of trees. If you’ve ever climbed up the Pine Bend Brook Trail to the Tripyramids you come to a place just below the summit of North Tripyramid where you’re walking through flat ground and on either side you can look out through the trees and see the sky – not above you – but right beside you. That’s what the trail is like towards the top of Middle. Then you curve to the right, walk up over some large flat rocks, turn left again, and the trail passes through a nave of trees as if you are heading for an altar. Instead of an altar, you hit the summit.

When we reached the top it was overcast but comfortable and we sat on the large rocks, took in the views, ate lunch, played some Mozart, then eventually made our way back down again. We were halfway down the mountain when the sun came out and we found our spot by the stream.

Upon finally making it home there was no need to place a check mark next to anything, no need to consider what we had to hike next. We simply returned home and realized we were a bit better off for having loitered in the forest.

Five years ago, during our first summer of hiking, my friend, Atticus M. Finch and I, hiked the 48 4,000-footers of the White Mountains of New Hampshire in eleven weeks. That summer in the mountains changed our lives. Eventually I sold my Newburyport newspaper, we moved north, and things have never been the same. This September you can read our story in FOLLOWING ATTICUS: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship. It’s being published by William Morrow. To follow our continuing story, please visit The Adventures of Tom and Atticus.

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11 comments

  1. Tobit from VFTT and

    I'm looking forward to reading this book. I had the pleasure of meeting Tom and Atticus one fourth of July on top of Mt. Washington. Although Atticus thought my leg was a tree, I still love that little guy.

  2. Tom, I just read your thoroughly delightful and inspiring article.

    I've excerpted some of your words that had particular meaning to me were:

    "Used to be I had my lists . . . but . . . I've been cured of that curious mania . . . and now . . . I seek out the most beautiful places . . . I still hike the four thousand footers . . . but now it's because I want to hike a mountain and not because I need it . . . my wakeup call came . . . when my friend Steve Smith . . . said, 'You know, Tom, there are other places to hike below 4,000-feet.'"

    So much of what you said in your article rings true with me as well. And yes, Steve Smith has certainly had a positive impact on many of us in the hiking community by opening our eyes to the pure joy of "off the list" hiking.

    John

  3. Tobit, thanks for your message, and for wanting to read the book, but I fear you are mistaken. While Atticus and I have climbed Mount Washington several times, we avoid the crowded periods and have never hiked it on the Fourth. Nor, thankfully, has he ever mistaken a hiker's leg for a tree.

    Nevertheless, thanks for your comment.

  4. Sorry Tom, boy I screwed up big time. Not only did I mix you two up with someone else, I screwed up the date as well. Looking back through my notes, it was Ed 'n Lauky during Flags on the 48 in 2009. Please extend my apologies to Atticus.

  5. John, you and I are of the very large community who have been positively influenced by Steve. He's a remarkable fellow.

    Because of his love of the Hedgehog and Potash area, I've always thought those two mountains should be renamed Smith and Dickerman, for the two men who have introduced many of us to many of the jewels in the White Mountains. What say we start a movement?

  6. Not a problem, Tobit. I knew you had to be mistaken since Atticus is very well behaved and if either of us were to mistake your leg your a tree it would more likely be me.

  7. Your post hit home for me. I finished the 48 last year in isolation. It was a great experience and very moving but being that it took 7 year (having started in my 20s) the list question was already long over. I'm now on to trailwork as my passion which few people understand. But I also enjoy the solitude of the smaller peaks (speckled /caribou) or the obscure routes (anything in evans notch, backside of the Carters).

  8. Oops. That's "finished ON isolation" and list quest was already over. Darn iPhone.

  9. Well, there's something to be said for finishing in Isolation as well as on Isolation. It's one of the reasons, I like you, enjoy Evans Notch. Ironic, isn't it, that we ran into each other there this summer?

    Thanks for the comment.

    The list is great for some folks, but I realized that in the long run it limited my experience.

    That being said, Atticus and I will be hiking them all again this spring/summer before the book comes out. The reason being that they are characters in our book and I'd like to see each of them again. However, this will not keep us from other peaks.

  10. Just started reading Following Atticus. Love it. I grew up in the White Mountains and, well, I love dogs. So this book really tugs at my heart. I met Atticus once when I was in a store in Conway. What a marvelous and extraordinary dog and what a thrill it must be to have him as a friend. I wish you both the best.

  11. Annie Criscitiello

    Tom – am in the middle of reading Following Atticus and it is a total joy – I fell in love with the White Mountains 30 years ago and did many trails and experienced countless magnificent moments on those peaks- I really long to return – I also adore my dogs Mookie (11, a pointer mix) and KiKi ( 5, a jack russell fireball) and would love to include them on a new trek. I am a two time cancer survivor ( just finished chemotherapy treatment) and really want to climb Mt. Washington this fall – thank you so much for helping me re-experience the unforgettable times in this Heaven on Earth and providing the additional drive to get back on the trail – Peace – and lots of love to Atticus

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