Late in the spring of 2005, Atticus and I were climbing Cannon Mountain and had reached what would become one of my favorite places in the White Mountains – Cannon Cliffs. For two novice hikers it was an astounding view and when I stepped through the shrubs and stood on those cliffs, nowhere near the edge mind you, and looked across Franconia Notch to the awesome sight of Lafayette, Lincoln, Little Haystack, Liberty, and Flume my fear of heights heckled me. But my fear had a dancing partner – a sense of awe.
Atticus, who does not mind heights, got closer to the edge, sat down and took in the view, as he has on every fair weather hike we’ve ever gone on since that time. Me? Well, with shaking legs, I slowly lowered myself down onto a rock and even once completely seated I had a thrilling fear run through me that at any moment the hand of God would just reach out and snatch me over the precipice.
Cannon was our second 4,000-foot peak of the summer; a summer that would see us hiking all forty-eight of the highest peaks of New Hampshire in eleven weeks. However, at the time, I had no idea that we would get them done so quickly. Nor did I realize those three months would be one of growth and bonding like none I’d ever experienced.
Soon after leaving the cliffs we were on our way toward the summit when we encountered a woman walking in the opposite direction. I asked her how the summit was.
“Didn’t make it,” she said. “Came to a bog and I realized there was no way I was going to get across it so I turned back.” She went on to tell me that she only had five peaks left to finish all forty-eight.
As we said goodbye she headed down the Kinsman Ridge Trail and we nearly followed her. After all, if a “seasoned” hiker like that was turning back, what chance did a couple of rubes like us – an overweight, middle-aged, out-of-shape newspaper editor and a twenty pound terrier – have of making it to the mountaintop?
For whatever reason, we continued on and with every step I dreaded the thought of what awaited us and asked myself the same question repeatedly, “What the hell is a bog?”
Whatever it was it had to be impassable and challenging and could quite possibly be the end of our quest in only our second hike. But what awaited us was not some giant sinkhole that would drag us to our deaths, but merely a very large puddle.
“Really? This is why she turned back?” I said as both man and dog skirted the edge of the large puddle, Atti’s paws and my shoes barely getting wet in the process. I was certain there was something far more vast awaiting us. But there wasn’t, and we made it to the tower atop Cannon without incident.
What I learned that day was first, that no matter how fearful I was, there was something within me that was willing to face those fears – weather it be the way heights paralyzed me or some impossible challenge blocking the trail. The second was that I could not take another’s perception or experience of the mountains as my own. Atticus and I would simply have to experience them for ourselves. One woman’s bog would simply be our puddle.
Recently, when a friend of mine started her own quest to hike the forty-eight, she talked with amazement, dread, and some fear of the challenges that await her. She wondered how many days it would take to get across the Bonds, or out to Owls Head and back. When I told her it was not as tough as all of that, I remembered that first summer Atticus and I were up here. Each hike was a new adventure, and seemingly an entirely new world with what at the time seemed impossible tasks on some mythic hero’s journey. There were several moments when I wondered how we’d get past the next challenge facing us, but we always did and through it all we grew, swallowing one fear after another.
After Cannon came the two Osceolas, then Carrigain, the Hancocks, and Jackson. We came north every weekend and hiked two or three days. I couldn’t help myself. I was drunk with the passion of reaching every mountaintop as soon as possible. We weren’t simply climbing the mountains, we were inhaling them. And before I knew it our summer was over when we stood atop West Bond on a twenty-three mile hike.
In the coming days, instead of being proud about what we had accomplished, I was depressed. I was empty and lethargic and realized that the quest was over and I was now lost. Atticus and I had stepped away from the comfort of beloved Newburyport, a small city on the North Shore of Massachusetts and entered into our own private Narnia just two hours from our cozy apartment. But now Narnia was lost to us. We had found a sense of discovery and I had regained a sense of innocence in the process. But with the goal attained I felt like I’d simply awakened from the most wondrous dream and I longed to get back there. I just didn’t know how.
When my friend recently asked me for any advice I could give her regarding hiking the forty-eight, I told her, “Don’t rush. Every hike, every mountain will bring you a child-like magic and you don’t want to take one drop of it for granted.
Atticus and I would soon discover other challenges in the form of winter hiking or in other peaks that were not quite as tall but were just as special. But there will never be anything like that first summer of hiking for us. It was new and special and enchanting, and once it was done I knew it would never come back to us. So my advice to my friend and other hikers throughout the last seven years has always been quite simple and not technical in the least bit – savor every bit of your journey. Savor the tests, your fears, the accomplishments. But more than anything, savor the magic of what it’s like to be an adult who gets to feel like a child once again.
About Tom Ryan
Thomas Ryan was the founder and publisher of The Undertoad, a Newburyport, Massachusetts newspaper and went on to write the popular “Hiking with Tom & Atticus” column in the NorthCountry News and Mountainside Guide. During the winter of 2006-2007 Ryan and his dog Atticus climbed 81 4,000-foot peaks while raising several thousand dollars for the Jimmy Fund and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for the fight against cancer. Then, in the winter of 2007-2008 the duo climbed 66 4,000-foot peaks while raising thousands of dollars for Angell Animal Medical Center in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Because of their fundraising efforts Ryan and Atticus Finch were inducted into the Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) Hall of Fame as the co-recipients of that organization’s “Human Hero of the Year Award” at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Tom is the author of Following Atticus which was published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, last September. It chronicles their adventures in the White Mountains and their lives together. It is currently one of five finalists for the New England Non-Fiction Book of the Year. The paperback is due out today, August 7, 2012, and can be purchased anywhere good books are sold.