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A Yankee Notebook

September 17, 2012


PASSACONAWAY CAMPGROUND, NH – It’s a little past three in the afternoon, and bright and sunny here about 20 miles east of Lincoln on the famous Kancamagus Highway. A perfect day: I got to climb a new (albeit small) mountain; the temperatures were mild at last; my little magic carpet Tacoma, which will take me home, is running like a top; I have a nice dry shirt to change into; and I’ve made a couple of new friends. Can it get better?

First, the highway. It’s named after one of the last leaders of the Penacook Confederacy of native Americans. Almost everybody living in New England has driven it at one time or another. It probably appears to most visitors to be passing through forest primeval. This is an illusion; the whole area was logged extensively – even rapaciously – and burned during the days of New Hampshire logging camps and railroads. It’s now National Forest land, and continues to be logged, but under the supervision of the Forest Service. The road itself is one of those 1930s-era engineering masterpieces, connecting two dead-end roads that extended into the wilderness toward each other from either end. It opened officially in 1959.

The highway heads east out of Lincoln, past the entrance to the Loon Mountain Ski Resort, and follows the east branch and then the Hancock branch of the Pemigewasset River upstream to a height of land at 2855-foot-high Kancamagus Pass, which is not always open during a hard winter. Cyclists like to have their photographs taken – for good reason – beside the sign at the top of the pass. On the eastern slope, the road follows the infant Swift River, which tumbles toward the Saco at Conway. To the south, the Sandwich Range of the White Mountains squeezes it up against the river. That’s where we hiked today, about halfway between the ends of the highway.

I’ve discovered in the past two years that I perspire pretty heavily while hiking uphill, and have learned the hard way a few of the perils of dehydration: loss of equilibrium, slower hiking, and irrational decision-making. So I’ve begun carrying extra water, in spite of its added weight, and keeping fresh shirts and bandannas in my truck for afterward. My favorite trainer at the gym has just suggested mixing the water half-and-half with electrolyte replacement; that’ll be my next experiment. I also have a catalog in my head of all the McDonald’s I’ll pass, whether traveling to Pittsburg, New Hampshire, Bar Harbor, or even Millinocket, Maine (where I learned one late evening, exhausted from a day up and down Katahdin, that it was the only open restaurant in town). Thus, on the early-morning drive to trailhead rendezvous I load up on carbohydrates and, after a sweaty day, make my first stop on the way home at the nearest oasis with large strawberry shakes.

Our primary purpose today was not hiking or experimenting, however, as much as it was meeting two people I’ve wanted to meet for some time. It’s difficult to know how to introduce them – normally you’d say, ”a man and his dog” – but the relationship between these two is not like that at all.

Atticus M. Finch and Tom Ryan are pals, one Irish, gregarious, and chatty, the other self-contained and silent. The history of their coming into each other’s lives is too complicated to detail here. For the full story, get Tom’s book, Following Atticus. You’ll probably continue it by posting the address of his blog on your Bookmarks page. It’s a lively one.

About 15 years ago – Tom is sparing with dates and real names – Tom was a one-man band, publishing a muckraking weekly newspaper in Newburyport named [it] The Undertoad, [it] after the warning given the infant Garp by his mother: “Beware the Undertoad!” He’d alienated most of the town’s old guard and power players, not to mention the local police, who often dined in unfriendly groups next to his breakfast table at his favorite diner and eventually even stole his trash from the curb in a search for something damning. He was single and lonely, in spite of many friends in town, and as he says, looking for something he was missing, something new, something next. He was also badly out of shape, around 300 pounds, and found it hard to walk very far.

Chance, as well as a rash, imprudent impulse brought him an elderly miniature schnauzer named Max. He and Tom began walking...and walking...and eventually even hiking. But all too soon Max succumbed to seizures and old age. Again, this is abbreviated; but soon afterward a breeder in Louisiana sold Tom a miniature schnauzer puppy whom he named Atticus M. Finch, after one of his favorite heroes in literature. Atticus, it developed, loves hiking mountains, and once on top of each, sighs, sits down, and gazes zenlike at the view. Tom writes of him, “He is Frodo Baggins; he is Don Quixote; he is Huck Finn. He is every unlikely hero who ever took a step out the door and found himself swept up in adventure.”

Atticus is ten now, and hopped up the mountain today perhaps more thoughtfully than he did some years ago. He reminded me – and it brings tears to my eyes just now as I write it – of our dog now long in her grave who joyfully climbed everything with me from Mount Monadnock to Moosilauke, just as quietly as Atticus today, and whose interactions with other hikers were, like his, most lively when she wondered what they were having for lunch on the mountain that day.

There’s much more: hundreds of winter-and-summer climbs for cancer research and animal hospitals, for example. And another book coming out soon. Tom, the consummate Irishman, hints tantalizingly at its contents, but won’t say what they are. I, the consummate Dutchman, am about to head over the pass with predictable haste to my customary strawberry shake.

Photo by Willem lange