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, February 27, 2007

The Pleasure of his Company

When eyes meet in silence
A pact can be made
A life-long alliance
That won't be betrayed
~ Pete Townsend

Twenty pounds. That’s it. On these trails I think half of that is his heart. For the past two summers and two winters I’ve followed the pitter patter of his little feet up and down the sometimes muddy, sometimes rocky, sometimes snowy paths. On top of the peaks I’ve followed the gaze of his small brown eyes as he settles in and drinks in the views. Write a small town newspaper for a decade and you learn to love the strong silent type who never talks and lets his actions do the talking.

Today little Atticus led a friend and myself up to the summit of Madison, over to Adams and then to Jefferson.

I was tired when I neared the top of Valley Way and needed to take a break at Madison hut. While I drank a smoothie, Atticus ate a small package of ham and then was given some pumpkin seeds by Jeff Veino, our companion for the day. Then came the climb up Madison. It starts out steep, then twists and turns into a gentler climb right to the top. Once on the summit we enjoyed the warmth, the views, and the lack of any wind whatsoever.

Then it was down to the hut again and the climb along the Gulfside Trail surprised us. The sun was beating down on us and we walked in light shirts through the blinding ice and snow and under a brilliant blue sky. As always, Atticus led the way. We followed the lead of Kevin and Brutus and walked all the way to Thunderstorm Junction to the giant cairn where we dropped our packs, turned left, and walked up Lowe’s Path to the tip of Adams. More incredible views; a summer-like warmth; no wind. This is February. Amazing.

Two hikers before us went with crampons and churned up the snow and left minor postholes behind for us once we were off the summit of Adams and back on the Gulfside Trail. We moved through this incredible place, a mile up, through these magnificent iced mountains. Lead, again, at least most of the way, by this little dog. His diminutive size was in stark contrast to these great natural monuments around him. His soft and shaggy hair---he’s in need of a haircut---and the bounce of his jaunty step is out of place with the harsh snow and ice and pieces of rock that jut out here and there. He doesn’t seem to care.

For the better part of two winters he’s amazed me, earned his right to be up here, so long as I held up my end of our relationship and protected him from the worst elements. On Friday he rested after two days of hiking. On Saturday I held off from hiking again because it was cold and the wind was bitter and biting. On Sunday, while some invited us above tree line, we begrudgingly went with the Twins and Galehead for the second time this winter. No need to put him above tree line in 30 mph winds and temps in the mid teens. I figured our day would come. It did, the very next day.

For the better part of two winters, he’s done what I didn’t think he could do. He’s also been the subject of an occasional solipsistic rant of those who don’t think a little guy like him (or any dog) belongs in these mountains, especially in winter. And yet I’ve come to believe he belongs up here more than I do. He’s the one who is more self-assured, the one who knows his limits, the one who charges ahead as we near the summit, the one who sits and stares off at the view with as contented or involved a look as any mountaintop prophet.

The words Tennyson used to describe his Ulysses could just as easily be used to describe my little friend while he’s up here in his mountain adventures:
"I am a part of all that I have met;Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life!"

His restlessness finds its peace on top of mountains. But when it comes to getting to the top, to that peaceful place, he is like again like Tennyson’s Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

He knows we go up until there is no more up. And if we go down and back up again he understands that’s just what we do until we get to a peak when I say to him, “Okay, let’s go see Steve (Smith) and get a cookie. Let’s go home.” Then he turns and bounces down the trail with as much innocence and youthful simplicity as he exhibited purpose and stoicism in his drive to get to the top.

Last winter, when we started out together, I was not sure if he could handle the cold, the snow, the ice. More often than not he has shown me he can. He showed it again today as he moved forward towards that hulking mass of Jefferson, which loomed above us with a growing shadow like a behemoth rising up to smite me down. It’s size, the depth and breadth of its enormity played with my head and planted seeds of doubt that took root and grew rapidly. And yet as I struggled, half in body and half in head, the smallest member of our party gave it not a thought and just kept going up. He walked up the snowfield, following a broken trail through the crusty snow and walked up and between the waves of snow that looked like ocean waves frosted white and paralyzed by some strange bewitchment.

I’d take a hundred steps, ask God forgiveness for whatever sins I’d committed, gulped air, some water, and then took another hundred steps. He walked on ahead of me, stopping when I stopped and patiently awaiting my 10-second fits of exhaustion and doubt and four letter exclamations.

I like critics---like to prove them wrong. When it comes to a small dog hiking in the Whites in winter there are more than a few. They all know best. Thankfully, I understand mostly what they need is to hear themselves speak. However, that doesn’t mean we have to listen to them and in our deafness we have shared untold adventures together and this little dog has found, what appears to be, his most peaceful moments in life, looking out on the world from some magnificent mountaintops.

At quarter to three this afternoon, six and a half hours after leaving the Appalachia trailhead we climbed the snowy and icy rocks to the summit of Jefferson and I held Atticus aloft, high above my head. In true form he gently twisted his body and turned his head to take in the view of the Great Gulf and Mt. Washington.

In finishing our Winter 48 on Jefferson we joined the likes of Miriam Underhill, Steve Smith and Mike Dickerman. Good company indeed. And as we took on last look around I took a moment to think of Brutus and Kevin Rooney who had been here before long before us.

Jefferson finished our Winter 48, but it was only our 44th summit in round one of the 48 this winter, but number 61 overall since we climbed Cannon on December 21st. We will continue on and we’ll continue to walk in memory of many who have lost their lives to cancer and others who have fought it and won and still others who are in the midst of the fight. In our winter quest, the adventure continues to strengthen our resolve and our bond and I consider myself lucky to be so motivated and to have such good company both in my heart and on the trail.


Anonymous said...

Tom, After finishing your book I felt as if I was missing a friend. So I started reading your posts. I loved this one so much. Your respect and love for Atticus warms my heart. Also, my husband is fighting prostate cancer and your understanding of his battle moves me beyond words. You are a gifted writer and a good man, Tom. Thank you for sharing your insights, observations and adventures.

P said...

What a great little dog.
May his days be many.