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.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Life's A Little Less Complicated Up Here

This morning we rose when the sun made its way over the ridge behind us and filled the living room with its golden light. On occasion I sleep on the couch. Last night was one such night. I slept in the shape of the letter “S” and Atticus curled himself into a ball behind the back of my knees. It was a deep sleep for the first time since my cold arrived.

I opened all the windows wide and we feel asleep to the sound of the Pemi rushing by and then awoke with our lungs filled with cool mountain air. We got out the door earlier than usual and drove down to the many fingered parking lot at the Flume. First we walked along the little 0.3 mile loop through the woods, coming to a stop at the gazebo with a view down into the raging river and up at Flume and Liberty.

On the mound of land leading up from the river towards the higher land but before the evergreens dominated the mountains, I noticed the soft bloom of spring on the deciduous trees, as if they were softly, colored tufts of cotton. While I was watching spring, Atticus was sniffing around for it on some dead leaves and pine needles flattened in one small area, as if an animal had slept upon them.

I soon joined him there in hopes he wasn’t checking out a moose bed for fear it would be a minefield of ticks, but I could see none.

This little dog loves the spring and all the awakening scents of the forest. He rarely leaves the trail; instead he stands towards one side with his front paws off the trail and he casts his nose about. I wonder what he catches and fill myself with pleasure at the way he peacefully reels whatever it is in and then sets off in a contented jaunt along the trail until he stops and throws his nose into the air again.

At the end of the short loop he stands at the intersection like a child with a look that says, “Can we go around one more time?” But I just keep moving and he holds back in minor protest before hopping along after me and when he passes me again his sulk, if it could actually be called one, is forgotten. He bounces when he walks, his bottom swaying along from side to side. If I were a musician I would compose something that goes with his happy trot. Alas, I’m not and must find amusement in the light comedy it provides.

On a frigid December hike up Mt. Garfield in 2006, we were joined by a tough hiker, one who I consider to be well-established and one of the first three people to ever hike all the 48 in one winter. We shared great conversation along with laughter and insights. Because it was as cold as it was I put Atticus in his body suit when we neared the summit and left it on him on the way down. It was snug fitting and when he wears it he moves along with a “Scatman Crothers” shuffle. In watching him bounce down the trail ahead of us, our companion for the day traded in his tough man demeanor and commented, “He does have kind of a cute butt.”

I can tell much about Atticus by his butt. If it is swaying gently with a little bounce in his stride it means he is happy and fresh. That’s the way it is on most occasions, but this morning he was happier than most days. He moved along in a carefree manner sending his ears bouncing like a couple of happy drunks.

He walked ahead of me while we moved up and down the various parking lots. While I walked in the middle of the empty pavement reading my book and taking notes he visited the buffer of trees between each lot, sniffing and squirting.

On the third finger of pavement a large crow was off on the side poking around in a clump of leaves gathered by the curb. Atticus moseyed towards him and just before he got to the crow it lifted off with ease to a branch just five feet off the ground directly above Atticus. I stopped reading and stopped walking. There was a silent and peaceful interaction between the two as the crow watched Atticus and Atticus watched the crow. They appeared to be mildly interested in each other and neither was in a hurry to move on or to stop studying one another.

I gave them their space until Atticus decided he would move on. The large black bird watched him leave; cocking his head in what I imagined was amusement of his swaying butt and that pair of drunken ears.

I gave the crow a wide birth but even then he took flight landing in a young tree with dusty red buds. It was right above where Atticus was headed. As Atticus moved beneath him he didn’t seem to notice the crow but it watched him pass.

Finally we came to large rock on the end of the last parking strip and just behind that, off into the woods, a small and possibly nameless stream. It has become one of my favorite stopping places. Atticus entered the woods and drank from the water and I waited until he was done and cleared the water, with the help of a stepping stone and ended up on the other side. There I sat on my usual fallen tree, my feet propped up on some rocks beside the stream.

Sunlight filtered through the trees and looked happy to be dancing in the water. I returned to my book and Atticus stood on the opposite side of the rivulet, once again casting his nose into the air. When we reach this place he knows we will stop for a while. He surrenders happily to the laziness of the moment.

The soft cascade of water over small rocks is sweet music and I fall deeply into my book. While I read words, Atticus reads the woods. It’s here, in this place that Atticus seems to be overcoming his dislike of water. There are rocks he can hop over to come over to my side. He could make it by hopping on just one rock if he wanted to. I find it curious that he never crosses by way of the stones as he would on a hike or wait for me to pick him up. Instead when he crosses, and he did it again this morning, he wades slowly across. Not slowly because of nerves or because he is unsure of his footing, but slowly as if enjoying the wetness against leathery pads.

Once across he hopped over the log and explored the woods for a little while, never straying too far. Eventually he came back to me and as he does every morning he hopped up next to me and sat on the fallen tree watching the stream pass. He pushed his nose towards a small sapling coming out from beneath the tree. It stood maybe standing two feet high with sparse branches. Out of the corner of my eye I see him studying a junction of branches just inches from his nose. He’s not sniffing; he’s watching.

I can’t help but wonder what he’s doing. When I pay closer attention to the tiny tree I notice there is a movement. A tiny spider is traversing along a high wire of web between the two branches. It stops in the middle and it’s too small for me to tell but I imagine it is watching Atticus watch him (or her).

Atticus is not a head-tilter. When he watches things he studies them almost humanly. There is seriousness to his curiosity.

Once back in our apartment in Newburyport, a large spider scuttled across the floor. It was large enough for Atticus to see from the bed and he jumped down for a closer look. I wondered if he would eat it or play with it as some of my past dogs would have done. He did neither. Instead he lay down and watched it. When it moved farther away he moved closer, again to watch. When it reached the wall and started to climb up, my curious friend sat up and watched the spider crawl up onto the window sill.

This was the same window he sat at the previous year as a pigeon hatched her chicks in the window box. Every day Atticus would sit and watch over those chicks, just inches below his nose while he stood on his hind legs and leaned on the ‘elbows’ of his front legs like he was standing at a bar. He’d watch them for hours on end when the mother was gone. And when the day came that they took off and didn’t return he would still return to look down into the window box and I wondered if he missed having them there.


That’s what this morning in the woods reminded me of. It reminded me of the way he watched those new-born pigeons in the window box or that spider crossing the carpet.

Laugh if you want, but watching Atticus sit this way, on top of mountains, on the beach, in the woods, or on a busy sidewalk; caused me to sit and relax more. The first summer we climbed the 48 I’d start my hike after starting my stopwatch. I’d hurry along as if I was impressing someone. When we reached a view point I’d stop for a moment, gulp some water and then get ready to move on again. But Atticus would stop and look…really look at the view. Sometimes he’d move close to the ledge and look down and then outward towards the horizon. Other times he’d sit on his plump behind as if in meditation.

We stayed like that for a while this morning, him not getting bored with his spider, me not getting bored with him, the stream, the woods, or my book. Eventually he rose and crossed back over the stream and went out to the large rock bordering the sidewalk and the parking area. He climbed up and sat down looking at the hunchback of Mt. Pemigewasset.

Some time later a woman and a man were walking along the sidewalk and she was startled to see Atti sitting there by himself. I didn’t bother to respond because he can take care of himself. When she reached him he continued to sit but she had the looks of a woman who likes to be concerned with something and said to her husband, “He doesn’t have a collar or a tag!”

The husband didn’t say anything. I wondered if he ever did. I sat silently in the woods with my book. And Atticus wasn’t about to say anything either.

The women’s agitation grew and she moved around the rock while Atticus watched her looking all over him. I wanted to laugh as she and Atticus looked at each other, she with concern and furrowed brow; he with mild bemusement. Her irritation with his placement on the rock was evident, as was the fact that he was without leash or collar. I would have intervened but she didn’t have the look of a good-hearted rescuer, but of a complainer.

I don’t know how long it took her but she finally saw me sitting about fifteen feet from her. The look on her face was priceless. It was one of shock turning into revulsion as if she had caught me masturbating instead of reading.

I simply smiled and said, “I’m with him.”

She said nothing, moving on with a huff, her husband in tow. All I heard her say to her husband was something along the lines of, “That’s just weird.”

I went back to my book. Atticus went back to looking at the mountain.

As you can see, our lives up here are a bit less complicated than they used to be.

1 comment:

Ari said...

Hahaha! I think it's funnier the way you wrote, "I'm with him," rather than, "He's with me."

The wordplay suggests you're reading on your log because he felt like looking around, no different than the husband allegedly there because the wife wanted to see the mountains.