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.

Monday, September 15, 2008

An Afternoon Walk On The White Ledge Loop

My leg has finally healed and Atticus and I took a walk along the White Ledge Trail Loop late this afternoon. It’s only 4.4 miles but it has enough elevation to count as a workout. It was good to sweat and swear and pray my way to the top of something more significant than a hill again. I’ve missed the mountains; as I’m sure Atticus has, too.

When we stepped onto the trail we immediately dissolved into Mother Nature’s embrace with a wonderful snap of anticipation. How wonderful to have that old feeling back. It is the best part of our little sojourns into nature. We leave civilization behind as soon as we enter the wild and, in a way, become more civilized. There is something about the woods that urges me to revert to the innocence of childhood, to a more base self. As Robert Frost once said about the woods, they are “lovely, dark and deep”. It’s the “lovely” part that seduces us to return time and time again. It’s the “dark and deep” where the soul work is done. There was a reason Jung compared dreams of walking in the forest to a journey into the subconscious. They are one in the same.

Away from the busy world there are no distractions. But that’s the main reason why most people don’t like to hike alone. It can be unsettling to be alone with your own thoughts. But for me, each hike becomes a prayer and a meditation. In my prayer I talk to God; in meditation God talks to me. (I daresay God’s language is far more respectable than mine. A friend, a heavy-hitting Baptist, was shocked when I admitted there are times I swear while talking to God. “I would never!” he said. “I guess I just have a more intimate relationship with God than you do,” I said with a taunting smile.)

As a writer, hiking with Atticus is perfect for me. How comforting to have my little friend along, but how nice it is that he doesn’t prattle on about the inanities of life and simply walks silently forward. There are no growls, no barks; nothing he does is a disruption. A friend who is not fond of hiking with dogs once told me the best part about a hike with Atticus was that she didn’t even know he was there for the entire eight hours we were on a trail. “If all dogs were like Atticus, I’d get one,” she told me.

On the trail, the only noise I hear, other than occasional bird song or the sigh of the wind, is that of my own breath and beating heart. Think about that, when was the last time that’s the only thing you heard? How delightful to fall so deeply into myself and get to the middle of everything simply by taking a walk in the woods.

There is another thing about walking in the wilderness with Atticus that adds to our life together. In the woods we become equals. I get to feel as primal as he does. We walk and experience things the same way. We get to the top the same way. Because of these shared experiences, there is nothing more simple or pleasurable in my life than sharing these mountains with him. But it wasn't always that way. He had to train me, first.

The entire first summer we hiked I started my stopwatch with each hike and ended it when we reached the car. I was obsessed with time. There was no leisurely summit sitting, no time for taking advantage of viewpoints. It took me a while to catch on, but by watching Atticus stop and sit and take it all in that it finally dawned on me that I was missing the best part of getting to the top. I eventually ditched the stopwatch and sat with my dog. Since then an entirely new world has been revealed to me. The Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote: “Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring – it was peace.”

Amen.

This is why Atticus’ blindness a year and a half ago was so devastating. His lovely eyes had become useless to him. His favorite thing in this world is too find some dramatic ledge with a view and sit there and ponder. Thanks to modern science, surgery fixed both of Atticus’ eyes and now he seems to have a deeper appreciation for a gift that had been taken from him.

The White Ledge Loop does not have the most dramatic views but we came upon one nice ledge today where we sat and relaxed the afternoon away. We sat there until the sun eased behind the lovely Chocorua. As we made our way down from the ledges, the lowering sun took its heat with it and the woods were filled with a pleasant chill and a hint of the season to come while we walked down the path of earth, stones, pine needles and old leaves. In the shade an entirely new set of scents emerged. A breeze found its way through the forest and I could have sworn I heard Autumn giggling just out of sight, behind a nearby tree who was daring enough to wear red leaves already.

3 comments:

LM said...

Tom,

Last night Tuesday Sept. 16 Chronicle on WCVB Boston did a whole show on animals and the Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston. I thought of you two...Good show.....

Thomas F. Ryan said...

That's good to hear. They are a great organization and I will never be able to say enough positive things about them. It's good to see them getting good press.

Urban Wild said...

This photo, with this view of the Little Buddah, has the magnificence and grandeur of a Hudson River School painting! I never tire of the photos of him on top.