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.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Quote From Richard Bach (click on photo)

Getting Stretched Out On Black Mountain

In baseball, when a relief pitcher is converted into a starter, it cannot be done overnight. The team takes time in stretching out the pitcher, making him stronger, giving him more endurance. Recently, while working on my book proposal for ‘Following Atticus’, my agent, Brian DeFiore, has been doing the exact same thing to my writing. He’s making me think more, open my mind and my heart and tap into the creative spirit. It’s not easy, nor is it painless, but the results are fulfilling and can even be astounding.

My proposal about life with Atticus goes out on Labor Day – when the collective U.S. publishing industry ends its long summer vacation – and publishers will see something different than what I originally set out to write. Much of the transformation has come of late and it has to do with the ability of Brian to ‘stretch me out’. He recognized my book for what it was and it’s no longer just about mountains, a little dog and a middle aged, overweight writer with a fear of heights. But it took my agent to recognize that and get me to embrace it. I was thinking about all this the other day on Black Mountain - the one here in Jackson, not the one close to Moosilauke.

When we reached the summit there wasn’t much of a view. The forest has grown up around the summit rocks and the only way to see Washington, the Wildcats or Carter Dome is to look through and over the lush July foliage. Without much of a view I sat down and opened up my backpack and Atticus and I shared peanut butter crackers. We then both drank some water and after a bit I got up and started walking.

I noticed I was missing something. I looked back to the summit rocks and Atticus was still standing there, looking at me as if I’d forgotten to do something.

I knew immediately what he wanted. I walked back and picked him up as I always do on a summit and he sat in the crook of my arm. He looked out through the trees at Carter Dome. After a minute he turned his gaze to the Wildcats, eventually swiveling his head to see Washington. And there it was – his heavy sigh. And his body relaxed into mine.

I’ve always said that the mountains are my church: the climb is where I confess my sins; the summit is where I take communion. Communion – it’s a wonderful word, isn’t it? The first two definitions from American Heritage are as follows: “the act or an instance of sharing, as of thoughts or feelings; religious or spiritual fellowship.”

That’s the beauty of my little companion. He’s not only good company, there are times he makes me see things in a different way. Holding him in my arm with the setting sun in his eyes, the man-made lenses inserted during cataract surgery were easy to see. I cannot imagine a dog who could possibly appreciate modern technology that allowed him to see again more than he does. Up high, looking out together like that, it’s our own little ‘spiritual fellowship’. Whenever we have this communion between us I cannot help but think of that Saint-Exupery quote: “Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward in the same direction.”

And there we stood ‘looking out in the same direction’ for a long while.

Who would have thought we’d be here now, when seven years ago all I wanted was a dog to replace the one I’d lost? But now we are on a threshold to a very exciting time. Between then and now we’ve been through so much together. Back then I made a living writing a political journal in Newburyport and if you know anything about small town New England politics you’ll understand it was mostly about where man had gone wrong. But because I picked up a little dog, then started following through the woods, we eventually made it to the mountains. One look around from the top of Mount Garfield, our very first peak on September of 2004, and our lives were transformed. I began to see what was right with the world. Politics went out with the trash and we moved north.

Looking back on the confluence of experiences leading us here, I suppose it was all fated to work out this way. As Einstein said, “I refuse to believe that God plays dice with the Universe.” There have been too many things conspiring to bring us to this point in our lives.

And now you can see how just as my agent has recently ‘stretched me out’, that it only took place after a little dog and these great mountains had done the exact same thing.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Which Five Pics Would You Pick?

We're sending out our book proposal to publishers soon and the last step is to include five photos of Atticus. But as you might guess, we have so many of them. We'd love to know which five you'd include. Take the poll to the right (choose five). Polling has now closed. And the top 10 are now placed in order starting with No. 1 in the polling and going down. If you'd like to make a comment, you can do it at the bottom of this post.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Hey, Where Are The Views?

This afternoon Atticus and I hiked Jackson's Black Mountain. Unfortunately, when this little dog got to the summit he gave me this look that said, "Where are the views?" I picked him up so he could see Mount Washington, the Wildcat Ridge and Carter Dome over the trees and - I love this about him - he let out a deep sigh of contentment and gazed out at them until I put him down a few minutes later. He's definitely different.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Some Shots from our Evening Walk Around Jackson

There are two covered bridges in Jackson. On top is the small covered bridge that arcs over the Ellis River in the middle of the Wentworth Golf Club. Below is the Jackson Covered Bridge that leads to Jackson Village.
We live just off the Jackson Loop and only a quarter of a mile from the Wentworth Golf Club. It's particularly pretty in the early morning and just before sun goes down when the light is at its softest.
The Wentworth Inn is a throwback to the days of old when grand hotels were really grand. This is a front and side shot of the main building. There are also several satellite structures.

Across the street from the Wentworth Inn is the Jackson Public Library. It's part of the historic district. Soon it will be replaced by a newer, bigger, more functional structure about a half mile up the road. Not sure what will happen to this building, but I'm sure it will be taken care of since it is in the historic district. The library is so small it doesn't even have a bathroom. Atticus and I have been invited to speak there as guests. Actually, I'll be doing the speaking, while the crowd simply looks at Atticus.

This is the Inn at Jackson. The long sloping lawn and the Adirondack chairs makes me wish I was a guest there and not living less than a mile away.

This is the Ravenwood Curio Shoppe. It's definitely a neat place and was lovingly built by the owner, who lives right next door.
On the other end of the Jackson Loop you get a close-up of the small covered bridge on the gold course.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Simply Tecumseh

This morning, while comparing notes with a friend and book lover on the main character from Rief Larson’s book, “The Selected Stories from T. S. Spivet”: Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, I told him about my favorite Tecumseh. At 4,003 feet it’s the smallest of the 4,000-footers. And yet whenever I return to climb it, the mountain speaks to me. Strange? To some I suppose it is. But think about something John Muir once wrote: “Society speaks and all men listen, mountains speak and wise men listen.” Here’s what I wrote about Tecumseh a few years ago.

Think of the last carefree moment you surrendered to recently and you will appreciate how we felt while stretched out on two comfortable rocks in the high grass while a mischievous wind played with us under an overcast sky. I sat back and watched Atticus watch the wind. There are times it appears he sees things I cannot, for when the wind blows he follows it as if he can see sprites riding the currents.

On Saturday we were in no hurry so after only a mile on the trail we took the short spur path to the ski slope, took a seat and let our minds wander. Talk of the simplest of joys: A man and his dog---which on this day could just as easily have been a boy and his dog. We were Huck Finn and Jim floating down the Mississippi, me with a long blade of grass stuck between my teeth as if it were a corncob pipe. We just sat there and watched the day pass by as if it were the shores along the mighty Mississippi.

While Atticus sat up and watched the wind and gazed at the Tripyramids I thought of Tecumseh, the man, not the mountain. I thought of him while taking inventory of the clouds and the red berries on the trees and I listened to the song of the wind as it carried the words of the great Tecumseh himself, “When you rise in the morning, give thanks for the light, for your life, for your strength. Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason to give thanks, the fault lies in yourself.”

I gave thanks. Thanks for that quiet and private moment, thanks for the unhurried day…thanks for this pondering dog.

It’s easy to overlook Mt. Tecumseh, especially while tangled up in the mania of peak bagging or in seeking out the greatest views but there’s something about this mountain that draws me closer. I find rich experiences whenever I take to its trail, walk through its woods, climb to the small summit where I am surrounded by those wonderful trees.

On this afternoon I lay back with my hands behind my head, elbows splayed to the side, not too far up this least notable of the 4,000-footers and listened as the wind continued to sing to us, carrying more words from Tecumseh, “When the legends die, the dreams end; there is no more greatness.”

I love those words. They speak of awe, the importance of this wonderful moment and why I am called to these mountains. Oh, there have been times when I have stumbled and lost track of the beautiful while crossing numbers off a list or in making sure I can cover so many miles or climb so many feet of elevation in a day, but in the end, when I peel back the ego and the ambition, this is what it all comes down to…at least for me. I like the way I feel when I am here.

As a boy the legends of these mountains called to me. When I sat by a stream or around the campfire or slid into my sleeping bag my senses were aroused by the stories whispered in the wind, hidden behind trees just out of sight in the thick woods, floated upon the streams and brooks, and carried from mountaintop to mountaintop. They found their way into my dreams and found a way to stay with me even after I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. And they stayed with me through all those years I stopped coming to the mountains, dormant while awake, seductive while asleep. For years they called to me in my dreams until I returned to the mountains last year and started to walk through the woods, along the streams, and sit atop the mountaintops. Slowly the stories replayed themselves with me, whispers from the wind straight into my heart and I found myself falling in love with these wondrous mountains that continue to awe me, that continue to inspire me.

There is a wonderful term that speaks of the pervading spirit of a special place---genius loci. The Romans believed protective spirits watched over special places. I have no doubt that there is something special that watches over these mountains for I feel the magic of these mountains when I stop and just let myself be, whether it is on Franconia Ridge to watch the sunrise or under cloudy skies on a ski slope on Mt. Tecumseh. In the Whites the genius loci is rich and tangible.

I had a list of much more ambitious hikes to do but on Saturday I relaxed with Atticus and spent a lot of time remembering why I love the mountains. Eventually we left the ski slope and made our way up the trail until we came to the Sosman Trail. We meandered down to the bench and sat there for a while. There were no hurries and no worries on this day. But there was a chill near the top of Tecumseh, enough for me to put on my fleece and my hat. The last time we walked from the bench back to the main trail and up to the summit someone turned out the lights and left us in the dark on my first winter hike. That wouldn’t happen on this day and we enjoyed the views we found through the trees. When we reached the fork in the trail where you can reach the summit by going either left or right, Atticus led the way by choosing left, because it goes uphill and he seems to know we have to go up, at least until we reach the top. After a few minutes we reached the summit and encountered five other hikers. We passed the time in pleasant conversation before starting down on our own.

It was on the trip down that I came to think about why I like hiking alone. As pleasant as each of the people we met on the summit were, as soon as we encountered them and engaged in conversation, the wind, the trees, the mountain, the entire magical sense of place took a back seat and became only a supporting character. My friends think of me as antisocial when I hike alone, but I’m just silly enough to want to hear what the mountain has to say to me and when I’m talking with someone else, it is clear I don’t hear the wind, or the creaking of the trees, or the mountain talking of mysteries or the legends of the hills that don’t always get passed on by words and I am left wanting more.

We didn’t hike much this weekend but one lazy day visiting with Tecumseh seemed to be just what I needed as I awoke once again to the voices of the hills and they will carry me through until I return next week. I pray I will never lose this sense of wonder I find in the Whites.

(Tecumseh is pictured in a spring photo from the Welch-Dickey loop.)

Sunday, July 05, 2009

We Thought He Was Bigger

There was some sun yesterday but not much of it. Rain, or the threat of it, was always close by. That’s two and a half weeks of dreariness. So you can imagine the excitement when Atticus and I awoke this morning to blue skies and the puffiest white clouds I’ve ever seen!

We were out the door by 6:00 a.m. and on our hilly 6.6 mile loop. We walked by the Wentworth Golf Club before it woke up, crossed over the Wildcat River on the Stone Bridge, turned left at the post office and walked uphill on Black Mountain Road for a bit more than a mile and a half. Gosh, this uphill sends knives in my low back ever since my falls on Madison, it so steep!

Once we crested the hill at the Christmas Farm Inn my lungs and heart relaxed and the knives came out of my back. The road leveled for a bit and the cool air, so reminiscent of autumn in New England, refreshed us. There are some beautiful homes and stunning views on this road, then a large farm and open fields with North and South Doublehead Mountain ever watchful. We kept walking until we reached the base of Black Mountain. There we turned left onto an Moody Farm Road and blessedly the uphill part our journey was mostly done.

The great thing about walking these country lanes so early in the morning is that we can walk in the middle of the road and if traffic is coming we can hear it approaching in the distance. After a mile or so that road ended and we turned left on Carter Notch Road, following the Wildcat River and the pastoral beauty of back road beauty. When we came to the stately spread of the Eagle Mountain House, one of the biggest inns here, we started to encounter a few people.

The Eagle Mountain House has its own golf course, just across the street. The scenery is beautiful, but it’s clear the course is nowhere near as nice as the Wentworth’s. Just down the street on the right that is the smaller but quaint Carter Notch Inn. Once beyond this we were home free. We walked downhill next to the cascading Jackson Falls while looking up at the prominence of North Moat off in the distance. After the falls we walked by a few folks out on the
porch of the Wentworth Inn (the town’s second biggest inn), the antique library and the old white church.

We stopped, as we do most every morning, at the J-Town Deli. I got the paper and I also got an iced coffee and we ordered a sesame bagel to share. (I do miss Abraham’s Bagels in Newburyport. There’s nothing quite like it up here. Perhaps there’s nothing quite like Abraham’s anywhere other than on Liberty Street in Newburyport.) John and Genn have owned the J-Town Deli for the last four years and they are a friendly couple who makes everyone feel welcome. That includes Atticus, who more often than not is offered a dog biscuit.

We sat at one of the outside tables and a caravan of hikers who stayed in one of the local inns soon arrived. When they were coming out, one of the women stopped and asked if she could pet Atticus.

Atticus, go say hello,” I told him. While he was bouncing over to say hello, she got an excited look on her face.

“Oh my God, is that THE Atticus? The mountain climber?”

“We were talking about him at dinner last night.” She paused. A surprised look came on her face. “We thought he’d be much bigger.”

“Nope. What you see is what you get.”

She told the other members of her party who it was she was petting and before too long a digital camera appeared and photos were snapped. At the end the woman asked if she could pose with Atticus. But when she got to close to him he pulled away from her. When she promised to keep her hands to herself he returned as sat next to her and more photos were taken.

Then it was back home to write – first a couple of letters, then a new chapter. This is a good life. All we’re missing the one we both love. When she’s home again, we’ll be a family.

(Photo of Wentworth Golf Club and the small covered bridge is taken from Jackson Chamber website.)

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Cost of Celebrity? No Sunglasses for the Little Guy

Over the past two weeks I received emails from readers wondering just what did happen on the Pine Link Trail. Folks were kind to be concerned about us and I was inconsiderate in not posting a quick follow-up to my original post. Once again, I want to thank those who contacted me. But there’s one I wanted to address and I asked the author of it if I could publish it on the blog.

John Sobetzer was kind enough to give the go ahead. John hikes with his young miniature schnauzer, Pepper. They’ve already done the 48 4,000-footers together and they continue to hike, as you will see in his email.

We first met John and Pepper on the Southern Presidentials last year and we had a nice chat. Occasionally we touch base by email and I’m sure when our hiking schedule picks up in the late summer, there’s a good chance we’ll run into them again.

Unfortunately, as John points out, there are some out there who think Atticus is still blind. I’m not sure why this is as most have kept up with his trials and tribulations and the successful cataract surgery. Either way, it’s not the first time I’ve heard this rumor about Atticus so this is as good a time as any to repeat that the cataract surgery he had two years ago was very successful. He sees just fine now.

Perhaps it’s the price of celebrity. At least now I know when he hits the big time when ‘Following Atticus’ is published and we’re on tour, I’ll have to tell him he’s not allowed to wear sunglasses so many of today’s stars don. People wouldn’t think he was cool, they’d just think he was blind.

Hi Tom:

I'm waiting in suspense to hear what it was that was more than you and Atticus bargained for. Don't wait until the fall season to end the cliff hanger.

I say this because I got a huge scare while hiking the Hancocks last Saturday. I didn't run into anyone until I was hiking down from the last peak and then several groups in a row saw Pepper, and then asked me if I knew Atticus. I said I had the distinct honor or seeing him and you last year and we talked briefly about him. But the last guy looked at me and said he had hiked with you and then added when referring to Atticus: "You know he's blind. It's so sad."

Argh. I couldn't believe it. Not again. My heart sank.

I thought about your web page and feared that is what you were referring to. But then my mind started to work and I pressed him on when he had last seen you, hoping it had been prior to the time when Atticus had been so sick. As he tried to remember I cut in and said: "Is this something that just happened in the past couple of weeks or is it from a while ago?" He said the latter and a wave of relief came over

After we finished our discussion I gave Pepper some extra attention and the two of us bounded down the trail, suddenly happy once again.

Atticus' story touches all dog lovers and your web page shares it. But it is an ongoing adventure and these cliffhangers can be scary.

John Sobetzer & Pepper

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Trouble on Mount Madison

My apologies for not following up the last post in a timely manner. All is well with Atticus and me, so please do not worry. I thank those of you who have written in to make sure we are okay. I’ve been preoccupied with the book and finishing up the proposal for my agent.

On our hike up the Pine Link Trail, I did encounter more than I was ready for. It was an off day and I struggled from the beginning of the hike. We got an early start to beat the heat, but not as early as I would have liked. In the first half mile I felt dehydrated and the thick foliage of the forest seemed to hold the heat and humidity in. My head grew hot, my ears were burning and I drank as much as I could. I kept waiting to hit stride and find a rhythm but that wasn't happening. Some hikes start out a bit rough, but your body catches up with you. But that would not happen as we climbed up the trail on this day.

I knew I was in trouble when we got to the second outlook and looked up at the summit of Madison. It was only a mile and a half away but it looked more like it was 15 miles away. When your head plays tricks on you like this it is a sign of fatigue. And yet we continued on.

Atticus was doing well and showing none of the signs of wear and tear I was so the problem wasn’t so much with the day or the trail but with me. This surprised me since up to this point in the season I’ve been hiking much faster than I was last year. I’ve literally been flying over the mountains compared to previous years - something I attribute to the herbs I've been taking. But on the Pine Link Trail I suffered more than I ever have in any spring or summer hike.

When we merged with the Howker Trail we sat in the shade for a bit and ate something. Atticus kept looking at me with a cocked head. This is atypical of him, so I suppose I should have taken it as a sign that I wasn’t looking all that good but I was feeling well enough to trudge on. And that's exactly what this hike turned into - a trudge.

Meanwhile the black flies and the mosquitoes had made a meal out of me that day. They were as bad as I’ve ever experienced them. The black flies were in my eyes, nose, ears and mouth. I had placed my bandanna under my sunglasses so it would shield my mouth and nose but they still found the openings. Even bug juice would not keep them off my arms or legs. At one point I looked down at my legs and saw a lot of blood. I was not cut, it was simply from all the bugs I had killed.

The further we went the more breaks I had to take. It felt like I was spending more time hanging over my trekking poles than I was walking. Eventually we made it over treeline and the sun was beating down on us. Off in the distance rescue helicopters played their haunting song looking for the 70-year old hiker they would never find. I hate this sound, it's like a banshee song and I think the worst whenever I hear it.

We rock hopped above treeline and after a short while I took a nasty fall. My head and neck snapped backwards and I hit a rock. I sat and took inventory. The summit was not too far away but I was getting a little weak. My goal was to make the summit of Madison, continue down to the hut and then rest there and drink as much water as I could before our return trip. However, I fell a second time, this time landing on my back. I didn’t dare move for fear that I’d done some damage. Atticus was soon upon me, looking down at me and I could see visions of him circling me like you’d see in cartoons. This was not good. I waited and slowly moved each body part to make sure I was doing okay.

The two falls were uncharacteristic for me and a sign of my dehydration. Then when I checked the color of my urine I knew I was battling dehydration. It should have been clear but it was almost brown. Not a good sign.

We were less than half a mile from the summit when I decided that while I may be able to make the summit, I wasn’t so sure I’d be able to get back down again. It was decision time.

For the first time ever in a non-winter hike, I turned back shy of the summit.

The return trip took forever. I stumbled continuously but never fell. But poor Atticus, with each stumble I took, his head would snap around and he’d come running back as if he was going to catch me before I tumbled once again. Good dog.

The Pine Link Trail has some very steep sections and I struggled with them. There were many times when I just had to sit down and let my head stop spinning. At one point I even lay down and closed my eyes and fell asleep. I awoke with a start - Atticus was tucked up beside me with his head on my chest.

I am happy to report that while the hike down was painfully slow, we eventually made it back to the house (only a 14 mile ride) just fine. I climbed into a cold shower and then went to bed where I slept like a drunkard.

It took a few days for me to find my center again and we haven’t hiked since, although that has more to do with the rainy weather and concentrating on the book than anything else at this point. We’ve been doing some longer road walks on the back streets of Jackson and I’m happy to report that other than a few back spasms, I’m fine. The climb up the Carter Notch Road is a steep one and the loop we’ve been doing is actually tougher than some of the mountain hikes we’ve done.

I cannot say for sure what did me in that day, but it just goes to show you that even when you are feeling strong and fast, bad things can happen on a mountain. In the end, a hiker is responsible for getting himself to safety and that’s what I did. As the great climber Ed Viesturs has simply but elegantly stated, “Getting to the top is optional, but getting back down is mandatory.” This is not just true for the likes of Everest; it’s also true for a mountain like Madison.

We will be returning to the trails as soon as the weather improves.