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.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Hey Booboo, He's Not Your Average Bear!

On Sunday night, a report was filed about a hungry bear at the Osgood tent site, which is just a few miles down the road from us. I'm suppose I should feel sorry for the hikers, but considering the boldness of the bear, I found myself liking his chutzpa. Yes, it's a different world up here compared to quaint, comfortable Newburyport, where the only thing I ever had to worry about as the editor and publisher of The Undertoad, was my trash going missing when the police had the urge to search it. Below is a report that showed up on the popular northeast hiking forum Views From The Top ( The motto of the story is quite clear: you can yell, cuss, stomp your feet at Mother Nature all you want and she's still going to do whatever she wants to do.

"We were at Osgood Tentsite 3 nights this week. Two of the three nights, other campers reported food taken by a bear. In the second case, they had their food up, and had taken it down in the early morning and sitting in front of their tent as they were striking camp. Bear came in and grabbed one of their bags. They yelled at him and he took off - with their next three nights' dinners. [TRIP ABORT]. Not Good."

Friday, August 28, 2009

Traffic Jams, Jackson Style

“I went to call you yesterday morning but I don't have your number in my phone. Must have lost it somehow. I was stuck in traffic. There was a fatal accident on 495 and it took me 2 hours to go 5 miles. Frustrating. Total commute time was 3 hours. Then going home last night someone drove off the road into the woods south of the Pike. That turned into a 90 minute commute. So in all I spent 4 and a half hours on the road.” ~ An email from my brother David

During a lecture the late mythologist Joseph Campbell shared the following...
A bit of advice given to a young Native American at the time of his initiation: “As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm. Jump. It’s not as far as you think.”

A few years ago, upon first getting to feel these mountains under my feet, I knew right away I needed to live in them no matter what the cost. At the time such a move seemed impossible to make. I was comfortable and in Newburyport I’d found the kind of community I always wanted to live in and found my calling as a writer. But the power of the mountains is both strong and mysterious and when the time came I didn’t hesitate – I jumped. One of the reasons I did so was because of the exact scenario brother David emailed me about. But it wasn’t just because of traffic. Traffic was only a symptom of the greater stresses of the world I knew. I longed for a simpler, less cluttered life; one not twisted up in the vortex of a society in constant competitive hyper-drive or the mania of owning things.

On the day my brother spent four and a half hours on the road, I spent four and a half hours on North and South Doublehead – twin peaks here in Jackson. It was the day summer relaxed its grip and the high temperatures and smothering humidity broke. Even the maddening bugs disappeared for the first time in months.

What a difference: my brother in stuck in traffic, me following Atticus up the steep Old Path to the col between the two peaks. While he was bumper to bumper, inhaling exhaust fumes, surrounded by angry commuters, Atticus and I were surrounded by dense forest primeval, so thick and tangled it was hard to imagine another human being there at any time in the past several weeks. I can’t say the same for moose. There were signs of them everywhere. I kept waiting for one of them to come lumbering through the woods. While David sat in traffic and drummed his fingers on his steering wheel, I sat on a cool, mossy rock feeling like I had stumbled upon a lost world. At about the time he was just beginning to creep along on his journey home, Atticus and I stood on the first ledges of South Doublehead. Below us the hills and fields of Jackson glowed in the late afternoon sun and rolled happily along. A breeze swirled around us playing with my hair and Atticus’ floppy ears. Its refreshing chill was a hint of things to come – the first taste of autumn’s crisp, clean air.

South Doublehead is a remarkable summit. It offers unique views towards the Presidential Range and even more so towards the Moats. North Moat stands out particularly, much like the prow of a great ship cutting through an undulating green sea. Had the artists who flocked to the White Mountains in the 1800s ever stood on top of the South peak I don’t think they would have ever left. That’s how captivating it is, especially in the glow of the end of the day when light is softer and more beguiling and the green of the valley invites you to sit back and put your feet up and take a deep breath. From this angle the view to the south plays tricks on your eyes. It is as if you are seeing North Conway long before the outlets or big box stores arrived, long before even the first house was built. There’s nothing to be seen but the rugged edifices of Cathedral and White Horse ledges and the pulsing mountains and valleys.

North Doublehead is not so special, at least when it comes to views. But on the way over we traveled through that great moose hall of twisted trees and could just imagine how many of the great beasts had made their way to that col through the years. The climb up North is a little steep in places but the cool air made it easier than it would have been just a day before. The lone view is from behind the cabin, on a little rock porch down a ways, and it looks out towards Maine. Were it not for what we’d seen on South Doublehead, it would have been much more impressive. Still, it was a fine place to stop and sit and drink in the cool of the shadows.

I didn’t have the heart to tell my brother David that the closest thing I’ve seen to a traffic jam around these parts as of late occurred when we were on our way back home after coming off of the Doubleheads. We stopped at a small, out of the way pond we’ve grown fond of, and in a 10 minute span we saw a Great Blue Heron, a beaver, a moose and two ducks. That’s about as cluttered as it gets here in Jackson during the summer, unless you count the line at the J-Town Deli on weekend mornings or when the mail arrives at 10:30 at the Jackson Post Office.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Hedgehog At Sunset

Think back to the fairy tales of your childhood and how the rich, dark woods were as textured as the characters themselves. I have felt like I’ve stumbled into such an enchanted forest whenever entering the woods to climb Mount Hedgehog. They evoke a feeling of other worldliness and each step into nature and up the mountain is a step into a realm where mystery and magic meet and society is left behind. The child within me half expects to come face to face with a gnome or dwarf. And no matter how often I trod the familiar path and never see such a creature, I never doubt I could actually see one around the next bend in the trail.

I get to Hedgehog as often as I can because before too long many of the trees in the area will be wiped out by the lumber industry. I fear that not unlike the children who would be the kings in queens in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, there will come a time when I’ll never reach it again and all I’ll see will be the stubbled remains of where a forest used to stand and where magic used to live.

Oh, I know there are plenty of special places here in the mountains, but there’s something about this particular area that has always resonated with me. Why? I cannot say, other than to say it’s like love – you know it when you feel it and it is nearly impossible to describe in words. And while the Forest Service has always allowed logging in the White Mountains, there’s never been a time in recent years where they will level nature so close to a trail.

Last Saturday I was in the mood to visit those woods again but I didn’t want to deal with the crowds or the heat of August so we didn’t arrive at the trailhead until 5:00 p.m. and the only people we saw were those getting ready to leave. I had planned it right and Atticus and I had the mountain to ourselves. Whenever that happens, I enter the woods with a childlike trill running through my body, my senses tingling with excitement.

In the first mile and a half of the nearly five mile loop I saw numerous trees marked by tape revealing where the destruction will take place. It’s incredible when you consider how many will be removed and the generations that will pass until a person can stand where I was and see such mature trees again. As we passed these areas I felt like I was saying goodbye to old friends I’d gotten to know these last few years.

Hedgehog is only 2500 feet high, but like all mountains it makes you work. There are easy parts and there are parts where you have to push yourself. The discomfort takes over – shortness of breath, racing heart, sweating, low back pain – but it brings a gift with it. You cannot think of anything but what you are doing and where you are. Distractions evaporate. The mind becomes clear. It’s here in the stripping away that the senses become even more alive and on Hedgehog this happens just before you reach the breathtaking open Eastern Ledge. You leave the woods and yourself behind and scramble up large shelves of rock and suddenly you stand on the edge of the mountain. Far below the green carpet of the valley sweeps away and up towards Chocorua, Paugus, and Passaconaway – mountains even grander than the great Indian chiefs they were named for.

This is our favorite place on the loop and when we arrived we spent a great deal of time sitting and looking out at the views while growing shadows brought a welcomed coolness. Even in the shadows though, the scene in front of us was amazingly bright while the sinking sun cast everything in a golden hue.

After a lengthy visit we left the ledges and entered the woods for the climb up to the summit. Here the forest grew so dark I could barely see and I had to let my eyes adjust but where my sight failed my sense of smell grew strong. The musky smell of earth, pine and decaying wood entered me. The deeper we went the more we were enveloped by shadows so dark it felt like night. Then, on the western edge of the mountain the setting sun splashed through the trees like a breaking wave and the forest was flooded with that same golden light. We were bathed in it as we walked the twisting trail until we were face to face with Passaconaway. The name itself translates to ‘Son of the Bear’ and I could almost imagine it coming to life and looming above us like a giant bear.

The climb was done and we settled in for some more views before heading down to finish off the loop. But there was still one more stop to make. Just before night completely fell, we reached Allen’s Ledge. Here we sat for the third time and watched the night roll across the sky until the stars pin-pricked their way through the blue-black sea overhead. Here you really could count the stars, although I fear once you started you’d never finish.

Amazing, isn’t it, how the various facets of a journey come together like patches on a quilt? Each area of the mountain shared something different with us. And although night had fallen we still had one more to experience. The final pages of our journey came in the last mile when the mountain came to life even more with its mysterious smells and sounds. Trees creaked and groaned, beasts both big and small moved just out of sight – a scampering here, a crashing through brush there. That’s when we reached the place Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote about: “Night, the beloved. Night, when words fade and things come alive. When the destructive analysis of day is done, and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again. When man reassembles his fragmentary self and grows with the calm of a tree.”

There were times in that last mile when we stopped and I turned off my headlamp and we just enjoyed that ‘beloved’ night on this beloved mountain. I pledged that I would return again as often as I can before the forest is stripped bare and with it much of the magic. Perhaps each subsequent visit will allow me to build a replica of this world in my imagination so that this doomed forest will live on if only in my memory.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hedgehog for Sunset

Late in the day Saturday, Atticus and I headed over to the Kancamagus Highway, a relatively short distance from Jackson if you utilize Bear Notch Road, for a sunset hike along the Hedgehog loop. This is one of my favorite small mountains. The summit elevation is 2,520 feet and the loop is 4.8 miles. It's perfect for the end of the day. We dallied on the breathtaking East Ledge, the summit, and Allen's Ledge and made the loop in 3 hours.

In photo #1 Atticus is looking out towards Chocorua. In the next he's on the natural stone couch on the East Ledge while Mount Passaconaway (one of the 4,000-footers) looms behind him. In the third photo he's looking out over the sweeping valley that leads up to Square Ledge. Photo #4 is a shot of Passaconaway, named for one of the great Indian chiefs in the area. The name translates to 'Son of the Bear'. Legend has it that when Passaconway died, a sleigh pulled by wolves brought him to the be with the Great Spirits on top of Mount Washington. The last photo is a study in light and shade with Atticus in the foreground and Chocorua in the background both shaded, while nearly everything in between is lit by the late sun.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Starting the Day on Black Cap

Summer’s waning. It hit me this morning when I got out of bed at 5:15 and beat the sun up by nearly 30 minutes. In the past six weeks we’ve lost daylight. Funny to think of it that way with August just under way, but it is true. Time flies. It always has; it always will.

Soon after I got up, Atticus and I were making our way through the sun-dappled forest. The air was cool, the path gentle, the woods greener than I’ve ever seen them in August. We moved over rock and root and smooth earth, deeper into nature, higher up the small mountain, into my prayers. Heart and lungs started to wake, then legs. The tightness in my low back eased. So did my shoulders. The forest enveloped us. Birds settled on branches and watched us pass, occasionally filling the air with song. The only other sounds were my steps and breath. Sweat ran down my face, rivulets flowed down my spine. In the quietude with a body in motion, I reached that release that comes with the Zen moment that is born when I’m not pushing too hard or in too much of a hurry to get up the mountain. Thoughts mingle with breath, both are inhaled, both expelled. The tide comes in and then goes out again. Freedom.

From time to time people ask me if I miss Newburyport. This question is never asked of me up here, it’s always asked by Newburyporters. In the mountains people understand how special this area is. Folks from Newburyport, however, can’t imagine wanting to live elsewhere but where they live. I couldn’t at one time either. Such was the draw of that little city where the Merrimac flows into the Atlantic. But times change, people do too. Or at least people can change. That’s what happened to me. I loved the intrigue, the tempest in a teapot world of Newburyport politics and couldn’t imagine wanting to ever go anywhere else. I was in the middle of everything that happened. There was even a six year period – the first six years of running The Undertoad – where I only spent two nights out of town. Imagine that. In six years I spent only one weekend away. It was all Newburyport all the time.

The shift started when Atticus and I climbed Mount Garfield with my brothers. I couldn’t believe such places actually existed in the world. I stood on that rocky summit with views over a seemingly endless ocean of mountains and I felt God’s rapture. Over the next two years I returned often. I didn’t realize it at that time, but I began to understand that I no longer belonged in Newburyport. Here in the mountains I found the peace I’d always sought.

Then came that winter when Atticus and I tried to complete two rounds of the 48 in 90 days. It was at times a brutal but magnificent challenge. We ended up four hikes shy of our goal. But it was during that quest when the final shift took place. Atticus and I were walking along the sweeping snowfields between Mount Washington and Mount Monroe. We were alone on that ethereal February day and the wind howled and the clouds rose like ghosts out of the ravines and flew by. Halfway down the cone of Washington Atticus stopped and waited for me. Just as I reached him a curtain of clouds rose and revealed the summits of Monroe, Eisenhower and Pierce under a sky so blue my eyes ached. They were caked in ice and snow and we were wrapped in winter, this little dog and I. By the time we reached Pierce we’d be on our 65th peak of the winter.

Atticus put his front paws on my leg and asked me to pick him up. He settled into the crook of my arm and together we looked out at those mountains below us and before us. There was no sign of civilization, or of life itself, just an astonishing, vast wasteland of white. Alone on that mountainside with Atticus, that’s when it hit me – we’d come too far.

I had literally walked out of Newburyport and my life there and into my new one. I had unintentionally left my life behind and there and then I understood that there would be no going back for us. It was a lonely and horrifying, but at the same time, liberating sensation.

When I returned to Newburyport the two of us were thrown back into small city life and brought back to earth, especially when Atticus went blind and the cancer scare surfaced. I would at first fight the change by trying to stay with the familiar. I even entered the race for mayor. But it was not to be. I would end up dropping out before the election. I was being called home. Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, said it best, “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

I wasn’t the only one who saw it. On her
Newburyport Blog Mary Eaton would later write:

“I remember watching Tom at a Newburyport City Council meeting after that experience was over, and thinking to myself, ‘The mountains have captured him.’ And they had. And there was the ultimate, ‘Shall I stay in Newburyport, or not stay in Newburyport’ question, when Mr. Ryan threw his hat into the ring as a mayoral candidate this fall. It sounded as if when it came to Newburyport, MA, that in the end, ‘all passions were spent.’ And Mr. Ryan left Newburyport, MA on October 1, 2007 for the White Mountains of New Hampshire.”
Mary was right, my Newburyport ‘passions were spent’. But there were other passions that took hold.

In Newburyport I not only wrote about politics, I planted myself in the middle of them. I literally inhaled them. Far too often that translates into writing about how mankind fails and what is wrong with the world. That’s especially true in a place once known as ‘Cannibal City’ because of its politics. On the other hand, the mountains revealed to me what was right with the world. It brought me back in time to a place where I wasn’t so jaded or dubious and I believed in magic and was filled with awe and wonder.

So do I miss Newburyport? Well, let me answer it this way. Yesterday we began the morning with a walk to Diana’s Baths. We were early enough to have it to ourselves and we sat on a rock slab at the top of the majestic falls where I said my prayers while Atticus watched the water flowing, spinning and churning past us. Today we started the day by climbing Black Cap, a short peak with stunning views. One day a waterfall. The next a mountaintop.

Interestingly enough I inherited my love of both politics and the mountains from my father. I thought of him this morning when we reached the top of Black Cap and the rays of the morning sun. He would have loved this life. There was something, however, in Jack Ryan’s life that refused to allow him to reach for his dreams. It was as if he believed they would always be just out of reach for him.

Towards the end of his life he told me about a dream he had the night before. He had died and was approaching the gates of heaven. Inside he could hear Mozart playing. Not just the music of Mozart, but Mozart himself. He could also hear the crack of a bat and the cheer of the crowd. His brother-in-law Bill Shea was already in Heaven and he spoke to my father.

“Jack, the Sox need you to pitch. Hurry up and get inside here!”

Then he saw my mother, his beloved Isabel, and her mother and father and they all told him how much they loved him and how much they’d missed him.

He hurried to the gates with a young boy’s bursting exuberance. When he reached it, the angel standing guard said, “I’m sorry. You are not allowed.”

When my father told me that dream he had tears in his eyes. Without saying it, he’d summed up much of how he saw his life.

So here I sit, not just writing a book, but also chasing after my dreams, after starting the day on a mountaintop with Atticus, and I know – I just know – that Jack Ryan would have loved this journey and this life.

My father, in his younger years, loved poetry. One of his favorites was Tennyson. He’s also one of my favorites. Today would have been Tennyson’s 200th birthday. One of the only poems I ever memorized is his “Break, Break, Break” and I recited it this morning while we stood surrounded by mountaintops. It goes like this:

Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

O, well for the fisherman's boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O, well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.

Here’s to dreams and the willingness to chase after them. Life is, after all, fleeting.