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, January 30, 2010

Moon & Stars & Wind on Moriah

“It is in the compelling zest of high adventure and of victory, and in creative action, that man finds his supreme joys.”
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

With the sun already asleep, the temperature below 10 degrees and dropping and winds coming from the northwest strong enough to rattle window panes and roof shingles and still rising, I heard a whisper.

It made no sense, of course. Atticus and I were sitting in front of the fireplace, ready to have our dinner. The stew had been slow-cooking all day and it filled every nook and cranny of our home with a wonderful aroma and was joined by the sweetest strains of Duke Ellington and his band. There was no need to go out, especially on such a night. Except there was that whisper. That whisper, of course, was the call to adventure and when adventure calls it does not consider the time of day, the season or the temperature. And so defying all reason we answered the call.

Just over half an hour later Atticus and I were on the other side of Pinkham Notch leaving the warmth of our car – the last safety we would know that night – as we crossed a bridge and entered the frozen forest. (Notice how many fairy tales start in the exact same manner?) The woods were lit by the nearly full moon and there was no need to waste the batteries on my headlamp, so it was left off. Instead I followed little Atticus and that mischievous moon, which seemed to be smiling down at us.

When it came time to cross Stony Brook we stopped by the edge and picked out the safest way. At that moment the water itself pulsed with life. The moon, it seems, was lending all of us her magic. Once beyond the crossing the moon shadows breathed life into the trees and they appeared to be moving to let us pass. The wind was strong but it was still above the treetops and we were warmed by our movement and filled with the excitement of whatever it was that was calling us forward.

There is a wonderful place where the Stony Brook Trail ends and you are forced to choose to go either left or right on the Carter Moriah Trail. It seems to me to be an ancient place. The signs are weathered and pockmarked, as if they’ve been there for centuries, or better yet, as if you’ve climbed beyond civilization and entered a time long forgotten where roads were but forest paths and primitive signs marked the way. The intersection also marks the place in this hike where the most difficult part is over. It’s 3.3 miles from the car and 1.7 to the summit of Mount Moriah and most of the elevation gain is done.

Turning left we entered a tunnel through the forest and the wind was now beating down on the top of these hearty trees. We climbed up and down, moving along this roller coaster part of the trail and then as if we had come to the end of one world and now stood at the doorway of another we stepped out of the trees and onto the first of the ledges. It was like stepping into a photographic negative: enchanting, wild, mysterious and so very far away from our hot stew and fireplace and warm couch. And wildest of all was the wind! It roared at us, tossed us a bit from side to side, made us pay attention to each step as we looked down into the Wild River Valley and beyond to the mountains of Maine. It seemed mad to be out but we were both safe. (Atticus knows to turn back when he needs or wants to. He did so the very next day on our nightly constitutional around Jackson.) For some mysterious reason it was clear we both were called to this place and needed to be here in this wind, in these subfreezing temperatures under this magnificent moonlight.

We moved from ledge to ledge, from time to time turning around to look over our shoulders at the northern Presidentials. It was bitterly cold but we were dressed for it and pressed onwards, all the while the excitement of being someplace no one in their right mind would be at that moment was growing. We were in a world of our very own. Our hearts beat with breathless excitement as we crossed from one ledge to the next, submerging into the trees and then emerging again, each time into a more frenzied wind as loud as a dragon roaring at us on some mystical mountain.

At the end of ‘Walden’ Thoreau wrote: “I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.”

We were living those words, climbing into the cold and wind and refusing to ‘go below now’. We both wanted more!

Eventually we ducked into the trees for the last time and reached that chute that leads to the table-sized summit. We made our last climb and then reached the summit and we did our best to hold onto ourselves as the wind pushed and pulled at us. Atticus nudged me with his nose. I picked him up and we warmed one another and looked out at this fantastic world we were in. All time stopped. We were at a time and place most will never know and would rather not know.

In John Neihardt’s book “Black Elk Speaks”, the Oglala Sioux medicine man named Black Elk talks of having a vision where he saw himself on the “central mountain of the world…the highest place” and he was seeing the “sacred manner of the world”. That central mountain wasn’t Everest nor another of the highest peaks, nor was it a in a known holy land like Jerusalem. The sacred mountain in his vision was Harney Peak in South Dakota. What Black Elk was saying was that we all have our sacred mountains and sacred places.

Moriah may not be the highest mountain, but it’s where we needed to be, where we were called to. Under a nearly full moon, in conditions we wouldn’t typically be out in, we stood on our “highest place” and looked out on the world and it’s as if we knew everything we ever needed to know and felt all we’d ever need to feel.

Our adventures lately have taken place indoors and mostly at my desk and we needed something different. We had been called away from nearly every comfort we know and found ourselves in a bitter environment fully aware and alive. It was one of those moments that define us. We leave behind the world and chance losing ourselves only to find ourselves again and again.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Here's To Bold Beginnings

There are two Jacksons in my life. Both are special to me. One is a new friend. It’s Jackson the town. We moved into last May and already it feels like a home I never want to say goodbye to. The other Jackson I’ve known a little longer. It’s Mount Jackson and it sits proudly looking out over Crawford Notch. It seems as though for some mysterious reason Atticus and I are linked to this mountain and it knows us well. It calls to me when I need it most and understands what I most need.

If you listen well, you come to know that all mountains have stories to tell, but what’s different about Mount Jackson is that it seems to know my stories. It extracts them from me even when they are secrets I’d rather not share; even if I wish it wouldn’t. There are some things a man would rather keep to himself. But this mountain does what it will to me and even if I resist it wins out and my heart is opened and my secrets spill out on the rocks and trees.

It’s as if in that initial climb upon entering the forest the trees are taking my temperature as if to say, “What did you bring us today, Tom?” Sometimes I smile and walk briskly up without much breath lost. Other times I struggle. Yesterday I struggled. Nope, I cannot hide myself from this mountain. It can read my mind and whatever is in it plays out in my body.

At my worst on any climb when I feel I cannot go any further I slow my pace and count steps. I tell myself that when I get to 100 I can take a break. But that doesn’t come until later in a hike when I’m tired from the climb. Yesterday, just a couple of minutes after stepping on the trail, I was hurting. I was weighed down by a heavy heart. The steps came slowly and I started counting and I was so weary I barely made 50 steps before I stopped. I began again. Again I was lucky to reach 50. This went on the entire way up the mountain. We had it to ourselves and it’s a good thing because it was clear the mountain wanted my undivided attention to reach deep inside of me and study what was wrong.

You see, I have this friend who is in dire need. He’s at the most important crossroads he’ll ever come to in his life and he’s paralyzed by fear. He’s attempting to leave a tragically troubled life behind and move forward towards a life he’s always dreamed off. I’ve given my friend and his quandary a lot of thought and energy. He can see where he wants to go and everything is laid out perfectly waiting for him to just say yes to his greatest adventure. But try as he will he cannot take those first steps. It’s as if life has been too cruel to him and he believes he’ll never have anything but shattered dreams.

Now I know this man well and I realize the only way he loses is if he doesn’t move forward. And I’ve tried my best to get him to believe that and to move forward but no matter how much I try I cannot help him. And after all this time I believe he is at the end of his rope and there’s nothing I can do.

No wonder I was struggling up the mountain yesterday, taking 50 steps then stopping to catch my breath before struggling to reach another 50 – I was carrying him the entire time. I kept promising myself that if I could go a little farther it would somehow send him a message that he could go a little farther, too. I struggled on the mountain, just as he is struggling in life. I found it hard to breathe, just as he finds it hard to breathe when anxiety wraps itself like a snake around his lungs and fills them with fear.

I know myself well enough to know that no matter how much some climbs test me all the suffering goes away as soon as I reach the summit. After that all becomes clear. There is no more pain or suffering. So as I shuffled up the mountain, following a very patient Atticus, I worried for my friend and dedicated my climb to him.

My friend reminds me so much of my father. And Jackson reminds me of him, too. In the days leading up to his death this same mountain reached inside me and helped me to understand a man who had been a mystery to me for most of his life. We often warred with each other because he believed that daring to dream was the worst thing a man could do since none of his dreams had come true. But I differed with him. And so we often went years without speaking all because one of us lived in a world built on dreams and one refused to give them air to breathe.

It’s no wonder I chose Jackson for our hike yesterday. It wasn’t intentional – at least not on my part. But I cannot speak for this mysterious mountain.

Eventually we reached the top and as soon as Atticus and I stood there looking from the face of one mountain to the next it was as it always is – the trouble in getting there disappeared and all that was left was the reason I dare to take that first step – even though I know it’s going to hurt by the time I get to the top. Once on top everything is so clear.

Yesterday as I sat on that mountaintop with Atticus on my lap as the gray jays nibbled sunflower seeds out of my hand. I remembered what T. S. Eliot wrote:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

The only tragedy is never taking that first step.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Atticus in his New K9 Top Coat Body Suit

Recently the good people at K9 Top Coat were good enough to give Atticus their Arctic Fleece Body Suit. When we first started winter hiking he wore another of their products but that was five years and four pounds ago. The new suit is perfect for him in that it is much more fluid than the older suit.

He wore it today on Mount Jackson, even though he didn't really need it. It wasn't cold and besides, he's built up a resistance to all but the lowest winter temperatures. Still, it was good to get him some practice in it and it kept the snow from clinging to the hair on his legs.

The boots are his purple set of Muttluks.