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.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Caribou Mountain

“When ambition ends, happiness begins.” ~ Thomas Merton

A hike is a walk in the woods that turns into a meditation, then a prayer, and finally a song. It’s rhythmic. It’s your heart, breath and the sound of your feet. It’s simple. It’s a return to basics and a return to innocence. It’s finding yourself alone in the woods and seeing the streams, rocks, trees and wildlife and recognizing all of it as wondrous – and then realizing you recognize the same thing in yourself.

That’s why I hike.

And this summer we’re seeking those very experiences by limiting distraction as much as possible. We’re concentrating on going mostly to places we haven’t been before, on seeing things we haven’t seen, on seeking out earthen paths that are not as crowded as the morning line at the counter of your local Dunkin’ Donuts. To that end we’re going to be spending some time over in Evans Notch during the next few weeks.

Evans is not as well known as its big brothers: Franconia, Crawford and Pinkham; but it’s no less beautiful. And it’s not quite as ambitious. By that I mean the mountains aren’t sexy. They’re not name peaks. You won’t get a patch for hiking them or get your name on a list. They are simply mountains and you go there to hike them simply because you like to hike and to have your soul filled with magnificent views. And best yet, while they are rugged, none of them top 4,000-feet so the crowds stay away.

It also helps that Evans Notch is just a bit out of the way and sits in the cleavage between New Hampshire and Maine.

Our first hike in the area was last weekend and we set out at noon for Caribou Mountain, a 6.3 mile hike. When we pulled into the parking lot I was thrilled to see only a couple of cars.

We made our way up the Caribou Trail through sun-dappled woods that were mostly bug free. There was a whisper of a breeze and the trail was gentle and crossed over many feeder streams before it climbed along Morrison Brook and we came to various small waterfalls. Eventually we entered into the Caribou-Speckled Mountain Wilderness area and the trail was a bit thinner, the forest a bit wilder. We climbed higher and higher and still saw no one. There was something special about the day and the way the forest closed in about us. It grew darker, more foreboding and tangled and thick moss gathered on cool stones that rarely saw the light of day. We passed by beautiful Kees Falls (25 feet high) and when we finally climbed beyond Morrison Brook we came to the intersection of the Mud Brook Trail.

We took Mud Brook up to the ledges surrounding the summit of Caribou Mountain. We were alone and off in the distance in every direction there were fresh views. It was exciting and refreshing to be in a place where we’d never been before.

Clouds filled the sky and the only mountains that would have been recognizable to me – the Presidential Range and the Carter Range – were beheaded. It truly felt like an entirely different place. It was as not like being on Garfield for the tenth time or Franconia Ridge for the fifteenth time. It was as if we’d discovered an entirely new set of mountains.

Atticus and I sat on the summit and enjoyed our lunch and drank plenty of water. We then made our way down along the Mud Brook Trail, which was much steeper in its upper reaches than the Caribou Trail. Not far off of the summit we came to an open ledge that looked out toward Kezar Lake and we took another break. The sun broke through the clouds in places and turned some of the dark carpet of forest below us a golden green. Atticus found a small but lush tussock between rocks and made a bed of it. I followed his lead and used my backpack as a pillow. Together, with clouds as our blanket, we napped above the rich valley below. I’m not sure how long we slept for but we woke up rejuvenated. But we didn’t hurry on our way. We lay back and watched the clouds pass by and let our thoughts drift with them.

Merton, who knew a thing or two about solitude, wrote “Yet it is in this loneliness that the deepest activities begin. It is here that you discover act without motion, labor that is profound repose, vision in obscurity, and, beyond all desire, a fulfillment whose limits extend to infinity.”

Alone on that ledge that’s what I thought about. Not the loneliness Merton spoke of, but the rest of it – specifically the “fulfillment whose limits extend to infinity.”

That’s what this summer is about for us. It’s about renewal. We’re going where we won’t find as many people so that we can be filled with the peace of nature. On the way to reaching it the plan is quite simple – we just want to relax, get back to basics and find ourselves at play with the mountains we’ve come to love. No ambition. No lists.

We’re simply a man and a dog walking in the woods.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Slide Show: Caribou Mountain

Today we were in Evans Notch for a hike up Caribou. What a nice, quiet mountain. Only saw one other group today and we had the summit and the ledges to ourselves. We'll return to the notch later this week to climb Speckled Mountain to get the views of the beheaded Pressies and Carters we missed today. Our slide show from today's hike to Mount Caribou can be found here.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Introducing Baby Red

I believe we are off to hike Caribou by the Mud Brook and Caribou trails today. It's over in Evans Notch, but with Hurricane Mountain Road open, the drive will be much shorter for us. And, if I am correct and North and South Baldface are actually in New Hampshire, this will be our first hike in Maine.

That's what June is about for us. We're not only trying to get off road and back to the basics of the vernal wood, but also to check out places we haven't been before.

This morning I received a photo of a rabbit in Belmont, Massachusetts, with the accompanying note that a coyote has been seen nearby. It's a reminder that nature exists everywhere. It also is a poignant setting for the fight for life and death. Coyotes have spread into civilized areas and need to eat to live. The rabbit, in order to live, must both avoid the coyote, but also the civilized world.

Here, through my backyard window, in front of which I type these days, I saw all the gaily chattering birds scatter in an instance when a hawk flew into view and landed on a tree branch overlooking their peaceful gathering. Last year a similar looking hawk dived into the yard and snatched up a woodpecker. The poor woodpecker let out a terrifying scream. It was the last noise it would ever make.

On the other end of the spectrum, Atticus knows not to kill the chipmunks for squirrels in the yard, but what fun he has in giving chase to them. All, that is, except Baby Red, who he is not allowed to chase. Baby Red is the newest member of our backyard cast of characters. And as you can see by the photo of Baby Red playing hide and seek: as cute as he or she is tiny. (I'm not sure who the two kissing red squirrels are, but I believe one is Baby Red's mother.)

Monday, June 07, 2010

Hall's Ledge

Our exploration of places we've never been to continued with the return of the good weather. Late in the afternoon we drove to the end of Carter Notch Road here in Jackson and hiked to Hall's Ledge. It's only 1.6 miles each way, but since we took a wrong turn, it turned out to be a bit longer. The late day lighting was superb, as you can see by the photos at this little clearing we came to. What you can't see are all the black flies. They were out in force. As soon as we'd stop they'd be all over us. (Thank goodness for bug spray.)

And this is State of Maine

Last night Butkus stopped by the back yard. This morning, as I was sitting by the back window writing, State of Maine came by for a visit. Although he only came so close, because, I believe he could smell the bigger Butkus was here earlier and he seemed a bit skiddish.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

This is Butkus

You've met Amelia, our woodpecker with the horrible sense of direction. You've met her main squeeze, the jealous Bernard. You've met the She-munk, the local flirt. Well, meet Butkus.

He's a big old boy and a regular around these parts because of the restaurants in the area. He stops by two or three times a week, usually to tip the grill over so he can get to the grease pan. Other times he sits and grazes on the grass.

This afternoon, while I was in the tub reading Joseph Conrad's "The Heart of Darkness", while Atticus slept on a blanket beside the tub, we heard a loud noise outside the backdoor. By the time I got up and out of the tub and into the kitchen I saw Butkus walking away with our bird feeder.

I stepped outside and said, "Hey, Butkus...drop it!"

He turned to see me, dropped it, and then trotted towards the woods. But when he realized Atticus and I weren't chasing him and were just sitting down to watch, he returned. (That's a shot of him returning.)

I'm always happy to have Atticus as my friend, but as I've always said, there's something different about this little guy. Really now, how many dogs will sit and watch a bear with you and not go crazy? No barking. No whining. Just sitting and watching.

Earlier today he sat next to me as I fed a baby red squirrel out of my hand while its mother watched us from 10 feet away. There are times I'm more amazed by the little dog than the bears, beavers and moose up here.

To make matters even more exciting, as Atticus and I sat down to watch Butkus, a hummingbird buzzed right next to my head. (Okay, you hissy fit throwers, get ready to throw another because I've yet to put up the hummingbird feeder, but it's going up tomorrow.)

Any way, now you know Butkus. You've seen his photos before, but you weren't properly introduced. That's been taken care of. I'm sure you'll be seeing more of him in the future.

PS: In case you aren't aware of the name a kid he was my hero. Dick Butkus, that is. He was the middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Give Me that Old Time Redundancy

Having just turned in my manuscript for “Following Atticus” to my publisher this week, Atticus and I needed to get out from behind my writing desk and out into the world. So I set a simple goal: hike a trail of some sort each day for the month of June, weather allowing.

We’ve simply spent too much time inside, or when we’re outside, walking along roads and sidewalks. We needed to get away from black top and concrete and feel an earthen path underfoot. It’s a very simple goal and it has nothing to do with completing a list or climbing certain peaks. Although some trails we take will get us to the top of mountains, but they won’t necessarily be 4,000-footers. As a matter of fact, most of them probably won’t be 4,000-footers. This is more about discovering new places and a return to innocence. There are many trails we haven’t been on so opportunities abound.

Our first adventure was a little mountain I’ve always wondered about. Pine Mountain is a fine peak, or so I was led to believe. There’s two ways to access the mountain. One is to walk from Gorham. The other is to head towards it from Dolly Copp Road. We chose the route that leaves Dolly Copp Road.

For the first mile or so, we walked on a dirt road until we came to a fork where we had to make a choice. If we continued straight we’d head towards the Horton Center, a religious retreat that’s not open for the summer yet, and bypass the summit of Pine Mountain, catch a trail there and cross over the peak and head back to our car. Or we could reverse the circuit.

I went with the first option, simply because I wanted to have the view of Mount Madison and Washington in front of us when we crossed the summit.

The most wonderful thing happened when we reached the Horton Center and found what I believed to be an un-named path that would lead us to the trail. The sign said, “A Pathway to God”. How could I not be thrilled? I mean, who wouldn’t want to walk along “A Pathway to God”?

So Atticus and I took it and I wondered what I’d say when we came face to face with the Creator. We climbed a jutting, tree-lined trail up to a prominence called “Chapel Rock.” Well, it certainly was a pathway to God because the walk through the sun-dappled forest was stunning. It was exactly what you daydream about when you haven’t been on a trail for far too long. As we spiraled up the trail towards Chapel Rock we eventually broke through the trees and came face to face with a curious scene: a small stone altar and a large, primitive cross, probably ten feet high. Beyond it was a stunning view of the Carter and Wildcat ranges and the green valley below.

Now I have no problem with religion or those who practice it, but I stood there with Atticus looking at that huge rough-hewn cross and the view beyond it and I couldn’t help but think of the arrogance of man. Seriously.

You climb a mountain to get its good tidings and when you get to the top you come face to face with what John Muir called “…the great fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.” Well, you do that everywhere but Chapel Rock where someone obviously didn’t think God could speak for himself.

Actually the entire Muir quote backs up my argument even more: “In God’s wilderness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and the wounds heal ere we are aware.”

But there Atticus and I stood, somewhat perplexed by that big cross. It seemed more like an obstacle to the view of God than what I’m sure it was meant to be.

I actually felt badly for the people who erected it. It’s more than a little redundant. And just knowing that mankind tried to put up a symbol that said, “Here is God,” while God was all clearly evident in the valley below and the mountains above, just seemed silly.

So Atticus and I did our best to ignore mankind’s folly by scampering around it to the top of the small prominence so we didn’t have it obstructing our view to heaven. And there we sat, with views like the one you see in the accompanying photograph. Look at it. Is there a better argument for God than that. A picture is worth a 1,000 words, or so they say, and that picture shows the world as it was meant to be.

When we left Chapel Rock I couldn’t help but think of my Catholic upbringing when we came face to face with that giant cross again, and how it blocked the view. I recalled Luke 23:34, and as we passed it I said, “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.”

Luckily, when we descended for a bit, then climbed to the summit of Pine Mountain with its vast ledges with outstanding views, I noted mankind hadn’t tried to put his big, old, ugly thumbprint on the view. They just let it be. So Atticus and I sat and gazed; took a nap; woke up to gaze some more; and then had lunch. Now that’s religion.

What a Difference a Day Makes

One is of the Cartes, Cats, Pinkham Notch, Washington and Madison on Wednesday. The other is of Mountain Pond yesterday. Two distinctly different places. But both blessedly quiet and private. There's something for everyone up here.

Effingham Writers' Night features Tom Ryan & Atticus M. Finch

On Thursday evening, June 17th join us for Writers’ Night at 7 p.m. in the meeting room of the Effingham Public Library when Tom Ryan and his dog, Atticus will recount their adventures hiking in the White Mountains and talk about their upcoming book, Following Atticus (William Morrow Publishing, 2011). Musician, Matt Scott will delight the audience with compositions on his 1917 Harp Guitar.

Five years ago Tom Ryan, author of The Adventures of Tom and Atticus, and his dog, Atticus M. Finch, came to New Hampshire’s White Mountains for a weekend. His life hasn't been the same since. Tom Ryan was the founder and publisher of The Undertoad, a Newburyport, Massachusetts newspaper and went on to write the popular 'Adventures with Tom & Atticus' column in the North Country News and Mountainside Guide. During the winter of 2006-2007 Ryan and his dog Atticus M. Finch climbed 81 4,000-foot peaks while raising several thousand dollars for the Jimmy Fund and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for the fight against cancer. Then, in the winter of 2007-2008 the duo climbed 66 4,000-foot peaks while raising thousands of dollars for Angell Animal Medical Center in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Because of their fundraising efforts Ryan and Finch were inducted into the Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) Hall of Fame as the co-recipients of that organization's "Human Hero of the Year Award" at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. They were recently featured on Animal Planet's 'Dogs 101' television show. Ryan's book 'Following Atticus' is being published by William Morrow in the spring of 2011. He has also sold foreign rights to 'Following Atticus' in Germany, Italy and the UK. Tom and Atticus now live in Jackson, New Hampshire. Their website is

Writers’ Night will also feature musician Matt Scott. Matt has been playing guitar for nearly 45 years. Along the way, he has been influenced by the music around him – “classical”, “acoustic folk”, and “electric rock” genres and everything in between. In 1984, Matt became aware of a composer/guitarist named Michael Hedges, and began working on learning several of Hedges’ groundbreaking compositions. Since Michael Hedges’ untimely death in 1997, Matt is one of the few artists in the world today that performs these pieces live, including tunes on a 1917 Dyer Symphony harp guitar.

Join us on June 17th. Come to listen, or bring your own poems, stories or acoustic music to share. Mark your calendar; the third Thursday of the month is Writers’ Night at the Effingham Public Library. Writers’ Night is for those who write – music, poetry, prose, fiction, non-fiction - and for those who enjoy listening. Each month we will featured writers or musicians will be followed by an open-mic opportunity for others to share a piece of original writing or acoustic music up to 5 minutes in length. Enjoy light refreshments and conversation with other writers, musicians and artists. For more information, contact: Katie McCarthy, (539-7694), call the Library 539-1537. Check out past and future presenters on the Library Website: The Library is located at 30 Town House Road, Effingham.

(Photo by Ken Stampfer.)

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Slide Show: Pine Mountain

Recently I was looking back on our adventures together. Part of those memories entailed the heartache that came with Atti's blindness. With that in mind, I chose appropriate music for our hike today. You can see the slide show here.

Manuscript Went In Yesterday, We Went Out Today

Slide show to follow. Meanwhile, care to guess which peak we climbed?