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, July 30, 2010

Twenty Minutes That Will Last A Lifetime

Ignorance can be bliss.

In my case it definitely was.

When I was rushed to the hospital a few weeks ago by ambulance, I knew I was in trouble. I just didn't realize how much trouble I was in. My temperature was 104.9 and I was in septic shock. In the emergency room I became non-responsive for 20 minutes and doctors feared they might be losing me. The culprit was a gangrenous gallbladder. It took 18 hours to stabilize my body before they could cut me open. Once inside the surgeons found a mess and the infection was already into my bloodstream.

The following day a surgeon told me had they not operated, I'd be dead. Another told me had I not called 911 when I did I wouldn't have been able to later because of the septic shock and someone would have eventually found my dead body in my home.

And yet when I was sick my focus was not on how serious all of this was. Instead it was to get out of the hospital as soon as possible. The gravity of the situation didn't hit me. Eventually I did leave but only after eight nights in North Conway's Memorial Hospital, several of which were in the intensive care unit. Even now, nearly two weeks after getting released, I continue to learn how bad things were. But while I was in my hospital bed my concentration was focused more on Atticus, who'd only been away from me for three nights in eight years - and he hated each of those; and how soon we could hike again. Luckily good friends took care of Atticus every night – not that he enjoyed it, but it at least made it tolerable for me and gave me one less thing to worry about. And Memorial’s staff welcomed Atticus and allowed him to spend each day with me. That made things better for both of us. It was in those hallways of the hospital that we started to hike again, in earnest. We walked up and down those corridors together, just as we have over Franconia Ridge or across the Northern Presidentials. The only difference was our pace was much slower in the hospital. At first it was one lap, then two. By the time we left Atticus and I were doing fifty laps in that hallway; still slow, but oh-so-determined.

As for our next hike in the mountains? That will take some time. The tube sticking out of my side (a drain from the common bile duct) reminds me of that with every step, cough, twist or turn I make. It's a strange thing to look in the mirror and see a large scar that wasn't there before, but even stranger to see a tube with a large bag attached to it. I'm told it will be my constant companion for the next month and only after it is gone can I hike again or at least start working my way up to hiking again.

Throughout all of this seriousness, talk of life and death, in looking into the faces of concerned friends who were worried about me, I found myself leaning on a fresh memory for strength and inspiration. James Barrie wrote, "God gave us memory so that we can have roses in December." My roses were "picked" on the fifth of July, a stultifying hot night, when Atticus and I sat in the dark of night looking down on the lights of the Village of Jackson. Even though the sun had set we could still feel the oppressive heat. Atticus' pink tongue hung from his mouth and my sweaty shirt clung to my back as a few stars glistened through the haze above.

We were sitting at one of our favorite places, the ledges of South Doublehead. We'd taken our time walking up the steep Old Path in the dying light of the day and drank plenty of water to combat the high temperature and humidity. Normally we'd avoid hiking in such conditions but I had planned the hike for a year.

You see, Jackson is a small town with a population of about 800 and there's only one traffic jam per year. It's for the fireworks on Independence Day weekend. People come from far and wide and they gather in the village, spill onto lawns and sidewalks. Cars are parked everywhere. Fried dough concession stands even set up shop next to the Wentworth Golf Course. And while the multitude pulsed below and looked up at the sky with anticipation, Atticus and I sat far away from them and looked down with the same anticipation.

We sat and waited and waited and waited. The show was late in getting under way. Eventually though a flare shot up into the sky and exploded into a brilliant white flower below us. Then another followed and another. Soon fireworks were going off in rapid succession and we sat and watched from an angel's perspective.

The show lasted no more than 20 minutes, but oh what a 20 minutes they were! I'll never forget the sight of those colors bursting before and below us. How could I? Those 20 minutes will last me a lifetime. I knew it even as the last explosion took place and the echo faded into far off mountains as Atticus and I sat next to each other.

That’s what I was thinking about when the pain grew so strong I asked for morphine and the each cough sent stabbing pains through the incision in my abdomen. I thought about those ledges and the night sky and the echoes in a sea of mountains. I thought about how after the last flash reflected in our eyes how my headlamp led us down through the tangle of thick trees in the saddle between North and South Doublehead where mostly moose gather and how we slowly moved our way down the dark path, back to our car, back to civilization.

One of my favorite Emerson quotes returns to me time and again when I write about the mountains and I’ve used it here before: “Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual.” And so it was that the memory of our night on the ledges watching fireworks below us filled me with faith at a dark time. These are the moments we live for – beautiful moments; moments that carry us through the dark or tough times; like a lone star on a dark night.

I suppose lying there alone with Atticus in the hospital I could have thought about a lot of things, most of them unpleasant, but that’s the beauty of these mountains we live in. It allows us to see glorious things even when they are not readily available.

Nature is always there for us, always reaching out to us. At times it carries us through the worst of times – just as faith does.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Atticus is Fine; I'm Lucky to be Alive

A week ago Atticus and I had a plan to be in Newburyport to get his hair cut on Tuesday, stay with our friend Paul Abruzzi that night, and then be at Angell Animal Medical Center first thing Wednesday morning for Atti’s eye surgery.

We never went to the groomer, but we did end up in the hospital – only problem was it was a different hospital and Atticus wasn’t the patient - I was.

I’ll cut right to the punch now, then fill in the gaps. According to the doctors, I’m lucky to be alive.

Lately I’ve been fighting something I’ve termed a stomach virus. It starts off with a stabbing upper abdominal pain like two tiny creatures are having a knife fight inside my gut. The pain starts to descend towards the lower intestine a day or two later and the discomfort stays there for a bit. Then the chills and fevers start and last for several days.

I’ve always been the type who “wills” myself better. So when this “virus” first hit me over a year ago I thought it was food poisoning and sure enough, after ten days I beat it. It returned about a month ago at the end of this June, stayed for 10 days, then left. Over the next several days Atticus and I hiked quite a bit. Then, nearly two weeks ago, it returned. The initial pain wasn’t as severe but the follow-up pain was out of this world. Each night I’d sweat it out; each afternoon it would come back on me. Then came a night that was unlike any other I’d ever known. I felt like I was literally dying of thirst no matter how much water I gulped down, and I felt like I was being cooked to death.

Just before 8:00 p.m. that night (last Monday) I did something I’ve never done; I called 911 and crawled out the front door to await the arrival of the ambulance. When they picked Atticus and me up I felt like I was dying and my temperature read 104.9 degrees. They brought us to Memorial Hospital in North Conway, just 10 miles away, where nurses and the ER doctor started examining me. Meanwhile, while I was moaning and groaning on the gurney, Atticus sat up and watched over me from the chair and they were good to let him sit there and be with me until my friend Leigh picked him up.

Just before midnight a cat scan was performed on me from the chest down through my bowels and soon after things got really scary. I became non responsive to doctors and nurses for about 20 minutes. The only thing I remember about going under is hearing one of the nurses saying, “This is not good!” Then everything went black.

They took me to a different room and added something to my IV bag to spark me to life. Eventually, when I came around, it was clear how concerned the doctors and nurses were. That’s when I met William “Stuart” Battle, the man who was about to operate on me and save my life. The cat scan showed the gall bladder was the culprit and needed to come out but they had to stabilize me first and the stabilization took more than 16 hours after I first arrived at the hospital. My blood pressure was just too low. Meanwhile I downed liter after liter of intravenous fluid.

Stuart referred to my condition as “acute gangrenous choleocytitis with cholelithiasis and early septic syndrome and shock”. When I asked him what would have made it "late" instead of "early" he said "another two hours".

Around 3:00 pm on Tuesday, Stuart Battle and Bob Tilney, a surgeon who lives here in Jackson and knows Atticus and me, tried to remove my gallbladder by a scope but it was too far gone. They opened me up and went to work on what was a very unstable situation within my abdomen. As Bob later said, the infection was already in my blood system by this time and they had their work cut out for them in cleaning me out.

Several times throughout my stay at the hospital, which turned out to be just shy of eight days long, doctors told me how close a call I had but I suppose I didn’t want to hear it, but now that Atticus and I are back in Jackson, the thought hits home. Had I not called 911 when I did, I may have been too far gone to call it later and it would only be a matter of time before I was dead. And the surgeons continue to tell me that had I not had the gallbladder removed, I would most likely be dead now.

Obviously there are people to thank, including the two doctors: Dr. Battle and Dr. Tilney; a whole slew of nurses, lead by my nurse in the Intensive Care Unit, Maureen Murphy Ansaldi; and then there’s everyone else in the hospital who took such great care of me. What an amazing facility Memorial Hospital is. There's a real sense of teamwork there and doctors and nurses seem like equals. There is respect in each others' work and a sense of community.

I can’t thank Leigh Grady and her family enough for taking care of Atticus each night; and her friend and Wild Things co-conspirator, Leanne Galligan, for also helping out with him. As you can imagine, this was not easy on Atticus. Up until this past week we’d spent only three nights away from each other in eight years and he’s hated each of those nights. But suddenly we were thrust into a situation where we could not be together. Leigh and Leanne endured Atti’s near constant mourning and whimpering and whining. He did all he could to find his way back to me and they had to watch him closely. This means he had to wear a leash and a collar for a change.

Each morning Leigh or Leanne would drop Atticus off at the hospital, take off the leash and collar, and he would spend the day with me. Each night, against his protests, they picked him back up.

And let me tell you how wonderful it is to have a hospital like Memorial Hospital that understood the relationship between Atticus and me and allowed us to spend so much time together! Over the last several days we became a regular sight in the hospital as we “hiked” the hallways while I built up my strength. Atticus, as always, was patient with me, and kept the pace slow. But what mattered most to him was simply being with me. It’s all that has ever mattered to him. He’s always seen it as the meaning of his life and when I needed him most he understood it.

One of the nurses who were around me when I went non responsive that first night, tells me that while I was indeed unresponsive, I did say one word, first in slurred speech and then quite clearly. That one word was “Atticus”.

Luckily we are home. The scare is nearly passed. I have to go back on Thursday for another look to make sure the infection stays down, which isn't guaranteed. My insides are a mess right now and it will take some time to get back to normal, but luckily we’re through the worst of it. I do, however, have one hell of a scar and a drainage tube will be sticking out of me for the next several weeks.

I'm in the typical pain, but grateful to be alive. And I'm so grateful for the help we received from friends and from the amazing professionals at Memorial Hospital in North Conway.

(Because of the stress he’s endured, I’ll be putting off Atti’s eye surgery for a little while. We have time and he’s been through enough lately.)

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Atticus To Have Eye Surgery

Next Wednesday Atticus and I will be returning to Angell Animal Medical Center. Dan Biros, his veterinary ophthalmologist, will be performing distichia cryoremoval surgery on both his upper eyelids.

Distichia are small extra eyelashes (cilia) that grow where they shouldn't be growing and in Atticus' case, cause corneal abrasions. It's irritating to the eye and I can see him squinting at times. And since Atti's eyes seem even more important to him than other dogs - because of all that unique and soulful gazing he does - I agreed with Dan Biros that the time had come to put an end to those irritating little lashes. All too often I see him squinting when he shouldn't be so the lashes are bothering his eyes. Dan's already yanked these little hairs out but the grow back again.

On Wednesday I'll be dropping him off at Angell early in the morning then I'll spend a rare day without him as I wander the streets of Boston waiting to pick him up. They'll put Atticus under for about an hour and freeze the areas on the upper eyelids where these lashes have formed and that will kill them. According to Dan, "Complications are rare but may include corneal ulceration, conjunctivitis, recurrence of the distichia. We expect some bystander alopecia (hair loss) and eyelid margin depigmentation at the affected areas. Vision should not be affected but rather protected by the cryosurgery. Postoperative swelling can last up to seven to 10 days but is most prominent three to five days after surgery."

As for that postoperative swelling, I'm told Atticus will look like a boxer after a match so he'll be up for some tender, loving care after its done. And he may look the tiniest bit different in some places where his very black eyelids could turn pink here and there. He may also lose some of those long lashes he has. But in the long run what's most important is that Atti's eyes will be better and it won't bother him to simply look out at a view.

The surgery isn't inexpensive, but his eyes are so very important to him.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

If It's Really Tourist Season, Why Can't We Shoot Them?

Yesterday I watched a man talking with a telephone pole. He didn’t look crazy, other than the fact that he was in deep conversation with an inanimate object. Instead he looked like he could have been anyone’s neighbor. He appeared to be in his early 60s, a clean shaven, well enough groomed blue collar worker wearing a shirt with a name tag sewn on it. If I’d only seen him, and not the pole, I would have thought he was talking with someone else – perhaps using a blue tooth phone; except he didn’t look like the type who’d use a blue tooth.

We’d just finished up an appointment at Angell Animal Medical Center. It was 5:00 p.m. traffic along Boston’s Huntington Avenue was at a standstill. So I watched.

He was polite, didn’t talk over the pole, even took a moment here and there to allow for rebuttal. Not once did he raise his voice. It was a mellow conversation just like you and I would have. (This stands in stark contrast to a Newburyport City Councilor I once saw having a late night heated debate with a half gallon of milk in the Richdale on the corner of State and Pleasant Streets.)

People walked by and didn’t give it another thought. They didn’t even bother to look at the man. Imagine that. Imagine being so numb or too afraid to get involved that when you’re walking along the sidewalk in the middle of the city and you see crazy being played out in front of your eyes you just keep going as if the man doesn’t exist?

I watched the fellow with curiosity for quite some time and when three teenaged toughs approached something changed. They strutted, trying hard to look as though they weren’t trying hard to look tough. When they neared the crazy fellow he didn’t look up, but once they were within 10 yards or so he stopped talking. He looked relaxed and nonplussed – like he didn’t have a care in the world. But there was definitely a change.

It was a stultifyingly hot day in the city. The concrete, black top, steel and glass held the day’s 100 degree heat in the manmade canyon. In the middle of this sterile, oppressed setting nature took hold. The crazy fellow somehow knew he shouldn’t show he was crazy, not around those three. He reeled himself in and looked as dignified as a grandfather. As soon as the three toughs passed he started talking to the pole again.

Nature rules, even in a place where you can’t see much of it. We somehow know what we need and know how to protect ourselves.

The other day, another sweltering one, Atticus and I were here in Jackson. We kept our walks short and to the point but by early afternoon we both wanted to get out so we walked down through the short span of woods in the backyard to the Ellis River. When it’s hot and there’s not been much rain the water level is low and there’s no use trying to swim. Instead I sat in the water. It felt great – an initial shock that ebbed into a cool pool of water. Atticus, who’s never been a fan of getting wet, sat in the shade on the shore and kept an eye on me. We needed to be outside but he needed the shade while I sought the refreshing river. We were sitting there for several minutes not paying attention to much of anything when just 30 feet away I saw something stirring in the woods. It emerged from the darkness on the far side of Ellis River. It was a bear. I’d guess it was a 300 pounder. It wasn’t Butkus. It might have been State of Maine but I wasn’t sure. He stopped for a moment, glanced at us, took a drink while keeping an eye on us, then slowly waded across to Atticus’ side. I kept an eye on them both and they watched each other but neither said a thing. The bear entered the woods and made his way up towards the house. After he left Atticus walked over to where he crossed and sniffed around for a minute or two before returning to his seat in the shade.

I was not the only one to see a bear this weekend. Lots of people did. It was the Fourth of July and people were up from places where there aren’t a lot of bears and most were frightened whenever they saw them. Numerous calls went into the police and the Forest Service. This seems unfortunate to me, since the bears live up here and the tourists don’t. And yet when the tourists flip out and call the authorities. If the bear is still around its ear gets tagged. After it is tagged if it is reported again it is killed.

I watched a scene play out at 11:00 a.m. on Saturday. Atticus and I were walking back from the post office, the library and the farmer’s market and the street was relatively busy with weekenders walking the Jackson loop. When in broad daylight a bear crossed the street about halfway between the Thompson House Eatery and the JTown Deli. People screamed. Some oohed and aahed. Others were speechless. Funniest of all were the two upscale, well-scrubbed women in the middle of a power talk in the middle of a power walk who were closest to the bear. However, you wouldn’t know it. Nothing was about to deter them from their conversation about interior design.

Later that afternoon, around the same spot but a little closer to the Shannon Door Pub, another bear crossed the road. More excited talk, squeals of delight, some fear from the people walking in the area.

The skeptical person would suggest that the local chamber of commerce had asked the bears to make appearances for the tourists to give them something to talk about. But the truth is the bears are in a tough period right now. The shoots and other food stuffs that keep them going in the spring are gone and the berries are not here yet. So they’re out looking for food and in the process crossing paths with people. Most folks have nothing to worry about, especially if they are aware that bears live here, too. Bears cross paths with people and hurry on their way. They really don’t want much to do with us. (Can you blame them?)

Unfortunately for one bear this weekend, things didn’t turn out too well. It was up in Randolph, where Atticus and I hiked Mount Crescent last week. A couple walked out into their backyard and left the door open. A bear ran into the house and decided to help himself to the kitchen. When they couldn’t get the bear out they called the authorities and the bear was killed. Sad.

I now only keep our backdoor open when I’m sitting next to it at my writing table. Otherwise it is locked. Bears are smart. Many can open a door. When we go outside, even just down to the river, I close the door behind us. I don’t tempt State of Maine, Butkus or any of their brethren. It’s kind of like living with some of the dogs I used to have. You wouldn’t put food out where a dog could get it unless it was food meant for the dog. Why tempt the poor animal? Why put it in a position to fail? With Atticus I don’t have to worry about such things as he’s respectful of what is mine and what is his. But with most dogs you wouldn’t leave things where they could be tempted by them. Living in close proximity to the bears is a lot like that.

Unfortunately, most people don’t think of it that way. They see the world as theirs and theirs alone and if nature gets in the way they’d just as soon file a complaint. It doesn’t matter that survival of the fittest kicks in and nearly every bear will run away from people.

I suppose that’s the biggest complaint I have with tourists. I don’t mind Bike Week where grown men and women pollute the mountains with noise and live out some strange fantasy, or the weekend when Corvettes show up, or the silliest weekend of all – when Mini Coopers are as numerous as black flies in June. What I do care about are those folks who make life harder for the animals who live here year round.

A bear is not unlike that crazy fellow I saw on Huntington Avenue. It knows to take care of itself, to avoid conflict. If only tourists were just as sane.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Mount Crescent

Recently I fear I may have unintentionally offended a Northcountry News reader. She wrote to tell me she was done teaching for the summer and wondered if Atticus and I would consider taking her and her father on a hike. I informed her we nearly always hike alone and offered to make a few suggestions of where she could hike but I never heard back from her.

I was thinking about her on Wednesday as Atticus and I ducked into the woods. It was a perfect day for hiking. The air was a clean, crisp autumn cool and a gentle breeze swayed the green canopy of leaves as we walked along. The gentle wind stirred life into the foliage. Even in the darkest reaches of tangled wood, where death and life mingled together on the forest floor and gave off a sweet, musky scent, and rocks were coated with a thick, lush green moss. There was birdsong and splashes of gold along the sun-dappled trail and the slightest bit of magic danced just out of sight around the bend of the trail or behind some ancient tree.

Those very enchantments are the reason we choose not to hike with others. It’s not a matter of disliking company so much as it is of loving nature and the experience that comes with climbing along a rocky path and leaving a bit of myself behind with each passing step. Even in those moments of exhaustion where my lungs gasp for more air, my heart beats wildly, sweat runs down my face and I need to sit and catch my breath and wipe the stinging salt from my eyes there is something in all of it that adds to the experience of being alone. Bring along another and there’s conversation, which is not a bad thing, but it’s something I can do without in the forest. It’s one of the reasons that Atticus is a perfect hiking partner. We communicate without words and walk along attached by an invisible chord that runs from dog to man. Everything is shared – wordlessly.

When it comes to conversation I have a phone, a favorite restaurant and coffeehouse. People are, after all, everywhere. But salvation, I’m convinced, comes when we break away from mankind’s world and give ourselves over to God’s. May Sarton, the poet, wrote, “Whatever peace I know rests in the natural world, in feeling myself a part of it, even in a small way.”

When I do this: break away for a few hours or for an entire day and leave society behind I inevitably stumble upon myself and spend time getting reacquainted. It’s finding my peace, or maybe I’m finding my religion. Some people drop to their knees to pray, I find myself in prayer without even realizing I started. All I know that there’s something about the natural world that brings it about and sends me back home again.

I’m one of those who think that God wasn’t fooled by Adam and Eve. He knew all along they’d screw up and their supposed “sin” would become our “sin”. The way I see it is we get a gift of life and in turn each of us has to find a way back to the Garden again, no matter what it takes. But distraction is everywhere. Some find their center in community; I’m just not one of them. I find it without other people around, in a verdant wood with a little floppy-eared dog by my side. It’s ritual of renewal again and again, step by step, mountain by mountain.

On Wednesday we found our renewal along the Crescent Range, a little place that thankfully is overlooked by most hikers. And there’s good reason for it stands across the road from the majestic Northern Presidentials and their lofty and rugged peaks. Relatively speaking, 3,251-foot Mount Crescent is small beans compared to Adams, Jefferson and Madison, the second, third and fifth highest peaks in New England. Luckily Mount Crescent, is a lot like Atticus, and doesn’t realize it’s not one of the “big dogs”. It stands without arrogance or apology.

The trails are lovingly cared for by the Randolph Mountain Club, and they are not so manically hiked so as to seem like you are in a well-traveled place. The mountain has a wild feel to it and we didn’t see another soul the entire day. As a matter of fact, there was a far better chance of seeing a moose than a human. I didn’t even see a solitary footprint, not even in the mud, but evidence of moose were numerous and seemingly everywhere. There were even moments I could swear the moose were watching us and after we passed I imagined them coming out from their hiding spots and considering us.

The mountain offers a steep enough climb gaining 1,400 feet in 1.7 miles and like most mountains the higher we reached the steeper the trail became. Once on top of Mount Crescent we found a wonderful little ledge with an unrivaled view towards Cabot and Waumbek and their brethren along the Pliny Range. We sat and were chilled by the cool wind and shared our lunch while watching clouds pass over the green range. Then we were off again along the pleasant Crescent Ridge Trail on our way to Mount Randolph. Occasionally we’d look to through the trees towards the open space to the north, and then other times we’d see the Northern Pressies to the south and throughout it all we were surrounded by the solitude of the forest.

Eventually we made our way back to the car and soon we were driving along the road, headed through Gorham, passing by Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, Burger King, Dunkin Donuts and other establishments. And just like that we were back again, back to society with its myriad of distractions and the hurrying from here to there. But that’s why we hike again and again, why we seek out the quiet of a stream; sit in a field; or atop a mountaintop. The perfect life may not be possible, but it’s the striving for it that reveals the magic.

Tennyson touched on that in the last line of his epic poem Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Going Viral

We've been quiet as of late. It has to do with a virus that kept me in bed for eight days and continues to nag at me. However, yesterday we did finally get back on the trails. It was a delightful day to explore Mount Crescent. The air was cool, felt like autumn and even was downright chilly on the ridge. I was happy to be back out there but my body struggled throughout the climb and it's clear I'm still not myself. But as you can tell by the photos, someone was thrilled to be out on a mountain again.