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.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Pieces of Heaven


Thank you.

They are perhaps the two most powerful words in the English language when you connect them.  And I find myself saying those words again and again lately, especially while remembering – fittingly enough – our Thanksgiving Day hike.
Every time we climb a mountain I understand it could turn into a savory memory, and most hikes are memorable in some way or another, but whenever we make it to Franconia Ridge and step out of the trees above treeline with the world beneath us and heaven not just above us, but by our sides as well, there’s an even greater chance it will be a day to remember. 

We haven’t been on the ridge for a year and a half and I’ve missed it.  The entire night beforehand, knowing we’d be up there soon enough, I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve.  You see, I often avoid popular routes because of the crowds and we seek them out only on off times when people are busy with their lives.  Midweek in winter is a fine time to go. So is night.  And, as it turns out, Thanksgiving Day is also a perfect time to do this hike. 

The morning air was cold but fresh as we made our way along the lower reaches of the Falling Waters Trail.   At the numerous stream crossings we had to watch our footing because of the sheen of ice on the rocks that was often hard to pick up.  Fortunately we safely made all our water crossings and then started that slow, methodical climb to the top.  It’s a steep hike, at times challenging, but it’s a beautiful walk through mythical woods and as we followed the switchbacks through the forest the sun climbed the cloudless sky and turned everything a golden-green.  That in itself would have been memory enough worth saving, but on this day there was more to come.

Just before we exited the trees near the top, we reached an ice bulge in the trail and stopped to put on our MicroSpikes.  There’s a sense of comfort and insurance whenever I feel their little metal teeth cutting into the ice.  First I hear it, then I feel it, and I’m always glad I brought them along.  And once through the icy section of the Falling Waters Trail we exited onto the ridge above treeline and there was not a cloud to be seen.  Blue skies draped themselves over the mountaintops and the faintest of breezes and the warm sun joined together to make sure we’d spend a pleasant two miles on the ridge.  But we were hungry after working so hard to get to this point and this being Thanksgiving; we stopped to have our dinner.  For me it was a first – a vegan Thanksgiving, and even though the traditional turkey dinner (and leftovers) is my favorite meal of the year, I didn’t miss it in the least bit.  Instead the three of us sat, listened to music, took in the views, and ate a meal of quinoa, sweet potatoes, avocado, black bean salsa, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds.  We talked, we laughed, we counted our blessings, and we enjoyed the shared solitude.  Our only regret was that we didn’t stay longer but there were miles to go and the day was slipping by and soon the sun would be slipping towards the horizon.

On the climb up Mount Lincoln I watched Atticus maneuvering up the rocks, between them, and around them.  I tried to remember how many times we’ve been over Lincoln and Lafayette but I couldn’t.  What I do know is that we’ve been climbing them for the last seven years and we’ve done them in all kinds of weather and in every season.  I also know that while Atticus will soon be eleven and he still moves well, he won’t be doing these hikes forever, and so I watched him closely with the same love and admiration I always do, but with the tiniest sense of bittersweet sentimentality. 

He moves in these mountains as if they are his old friends.  He’s always felt comfortable with them.  There’s an ease to him wherever he is, a self-assuredness that make me look on joy for him. But on a mountain it’s different.  I understand that somehow or someway he was made for this and each time we climb it’s like he’s coming home again.  And while I don’t think Atticus really cares whether we climb four thousand footers or other desirable peaks, he knows these places so well and has grown fond of them.  They are familiar to him.  

It’s for this reason that I have decided that over the next year or so we’ll get to each of the forty-eight at least one more time while he’s still healthy and moving well.  I understand that while that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case, it could very well be our last time together on these two mountains.  But instead of looking at that day that hasn’t come, I decided to put my thoughts to the memories being made on that trip.    

On top of Lincoln I picked him up as I always do and we looked back to where we’d come from. (That stretch of rocky trail always reminds me of the Great Wall of China as it follows the jagged and narrow spine of the ridge.)  Then we turned north and looked toward Mount Lafayette, the next peak on our hike.  It’s a special place – the summit of Lincoln.  You not only get the breathtaking views of Cannon, the Kinsmans, and Moosilauke to the west, you get Garfield, the Twins, the Bonds, Owls Head, the Presidentials, Carrigain, and the Hancocks to the east.  To the south are Flume and Liberty and the east-to-west running Sandwich Range.  But on top of all that, you get the perfect view of Lafayette, which towers in front of you like some magical beast that will one day awaken. 

The climb up Lafayette is always a challenge, but it was easier because of the special views on a cloudless day.  We stopped often to appreciate everything that was special and for what we were experiencing.  Better yet, we’d seen a total of five people above treeline.  Such sweet solitude made even more special by the friendship it was wrapped in….three hikers in our own little world, in our own paradise, dancing over the mountains, making memories, and having much to be thankful for on a day made for giving thanks.

We weren’t moving all that quickly.  There was no need to for we were where we wanted to be and there was much to see and do and say.   It had become one of those days destined to be remembered.  You know the kind.  You recognize them as they unfold and notice the way you slip right into them and are then wrapped up for safe keeping so that you can always pull it back to you in a daydream for life is not always so kind and we need these pockets of special times where we can reach them. 

The poet William Stafford has a few lines in one of his poems that go like this….

Little corners like this, pieces of Heaven
left lying around, can be picked up and saved.
People won’t even see that you have them,
they are so light and easy to hide.

As we left the summit of Lafayette and walked down the mountain and into the sunset before making our way through the last couple of miles under the guidance of a bright moon and starlit sky, it was clear we’d made a memory with those little pieces of heaven we’d found throughout the day and they will always be there for us when we want or need them, just as they are now. 

43 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dear Tom,
You say, "I picked up Atti, as I always do." What a wonderful way to live your life. You carry him on your shoulders and in your heart. You always will. Speaking of Will, I love his lullaby series. May the songs of Will and the touch of Atti's sturdy body remain in your memory and heart always. My beloved girl, Shadow MacKenzie died nine months ago. I still talk to her. I still pick her up in my heart. Our dogs are with us always.
Love to you and your family.

Susan Sutton said...

I feel, now, as though I had been along for the trip, Tom, cherishing the silence, the beauty, the company and the starlight and moonlight. Your appreciation for your life is inspiring and reminds me of my own blessings, especially the small ones that I keep in my heart.

That you and your pack so openly share this part of your lives means so much to so many of us. I've seen on your FaceBook page the loving and appreciative comments. I think we all feel included in your "family" and to some I believe your acceptance of our gratitude and love for Atticus is a most precious and treasured gift. You make US feel alive and important and accepted. I thank you from my own heart.

Onwards, by all means.

Chris Willis said...

We work so very hard to avoid facing mortality - our own, and of those we hold dear. You remind us all of the truth - that the only way to cheat inevitable loss is to recognize the prescious value of each day - to create dear memories of our cherished places and loved ones to lock in our hearts to evoke and savor at a future time, when they may no longer be here in front of us.

Carter W Rae said...

Tom Thank you for the great thoughts.. I have moment here and I was thinking the same "bittersweet" thoughts you had.. These little companions are a gift us to not only enjoy but understand that it is a treasure and to be savored. Your journey and the sharing came at a watershed for us too and your thoughts on the "time line " that we are all on, are to all those pieces of Heaven all heading toward an Eternity. These, Atticus and your times and your adventures
are ones like it for us all, are to be taken to our spirits to be there for safekeeping. That is part of the qualities of your story that resonates for all of us. That is why Following Atticus is good for the soul and most of us did not want the story to end. Thanks Tom again form us!!! Sweetest Blessing to your pack .. from us ..as a thank you .

Janelle Downey said...

Great post, Tom. Gives us lazier folk motivation to accomplish more!

Jackie Bliss said...

Tom I felt so blessed to share this special journey with you and Atticus. In a way you can't know, you have touched my life and I thank you for that. I hope you have many more days to share with Atticus, but I love how you cherish each moment as it happens. Thank you

Jill said...

Your blog started out with the words "thank you" and therefore, it only seems fitting that I start out with "thank you", as well. Thank you for bringing us on your journeys and sharing your life with us. Though I have never hiked a four thousand footer, I feel as if I am there with you, following Atticus, and seeing the world from a whole different viewpoint. Sometimes I think of how short life can be and how everything can change in an instant but you help me to remember to cherish each moment and look forward to the memories. Thank you. For allowing me to join you in Following Atticus.

Linda said...

It was a midnight walk with my newly adopted dog "billy" in the secluded neighborhood of Echo Acres in N. Conway. Billy was sort of a wild child and needed much attention during his walk. The sound was still with huge snow flakes falling from dark sky. The only light was the brightness of the snow. As we walked on our own little journey in this winter wonderland we passed by two figures on the other side of the street. It was a man and his dog walking with a steady pace. The dog was in front of his owner about 2 feet. When the two dogs passed they both glanced at each for a few seconds and acknowledged each other with approval. I think Billy took notice of Atticus walking at a steady pace in front of his owner.

It was such an inspiring moment for Billy as he seemed to change after that evening. Come to find out my friend who I was visiting said that was Tom and Atticus you passed you passed.

It is those simple things in life that make it a major event.

Ginny Suhr said...

In sharing your Thanksgiving day, you've given us a post to remember.

You describe it so perfectly. I do know those kind of days. I do recognize them as they unfold...slipping so comfortably into them and wrapping them up...And I absolutely love the idea of little pieces of Heaven "left lying around"...

And that's the second time in a week that I've seen that Stafford poem quoted, a poem I previously didn't know, making a lovely connection between you and the parts of your life you share in your writing (that I value SO much), and my own life...That's a little piece of Heaven, so light and easy to hide, that I'm keeping safe.

Thank you, Tom.

Linda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Penni Glenz said...

Beautiful...Thank you Tom for sharing your journey with me....Each new entry on your blog creates a deeper longing for your next book....I hope you are well into the writing of it...

Kally said...

What a great adventure, thanks for taking the time to share.

My husband & I did one of our first holiday hikes while living in AZ on Christmas. For years it was a tradition, taking our son in the toddler backpack wearing his Santa sweatsuit. We found a baby pine near some snow, yes snow in the high elevation in AZ mountains, snapped a greatkeepsake photo.

Your hike(s) are creating long lasting memories that will be cherished.

Be kind, do good work & live in harmony,

Kally

Ehall said...

Yesterday, a good friend lost her fiancee quickly and without warning. Cherish every day you have as if it will be the last.

deb n said...

to understand that all things must end is truly bittersweet, but we must grab each and every day and hold on to it in our memories. I am looking forward to your new challenge, re-visiting each peak again, knowing that for just this moment it is snapshot of pure love. That, my friend is the meaning of giving Thanks.

Annie Criscitiello said...

Your beautiful words offer sweet puppy comfort while bringing me back to the same ridge climbed 28 years ago on a warm October day which has also remained my "peace" of heaven in whatever life brings...Tom, Atti, Will and Tom's Lovely Lady - I keep you all in my heart as you inspire me and countless others to continue on our own trails, across the sometimes narrow ridges of life forever moving on with Joy, Love and Gratitude!

Lynn Chase said...

I was not home in New England for Thanksgiving this year as my family is spread around the country. But having our dog, Lucy, with us in the mid south made it very much a homecoming. We hiked the Wolf River Greenway Trail and shared our hearts and our culinary skills in a rental unit we called home for this holiday! We were friends who are family & family who are friends...

Annie Criscitiello said...

Your beautiful words offer sweet puppy comfort while bringing me back to the same ridge climbed 28 years ago on a warm October day which has also remained my "peace" of heaven in whatever life brings...Tom, Atti, Will and Tom's Lovely Lady - I keep you all in my heart as you inspire me and countless others to continue on our own trails, across the sometimes narrow ridges of life forever moving on with Joy, Love and Gratitude!

Laura said...

Thank you, Tom, for sharing your life and love for your fellow life travelers with me. My life is immeasurably richer for being given the opportunity to know you and your beloved White Mountains, your dear friend Will, and your soul-dog, Atticus, through your blog and your book. My hope is that one day I will be lucky enough to hike those trails myself. Peace to you and yours.

Laura

sarah said...

The best of 2 worlds - dogs and NH !!

From a former New Englander who lives in Charleston, SC now.

Judith Bull said...

Never give up and always believe in yourself and support that you have around you, this goes for Will too and shows what a difference belief, care and support can have.

Macintosh said...

I couldn't but think of this quote about heaven after reading your Thanksgiving Day adventure.

"The way to Heaven is ascending; we must be content to travel uphill, though it be hard and tiresome, and contrary to the natural bias of our flesh". - Jonathan Edwards

Kristina Addington said...

Thanks so much, Tom, for sharing your precious little guys with us. Since reading your book and following you on Facebook and here on your blog, I have fallen in love with both of them. It is the highlight of my day to stop by for a "visit" and see new pictures or videos of Atticus and Will. There truly is something special about both Atticus and Will, and your thoughtful words always inspire me.

Nancy said...

Tom, Atticus and Will - I, like so many others I am sure, was so glad to see you blogging about your journeys. I felt a sorrow when I came to the end of "Following Atticus" because I still wanted to follow along your adventures...so thank you for continuing to share your on going life stories.

Thinking on Thsnksgiving had me remembering all of those companions, both people and pets, who have come into my life and for whom I am thankful. Each has brought different dimensions of growth I would not have had without their gracing my life...some are or were for a lifetime, some for a season, but all were for a reason. They each in their own way broaden me and made me better for having known them. I think William Butler Yeats has said it best for me...

"Think where man's glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends."

William Butler Yeats

Anonymous said...

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Tom, Special Friend, Atti and Will,
Your prose is so captivating. I drink in every word as smooth nectar from the mountain Gods. Every phrase, quote, thought, inspiring, life changing, and fulfilling, like a special meal, ending with a comfortable satisfied nighttme sigh, thankful to be surrounded by everyone you truely love uncondtionally. Thank you! Ryan Family!

Carol said...

Thanks to you, too. Your writing touches so many people for a multitude of reasons. I look forward to your blog and Facebook updates. I am planning to hike the 4000 footers and would love the shirt to keep track of them.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad to read about your pieces of heaven kind of day. Thanksgiving was a beautiful day in our corner of NH also. Your posts generally make me smile, and reflect, thank you and your group - the positive energy is appreciated.

Hilary L said...

It was my first vegan Thanksgiving also! I'm thankful for Following Atticus!

Live like you were dying!


Anonymous said...

The simplicity and beauty in which your writing shares the adventures and relationships between you and Atticus and nature is compelling and breathtaking. For a brief moment in time I feel like I am there with you sharing the magic. Thank you.

Harriet said...

Gracias, takk, asante, merci, danke, obrigado... thank you.

Anonymous said...

The road (path) to happiness isn't just getting to the mountain peak, it's the journey.The twists & turns in the path, never knowing what lies around the corner. The happy times, silly times,the surprises on the way. The companionship & love. Alot of memories are made on the way to where we are now. That's just plain happiness. Your writing sounds like you are always surrounded in happiness. I tell myself I want to be happy like you. I don't always remember, but have to stop and look around. I am on my path of happiness. I just have to look around me and stop dwelling on the negative. A big thank you to you for making me stop to look.

Molly said...

Tom,

I found a kindred spirit in you while listening to the audio version of "Following Atticus". I love your writing style and all of your movie and literature quotes, notably from two of my icons: John Muir and Harper Lee. I am in the early years of my own adventure with a dog. His name is Boo Radley! Thank you for sharing your life through your book, blog and Facebook posts. We don't have mountains in Minnesota, but if you ever venture this way Boo and I would love to go hiking with you and Atti!

Molly (and Boo too!)

One of my favorite John quotes:
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
― John Muir

Collleen said...

Thank you so much for the hike. I feel,after every blog that I have been travelling along with you. Your words are poetry in themselves and I treasure them. I love how much your love for every one in your family has spread to so many people through this medium. Never before have so many of us felt such a connection to a "stranger" and not felt strange about it. Bless you all in your lovely little family!

Richie said...

There is nothing as spiritually fulfilling as sitting among nature with your dog. The silence, the serenity-side by side-just gazing at the beauty of the earth.
My dog, Pepper was abandoned, she wandered into my yard seven years ago. I am a widow-we make the perfect pair. Life is good and I love my Pepper-girl!

Janet Trombley said...

It's Thursday morning early and i'm drinking coffee as i read this just before I begin my work day. As i read/write I hear "woof woof" my 9 and 10 year old newfs saying "We're here" "Pay attention". I think "what now?". We are not on a mountain but we are together, taking in each day as it comes. Both are healthy as is Atticus ao I say "ok one more pat, one more door opening one more time with the ball." And, as I write this Lexi is bumping my arm. Oh how thankful I am for those loving bumps.

AnnO said...

Thank you. Thank you.
These two words took on new meaning this year as last Thanksgiving I was facing a major health challenge.
It was also at this time, a friend gave me a copy of "following atticus" which took my mind to a world that did not include my illness.
Now, a year later, the illness has taken its place in my life and is NOT at the forefront. I am able to cherish the quiet moments of my life, my family, my dogs and the adventures of Tom and Atticus. I had none of these last Thanksgiving. Desperation, chaos and loud clangy noises filled my head.
The words "thank you" just don't seem adequate but the aura of those words enfold around me and hug me. This may be the same feeling you three have on the mountains. Overwhelming gratituded for the silence and peace in your minds.
Thank you.

LT said...

Thank you for sharing this story. My dogs (Lhasa Apso, Shih Tzu and Yorkie) are now 8,9 and 10. Your book motivaed me to walk them at least 1 mile on a daily basis and take them to the dog park every opportunity I can. They eat a lot of vegetables and are very healthy for their ages and I too cherish every minute with them no matter what we do. You are the proof that there is hope for all of us :) Thank you again for sharing your stories on a daily basis.

Katie Sandberg said...

Thank you Tom, for always painting such a vivid picture of the mountains in your writing. It is especially treasured by those of us who would love to see the same sights but may never get the chance. So many times if feels as though I too am following Atticus, even if not physically more emotionally & spiritually. Learning from his journeys and remembering the simplest things in life are what is to be treasured, and to always follow what you love. I always look forward to reading everything that comes in the future!

Anonymous said...

I've been fortunate to be able to hike and ski the mountains of NH for many decades.
Your blog today reminded me of a poem I wrote in 1996 titled, 'Last Run Down'. At the end of this poem I wrote about my difficulty in breaking away from my mountain spirit.
Last run down,
Time will only stop
in my mind
in my memory.
Who knows
if I will ever
return to this
mountain?
Thank you, Tom
for sharing all of your mountain memories.

franeli

Mary F. said...

And now it's my turn to thank you! So thank you Tom for taking me along on your hikes and giving me a sense of peace and adventure!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your Thanksgiving Tom. I wish ours had been so special. But reading yours reminded me of our Franconia loop hikes in splendid weather. Tasty memory leftovers. I also love that quote; I'll have to save that too.

John

Ashley Wilkins said...

I cannot begin to explain how much I love this blog.

Andrew C. said...

Tom, thanks so much for the inspiration you continue to provide through your writings. My wife and I (and our own two four-legged best friends) have the opportunity to move from the suburbs to a rural community much like yours, and it is both exciting and scary to be contemplating leaving behind so much of the conveniences of the familiar. But I think it was my discovery of your book around this time last year that helped me to be open to new possibilities and to seek out the fulfillment available from a simpler life. Thank you