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. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Bare Necessities of November

There’s a charm to the November woods and it is found in their simplicity. They are the secret warmth that lasts after a long weekend when everyone else has gone home; the woman you love who is even more beautiful lying next to you at night after the day is spent and her makeup is off. The November woods are pristine in their nakedness.

In November the crowds who flock to enjoy October’s colorful flourish are gone. New Hampshire – the real New Hampshire –where wood and rock and running water meet far from the outlet stores and restaurants the true charm of our state lives like a secret.

Within the past month everything has reversed. All the decorative leaves that had burst forth overhead now form a luxurious (if at times slippery), bronze carpet underfoot. And where once there was the pleasant clutter of millions of leaves now there’s nothing but bare bark and open air. The forest has shed her clothes and stands there as stark and stunning as can be.

In the Irish fairytales of old, the Little People were always just out of sight around the next corner. They could be felt, almost imaginatively heard, but never seen, and the essence of their magic hung like a wisp of a disappearing dream. They were forever hidden because nature knew how to keep their secret, but not so much so that you couldn’t feel their presence. There was always the belief you’d come around a bend and there they would be sitting, a startling bit of enchantment looking you right in the eye, causing your heart to race, and reality to swirl. In November you see through the forest, you see the secret places, at times beyond to the great views you never knew existed. Take a turn in the trail you’ve taken ten times before but now because there are no more leaves to block the view you look up and see a mountain towering close by. It catches you by surprise in just the same way. It fills your heart with quivering excitement.

It’s these private moments on the trail before I even get to the mountaintop that draws me in this time of year. Solitude is the song that plays from tree to tree in the open spaces of the formerly dense forest.

When I was younger and less sure of myself, I found loneliness in the woods this time of year.  Now that I’m older and know who I am, it’s just the opposite. There is the murmur of the thrill that races through me as I feel myself in a place most know nothing of. It’s an escape from a hectic and drama filled world where everything is fast-paced, loud, and blaring.  At the same time it’s a coming home to a place safe and secure.

This past weekend we took the simplest of hikes – a local loop we’ve taken many times up from the shores of Pudding Pond to the small “jutting” peaks that sit like an understated backdrop to the big box stores of North Conway. I wonder, at times, how many even know they are there or even bother to look up at them. But they are forever a part of our landscape and I think even those who don’t notice them would miss them if they were to disappear.

As we trod the earthen paths that loop up over both summits affording views from the mountaintops of Middle and Peaked, it feels to me like we are visiting a familiar friend. It’s the kind of friend you can be yourself with and this is a come-as-you-are kind of hike –not so taxing or dangerous that you feel the need to plan ahead or get geared up for it. It’s more like a simple walk with backpack and water and little else needed other than a summit snack, not so much for energy, but for enjoyment. Oh, you have to work to get to the prize at the top so it’s a workout after all; it’s just not the hike one takes to get to the more challenging peaks.
But that’s the allure of such a hike.  It lies in its simplicity. 

My favorite mountain is one we can be alone on, and while we did see three people on this day, for the most part we had the trails to ourselves.  When we reached the top of Middle Mountain we sat down, shared some treats, and soaked in the sun.  It felt warmer than November and stood in contrast to the cooler, shady parts of the hike up where an inch or so of snow crunched underfoot.  The view is wonderful, but again, on this day, at this time of the year the best part for me Is how the forest allows me to feel alone but not lonely.  It’s stripped of everything that is not essential and the silver and brown trees connected the vibrant blue sky and the brown leaves on the ground. 

I’m still getting acquainted with my renewed body that weighs eighty pounds less than it used to, and the ease with I now move.  I’m amazed at how stress-free the climbs are now compared to what they used to be and as we curled up from the cleavage between the two peaks around to the northern side of Peaked and worked our way up the ledges Atticus was is in his glory pushing up toward the summit and I followed happily along.  By this time the white-capped Presidential Range came into view behind us as did views up into faraway Crawford Notch.  It was the best of all worlds. We were alone in the woods, with views far and near, dear friends doing what they like and do best – being together while the craziness and entanglements of the world were left behind. 

We took in the views from the summit of Peaked Mountain for a good long while and then I leaned back against the pine tree that stands like a sentinel , and took a nap while Atticus lay his head on my leg and did the same. 

These are the days and hikes we like best - the simple days. Put enough of them together and you get a humble but happy life.  And surprisingly, these November days have now become a favorite of mine for the same reason – their simplicity.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Will Power

Will makes his first mountaintop.

As I write this I realize that my life is now different than it was six months ago.  I’m a changed man. . . . a better man.  I’m more than I used to be and inspired in both head and heart.  Friendship and love can do that to even the hardest most dubious man.  So can helping another become who he was meant to be. 

Two weeks ago I sent out the following email to a handful of close friends.

Today, what I had grown to think of impossible became reality when my best friend and I followed Atticus as we pushed and carried Will's hiking chariot to the top of Pine Mountain. It was a very difficult journey and much harder than we expected it to be, but throughout it all Will was comfortable, safe, and even happy. We chose Pine Mountain because of the dirt access road and the relatively short, but challenging (challenging when you are carrying up a dog in a carriage) trail to the summit.  The approach on the road is long and uphill and tired us out as we took turns pushing his little chariot. When we reached the trail itself, which we had scouted out yesterday, we were challenged by rocks, roots, mud (from this weekend's rainstorms), and slippery ledges and we tired quickly as we picked up either end of the rig and carried it over the rougher sections.

We stopped often to rest our shoulders, backs, and arms, and simply to catch our breath.  At one point my friend turned to me and said, “Are you okay?”


“You’re not going to have a heart attack on me, are you?”

I assured her I was okay and we continued following the ever-patient Atticus up the mountain while carrying Will in his chariot.   

In the end we reached the mountaintop and I held Will in my arms as I have always held Atticus and that old, mostly blind and deaf dog sat there and sighed. I'm not sure what he saw, if anything, but he obviously knew it was something special because he leaned in to me, sighed, and licked my cheek - a first.

I am so proud of Will, who could have given up on life long ago. I'm proud of Atticus as well, for he's shared me with Will and didn't seem the least bit put out by Will's first mountaintop, even though it was Will in my arms and not him. And none of this would have been possible without my best friend. I first tried a backpack but Will's hips were too sore to sit in it. I gave thought to carrying him up in a sling but I didn't feel his old body could take the jostling, and I was ready to give up. But she came up with the idea of the hiking chariot and today we took turns pushing it up that mountain, and at times we carried it. In all of the mountains we’ve climbed, this was one of our most challenging.  It’s also now one of our most memorable.

Will is happily snoring at home right now and Atticus is just being Atticus. But we are worn out. But it’s a good tired that has us feeling fulfilled and happy.   

Six months ago Will was abandoned at a kill shelter by the only family he'd ever known for fifteen years. When we took him in he was broken, depressed, angry, and I didn't think he'd live very long. But not only has Will not given up on life, he's thriving and today he reached his mountaintop, and together the four of us made a memory that will last a lifetime.

There’s an old saying about taking in a shelter dog: “Who rescued who?”  But that question doesn’t apply to us.  Will, a fifteen year old partially lame (due to being put away in a crate so he wouldn’t be a bother), mostly blind, and completely deaf miniature schnauzer didn’t save us, for we didn’t need to be saved.  But he has taught us a thing or two about life and love.  He’s taught us, and everyone else who knows his story, that it’s never too late to love or to be loved; and it’s never too late to live. 

In the six months Will’s been with us he’s emerged from the shell of a dog he was to one who is aware, vibrant, and very much alive.  We’ve watched him grow and reclaim his life.  But nothing has changed him more than “climbing” Pine Mountain has.  Perhaps it’s just more of the magic of the White Mountains, but in the days that have followed he’s more self-assured and follows us from room to room.  He wants to be part of us and is so far removed from the little dog who hated to be touched, tried to bite me if I picked him up, and did his best to isolate himself in the very beginning. 

Now, as I sit here writing this, I realize how different everything is than it was in May.  Back then we took in an unwanted dog who had nothing left to live for with the idea of giving him a place to die with dignity.  I figured he’d last a month or two and that would be it and we would move on with our lives knowing we’d done a good deed. 

But as I look at him today I realize I don’t want him to go – ever.  And yet he is closing in on sixteen and the cruel truth is that the dogs we love only live a fraction of the time we do.  When I look at Will and see how alive he is I remind myself that he’s not getting younger, he just seems like he is.  And whether he lasts another year or two, or simply another month or two, it’s all too fleeting.  He’ll take a piece of me with him when he goes and there will always be a bit of Will in my heart.  (Just writing that has tears welling in my eyes for whenever we find a true friend, we never want to lose them.) 

At 2,400 feet, Pine Mountain is dwarfed by Mount Madison, the fifth highest peak in New England.  And yet on one day – a day I will always remember – it was for a little elderly once-broken and once-discarded dog, the top of the world.  We brought him there, and in turn he brought us along for the journey, a journey that will touch us forever.