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.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Atticus's Different Winter Hiking Season

I think perhaps the gift that comes from Atticus turning thirteen is that as he has slowed down, I have too.  The difference being that I'm doing it by choice.  I now pay attention to different things on our walks through the woods.  Instead of being in a constant hurry, as we were for our first winters, when we were still peak-bagging, and being oh-so-proud of the latest epic adventure, I now take stock of the little things. Instead of hikes of more than twenty miles, or those where we reached the summits of three or four or five mountains in a day, now even the shortest walk in the woods is filled with wonder.  The gentle fall of snowflakes and the quietude that accompanies it.  The way beech tree leaves turn from yellow to bronze to brown to a ghostly yellow and how they flutter even when there doesn't seem to be a breeze.  Animal tracks, both big and small, and the stories they tell as we follow them through the snowy carpet of winter.  The warmth of the sun, even on days when the temperature is below zero.  The sound we make walking through the snow, the crisp and clean air we breath, even the taste of snow, which we both enjoy.  Gifts abound and they surround us in the natural world.

These days Atticus lets me know what he's up to.  He always has, but as the years have progressed he now cancels hikes, or stops after only a quarter of a mile, which he only did perhaps five times in the first few years of winter hiking.  For us the one mile round trip to Diana's Baths through a winter wonderland of frosted pines is enchanting.  The hike up short but scenic Middle Mountain gives us plenty of mileage for a day.  And then there are the times that surprise me.  The first that comes to mind is the ten mile round trip up and down North Moat a few weeks ago.  It was like the "old days" for us. 

I'm not sure what Atticus can do when it comes to mileage anymore.  But that's the point.  It's not important.  I wouldn't say that Atticus has retired from hiking, it's just that he's retired from extreme hiking.  Once the weather and trail conditions determined where we went in.  Now, along with that, I let my aging friend also have a say. 

I've never felt a reason to push him, but by setting the bars lower in what I hope to do, I'm opening up the possibilities that come with shorter hikes.  And still, Atticus and I get out and get to enjoy it.  I like that he still thrives during these outings and when I put myself in his shoes . . . well, I guess I'd be about eighty some odd years old, and to be able to do what he's doing now when I'm that age - I'll take it. 

To make the trails easier for him, we now hike more at night when the trails have been broken out by other hikers. What we miss in views we make up for in wonder.  To sit on an insulated pad together and look up at a crystal clear night with stars in abundance and the planets and the moon overhead is a gift not enough people appreciate.  Not just in winter, but any time of the year.  It's just that the view is prettier in December, January, and February than it is in warmer months.

If we are fortunate, we all get older.  We make adjustments.  But that doesn't mean there's any less wonder out there.  Emily Dickinson reportedly rarely left her yard in Amherst, Massachusetts, but she saw the divinity in everything.  William Blake wrote, "To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour."  Things don't have to be epic or huge to be transcendent.  The universe blooms everywhere - even right outside our doors or just down the street. 

Do we miss some of the higher peaks we'll never get to together again?  I can't speak for Atticus, but I do.  But part of gratitude is when you realize that what you have is enough.  In learning to slow down and relax my expectations, we continue to enjoy the trails and the seasons.  Both those that cloak the mountains and valleys around us, and the seasons of our lives, as well.
  

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Atticus and I Walk the Line Between Being Extroverts and Introverts


The other day a friend told me I was an extroverted introvert.  As much as those two clash, I think it’s true.  After living in the center of a small city, often being in the middle of controversy with my newspaper, and feeling like a good size fish in a small fish bowl, I changed all of that, dropped the drama, and have learned to relax into the quiet and the sorely needed decompression. 
 
When I think back to those days running the Undertoad I sometimes wonder if it really happened at all.  It was an exciting eleven years, one never to be forgotten.  But heck, it was it stressful.  And yet it was also the life I chose.

Has it really been seven years since we moved north? 

I am a man who loves my friends.  I love to talk and laugh and it can be at loud levels.  But a side that has grown through the years also loves the gentle quiet of this mountain life.

Years ago I wondered how I would find the money to move north.  Now I wonder how I will find the money to buy a small farm.  I’m not sure how it will happen, but I don’t doubt it will.  It’s just the way things have always been in my life.  Catch a dream, set a goal, make it a reality.  “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”  That’s Ralph Waldo Emerson talking.  From what I’ve noted in my own experiences, though, it is true. 

Farms in the Mount Washington Valley are expensive.  Too expensive for what I need and want.  So my dreams take us over toward the Vermont border just west of our tenth highest peak, Moosilauke.  They take us north to the flatter lands in Whitefield and Lancaster, with inspiring views of Waumbek and Cabot, and the jagged northern peaks of the Presidential Range.  And they take us east, to the foot of Evans Notch – the quiet notch.  The very private notch. 

In summer these are all close to ideal, but each area can be isolating in deep winter.  We’d be stepping away from the comfort zone of the North Conway area, where some of our good friends live.  We’d be out in the middle of nowhere, compared to where we live now.  This used to frighten me.  But now it’s becoming more appealing. 

This is my introverted side.  It’s the part of me that could be a monk, if I threw out the religious part and just held onto the spiritual.  It really is a world away from sitting on the third floor of a three story brick building looking smack down on the center of Newburyport and writing about it.  Back then it took us half an hour to walk to the post office and back – only a block away.  We’d stop and talk to people.  There was always information to get and to give.  The city lived in my head.  It was a constant hum of personalities and news. 

How did I spend seven years without at least one night out of Newburyport? 

Times have changed. 

My dreams take me a world away to a rustic farmhouse, a little red barn, some animals, faith that it will all work, the peace that comes from a marriage with nature.

One of the reasons my friend brought up the “introverted extrovert” thing was because we were talking about the upcoming event in Groton, Massachusetts.  There’s an eight hundred seat auditorium.  In a short time more than three quarter of the seats have been reserved.  By April twelfth there’s a good chance every seat in the place will be filled.

“How does that feel with your desire for personal privacy?” she asked.

“It feels great.  This is an event when Atticus and I will be there and it will be hectic and exciting and I’ll enjoy meeting a lot of people and seeing some familiar faces.  And when it’s done, we’ll be exhausted and more in need of solitude.  Atticus will sleep the entire three hours home in the car.”

“So you like these events?”

“Love them. That’s Tom the extrovert.  Loud, expressive, emotional.  Then it’s back to being quiet, defining boundaries, defending boundaries, and living with the rhythm of the seasons.  Atticus and I will enjoy the divinity of alone time on some of the quieter mountains.”

While reading bits and pieces of an interview with Pico Iyer the other day I came face to face with this comment and it felt like an old friend I’d just met for the first time: “The point of gathering stillness is not to enrich the sanctuary or the mountaintop but to bring that calm into motion.”  Iyer also said something that resonated with what it was like that first summer Atticus and I began hiking, “Almost instantaneously I felt that I’d stepped into a richer deeper life, a life that I’d half forgotten.” 
 
It was always there, but I never tended to it. 

Ten years ago, when Atticus and I did our first round of the four thousand footers we were both awakened.  It was a journey into the unknown together that led us to the known.  Such a mystery.  Together we learned and grew and discovered. 

We all grow older, and Atticus and I are doing that together.  He’s far older than I am so I pay attention to his needs, but this is something that has always been done by both of us.  As our journey continues, I’m not the only one who has changed.  These days he’s not as into the crowds and the rush and hurry world as he used to be.  Both of us have become countrified. 

As I sit here looking at a topographical map of the White Mountains hanging on the wall in front of my desk, I look at those place I spoke of before and realize that I am craving that delicious isolation that comes from finding a quiet place to lay our heads and to wake up every morning.  So what if Best Buy and Whole Foods are more than an hour’s ride away from where we are now and they’ll be further away from wherever it is we end up?  We have found a way to get by.  The quiet and peaceful life continues to call us further away.

As long as the tension between extroversion and introversion exists within me, I’ll know there are more surprises ahead for us.  That’s the part of the journey that enriches and forces us to grow through the light and the dark, through uncertainty and faith. It’s something called life.      

Thursday, February 12, 2015

I Heard From A Porn Star Yesterday


I heard from a porn star yesterday. 
 
I wouldn’t have known she worked in porn had she not explained it to me in her email and had I not noticed her website listed under her name at the bottom.  It seems she’s a big fan of our book, Following Atticus.  As I read through the email I smiled at the two books of the late monk Thomas Merton sitting next to the computer.

The woman is in a lot of films, none that I know the name of, but I discovered this, and other facts about her when visiting her website.  She crisscrosses the country appearing in strip clubs when she’s not posing for photographs or acting in films.  It’s a good living, she wrote.  She hopes to retire young and move to the country and have a little animal sanctuary.  In between her professional stops she reads – a lot.  So do many of her friends in the industry.  They’ve even formed a reading group and they take turns choosing a book of the month for each of them read. 

She wanted me to know how much Following Atticus impacted her life.  “I thought I was going to read about a cute little dog and I ended up reading about life!”

She asked me about signing books for the other woman in her book group.  She was looking for a case of hardcovers.  “They will love it as much as I did!  I’m also getting them to read your blog and your Facebook page.  You and Atti are awesome!”

I let her know how she could get a case of books.  She’ll send them to me, have me personalize each of them (“Don’t forget Atti’s paw print!"), and then I’ll send them back to her so she can distribute the books to her friends.  During the month of April Atticus’s silvery cataract eyes and Muttluk covered paws, as seen on the book jacket, will be on adult movie sets and strip clubs across the country, packed away in travel bags with stiletto heels, thigh high boots, oversized bras, thongs, tassels, handcuffs, and various and sundry other items. 

This makes me happier than I can say.  Over the past few years I have learned of a marriage counselor handing copies of Following Atticus to his clients. “Treat each other like Tom and Atticus do,” he tells them.  I’ve also heard that we were chosen for a book discussion by therapists dealing with family issues.  There was a city in Michigan where the clergy had a reading group where priests, ministers, rabbis, and nuns read Following Atticus and then met to discuss it.  Many counties, cities, and towns throughout the United States have chosen Following Atticus for a community read, including Groton, Massachusetts, where we will be appearing on April 12
th to talk about our story. 

The greatest pleasure of any writer is to be read.  But from there it often gets interesting to see who is reading your story. It’s wonderful to have varied groups and individuals invest themselves in it and then learn what they took from the journey of a man and a little dog as they left behind one life to get to another in the mountains of New Hampshire.

I am reaffirmed by the different people I hear from that while we are all distinctive, there are common threads that connect us.  Words and feelings knit us together.  They touch our humanity.  It doesn’t matter whether you have a cross over your chest or enhanced breasts.  Inside is what is most important and within each of us is a beating heart.  


The only question that remains now is how many more men will show up at the Groton event now that I know some of the ladies from the porn reading group hope to fly in that day to meet Atticus and me.
     

PS:  Of course I assured her I looked forward to meeting her, along with everyone else in Groton. In a subsequent email when she asked if Atticus was as friendly as he seems to be I let her know he'd probably like her more than most since they have something in common he doesn't share with most of his fans:  they are both used to being naked on stage.

PPS:  In a couple of email exchanges after reading this post Atti's newest fan joked when she added that while Atticus doesn't wear a collar or use a leash, she does at times - when the movie script calls for it.  Funny!  Lastly she asked if she'll be able to get a photograph taken with us.  "Perhaps, but we don't do selfies."  "I don't blame you. I don't let my fans take them with me either -  selfies are tacky."

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Angelic Lucidity in the Woods, in Friendship, in Connecting

The simplicity of the woods.  Sigh.

As I spend more time off-line I find myself more in line with who I am.  More letters written to friends, and more received from them.  Truths told and accepted.  Confessions, yearnings, reports of the day to day.  The joy in writing letters to friends is that we absorb these letters.  We ingest all before responding.  It's a conversation slowed down.  At least for me, it is. 

I thought of this while watching the twitching tail of a red squirrel, curious and protective of his home, as he studied our approach this morning under the blue skies and a relatively warm sun on the day after the storm. 

I long for connection.  True connection.  When it happens I embrace it and am grateful for.  That's the blessing of letters from those we are connected with.  It's a part of themselves.

This morning I wrote to a friend while Atticus and I walked alone in the woods.  That's how I write many of my letters, essays, and articles.  We walk, or hike, and the words bubble up.  I remind myself to put a certain thought, mood, or theme into what I'll be writing when I return to my desk. 

Steve Smith, White Mountain author and owner of the Mountain Wanderer Map & Bookstore, handles his wooded sojourns differently.  He takes copious notes with pencil and tiny notebook, pausing often during a hike. 

I'm told he has a room full of these notebooks from years gone by. 

Once, when sharing how we write about the trail, we compared notes.  So very different.  His details are for guidebooks and discoveries along the trails.  I take more of a romantic approach in considering the discovery of the self, of nature, and the soul of all things.  So different, but we connect with each other's writing. 

This morning I was contemplating something I read a few days ago about "moments of angelic lucidity." 

Marlinda Stull (if we are ever in Kentucky again I'm sure we will stop by Stull's Country Store in Payneville) sent me a few books recently.  One of them is "A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from his Journals."  It was a splendid gift, especially since Marlinda knows I like Merton.  He ranks up there for me with Thoreau, Emerson, Wordsworth, Muir, and Oliver.  Merton wrote: "The sense of angelic transparency of everything, and of pure, simple, and total light.  The word that comes closest to pointing to it is *simple*.  It was all simple.  But a simplicity to which one seems to aspire, only seldom to attain.  A simplicity, that is, that has and says everything just because it is simple."

Through the simplicity comes connection.  To thoughts, the natural world, what and who is important to us . . . to simplicity.

The pleasure of walking with Atticus in such moments, in all our moments really when we are away from those who label and define, is that there is no dog and no man.  There is no dividing line. It's one of the reasons I don't relate to the idea of breeds and avoid themes and terms and clich├ęs that come with dogs.  I understand Atticus is a dog and I am a human, but that really doesn't have much of anything to do with defining us.  We connect as equals in the woods.  Neither one of us deifies each other.  Nor do we look down on each other.  We simply are.  It's a connection, not a separation.   

I've told my agent I am the worst possible ambassador for pets.  It's because I don't use the word nor do I relate to how many talk of animals.  I like it this way.  Our way.  It's a connection.  There is no thought of words like owner and master.  There is no one over the other.  I'm not trying to make him my son.  He's no one's baby.  He's an adult.  He's himself, just as I am myself. It's simple.  It's Tom & Atticus, or Atticus and Tom.  

Some of you know this story already but it bears repeating.  A woman came up to me in a store. 

"You're a *breed deleted* person!"

"Not really.  I ended up with three dogs of the same breed by chance."

"Oh well, at least your a dog person."

"Actually if I would call myself anything I'd say I am an elephant person."

"But you live with two dogs."

"That's because I don't have the room for two elephants." 

But even if I did have an elephant, other than medical, physical, and nutritional needs, I wouldn't think of the elephant as the elephant.  I'd simply think of him as an individual who is my friend and if I had to call him anything I'd call him by his name. 

Years ago, when I lived back in Newburyport, I often had breakfast or lunch with three fascinating elderly men.  One of them was Doug Cray.  He was a retired New York Times reporter who had covered Kennedy and Johnson in the White House, not to mention volumes of other notable people.  You wouldn't know it, though.  Doug was as humble as could be.  After knowing him for several years I'd still find out about people he had spent time with. 

"Really, you traveled on the road with Duke Ellington for a month?"

"Yes."

"What was he like?"

"Oh, you know Duke." 

I didn't.  But what I took joy in was listening to how Doug talked of others.  It was always personal and intimate. 

One of the waitresses at a local coffee house adored Doug Cray.  We'd stop in during the afternoon for coffee and some kind of treat.  Before we'd leave Doug would say to the waitress, as he gently touched her arm, "You know, I'd like to get one of those delicious raspberry scones to take home to Barbara." 

One day the waitress said to me, "Doug is such a gentle man.  Know what I like best about him?"

"What's that?"

"I've only met Barbara a couple of times but he talks about her so personally that I feel like I know her well.  He never refers to her as his wife.  There's no ownership.  She's only one thing.  She's Barbara.  That's so personal."

I always liked that about Doug.

Although I've rid our home of so much "stuff", I have held onto things that truly matter to me.  One of them is Anne Criscitiello's first portrait in years after her dance with cancer.  It's a sketch of Atticus, Will, and me.  There's even a paw print of Max in it.  Ann sent it along framed and matted.  It's a keepsake.  In the matting she inserted a quote from Thoreau, "The most I can for my friend is simply be his friend." 

That about sums it up.  The connection.  The simplicity.  Angelic lucidity.
   

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Stars Never Cease To Amaze


There was a time when night hikes were highly uncomfortable for me, but all these years later I seem to find more enjoyment out of them than I do when hiking in daylight.  It’s ironic.  The same trepidation resides upon entering the woods.  The same feeling of unease and nervousness.  The same childhood fears, tinged with fervent imagination of things that go bump in the dark.  But add to that feelings of pleasant mystery and expectation.  It’s spending time with a mountain when everyone else has gone home. 
 
At night, the branches, bare in winter, grope at us as we pass, feeling like the bony hands of witches as they brush up against my backpack or jacket. At higher elevations the conifers are misshapen like sinister wraiths. 

But at this age, after ten years of hiking with Atticus, I now realize how much I appreciate the night sky.  The contrast from seeing nothing in the woods, to the euphoria of seeing the stars burst from the blackness as we leave the trees behind is breathtaking.  Constellations come to life.  Giant bears and fish and mythological heroes dance on top of the shadowy profiles of the mountaintops.  They look down on us, and all of mankind.

As for hiking at night in the winter, it’s the best season of all for it.  The sky is clearer than in summer.  The other night, while on such a trek through the woods, I stopped to catch my breath and to offer Atticus a treat, looked skyward, and the following came to mind:  “Here in New Hampshire, what we lack in daylight in the winter we more than make up for by starlight.” 

Has anyone ever seen the moon and stars more clearly than in these three months of cold where nights stretch on and on? 

We’ve been out twice after dark enjoying the trails recently.  The first time was after a recent thaw when Echo Lake in North Conway was freezing again.  We circled the shore, and then climbed up between Cathedral Ledge and Whitehorse Ledge.  Once on top of the sprawling snow and ice covered rocks of Whitehorse, we could hear the sound below of ice forming.  Air bubbles being forced out and reminding me of the song of whales.  It added to the night.  Not only were we seeing the mountains in a different light – where there is very little light, but the sounds were very different as well.  We sat on a blanket on the ledges and listened to the songs and watched the stars swirl slowly above us. 

Then, just the other night, after a day where we hadn’t gotten outside much, Atticus and I left home at about eight o’clock and drove along the Kancamagus Highway until we reached the trail for Potash.  It’s a simple enough mountain and less than four miles round trip, but it is also a peak, in the right conditions, where winter hikes are easier than those in the other three seasons.  A massive network of roots and large slabs of rock often slick with run-off are covered with snow and all is smooth.  The other night, after this past weekend’s rain, it felt like Styrofoam as my MicroSpikes bit in and held firm.  Atticus moved easily along the snow.  His eyes struggle as he ages with darkness and dimension, but I wore two headlamps and all was bright for him and he felt comfortable. 

There is a section of Potash where the trail ascends steeply through thick woods until it comes to a small, open ledge with a view out to Passaconaway.  When we reached that spot that massive mountain seemed all the bigger, highlighted by the heavens as it was.  We wove our way back into a twisted trail through the woods again, with some steeper pitches before we reached the next set of ledges.  It was all I could do not to fall over due to the overwhelming view of the constellations.  It was intoxicating and I had to stop moving to look up.  I spread my arms as if to embrace the experience and drink it in to make it a permanent memory. 

Atticus doesn’t always lead like he used to.  There are times he follows me now.  But not on the inclines.  He still feels comfortable going first and I follow as I always have.  The higher we climbed, the more we saw of Passaconaway again, but then also East and West Sleeper, the three peaks of the Tripyramids, and finally, cresting the summit, a view over to the rising hump of Carrigain, the double mounds of the Hancocks, and the expansive sea of peaks and valleys of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. 

Atticus was two and a half when we climbed our first mountain.  We’ve now been at it for just over a decade.  In all of that time something has never changed.  Once we reach the top he expects to be picked up so he can sit in the crook of my elbow, our heads at equal height, and together we look out at all that nature has spread before us.  I wait.  Sometimes it comes right away and at other times I wait for up to ten seconds.  Then I hear it and feel it.  My little friend lets out a deep sigh and his body settles into mine and together we fall into the scenery together. 

During the daylight, each season lends its own strokes of the paintbrush to the scenes we take in and become part of.  But at night, especially in winter, things are starker.  They are cleaner.  It’s a black and white vivid photograph and the stars never fail us. 
 
When we return home after a night hike, especially when it is cold out, our tiny home never feels more ready to welcome us.  Outside adventure leads to indoor comfort.  We sleep well and after we awaken the next morning I often look back at what took place on the mountaintops the night before as a dream.  Thankfully, it is a dream that doesn’t fade with the coming of the sun and we are more content - more filled with both life and peace.     

Monday, January 12, 2015

Writing the Book of Will


There is a divine snow falling gently onto the bare branches of the black ash tree outside the picture window as I sit writing about Will.  It’s a comfortable setting.  Comfortable and cozy.  A candle with a pine scent flickers nearby.  Steam rises and gracefully swirls upward from a mug holding cinnamon tea. 

On the couch, I can hear the low murmuring of Atticus’s snoring.  It’s apropos accompaniment for Handel’s “Water Music” which provides the melody for the song I’m typing.    

There is an ease in this open room, which is bright even when dark clouds gather overhead.  Our senses are alive and memory and emotion come together to the extent that I half expect to see Will waking up in his dog bed, letting his eyes cast about the space until he finds me.  I imagine him lying there for a little while, and then getting out from under his hand-made blanket knitted with kindness, taking a loud drink of water, and then making his way over until he reaches my side and looks up at me with his big eyes and long lashes.  

That’s one of the joys of writing.  Words breathe so much more than just life into a subject and once they are written, polished, and set firmly in place, they can live forever.  

Many have asked about Will’s story in book form.  It’s being written now and I’m about halfway through it.  But here’s the thing – it’s not just Will’s story.  It is also the story of the mountains and rivers, the bears and moose, the butterflies, chipmunks, wildflowers, the blue skies and white clouds, the moon and stars,  and it's also the story of Atticus and me.  This is our story. 

Sometimes our role in life is to play the star.  On various occasions we can play supporting roles, or our main job is to bear witness.  And then there’s the ensemble that infuses everything within a story with love and adventure. 

So many talk about how much they miss Will.  I don’t.
  Our journey together has not ended yet.

I feel fortunate to be able to share his story with hundreds of thousands who will eventually read our book when it is ready.  For them he will just be coming to life and by the time they finish the last page, they may miss him as some of you do, but there is a very good chance their lives will be influenced by Will’s and being touched, they may change because of it.
       

Thursday, November 13, 2014

John Updike, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Thomas Merton: My Thanksigiving Column for the NorthCountry News


"The stripped and shapely
 Maple grieves
 The ghosts of her
 Departed leaves.
 
The ground is hard,
 As hard as stone.
 The year is old,
 The birds are flown.
 
And yet the world,
 In its distress,
 Displays a certain
 Loveliness"
 
~ John Updike

There is a song of November and I think it is as lovely as the trees are barren.  Updike sums it up well.  Sure there are gray days ahead, more darkness and freezing temperatures are on the way, but the forests are so beautiful this time of year.  The streams murmur and run clear and cold.  The night sky black but adorned by stars so brilliant it takes your breath away.  And the quiet is peaceful and calming, especially on a mountainside now that the crowds have gone. 

High up there are varying levels of snow but below three thousand feet the mountains are simple bare and plain.  A simplicity exists away from the heat and humidity and the bugs and the people, and a certain bare-bones familiarity that exists before winter hits us full on and covers everything in white for the next four or five months.  I’ve fallen quite in love with November for these very reasons.  And now that it’s easier to breathe, so has Atticus.  He no longer slinks about like an old dog who is closer to thirteen than twelve.  He’s back to bouncing along the trails knee deep in a plush carpet of crinkling brown leaves on the forest floor.  He’s young again, happy to be out again, and having to wait up for me once again.  How can I not love this time of year for that reason alone? 

On Thanksgiving Day Atticus and I will head off and find a mountain where there are no cars at the trailhead.  I’ll make a list of a few and if the weather is dry and the views clear, we’ll climb a mountain by ourselves and eat our dinner on a ledge with views to the sacred lands before us.  How fortunate we are to live in a place where this is possible and to live without the constraints of having to be somewhere else to please someone else.  This was part of our reason for leaving behind a more civilized life which also felt like a more stultified one.

We all have our reasons for seeking out the mountains.  For me it’s as much about spirituality and peace as it is about the beauty and exercise a hike contains.  I find myself in these mountains again and again.  I find reasons for gratitude on the flat and steep trails while breathing easily or with so much difficulty I have to surrender to my own exhaustion and racing heart.  As a matter of fact, that’s where the moment of grace often hits me – when I have to stop because my breath cannot keep up with my desires and I’m hanging my head and wiping sweat from my brow.  There over the noise of my inhaling and exhaling sits the quiet of the natural world. 

This time of year there isn’t even much birdsong and the leaves are gone and the trees stand before me as naked as can be.  There’s nothing to hide, no one to impress, and they are nothing but who they are.  It’s ironic to me that when I often find the forest most alive is when all is gray – sometimes even the November sky. 

I read yesterday with a heavy heart that Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk who is perhaps the most spiritual soul I know of on this earth, is close to death.  At eighty-eight he’s had a brain hemorrhage.  There is no way of knowing how much time he has left before his body gives up and he becomes spirit and memory.  I often think of him and his spiritual soul mate, Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, writer, and mystic when I’m in the woods this time of year.  The two men only met once but they stayed in touch until Merton died a few years later in the late sixties. 

Both of these monks from different religions and opposite ends of the world found tranquility and grace in nature.  Much like many of us do.  They understood our place in the grand scheme of things and whenever life became too crazy they retreated to the simplicity of nature. 

Following Atticus on the mountain trails helped me to ditch my ego, my accomplishments, even the stopwatch I used to wear on every hike.  Following my friend I fell more in line with what matters most and let nature set the pace.  This is something both Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh came to understand.  It’s what I am always learning on the sides of mountains and why we seek out the peaks where no one else is. 

It’s during those moments when my body cannot keep pace I’m made to stop and just take a moment to wait and be silent.  Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote: “Breathing in, there is only the present moment.  Breathing out, it is a wonderful moment.”  And that’s what I’m learning.  There is the trailhead, there is the summit, and then there is everything in betwee

As Thanksgiving Day arrives I hope that each of our readers finds far more to be thankful for than to be weighed down by.  May you have a day of simplicity and joy with those you love, doing what fulfills you. 

Onward, by all means,
Tom (& Atticus)