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.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

In A Failed Trip We Found Avalon

(To the right is a photo of a mouse Atticus killed on the way to Avalon on November 1, 2006.)

In the last two posts I’ve teased about a story, some background as to how a dog like Atticus, a miniature schnauzer, a breed that was used for “ratting” would come to leave a little mouse in the mountains alone. How he would sit with me while I fed the mouse cheese and how when I startled the mouse and it would scurry under his legs he would let it sit there as if knowing it felt safe there. I have no explanation of how this happened or why he acted as peaceably as he did. However, I thought it may have something to do with the story I’m about to share with you. It comes from a hike we did on November 1, 2006, before I had discovered I had Lyme Disease. Here’s the trip report from that day…

As of late, my body is drunk and sluggish with a heaviness brought about by some unknown virus. There are good days, there are bad. It comes in an unpredictable cycle. The other day it was at its worst, not upon rising, nor in the two and a half hour drive north to Crawford Notch, nor in suiting up for a “winter” hike, but in the first five minutes on the trail. My arms, my legs, my face, my lips, they all felt numb, as if someone had wrung the blood and life from them.

This same lethargy had visited me a few weeks earlier, in the beginning of a hike up Chocurua. But after walking through the vibrant October woods and up the steep but short pitch to Nickerson Ledge I left it behind. The rest of the day I felt fine. But on this planned hike over Field, Willey and then back to Tom, it felt like it had moved in for the long haul. And yet I still tried to leave it behind and when that didn’t work I tried to ignore it and instead concentrate on the crisp air, the snow on the side of the trail, the privacy of a weekday hike. Like Frost, I took note of the trees and realized somewhere in my 45 years of living “I learned to know the love of bare November days…”

But even on the flats I was moving slow…slower than usual. I thought about turning back but figured much like those who flirt with suicide; I could go on and always turn back later if things didn’t get better.

Typically, this is one of my favorite loops. I come here to reclaim myself, to build up confidence while bounding like Tom Bombadil over three 4,000-footers in just under six hours time. (For me, this is a fast pace.) But on this day I was not fast.

The feeling within forced extra caution on the stream crossings and when we took the left fork towards Avalon I chugged slowly along, stopping frequently. The snow was now not just on the side of the trail, but on the trail. A lone set of footprints from the day before led the way over the white rocks. Each stop lasted a little longer. As we climbed I really struggled and cursed whatever it was that had taken me hostage.

The thought of turning back grew stronger still, but I hated the idea of driving five hours in a day not to hike. I bargained with the weakness within. It wanted a complete stop; I wanted something out of the day. Back and forth we went until a compromise was reached. If I could make it, I’d stop at Avalon and call it a day. (Of course, there was a part of me that considered treachery and breaking the agreement if, upon reaching Avalon, I felt better, I would continue up towards Field.) As if the virus could read my mind, it made it each step more difficult. I kept telling myself I was stopping not to give in, but simply to rest and take in the the snowy forest.

Atticus, for his part, was patient, as he always is. He’s not a back-and-forth dog. He takes his ground and then stands it and waits for me. The only time he returns is if I take off my pack and sit or fall down, which typically happens more in winter than in other seasons. On one steep pitch I had to stop and hung my head between my arms while they held onto my trekking poles. When I looked up, Atticus was above me with something dangling from his mouth. It looked like a small gray mitten. Upon closer inspection the mitten, a little mouse, was moving while my hiking partner sat above me with an ordinary look as if he had nothing hanging from his mouth whatsoever. I told him, “That’s not cool. Not cool at all.” He understood and let it fall to the snow.

Atticus is not much of a hunter. Well, let me rephrase that. He’s not much of a catcher. As a ratter his breed was used to chase rodents. He loves chasing squirrels but has little luck in catching them. He did, however, catch a youngster once but when I told him to “leave it be” he disappointedly let his quarry go and it scampered away up while he looked on in disbelief, first at the freed squirrel, then at me. On another occasion, while walking in Newburyport’s South End, a small bird had evidently fallen from its nest and was hopping along the sidewalk. Before you could say “Sylvester and Tweety Bird” he scooped it up into his mouth and it disappeared. Once again I let him know this was “not cool”. When I folded my arms and lifted a brow he opened his mouth and the young bird hopped out unharmed and was on its way again as if this was an everyday occurrence.

When I reached the step where he dropped the mouse, I could see it was struggling for its life. It did not run; it could not run. Instead it wreathed slowly on its back.

I was quite taken by this event, and sadness came over me. Not an overwhelming sadness, but sorrow nevertheless. As I watched this creature struggling I opened up my pack and put on a heavy winter Gore-Tex mitt and held it in my palm. It was dying. I sat down in the snow and Atticus sat next to me looking on. He could tell I was not happy, but I wasn’t angry. He had simply done what’s in his nature to do. Like a fool I explained it to him as if I expected him to understand. And then we just sat there, me holding the mouse, him looking on and listening to me.

Just over a decade ago, I worked in a horrible nursing home. After I left it was soon closed by the state for various deficiencies. This was the kind of place people were sent when they couldn’t afford anything better. Many of the residents were badly damaged and long forgotten.

There was one resident, a fellow who was more miserable than the rest. He was wheelchair bound by a stroke and decades of drinking. Long ago his wife and children were fed up with his alcoholism and told him it was either them or the bottle. He chose the bottle.

His family hadn’t seen him in years and didn’t want to know anything about him other than to be notified on the day he died. His only enjoyment came in making other people miserable. In a strange twist I made in-roads with this fellow by telling him a lie. I walked into his room one day as if he wasn’t there and cussed and threw a temper tantrum. I then turned to him and told him my wife and kids were nothing but trouble. I threw a towel, kicked a trash can, and raged against the unfairness of my wife telling me I had to either stop drinking or else she would leave me and take the kids. All the while he watched me while I ranted and raved. In my made-up rage about my made-up wife and children I told him, “Screw her, I’m going to keep on drinking and they can leave if they want to!”

In the middle of these histrionics, he slowly shifted in his chair and he mumbled something. I ignored him. He mumbled it again. When I stopped and asked him what he said he told me, “Don’t do it. Biggest mistake of my life.”

From that point on I had a new friend and this lonely fellow changed a bit. We talked every day and each day he talked more. As he opened up I asked him what his favorite things in life where. List three of them, I told him. “Watching Ted Williams play baseball. Sophia Loren. Oral sex.” (Quite frankly, he used a different term.) On another day I asked him what he was most afraid of. “Dying alone.”

Our relationship grew until one day he took a turn for the worse and it was clear he was going to die. He was sent to the local hospital for care and comfort during his last hours. His family was called. They said to call back when he was dead.

Thinking of this man and his life and his fear and his wish not to die alone, I told my supervisor I was done with my work and was leaving a half an hour early to go to the hospital with him. I was told I couldn’t leave early so I quit my job on the spot, drove home, and picked up a change of clothes and a copy of John Updike’s essay on Ted Williams’ last at bat. When I arrived at the hospital he was already in a private room and I sat with him. On occasion we talked, but mostly I read to him, or just sat there with him.

It was a long night. After 10 hours it was clear he was nearing the end of his life. Neither of us had said anything for a long while and I wanted him to know he was not alone, and was not dying alone. So I sat next to him on the bed and held him and said just loud enough for him to hear, “Frank, do you know what heaven is like?” There was no response. I put my mouth to his ear and whispered, “Sitting at Fenway Park, watching Ted Williams at the plate while Sophia Loren gives you a…” With that Frank smiled one last time.

That faint smile was still on his face when he took his last rattled breath an hour later.

I learned something that night: if childbirth is a miracle, so is death, too. They are part of the same package.

For some reason that’s what I was thinking of while watching this mouse dying in my hand. And I felt as if we had done something wrong. For the past year and a half these mountains had given us many gifts and I’ve done my best to appreciate them. I felt badly that Atticus had taken the life from this little creature and felt the least I could do was to make sure it didn’t have to die alone and didn’t have to die in the snow. So I held it until I felt the life leave its body. Just off the trail I scooped a handful of snow up and made a dish and took an extra wool sock out of my pack and made a bed for the mouse by wrapping him softly in the cloth and then laid him down in the indentation. I did this just in case I had misread it and he was just in shock, perhaps he would be fine, even though I doubted it.

We left him and made our way through knee-deep snow to where the spur path to Avalon summit is. It was not broken out and I had a difficult time in spots where the slippery rock was hidden by snow and underlying ice. When we reached the summit I stopped in my tracks at the beauty of white Washington and other neighboring peaks. I’d never been on top of Avalon before. Each time I hiked Field and the others I was in too much of a hurry. On this day there was no hurry. We sat and took in the views, ate an early lunch, took photos, and wrote a letter to my Dad.

Being sick was good in that it got me to stop and enjoy the view. On longer, more arduous hikes I sometimes forget to sit and soak it all in as much as I should. But on hikes like this one, like Tecumseh, or Hedgehog, there is plenty of time to sit and relax and celebrate the moment. There is no schedule to keep.

Before we left the rocky summit I tipped my hat to the Presidential’s, telling them we’d be back after winter started. We slipped and slid down the cone to the main path. Atticus was the first to reach the spot we had left the mouse and he sat next to the little bed and waited for me. There was no miracle recovery. It was indeed dead.

By now you surely realize I could never hunt. I have nothing against hunters, but I could never do it. If I have my way, spiders and bees and flies find their way out of my apartment and into the great world beyond windows and doors.

In his wonderful book, Reverence; Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, Paul Woodruff wrote, “Reverence is the capacity of awe in the face of the transcendent.” He also wrote, “Death is one of the most awe-inspiring facts of our lives.” That book came out just after 9/11 and it was instrumental in helping me, and I’m sure others, find peace with my conflicted feelings at the time. I have read it several times since and I find wisdom in its pages. Perhaps Woodruff’s words were one of the reasons I took the time on this afternoon to take branches and greens to make the dead mouse a nest and laid him on it when I took my sock back.

As we left the mouse there in his woodland bed upon the snow I uttered two lines from John Irving’s Cider House Rules, substituting New Hampshire for Maine, “Goodnight, you Prince of New Hampshire. You King of New England.”

To a friend in Newburyport the retelling of this story seemed rather silly and he considered my actions a waste of time.

"It was only a mouse,” he said.

But to me it was about more than a mouse. It’s about these wondrous and mysterious mountains. For me it’s about remembering to say thank you, about showing respect for them. It’s about reverence. In these mountains I am continually learning…about myself and about nature; continually remembering what I have forgotten or what I have failed to keep significant in my life; and in my journeys alone with Atticus I find myself being a better person than I’ve ever taken the time to be before.

Blessings and lessons come in the strangest and sometimes smallest packages...even on a bad day.


Victoria said...

Atticus guides, and... Fortunate the man who has come to understand. Exquisitely profound.

Patrice Simon said...