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, February 04, 2009

Wandering in Tamworth

Our time in Tamworth is winding down. While I have no set departure date it is only a matter of time before we move to a more permanent location in North Conway in the near future. Atticus and I will depart Tamworth a bit better off for having spent time here. It is a charming place with more natural understated nooks and crannies than any other place I’ve lived.

While we will only be up the road some thirty minutes we’ll never have the same convenience of the treasures Nature has given us to unwrap these past five months. Here, in the shadow of the eastern edge of the Sandwich Mountain Range, there are streams and fields and rustic mountain views exclusive to the area. And as we wander these rural roads or hiking trails I embrace them, knowing we may never be on them again – for such is the wealth of wonders throughout the White Mountains. There will always be more to discover and celebrate.

On Monday, the halfway mark of winter, Atticus and I rolled out of bed, ate a little breakfast, walked down the road a half a mile, and then faded into the woods along a snowmobile path worn to a sidewalk by weekend enthusiasts. This is the same path we walked along the very first day we moved into the area in late August. On that golden afternoon we ambled among mossy rocks and lush ferns beneath a green and gold sun-dappled canopy. On Monday it was a different world – all white and frozen in sleep. No ferns, no moss. And even the trail-side stream was partially frozen; the only canopy was the dark, naked bark of tree branches reaching towards a gray, featureless sky.

Sylvia Plath had perfect lines for such a scene years ago: "Winter dawn is the color of metal, / The trees stiffen into place like burnt nerves." You know the look. It may even contribute to your seasonal depression but I have own antidote for such things: I simply avoid the ‘color of metal’ while following the flop-eared saunter of a little dog who repels the cold indifference with his happy-go-lucky wandering along the trail. It’s like finding yourself guided through a black and white movie by a colorful cartoon dog. What a simple joy it is to travel these trails with Atticus!

The snowmobile trail may not be the steepest hike in the Whites but it is still an uphill walk and before long my body warmed enough to sweat and my heavy breathing joined the bite of my snowshoes as the only forest noises. We walked for close to a mile before reaching the summer road (closed for the winter). Then it was to the left a little ways and a bit more of a climb until we reached the tower atop Great Hill.

Atticus has never liked open-backed stairs and while he adores summit sitting he’s no fan of hill or mountaintop towers and so I carried him up the narrow stairs. Sure he could have stayed down below but he would have missed the amazing view of the entire Sandwich Range as it stretches from west to east and this once-blind dog loves his views. Off to the far left stood Sandwich Dome, looking more impressive than many of the 48 peaks taller than she is. There stood the Tripyramids and the Sleepers and Whiteface and the hulking mass of Passaconaway – along with Wonalancet, Paugus and Chocorua: more mountains named for legendary Indians of days gone by. Such glory all in a beautiful panoramic view!

If it weren’t for the chill of the early morning we would have stayed longer. As it was we stayed long enough for our bodies to shiver. Then it was back down the stairs and out to the summer road. Instead of returning the way we came we walked down the closed road with me just a foot or two in front of Atticus. (He’s no idiot. He let me use my snowshoes to break the trail for him.) On we plodded and in our private walk through deep snow my mind wandered here and there until it came to rest on something that was pointed out to me this past week. Atticus and I were mentioned in Mary Baker Eaton’s popular Newburyport Blog ( She wrote:

There was a time, long, long ago, when Tom Ryan ruled the political Newburyport earth, and had a local political journal called “The Undertoad.” Mr. Ryan had an astounding radar for what drove any particular human being nuts. And if a Newburyport human being crossed a particular Tom Ryan code of ethics, that human being got “Toaded,” i.e. slammed in the Undertoad, and all their particular buttons got wildly pressed.

It was not a pleasant experience for those who entered into the very, very long (and actually it was becoming somewhat distinguished) list of the Newburyport Toaded.

I figured, writing the Newburyport Blog, that it was only a matter of time, before, I too would get Toaded. But Mr. Ryan went on to bigger and better things, like being given the Human Hero Award by the MSPCA-Angell Animal Medical Center, receiving it at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, and headlining the award ceremony with Emmylou Harris. Not a bad gig.

My big defense against getting Toaded—a bunch of stuffed frogs. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Now, it seems a little out of touch with reality. Oh well.

But the frogs and I had a grand old time (and for goodness sakes we still may). There was a good deal of eye rolling, especially by male readers of the Newburyport Blog, about my beloved frogs. I was told once that no serious reader would read any post that contained green critters, except this person had read all the posts containing green critters. Go figure. I was also told that because of the frog thing, I was totally whacked. Yes, “No Comment.”

However, it is my experience, that weirdly, the more political power an individual actually had, the more they actually liked my cadre of green things. A sort of interesting frog political Rorschach test. I was listening to a friend talk about a (national) politician, and they were talking about this person not exactly being a
“prince,” but no “frog” either.

And that got me to thinking. Maybe all those readers who didn’t like my frogs, were actually frogs themselves. And no amount of frog kissing would ever turn them into “princes” or bring about some sort of fairy tale ending, like being honored at the Kennedy Center for a humanitarian award and headlining that 21st Annual Animal Hall of Fame dinner with Emmylou Harris.

Ain’t life grand.
This simple little three-mile loop over Great Hill may not be a hike along Franconia Ridge but it’s special in its own way. But that’s the charm of these mountains, isn’t it? Even the simplest adventures – the little comings and going and quaint secret places are enchanting in that they are enough to make a man want to stop writing about what’s wrong with the politicians of the world and instead turn his focus to what’s right with the world. In my case that’s this grand and magnificent place – and a remarkable little dog.

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