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, May 26, 2009

Our Morning Walk

It’s a brilliant blue-sky morning that started with a chill in the air. On our morning loop through Jackson Village I wore gloves, fleece pants and a fleece top – unusual for me this time of year, but last night dipped into the 20s.

Our regular walk takes us by the Wentworth Golf Club, which before the sun climbs up the far side of Thorn Mountain, could just as easily be Augusta National. It’s a pretty manicured course. One of its highlights is the covered walking bridge that arcs gracefully over the Ellis River. If we are early enough, there are no people out and about and only the sprinklers are hard at work on the greens. The next turn we make brings us to Route 16B and over another covered bridge. It, like the golf course’s bridge, is picture perfect. From there we stroll by a variety of inns and restaurants, a few shops, a small band box (with apologies to John Updike) of a red library and an historic white church – what quaint New England town would be complete without a white church in its center? – before we come around by the golf course again. If we are late enough (after 7:00 a.m.), Atticus and I sometimes stop at the J-Town Deli and get a bagel. We sit outside at one of the outdoor tables or in one of the rocking chairs while inside the usual local suspects solve the problems of the world – another comforting cliché of a quaint New England town. Then it’s back here to the house.

It’s a fine way to start the day and it has more to do with just the mountains ringing the town or the pretty buildings. Here in Jackson people take pride in the way things look. Flower gardens are not ostentatious but they are noticeable. Lawns are lush and well-tended. Park benches are sprinkled throughout the area.

But it’s more than just that. It's the people. Before I moved here many people would raise an eyebrow and say, “You’re moving to Jackson? They’re very snobby there, you know.”

What do I know; after all I’m new to town? But from what I can see people here are pretty friendly. Atticus and I walk along and people greet us as they walk by; and if they are driving by, many of them wave. The only negative interaction I’ve had thus far with a person I might consider a snob is an older woman who was with her husband. She noticed Atticus walking by my side, sans leash or collar, and she spoke without moving her teeth, “Don’t you think he should be on a leash?”

I responded in a kind voice and a wink, saying, “Don’t look at me, you’re the one who married him.”

Other than that I think this is a beautiful place and I’m happy to consider it home. It’s much more pleasant than most, if not all places, I’ve ever been.

It’s close to civilization (North Conway) and the wild (many great hikes). This past Saturday Atticus and I drove to never-easy-to-reach Mount Waumbek up in Jefferson. I was pleasantly surprised to make it there in 30 minutes. We hiked early, then hit North Conway in the afternoon. Yesterday we drove to the start of the Davis Path in lower Crawford Notch and it was only 15 miles away. That's so different from when I lived in Franconia Notch. I got used to everything being far away. I expected the same coming here to the most eastern of the three noted notches but that’s not the case. Everything but Franconia Notch is close enough at hand.

As for the house, we could not wish for anything more. It’s a simple place but Atticus, finally away from other dogs for the first time in eight months, is as happy as ever. He’s more relaxed and enjoys each of the rooms we spend time in. As I write this he’s sleeping behind me on the red futon in my writing room looking like he doesn’t have a care in the world.

Years ago, when I sat in the middle of the maelstrom of Newburyport politics I was edgy, quick to anger and downright ready to defend myself at the drop of the slightest hint of a threat. I had gone to war with an ethically questionable police department and times were tense, to say the least. The Boston Globe wrote a story about how two of my trash bags had miraculously showed up at the police station and two detectives were going through them. The tires of my car were regularly slashed. Threatening notes were stuck under the windshield or mailed to me. And you know what calmed me down and made me feel like I lived in a home and not a foxhole? It was when I got Max, and when Max died and Atticus came along. I watched them sleep the way Atticus is sleeping next to me now. It reminded me what life was like when it was innocent and carefree. Seeing them sleep that way made me want to feel the same way again.

These days I feel that way nearly all the time. On the rare occasion I glimpse at the often arrogant machinations of the utterly predictable cast of characters who fight over who will lead the city of Newburyport, I recall something a high school teacher used to say, “There are no such things as small towns, only small minds.” In a flash I'm happy to be here instead of there.

Looking at Atticus stretched out on the futon, one ear dangling, another ear propped up against the backrest, one leg stretched out, the other tucked beneath him, I thank him (and Max) for teaching me the things I most needed to learn. It’s because of them that I’ve left the Sisyphean angst to others. Instead, I’ll take the mountains.

*(The top photo is from yesterday's hike to the ledges of Mount Resolution. The bottom photo is of Atticus on the living room couch.)

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