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.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Auguries of Innocence on the Kancamagus Highway

You never know when you’ll have a wildlife sighting on the Kancamagus Highway. Often you will see cars pulled over to the side of the road and there’s a good chance they are moose-watching, or maybe they’ve seen a bear.

On Saturday, having climbed Chocorua, we were headed home late in the morning. We were following a line of bikers playing ‘follow the leader’. The lead biker swerved left, the others swerved left. He’d stand up on his bike, the others would stand. He’d weave back and forth as if following the twists and turns of a rope and the others would follow suit. I then saw each of them take aim at small lump in the road and swerve towards it – the game, I imagined - was to get as close to it as possible without hitting it. One after another these weekend warriors dive-bombed the little lump and just missed it.

I also missed it and when I passed I realized the ‘lump’ was a very large toad sitting about a quarter of the way across the road. A funny thing happens when you spend so many quiet miles alone in the woods, sweating, swearing and praying your way up mountains, the only company being a little dog and your own hoary breath – you start to see things differently. These moments are the best of my life. I’m never closer to my own true self than in those moments. Loving words as I do, familiar and often-read phrases or lines from great minds often visit me in these walking meditations.

I tell you that so you will understand why at that moment, fresh off a mountain, still sweating and a little bit sore, after passing that toad in the road my mind turned to those words that begin William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”. (Don’t you just love that title?)

“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.”

Yes, I know a warty old toad is not exactly a wild flower, but nevertheless, a quarter of a mile down the road I made a sharp u-turn and returned to see how he was doing. He hadn’t budged. The close calls had either frozen him in place or else they weren’t about to deter him from resting where and when he wanted to, even if it meant he was about to be as flat as a mitten and left for the crows.

I pulled off the side of the road. When I got out of the car, Atticus wanted to follow so I let him sit on the side of the road.

I’ll be the first to tell you I have no idea what goes through the mind of a toad. I’m not so arrogant as to think very little does, and when I came eye to eye with this particular old fellow I could have sworn there was plenty going through his mind. He looked at me suspiciously – so much so that I did my best to look gentle and benevolent and not to give him the wrong idea. He did have his pride after all, and he had already made it a quarter of the way across the road. Who was I to think he wouldn’t make it the rest of the way just fine?

Long ago, I sometimes made a practice, after having been freshly cashed up on pay day, of stopping at an Army surplus store and buying as many wool blankets as I could afford. The next morning I’d get up early and make a pile of ham and cheese sandwiches. Then I’d head into Boston Common, or Washington Park when I lived in Albany, where I knew some of the homeless by name, and I’d deliver them lunch and a blanket in the colder weather. However, there were some folks who, just like that old toad, had plenty pride even if they weren’t in the best place in their lives. They figured they’d gotten by just fine so far without me around and took the threat of my charity as an affront. After seeing me pass out blankets and sandwiches to others they would sneer at me when I approached. I respected their pride. Instead of offering them help, I’d take a folded blanket and lay it on the ground near the closest trash can. I’d then place the wrapped sandwich on top of it and leave it there.

I was careful not to look back but when I’d return some 10 minutes later, they’d have the blanket and the sandwich, having ‘found’ it on their own.

That’s what it was like when I approached that toad in the road. He didn’t want my help. However, it was clear he needed it. And this was a little different than dealing with a homeless man in Boston Common. After all we really didn’t have that much time. I gave some thought to picking him up (he was so big he would have filled the palm of my hand) but that look in his eye said, “Back off, pal!” Meanwhile Atticus was cocking his head on the far side of the road, watching us intently.

I got behind Grandpa Toad and reached down to nudge his bottom but just before I touched him he hopped and flopped down in a new spot a few inches further across the road. I reached again, he hopped again. Each time I’d get close to touching him this old fellow would flop down heavily a few inches further along the pavement and look a bit bothered by my encroachment on his space.

We were about halfway across the road when a car came around the bend and was heading for us while another couple of cars were coming in the other direction. I made like the police officer in Make Way for Ducklings and stood up and put out both of my hands telling the cars to stop. Imagine if you will what must have been going through these folks' heads: in front of them a prideful fat toad was being urged across the Kancamagus Highway by a fellow who was doing his best to allow Grandpa to move at somewhat of his own pace, all the while a little floppy-eared black and white dog was sitting on the side of the road studying both man and the toad.

Once the cars stopped I resumed reaching gently behind the toad and he resumed moving just before I made contact with him. Eventually, with more cars now stopped watching this spectacle, we made it to the other side. But even when we made it off the pavement and were on the shoulder of the road none of those cars moved. They sat and watched as if they were watching a moose. One car pulled over and a fellow got out.

“That’s the biggest toad I’ve ever seen!”

Then a mini van pulled off the side of the road and a family of four got out and took a look at Grandpa Toad. All the while I urged the old guy further off the road and towards the deep grass. The shade of the trees was maybe 10 yards ahead and another 10 yards beyond that was the river.

None of the cars on the road had moved yet, they were all watching. More cars pulled over.

The grass was high and the going was slow until a couple of kids got the idea of helping him by ‘breaking trail’. They were gentle in approaching and standing in front of Grandpa and then stepping on the high grass to mat it down. Their parents then helped. The first fellow who pulled over joined in, too. And the next thing you know there were seven or eight people stepping on the grass trying to make a path for this toad to the shade of the trees while others were watching as if this was the most important thing in their lives.

I continued to urge the old fellow along from behind and before too long we reached the soft, shaded ground and this group of strangers who pulled off the road to help a fat toad gave out a little cheer and congratulated one another as if they had done something majestic. Although none of us exchanged names, I will long remember their faces: the genuine pleasure, the living in the moment of this simplest of little things.

It just goes to show you how powerful Nature is. Sure she can threaten us with hurricanes and tornadoes; bake us in her high heat; freeze us on mountaintops with wind chills far below zero; and drown us in her floods. She can also get us to take a moment to stop what we're doing and actually care if a toad makes it safely to where he’s going. It can even make friends out of strangers, if even only for a few minutes on the side of a road in the middle of the mountains.

(If you are interested, William Blakes entire "Auguries of Innocence" can be found here.)


Ellen Snyder said...


That is the best story. Made my day!

Cheers, Ellen

Thomas F. Ryan said...


Thank you for your good words. And thank you for linking to it on your blog, which by the way, is simply an informative delight!

Onward, by all means,

Cindy said...

I've had a very, very long week in school as a teacher this week. I long for my Maine and NH visit. This story was such a joy to read and brougt a smile to my weary soul. I always enjoy your adventures and thoughts. Reading about your hikes and climbs makes me think of my Dad who passed away while I was in college.He grew up in Gorham and loved his White Mountains. Thanks for sharing your adventures. I've fallen in love with Atticus too.

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Cindy, thank you for reading along. I imagine with school vacation starting soon you'll soon get your wish for a Maine/NH visit. I hope it brings you much joy and peace.


Unknown said...

Loved reading this. Love reading your book little by little every night. I forwarded your video hiking with Atticus to my son who got himself a dog 9 months ago. After seeing your video with Atticus he said it made him want to take a hiatus and go hiking in the mountains with his dog.

Anonymous said...

Finished Following Atticus last night. Gave it to a friend today, told another friend tonight you give us "words to live by". You have found your 'harmony of life' with Atticus. Thank you. Carolyn