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.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Getting Stretched Out On Black Mountain

In baseball, when a relief pitcher is converted into a starter, it cannot be done overnight. The team takes time in stretching out the pitcher, making him stronger, giving him more endurance. Recently, while working on my book proposal for ‘Following Atticus’, my agent, Brian DeFiore, has been doing the exact same thing to my writing. He’s making me think more, open my mind and my heart and tap into the creative spirit. It’s not easy, nor is it painless, but the results are fulfilling and can even be astounding.

My proposal about life with Atticus goes out on Labor Day – when the collective U.S. publishing industry ends its long summer vacation – and publishers will see something different than what I originally set out to write. Much of the transformation has come of late and it has to do with the ability of Brian to ‘stretch me out’. He recognized my book for what it was and it’s no longer just about mountains, a little dog and a middle aged, overweight writer with a fear of heights. But it took my agent to recognize that and get me to embrace it. I was thinking about all this the other day on Black Mountain - the one here in Jackson, not the one close to Moosilauke.

When we reached the summit there wasn’t much of a view. The forest has grown up around the summit rocks and the only way to see Washington, the Wildcats or Carter Dome is to look through and over the lush July foliage. Without much of a view I sat down and opened up my backpack and Atticus and I shared peanut butter crackers. We then both drank some water and after a bit I got up and started walking.

I noticed I was missing something. I looked back to the summit rocks and Atticus was still standing there, looking at me as if I’d forgotten to do something.

I knew immediately what he wanted. I walked back and picked him up as I always do on a summit and he sat in the crook of my arm. He looked out through the trees at Carter Dome. After a minute he turned his gaze to the Wildcats, eventually swiveling his head to see Washington. And there it was – his heavy sigh. And his body relaxed into mine.

I’ve always said that the mountains are my church: the climb is where I confess my sins; the summit is where I take communion. Communion – it’s a wonderful word, isn’t it? The first two definitions from American Heritage are as follows: “the act or an instance of sharing, as of thoughts or feelings; religious or spiritual fellowship.”

That’s the beauty of my little companion. He’s not only good company, there are times he makes me see things in a different way. Holding him in my arm with the setting sun in his eyes, the man-made lenses inserted during cataract surgery were easy to see. I cannot imagine a dog who could possibly appreciate modern technology that allowed him to see again more than he does. Up high, looking out together like that, it’s our own little ‘spiritual fellowship’. Whenever we have this communion between us I cannot help but think of that Saint-Exupery quote: “Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward in the same direction.”

And there we stood ‘looking out in the same direction’ for a long while.

Who would have thought we’d be here now, when seven years ago all I wanted was a dog to replace the one I’d lost? But now we are on a threshold to a very exciting time. Between then and now we’ve been through so much together. Back then I made a living writing a political journal in Newburyport and if you know anything about small town New England politics you’ll understand it was mostly about where man had gone wrong. But because I picked up a little dog, then started following through the woods, we eventually made it to the mountains. One look around from the top of Mount Garfield, our very first peak on September of 2004, and our lives were transformed. I began to see what was right with the world. Politics went out with the trash and we moved north.

Looking back on the confluence of experiences leading us here, I suppose it was all fated to work out this way. As Einstein said, “I refuse to believe that God plays dice with the Universe.” There have been too many things conspiring to bring us to this point in our lives.

And now you can see how just as my agent has recently ‘stretched me out’, that it only took place after a little dog and these great mountains had done the exact same thing.


Constance Camus said...

Dear Tom:

As you stretch out your writing, you and Atticus expand our hearts. Thank you.

BTW, what camera do you use to take those extraordinary pictures?

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Constance, you are very kind.

Actually, I use a cheap Kodak digital. I can't tell you too much about it other than it costs about $225.