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, September 26, 2009

A Good Start to the Day

My father woke me up this morning. It was 4:00 a.m. and the world was still. He was talking to me, wanting me to get out of bed.

Typically, if I’m ever awake that early, Atticus cocks an eyebrow in my direction, realizes the sun isn’t up yet and he’s not about to get up either. He then rolls over and goes back to sleep. But not this morning. This morning he sat next to my head and looked down at me, willing me to get moving.

The ghost of my father and my dog both couldn’t have been wrong so I was up and getting dressed. I stepped outside and stars prickled the night sky, a few planets were even brighter as we walked down the road. I put on my headlamp and we walked and walked until my body warmed under my heavier clothes. We made our way up the rutted road to the base of Iron Mountain where the trail crosses a field and enters the brush.

It was still dark but the hint of predawn was making its way along the eastern horizon. But in the woods it was dark and deep and the beam from my headlamp cast shadows. When we moved, they moved; swaying at first in front of us and then falling behind until we came to the next set of shadows. We moved further into the woods, up the eroded trail and into rich scent of autumn. Occasionally I grabbed a tree branch or an exposed root to pull myself up to where Atticus was waiting patiently for me.

As is nearly always the case, the confluence of my body working, my mind clearing out everything, and the simple desire to put one foot in front of the other and climb, I hit that wonderful Zen-like rhythm and there was my father again. He was moving with us, silently, save for the same grunts I had, the same pursed breathing.

When my father was still alive and I dedicated that first summer of doing the 4,000-footers to him, he often appeared in my dreams. He never looked old or broken in body or spirit like he was in the end. Instead he was my age and we walked through the forest together sharing a like mind, heart and passion. It was the best he had to offer and I had a glimpse of what his life must have been like before all went wrong. But while he appeared in my dreams back then, he rarely was as close to me as he was this morning.

Eventually we reached our destination – a ledge with a view towards Mount Washington. Atticus sat down and looked at the silhouette of the great peak in the distance. When I sat with him I had to zip up my jacket to keep from getting chilled. And then we just sat there and waited for the sun to rise.

The darkness filtered away. Slowly the season revealed herself in the rolling quilt of early autumn colors: soft greens and yellows, an occasional red, some orange here and there. When the trees get like this, even before the peak of foliage, they pulse, and the rolling landscape before us looked like it was rising and falling as if the mountains themselves were alive and breathing.

The rock were on was cold and Atticus snugged his body next to mine. When that didn’t work he nudged me with his paw and I picked him up and sat him on my lap. He leaned back into me and we watched the birth of a new day.

The sky turned blue, the clouds were white and bobbing along, and shadows deepened the hollows of the forest spreading out below and away from us. We watched together as this living painting came to life: my dog on my lap, my father in my heart and seemingly right next to me. I turned as if Jack Ryan was actually there and I said, “Well, we did it, Dad.”

In my mind he smiled. It was warm and content and the way a man would smile in heaven even though he didn’t smile much in life.

One of my favorite memories of my father was when we were kids and he took us to the White Mountains. We’d set up camp next to a river or pull over so my brothers and I could swim or rock hop. Dad would sit at a picnic table above us and let words spill from his pen across a pad of paper. He was happy, peaceful and content. So were we. We’d do this for hours and never get restless.

The only place my father’s writing appeared was in the letters to the editor in the local daily paper or in letters to friends and family. But when he wrote in the mountains I could tell he was writing something else. None of us ever knew what my father wrote in his pad of paper on those days. He never shared it with us. But it was clear the mountains moved him to write and allowed him to touch things he hadn’t glimpsed since he was young and full of promise.

A father leaves many things to a son. Some are good, some aren’t. The best things my father left me were his love of the written word and his reverence for the mountains. As the years passed we were not always close but we always shared these things.

This morning, while the White Mountains came to life I held my father in my heart, I told him what happened this week and tears formed in his eyes. His dream had become my dream. You see, I thought of him a lot this week when William Morrow, a publishing imprint of Harper Collins, outbid three other publishers for ‘Following Atticus’.

A father found peace, magic and inspiration in these grand and wondrous mountains. He passed it onto his son. Now the father who wondered where his dreams went as he got old and eventually died will have those dreams celebrated in a book that will see to it that he and those dreams shall live forever.

And so our morning started with Atticus sitting on my lap on the side of Iron Mountain while my father sat next to us. In my head I heard that last verse from Harry Chapin’s song, “Cats in the Cradle”...

I've long since retired and my son's moved away.
I called him up just the other day.
I said, "I'd like to see you if you don't mind."
He said, "I'd love to, dad, if I could find the time.
You see, my new job's a hassle,
and the kid's got the flu,
But it's sure nice talking to you, dad.
It's been sure nice talking to you."
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me,
He'd grown up just like me.
My boy was just like me.

1 comment:

LM said...

Tom..Wow...tears form in the corners of my eyes, as I think of my Father who is also gone. He loved to paint in his own manner. In the past 6 years after his death I find myself engorged in wanting to paint more and more so to be known, so to also make him known. My profile picture is one of his creations. He was just about blind and only could see mostly shadows and out the corners of his eyes..Life is grand!