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, October 07, 2009


It’s early morning and still dark outside. By the sound of the rain drumming on the metal roof of the house, it’s coming down hard and steady. The little bug always senses when it’s storming outside. On mornings like this he’s in no hurry to get up. While I’m under the covers, he’s on top of them, but fairly covered, the way he’s snugged them around himself and pushed up against my hip. (Funny, when we go to bed at night, he likes his space. But by the time I wake up in the early morning he’s craving contact, his little body pressed against me.)

Late yesterday we did the long loop here in Jackson. On good days we try to do it at least once. Now that we are getting ready for another round of the 48 we sometimes do it in the morning and the late afternoon. It’s 6.5 miles of bucolic bliss. Actually, I stumbled upon a term I like better – bucophilia. It comes from Maxime Kumin’s poem “Highway Hypothesis” and she refers to it as “nostalgia over a pastoral vista”. That’s what it’s like when we are striding along the quiet stretches of Carter Notch Road beyond the Eagle Mountain House, along the entire stretch of Moody Farm Road, and on the higher reaches of Black Mountain Road. On these sections of road it’s so sleepy we often walk in the middle of the street. When a car approaches we hear it long before we see it and we move to the side.

On our loop it’s not uncommon to see great blue herons, moose, bears, beavers, and countless chattering chipmunks. (The chipmunks, like the cars, are often heard before we see them.) Occasionally one will dart across the road in front of us and disappear into a stonewall so quickly it’s as if we imagined him. I always remind Atticus, “Remember, Little Bug, this is their home, let’s respect it.” At that he stops poking around the stonewall and comes back to me. It’s not that I worry about Atticus killing the little creature. He’s learned to be gentle. But the chipmunks don’t know that and I don’t want them to be scared.

The other day when a bear emerged from the woods just 20 feet in front of us, stopped and looked at us, Atti knew he wasn't some oversized chipmunk. He stopped and watched respectfully. When the bear disappeared into the woods on the other side of the road, Atti stopped and gave a look as if amazed at the vanishing act.

When we come to the pond where five beavers live we sit on the shore and the beavers approach us and I feed them apples. They are used to people and don’t bother to bat their tails on the water. Instead they glide up, one by one, and tread water just two or three feet away and wait for me to toss an apple into the water. I always bring five; one for each. Not all of them get an apple every time but the ones that do have no problem holding them in their hands and chomping away on them happily as man and dog sit and appreciate their ease.

As for moose, we see them least of all, but when we do Atticus knows to sit and not move. (I once heard about a little dog who was barking at a moose that had appeared in its backyard. The moose, in a request for quiet, stomped the dog to death. Since then, whenever we see one I whisper to Atti, “Pssst – moose.” And he sits. But now I don’t have to do that, he knows to sit and watch.

As much as I love the wildlife, the bucophilia is more about the silent trees, who on the rarest occasions murmur with the wind; the Wildcat River, which we often sit by and listen to her song; the far off views towards Carter Notch on one road, or towards the Moats, Tripyramids and Sleepers on another road. It’s about the enclave of native Jacksonsians in this quietest, unpretentious part of town – my favorite; and the way the farmland rolls blissfully up towards the base of some nearby mountains. It’s especially beautiful now in autumn when each day seems to outdo the last and whenever I think it cannot get any better, it always does.

We here in New England are the luckiest people in the world when it comes to this time of the year. No place is more beautiful or more longed for. In those years I lived in other areas of the country my heart would sing a melancholy song this time of year and I’d have done anything to get back here where the trees save their best for last.

And how does it all happen? How do the trees give us such a show? Rudyard Kipling, he of the Jungle Book fame (and many other things), once lived in Vermont. He wrote:

"A little maple began it, flaming blood-red of a sudden where he stood against the dark green of a pine-belt. Next morning there was an answering signal from the swamp where the sumacs grow. Three days later, the hill-sides as fast as the eye could range were afire, and the roads paved, with crimson and gold. Then a wet wind blew, and ruined all the uniforms of that gorgeous army; and the oaks, who had held themselves in reserve, buckled on their dull and bronzed cuirasses and stood it out stiffly to the last blown leaf, till nothing remained but pencil-shadings of bare boughs, and one could see into the most private heart of the woods."

This route is a road walk for us, and yet the elevation gain is significant enough to get my heart racing and force me to breath deeper. I feel it in my legs and my low back. And the views, well, they are better than on some mountains. And like those mountains, whenever we crest a hill near the top of Black Mountain Road, Atticus skips up and brushes my hand with his nose. Once he gets my attention he stops and sits. The first time I didn’t know what he wanted. Then I realized the views we had of the various far off mountains (and the Doubleheads, which are right there for the touching) and I knew this seemed like a summit to him. Now I know to pick him up and he sits up in the crook of my arm as he does on any summit and slowly pivots his head to look at the views. It never fails. It’s his routine on a mountaintop and his routine at this exact place on the walk.

We walk this way for a quarter of a mile or so. I can only imagine what the drivers think as they pass by and see a grown man carrying a little dog like this.

“Is he hurt?”

“Is the dog tired?”

“That dog sure is spoiled!”

If only they knew the truth – the little dog who was once blind simply wants a better view.

When I put Atticus down it’s not too far off from where two bulls stand in a field. He always approaches them with curiosity and I remind him, “This is their home, Bug, remember to respect it.” But those words are never necessary as he stands outside the wire fence and watches them. Sometimes the bulls look up. Sometimes they keep chewing the grass as if we don’t exist. Sometimes Atticus stands and watches them. Sometimes he sits for a spell.

The other night he decided to sit. He was about five feet from the fence. One of the bulls ambled slowly over and started to sniff the air. He pushed his large snout against an opening in the square of the fence. Atticus looked at me and I told him, “Okay, but be gentle.” Slowly the little black and white dog approached until both creatures, so different in size, so similar in color, curiously looked at each other and then with the softest of intentions touched noses.

I stayed back and watched. Why interfere with such innocence?

Animals and nature get it. It’s the humans who don’t. We’re the only ones who have to be reminded time and again how to act human. But you never see that in another creature. A bear knows how to be a bear. A dog knows how to be a dog. Mountains sure as heck know how to be mountains. It comes naturally them. Us, well, we need these little reminders from time to time and they help us to be human. Perhaps we find it climbing a mountain or sitting in our kitchen watching the birds at the feeder (as my father used to do) or taking a walk with a daughter and granddaughter as a friend recently wrote of doing.

It takes Atticus and me around two hours to do this walk. Sometimes, if we are sitting with the cows or feeding the beavers or listening to the song of the Wildcat River, it takes longer. The time doesn’t really matter, what matters is the experience.

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