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, October 24, 2009

From One Season to the Next

Recently, a rather vociferous woman on a hiking website posted a notice that her dog was going to finish the 48 4,000-footers on Mount Carrigain. She blew the trumpets and unfurled the flags in her typically rambunctious but friendly manner, inviting all hiking dogs and their humans along. I sent her a note congratulating her dog on her upcoming day. She replied that we were welcome to join her group in their merrymaking.

"Thanks, but no thanks. It’s not our style," I wrote and again congratulated her dog.

She responded one last time saying, “I know, you guys are loners…”

Loners? I’d rather say we are particular about our mountain experiences. Atticus and I hiked our first mountain to see what it was like. After that we hiked for the magic of it.

A lot of people start out that way and they love it. But sooner or later, nearly every one of them forgets that they came up here to get away from society and they get locked into another society – the hiking society. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I’m just saying it’s not our style.

Joseph Campbell, the mythologist I often read and quote, once said that he felt spiritual nearly everywhere he ever went – other than a cocktail party. Amen, Joseph. I feel the magic of the mountains most when I can walk through the forest or sit on mountaintops alone with Atticus. Or at the very least when others are respecting the solitude we seek. But get in a group hike and that experience is shattered.

And yet it never fails, wherever we go people say, “Let’s get together for a hike sometime.”

My answer used to be, “Okay.” Now it’s “No thanks.” If I want to spare someone’s feelings I soften it a bit, but the message is always the same: do not disturb.

People are always shocked by this. “Are you serious? You don’t want to go for a hike with me?”

And yes, I’m serious. William Blake had it right, “Great things are done when men and mountains meet; this is not done by jostling in the street.” Hiking with other people often equates to ‘jostling in the street’. There’s talk and typically lots of it. I learned this the hard way the winter we did 81 peaks. We started out with others but ended up on our own.

It’s not that other people are wrong to want company, but neither am I. Typically we are old enough to know what we want in life and we simply have to go out and get it. What I’ve wanted from the moment I stood on top of my first mountain was to have that same feeling time and again. Being with Atticus allows me to have it. He’s never been a barker, a chaser or a herder. He seems to get from the mountain what I do. If anything, he enhances the experience for me. Not being human he’s more comfortable where the wild things are than I am and in watching him I’ve become more comfortable, too. He blends noiselessly into the forest and I do the same. No longer do we hear society bleating away, worried about the economy, religion, politics or Jon and Kate. It’s just us and the mountain and we are welcomed home time and again.

I thought of that the other day while we walked up Mount Stanton. It was not a day for views; and even the trees are past their prime colors. The remaining leaves are a drab yellow or hang lifelessly from a mostly naked branch. And yet the forest was very much alive. The sweet smell of autumn – a mixture of apples, wet leaves and the musty scent of the cooling earth – was invigorating. A mysterious fog slipped through the trees and wrapped itself around us, snaking here, crawling there, twisting and turning and dancing slowly about. Whenever she grabbed at us we moved beyond her embrace and the mist vanished like a ghostly hand. The fog creates a silence like nothing else can and the mountain seemed to sleep beneath our feet.

And so it was as I’ve always liked it best, just the two of us making our way up Stanton then down into the col and up to Mount Pickering. We were kept company by the silent forest and by the ever lively fog. We sat on a ledge on Pickering where we sat this spring and watched the valley below come to life. But on this day there was nothing to be seen. But oh, there was so much to be felt.

I turned and looked at Atticus, who was sitting next to me. He looked out just as he had this spring and felt as at ease as he always does. We typically just let each other be at such times but I couldn’t help it. I had to speak.

“Thank you,” I said.

He turned and looked at me.

“Thank you for all of this,” I said.

And man and dog looked at each other for a moment more and then both faced out into the fog. After a minute or two he moved closer to me without either of us taking our eyes from the fog. He leaned into me, and I into him. We sat that way until time disappeared.

These hikes we are on now mean the world to me. In a few weeks it will all change. No longer will it be just Atti and me. We will be three. I’m thrilled by this. Judging by Atticus’ actions this past spring, he will be thrilled when the one we love is here again, too. And yet being Irish and sentimental I cannot help but say how much I will miss what we’ve shared alone over hundreds of mountains.

I would not be here had Atticus not led me here. I would not have climbed these mountains, moved to these mountains and made them our home without him. It’s funny how things can change when you let a friend into your life, even if that friend has four legs instead of two and never talks.

For the past four years I’ve wanted nothing more than to be here. Each and every step has been taken together with the vast majority of them being by ourselves and that has made a profound difference in our lives.

When we are three, we’ll be hiking at a feverish pace like we haven’t done in a year or so. We’ll try to hike all 48 of the 4,000-footers this winter and it will be fun to watch Atticus lead her as he always led me. Of course you are all invited to follow along, too – by way of your computers, of course, because you see, the three of us are, after all, ‘loners’.

1 comment:

LM said...

...In the name of the Tom and the Atticus,...Amen....