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.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A Week on the Outer Cape

“The mark of your ignorance is the depth of your belief in injustice and tragedy. What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls the butterfly.”

Those words come from Richard Bach’s novel Illusions, his follow-up to Jonathon Livingston Seagull. Many a course in my life has been charted by the wisdom found in that little book. Recently, I found myself in need of it again. I lost a friend and I’ve had a difficult time of it. I’ve struggled, spent much time in mourning, had to remind myself to get out of bed and to breathe in and out. I’ve awakened at times like an amputee reaching for a long-lost limb.

Those who know and love me, check in on me often. And, of course, Atticus is in a league of his own when it comes to taking care of me. Lately he can’t get close enough and refuses to let me out of his sight. (Well, truth be told he’s always done the last one but lately he’s taken it to extremes. Nowadays I can’t even go to the bathroom without him following me.) Where he usually walks 10 to 20 yards ahead of me when we are outside, he’s been spending much of his time right by my side.

We have a funny relationship, he and I; we both think it’s our job to take care of the other and I’m constantly reminded that I’m no match for him.

Things had gotten so bad I needed to get out my own way. I needed a change of pace and a change of place. So I packed up my bags, my laptop, camera, iPod and Atticus and off we went to the Outer Cape. We spent nine days walking the dunes, through scrubby forests, and along various beaches. We went days without seeing a soul in our journeys and each walk went on for hours and hours. There were times we walked until I felt like I couldn’t take another step and we’d plop ourselves down on top of a sand dune. There I’d lose myself in the crashing of the waves and Atticus would sit ‘Buddha-like’ as he does on mountaintops and look off into eternity.

We were blessed with good weather and each sunset was more stunning than the last. Things started to turn around for me on the second day. My mourning eased its hold on me when Atti and I watched the sun’s last rays light the ocean afire as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony played on my iPod, filling my ears and my soul.

We rented a condo two doors up from the main street in Provincetown but we hardly ever saw the numerous shops other than to drive by them every few days. Our time was spent in nature. This was my first visit to the Cape in 15 years and I was overtaken by the stark, naked beauty of the season. Each day I regained a bit more of myself. For the first time in months I slept through the night and when I woke up I didn’t have to give myself a reason to get out of bed and I no longer had to remind myself to breathe in and breathe out. I started to smile again. And each day Atticus let the space between us grow a bit more. He no longer felt the need to walk by my side as if ready to catch me at any moment.

One day I emailed photos to friends. One of which was Bryan Flagg, the editor of this paper, Bryan joked, “Great shots as always. However, where are the mountains? I just see flat spots!”

And that was the beauty of it – all those ‘flat spots’! You don’t get to see the horizon here unless you are on top of a mountain. And during our last hike in the Whites we stood on top of Giant Stairs and looked off into the cold, gray stubble of the mountains below and in front of us while clouds swallowed the higher peaks whole. But there on the Cape we could look off until the earth curved away and led into the sky. The sky itself was brilliant and the water sparkled. The change of scenery was good for me. The days were brighter and the sun not blocked out by forests or mountains. It was a welcome change.

Our last hike on the Cape was across the stone breakwater in Provincetown Harbor out to Wood End, which is where the Pilgrims docked the Mayflower. There used to be life on this relatively small spit of land and each end of it is marked by a lighthouse some 150 years old. But time has taken over, as has nature. There’s nothing there except sea, sand and some hardy plants. The breakwater is 1.2 miles across and when we came to the end of it we walked straight through the dunes until we reached the water. Like every other day we felt as if we had the place to ourselves. There was no one to be seen and that’s what our stay out there was all about. No, there were not mountains or thick forests, but there was Nature and Nature has a way of healing a man, even if his injuries lie in his heart.

Out there we could very well have been the only living creatures on earth. In that way it was much as it is while standing on top of Moosilauke or walking along the spine of Monroe. Winds swirl around you and the world falls away at your feet and you are as alone as can be and yet more whole then you can ever remember being. It’s funny how the seashore and the mountaintops can do that to you – wrap you in solitude and separate you from all you know and what you rediscover is that you are more complete than you were when you were in the supermarket or the coffee shop or at a dinner party.

The natural world reminds us who we are and what we can be. That whisper can come in the dense woods, on top of a stately summit, standing where earth and sea meet. It can even come in the form of a little dog who seems to understand the natural world better than I ever will.

That’s one of the blessings about living in New England: we have the mountains, great forests and the ocean all within hours of each other. It has always been this way. On a clear day on Mount Washington you can see the sea. But Atticus and I are far from the first to notice how rich we are in New England. Thoreau spent many a day in these mountains. He also stood on the Outer Cape and said, “A man may stand there and put all of America behind him.”

As for me, loss comes into each our lives and all we can do is understand that is part of the package. We have come home to the mountains to take further steps in healing, but for nine beautiful days we stood where land meets sea and put my past behind me and chartered a course towards a new beginning.

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