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.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Walk in the Woods

"Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you've imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler."
~ Henry David Thoreau

This morning it was only 38 degrees when we started our walk but the sun was already warming the earth. The sky was bright blue and optimistic, without hardly a cloud to be seen, and I longed for something a little different in our morning walk. Instead of taking the little loop, which cuts through the Wentworth Golf Club course, and then loops through the village, or the big loop, which goes all the way up to Black Mountain and takes us two hours, we cut through a cross country ski trail accessible from Mirror Lake Road.

From time to time I think about my friends back in Newburyport and how surprised they were when I gave up my paper, politics and Newburyport herself, to lead this most unusual life. And when I typically think of them is when I enter a forest and leave the light of day behind. For that’s what I did. I chose the enchantment of the forest, the murmuring streams, the clean air, the magic of the mountains, over a more predictable life. And that’s what I felt like this morning, wondering how many friends were stuck in traffic on their way to work back down in Massachusetts while Atticus and I entered the woods.

The forest is just waking up these days, with ambitious green plants poking up through earthen floor and birdsong filling falling like autumn leaves from the branches above. I brought my iPod with me but decided nothing could be more beautiful than the sound of those birds in their springtime chorus. Soon my own breath joined the forest noises as I labored up a steep hill and began to sweat. I stopped to catch my breath and just looked around. The trees were dark and thick but she sky could be seen through the dense branches above and the sun, which by now had risen above the small mountains on the eastern side of Jackson, sent fingers of gold into the darkness.

At that moment I didn’t want to go on. Not for a little while at least. There are such few times that life reminds you how peaceful it can be. How rare and priceless those moments are. There are times in childhood when we are drunk with wonder at the mysteries of a primeval forest, but in adulthood? I know by own experience that I’d lost track of such experiences for decades. I was too busy fitting in with society to remember the magic of my childhood. Luckily, because of this little dog I live with, I regained that period in my life and once I did I didn’t want to let it go again.

There Atticus and I stood, on the side of a hill, on an earthen path, with the song of spring all around us. There was nothing to want or need. We had it all – pure peace.

G. K. Chesterton, an English writer who died 75 years ago, was alive and well this morning. It was Chesterton who wrote: “The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in fairy books, ‘charm’, ‘spell’, ‘enchantment’. They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery.”

Well put, G.K., for we were in fairy tale mode. This is exactly what you expect in a forest when you first learn of the fairy tales of old. It’s alive with possibilities and mysteries. Enchantment is the best possible word. And you just never know what will pop out of the woods: a wood elf; hobbit; sprite, or something else.

This morning it was “something else”.

My reverie stopped for a moment at the sound of a snapping twig and with Atticus spinning around on the trail to look up the shoulder of the hill we were on. Eventually it came into view – the biggest bear I’ve ever seen in the mountains. Because it was by itself I figured it was a male.

I stood still and made a gesture to Atticus to be gentle and he sat down next to me and we watched this incredible beast making its way towards us. It ambled slowly down the hill, its huge mass weaving through the trees. Just 10 yards away and slightly above us, it climbed on top of a boulder as if it was posing for us. He didn’t care that we were there. He didn’t even seem to notice us, although I’m positive he did. And we stood transfixed by the sight of him, by the sheer size of him.

Time gets hazy during such moments. Seconds seem to last for minutes; minutes for hours. But no matter how short a time the three of us shared the forest together in close proximity of each other, it is something I knew at that moment that I could never forget.

Lately I’m practicing my gratitude. I start each day with five minutes of meditation about things I’m grateful for in my life. That’s what where my mind went at that moment.

After having been captivated by the by grandeur of the White Mountains but still living in Newburyport and writing The Undertoad, I dreamed of finding a way to sell my paper and make money as a writer while living in the mountains with Atticus. The poet Robert Frost, and his little house in Franconia, often came to mind. He’d write, walk the woods, do some hiking and not worry about money. I considered it a perfect life but it also seemed nothing more than a dream.

The bear looked at us directly and then swung his huge rump around and moved slowly through the trees and out of sight. That’s when it hit me: the life I am leading is the life I dreamed of living. There we were, in the darkest of forests, sharing it with a gigantic bear, feeling the tingle of childhood, the wonder of childhood everywhere around me and when we were done with our walk I was going to head home and work on my book…just as Robert Frost had done all those years ago.

There are moments when you realize that these are indeed the times of your life. This morning was one of them.

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