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.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Last Night's Impromptu Adventure

It’s Wednesday night and the rain has stopped. The clouds have parted, but enough are left behind to be lit up by the waxing crescent moon. Where they end and the night sky begins, stars glisten. It’s a night made for magic, or maybe of magic. There’s something special in the air. I half expect to see a witch sweeping across the sky on her broomstick; or hear Pan playing his flute in the bushes beyond the lawn in our backyard.

Atticus has brought me outside and he doesn’t want to go back in. It’s crisp, cool and oh-so-clean out; but there’s also a hint of the coming warmth in the air, too. Atti is feeling mischievous and wants to play. He definitely doesn’t want to go back inside.
“We’ve been inside for days,” his look says. And he’s right, we have been. The manuscript for “Following Atticus” is due at the publishers on June 1st and there’s still much to do. He’s been patient day after day as he sits on the overstuffed pillow next to my laptop on the table I have set up in the kitchen looking out of the window. I write and he watches the birds and chipmunks come and go. Or else he sleeps.

I’m a sucker when it comes to making him happy. And why not? Whenever I do that I end up happier myself. So the next thing I know we’re in the car speeding up through Crawford Notch. Atticus is not alone in his desire; we both want to be out on such a night. It doesn’t matter that it’s past 10:00. I’ve been writing chapter after chapter about our hiking adventures and now, like Atticus, I want to live one!

We pass through the notch and the entire time he’s sitting at attention, knowing we are going someplace good. But it won’t be too good because we haven’t been hiking enough as of late for a long hike. Too many hours sitting at the desk; too many carbohydrates.

We take a left onto Zealand Road and drive a little ways up and I pull over. Peepers are out in full; it’s a symphony! I could just stand there and admire their song and that would be pretty special. But Atticus pulls me away from the car and into the woods, and the night is even more magical than it was in our backyard in Jackson.

There was a time when we wouldn’t hike at night; I was too frightened. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not afraid of the dark; don’t sleep with a nightlight on; but there’s a difference between walking down a red-bricked sidewalk in Newburyport at night and walking through the woods where there are no street lights nor the soft glow coming from people’s homes.

Standing in a little clearing the night is laughing with delight. It’s coaxed me out. “To hell with your responsibilities,” it says. Atticus is dancing around me. It’s a conspiracy, I think. But I don’t mind. It’s like being tricked into attending your own surprise party. I find myself stepping with the same lightness of foot Atti is, moving quickly through the woods with my headlamp on. I’m filled with a childlike enthusiasm. The trail is wet; the brush on either side slaps wetness onto my shins.

Maureen Carroll, Atti’s vet at Angell Animal Medical Center, once said, “He speaks English with his actions.” Tonight he’s laughing. Laughing along with the night, a giggly little wood sprite dancing down the trail. He echoes the sentiments of the night and stars and moon. Together they quote with rehearsed sincerity something the novelist Tom Robbins wrote: “Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.” In other words, come out and play! Then the giggling commences again. It’s not that I can hear Atti giggling, but I can see it in the way he’s happily prancing and looking back at me from time to time.

When we get to the fork in the path it’s the first time he shows any seriousness whatsoever. He looks at me and his eyes say, “Which way?”

“You choose,” I tell him.

He looks at me again.

“Go ahead,” I say. He looks at me then with a jump he kicks off to the left. North Sugarloaf it is!

I follow; my headlamp brings the greenery to life. It springs out of the darkness, casting shadows here and there. I may be brave enough to hike at night but I’m not so brave that I don’t have two back up headlamps in my backpack…just in case. And the little boy in me still peers out of the corners of my eyes as we walk through the woods half expecting…who knows what. But that’s half the fun of a night hike, challenging an old fear.

There is only thing wrong with the night. I reek of bug spray. It’s the worst part of spring, and yet I can’t help myself. None of us can. After a long, dark winter we want to be out. Black flies and mosquitoes be damned. So I can tolerate the fact that for the next couple of months my cologne is Eau de Deet and Eau de Skintastic. The first for my body, the second for my face. It definitely stands out in comparison to the clean night. No wonder bugs aren’t coming near me;
the way I smell I don’t want to come near me!

But the stink of the two sprays is definitely worth the price of admission as we clamber upwards and eventually come out of the trees on top of the wide expanse of rock. The view is absolutely glorious! It’s all moon and stars and night and ethereal clouds and this curious little dog I go through life with. I sit on a rock and sip some water and catch my breath. Atticus comes over for a treat and pushes his nose against my bare leg. I pick him up and he sits in on my lap. We settle in together and get ready to take in the show. The night takes center stage and we watch it all. I turn on my iPod and listen to Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”. Translation: moonlight. Such perfect choreography!

I play it again and again and again and Atticus and I take in the magic of the night. Oh, what a little moonlight will do!

Life is grand when you play.

1 comment:

Chris Davis said...

Beautifully painted words Tom...and a fantastic message to walk away with - never forget to PLAY...