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, September 10, 2010

Most Recent Column for the Northcountry News

There was a time, some years ago, when I gave thought to becoming a member of the clergy. Perhaps it was my Irish Catholic upbringing, my years as an altar boy, or watching Bing Crosby playing Father Chuck O’Malley one too many times in Going My Way. However, I chose another path since I wasn’t much of a follower – or maybe it was because I enjoyed the “sins” of this life far too much to give them up. I have never regretted my decision. But I never gave up my spiritual quest either.

I’ve always been intrigued and responded to the overriding mysterious order of being, as poet and later President of the newly formed Czech Republic Vaclav Havel referred to it. That mystery is the same one Einstein referred to when he said, “The greatest thing we can experience is the mysterious.” (You know when a poet turned politician and a scientist come to the same conclusion they’re on to something.) My own quest led me from the idea of religion to politics. Now any of you who knows a lick about politics may understand that I wasn’t about to find what I was looking for down that dark alley either. That’s the thing about religion and politics, they are based on faith and hope and they truly are wonderful until ego gets involved and they become sullied.

What I was looking for was that same sense of wonder we all have as children. You know what I’m talking about: the look on a child’s face watching the first snowflakes of the year, listening to a wind before storm, or walking through the magical realm of a forest. And that’s where I found what I was looking for. It took me nearly four decades to get back to where I started from and I found it in the forest.

Funny, isn’t it? When we get to a place in life where we are finally happy, we realize we’ve seen that place long before but we were in such a hurry to get away from it. Somehow growing up got in the way of being what we’ve always wanted to be.

I suppose I’m thinking about all of this right now because at this time of the year it seems the woods are filled with more magic than at any other time and it is ripe for the picking. All you have to do is take ten steps away from your car and start up any trail in the White Mountains. You not only find yourself surrounded by it, you also find it inside yourself, and suddenly you are part of that miraculous scene. It’s no longer something you have to seek.

The other day Atticus and I walked through the forest, heard the chill wind playfully shaking the branches, smelled the sweet decay of one season fading into another, saw the sun dappled green forest, worked harder in climber higher and then I simply surrendered to it. It’s amazing how quickly you can forget about responsibilities, bills, appointments or any of life’s other trials and tribulations when you become part of that “mysterious order of being.”

And the great thing about it is you find it wherever nature is. Recently in a mostly flat hike to Thoreau Falls we felt it all around. It only dimmed whenever we came in contact with other hikers and stopped to talk. We definitely found it atop the rocky ledges of the falls. (Thoreau Falls is the rare White Mountain waterfall you don’t view from the bottom, but the top. And just in case you were wondering, Thoreau never saw the falls. Back in his day there was no way to access them and they were named in memoriam for him by Moses Sweetser, the grandfather of all White Mountain guidebook authors.)

We felt it while sitting on the “back porch” of Crescent Mountain looking towards the Pliny Range and further beyond to the North Country.

We felt it on Speckled and Blueberry, two lovely mountains in Evans Notch where there are no crowds.

Truth is you find it wherever you find nature. But a good, long hike is the best place, for it is an uninterrupted walking meditation…or prayer. Thoughts come and go. So does inspiration. An occasional epiphany reveals itself.

Of course I wasn’t bright enough to pick up on this by myself. I spent quite a few hikes feeling the magic of the woods but not quite appreciating it. It was only when I slowed down and started paying attention to this little dog I hike with that I grasp it. Just as I had taught him the right way to fit in with society, he taught me the way to fit in with nature. Atticus always seems to know the right time to stop, take in the view, and breathe deep.

Recently Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love has become a popular movie. I read the book, but haven’t seen the movie. If you are not familiar with the story the author goes in search of herself by traveling to three exotic locations around the world and seeking out spiritual mentors. I had it much easier than Ms. Gilbert. You see, I didn’t have to travel quite so far. I simply came to the mountains, watched my dog and followed his example.

In closing, do yourself a favor and get out during these next four weeks. They truly are the best of the year. The bugs are gone, the tourists are too (save for weekends), the forest is alive; the air is crisp and clean. If you are an avid hiker you know where to go. If you’re not you may want to try something like Black Mountain, Welch-Dickey, Mount Pemigewasset, the Sugarloaves or Bridal Veil Falls. It doesn’t really matter where you g – just go. Go and breathe deep. I promise you the world will make a bit more sense to you.

(Photo by Ken Stampfer.)

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