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, November 18, 2010

Our Thanksgiving Column for the Northcountry News

(Photo by Ken Stampfer.)

Three years ago, when Atticus and I moved north from Newburyport, we lived in a small apartment in Lincoln. One of the first hikes we set out to do was Mount Hale which wasn’t all that far a drive. Hale is one of the four thousand footers but it’s not too steep nor all that challenging, and the distance to the top is just over two miles. It had rained the night before and all throughout the morning, but by early afternoon the sun arrived and it turned into a golden October day so we hit the trail.

We were happily walking under the colorful canopy of trees and making good time until we came to a small stream which is never deep but it cuts a rocky trough across the trail and eventually falls into a little gorge. We had climbed Hale several times before and it is so narrow at that point that Atticus always leaped across the sleepy stream. But after the rain it was making a ruckus and running higher than usual. I easily hopped from one side to the other and I waited for Atticus to do the same. However, for the first time ever on that trail he didn’t hop across it. Instead he stood looking at me from the other side of the water. It was clear he wanted nothing to do with the crossing. So I hopped back across and went to pick him up but instead of arching his back up like a cat as he always has so I could reach under his belly and lift him, he lowered himself into a sphinx position on the rock. He not only refused to cross, he didn’t want me picking him up either. We sat there for a few minutes and when nothing changed we returned to the car and drove back to Lincoln.

The next day we returned. When we came to the same stream Atticus refused to cross once again. He lay down and the message was loud and clear, “I don’t want to go across to the other side.” For the second day in a row we turned back.

We returned on the third day and the water was no longer running high nor was it roaring by us. This time Atticus went ahead of me and in a single bound made the other side and we went on to climb to the top. On the way down the mountain we ran into a friend, an incurable peakbagger. When I told him how we turned back twice in the previous days he couldn’t believe it. “Why didn’t you just pick him up and make him come?” he said.

“Because Atticus has a say in all of this,” I told him. “If he wants to turn back, we turn back.”

People often want to know the secret of our success up here when it comes to the number of mountains we’ve climbed in each of the four seasons. Well, that’s the way it was from the very beginning. Atticus has never been spoiled but he’s always been allowed to have a say on whether or not he felt comfortable with challenges found on a hike. In the past several years he’s only turned back six or seven times on hundreds of hikes and I smile when he does it, simply because I know he takes advantage of his right to make a decision.

To us it’s all about trust. And that was ingrained from the very beginning when he arrived as a five pound puppy just eight weeks old. His breeder told me, “Carry him everywhere you go…and don’t let anyone else hold him for the first month. Y’all will bond that way.” I followed every bit of advice she gave me, including that little morsel, and she was always right. We bonded from the very beginning and that has made all the difference in every aspect of our life together.

Friends in and out of the hiking community often marvel about Atticus’ almost human demeanor, his sense of security and his comfort, and they ask me how I got him to be that way. I joke that the key is to have a dog that is smarter than me, but then I tell them about how I was told to carry him around that first month. But there was another component to the way I raised him from the very beginning and I don’t go into it because its roots are complicated. The truth is I’ve always treated Atticus the way I wish I’d been treated when I was growing up. I don’t typically tell him to do anything. I often ask him and always say “please” and “thank you.”

You can laugh if you want, but it’s gone a long way in allowing him to be the dog he wants to be. It even led Maureen Carroll, one of Atticus’ doctors at Angell Animal Medical Center, to say to the people on Animal Planet that Atticus is a little different than other dogs, “He speaks English with his actions.”

I’m often asked by other hikers, “What’s the key to developing a relationship with a dog in the mountains when hiking?” It’s simple. Don’t treat him like a dog. Treat him like a friend. My old Catholic upbringing reminds me this is simply the Golden Rule: treat others as you wish to be treated.

Interestingly enough, years after I got Atticus, I approached his breeder about her advice to carry him wherever I went and not let anyone else hold him. “That worked so well,” I told her. “Where does it come from?”

She smiled, paused as if wondering whether she really wanted to tell me, and then said in a soft, almost vulnerable voice. “That’s the way I always wanted to be loved.”

In this complicated day and age when the world seems crazier with each passing month and the American Family has gone through change after dysfunctional change, we’ve come to understand that families come in all shapes and sizes. And sometimes the family you end up with is not exactly what you pictured when you were growing up and watching all those Hallmark commercials.

Atti’s breeder put it best a couple of years ago, “Love is love. God tells us we are supposed to have love in our life. He doesn’t say it just has to be between a man and a woman. Seems to me Atticus gave you the family you always wanted.”

And she was right. I often think about that when he and I are standing atop a mountain and looking off into the distance together. It’s a place where two individuals from different species cross over and have found our own little world. It’s kind of like Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, “Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking together in the same direction.”

On Thanksgiving Day this little dog and I will pack up some turkey, stuffing, vegetables, apple cider, and water, and head to a mountaintop. We will share the view, our meal, and our good fortune in finding what nearly everyone is looking for.

Here’s hoping all of you spend Thanksgiving in the way you wish and with those you love.


Jan said...

What a great picture of Atticus laying in front of your backpack! I love the story for the newspaper. You and Atticus have a wonderful Thanksgiving too!!

Anonymous said...

Your posting was/is a very powerful one; thanks for being so candid about such tender and important topics. What you have written is as important to the readers as it is bold and cathartic to the writer. It takes a long time to get where you are; I wonder where you're going?

Anonymous said...

Almost a month without a post?! I'm hoping you and Atti are both okay.

Amity said...

This is really beautiful. Thank you for sharing it.