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, January 28, 2011

Walking into the Night

What a strange night it was.

I was in bed around ten reading the Autobiography of Mark Twain until about eleven, when I turned off the light and went to sleep. Not two hours later I woke up and was lying wide awake in bed. When I went to the bathroom for a glass of water I saw my reflection in the mirror above the sink and took a minute to really look. In the dim light I realized I’m not as young as I think I am.

I’ve never been one to think all that much about age and I definitely do not feel my own age. But when I looked at myself I saw the years leaving their signature in the soft lines around my eyes and saw a bit of salt and pepper in the stubble on my chin. I slowly ran my fingers over my face, then through the brown and gray curls in my hair and leaned in for a closer look.

Strange to be looking in the mirror at one in the morning and have lines from a poem drift into my head. It was the opening stanza to a Robert Herrick poem and I said them aloud.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.”

Atticus stuck his head around the corner and nudged my leg with his nose pulling me away from my thoughts. Dogs don’t worry so much about age, or so I’m told. Then again they don’t worry about much of anything. In Atti’s case it seems the only thing that he is concerned with is me.

Considering the early hour and my middle aged years and how fleeting life is I made the curious decision not to return to bed but to instead get dressed in my hiking clothes, grab my backpack and head out the door. It was 2:30 am and four degrees out when we parked the car in Crawford Notch and took off up the Crawford Path. We were kept company by a half moon and clouds drifting lazily across the sky. Occasionally the upper reaches of the trees thinned enough for me to turn off my headlamp.

“Weren’t you afraid,” a friend asked me later that day.

“Yeah,” I said, "It's kind of weird, I know. I used to be afraid of the dark when I was a kid and hid my head beneath the blankets when I went to bed. But I think that’s partially why I hike at night from time to time.”

“I don’t get it,” she said.

“Nothing bad is going to happen in the woods at night. What I fear more than anything is the black of the night and the thought that something bad could happen. But my thoughts aren’t rational.”

And it’s true; my trepidation is not about moose or coyotes or falling down and injuring myself. They are instead of the fears of my childhood imagination – of things that go bump in the night, albeit not quite as harsh as they used to be. Hiking at night brings about a rich paradox of ingredients that makes for a savory stew. On the trail I am filled with emptiness and loneliness, those haunting childhood fears, freedom, and exhilaration. I get the feeling that I’ve jumped head first into my shortcomings and I breathe deep and am reminded that I’m alive. In the dark there is nothing much out there, but that’s what can be so disarming about it. And yet I’m out there nevertheless.

The higher Atticus and I climbed the deeper the snow was on either side of the well-packed trail and my snowshoes slapped the frozen path with every step. After a while I took off my balaclava and my gloves. I’m rarely cold in the winter when I’m moving and on a hike I am a furnace. The icy air was invigorating and where it met the sweat on my scalp it tingled. From time to time we stopped so I could rest. I’m still not quite the same as I was before this summer’s surgery and because of that I struggle more than I used to – but I’m getting there.

Higher we climbed and trees morphed by winter storms into grotesque shapes lurked along the boundaries of the beam of light cast by my headlamp. And on those occasions when I turned it off and walked with only moonlight to light the way those trees, swollen into sordid creatures in the gloom appeared to be keeping a close watch on us.

Higher we climbed, farther away from our car, farther away from our warm home, and the comfort of our bed, and towards a reminder that I am alive and well even as the lines of my face remind me on rare occasions that I am no longer young. The farther we walked from all that we knew, the more I returned to me. It’s ironic how a walk in the woods does that to a man.

In the woods sooner or later you come face to face with who you are. There are no distractions and you are reminded about the simple but important things in life. And in return you return to nature and are welcomed home time and again.

Two hours after we left the notch Atticus and I made our way out of the trees and into an ethereal mountain mist. I could no longer see the moon but its glow gave the fog life and I decided to go without my headlamp and walked to the summit of Mount Pierce with nothing but Atticus and the eeriness of the moment for company. When we stood next to the cairn marking the high point I picked up Atticus as I always do and we looked off into the distance towards where Washington was even though we could not see anything. I imagined that if we were on top of Washington instead, just a few hours walk up the Crawford Path, we’d be looking down on the clouds and the moon would be bright and the night crisp and the undercast would be something that dreams are made of. But standing as we were it’s not like I felt we were cheated out of anything without a view for there is something wondrous about standing on top of a frozen mountain while the rest of the world sleeps.

I put down a fleece blanket and sat on it and Atticus climbed up on my lap and we split some cheese and chicken sausages. I drank water and Atticus ate snow and when we sat long enough to start to get chilled we packed up and returned the way we came.

I find little to be as invigorating as choosing to do something that may be out of the ordinary for it pushes the margin of what’s normal and predictable. We work our entire lives to feel safe and comfortable, and yet once we are there the only thing that truly keeps us there is to at times venture away from it into the unknown and out onto an edge.

The lines around my eyes may tell the stories of my years, but they are also full of life and the possibilities of what’s to come. Life may be fleeting but that’s all the more reason to fit as much into it as possible.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may…”


Unknown said...

I loved reading this today. You both inspire me.

Betty Lambright said...


You still know how to turn a mean phrase. Love it!

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Thank you, Dawna and Betty.

Betty, it's more fulfilling to turn phrases about little dogs and big mountains than it is about politics. So happy to have had those Undertoad years. But happier to have left after 11 years!

Louise said...

Tom and Atticus, you inspire me to challenges that I find rewarding. Life is more than us and skiing in the woods and hiking that trail reminds me of how connected I am to all of the earth.

LM said...

Great post. I enjoyed it as well. I have hiked up a few mountains in the middle of night as well. I remember them much more vivid now after reading your post. Thanks Tom. Once I hiked up Kearsage North at night in a mild blizzard what fun being on the edge...

Woods Hippie said...

Tom, I've long been a fan of your various Northcountry publications. I'm thrilled to be able to read your blog from my native "flatlander" Connecticut residence!

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Thanks, Woods Hippie. Just checked out your blog. Pretty nice photos!

Tracy & Simon said...

Beautiful post.

Angela said...

Hi Tom just finished your book and loved it. Cried a few times when Atticus lost his sight, and was so relieved when he got it back, he's one brave wee boy, also when the dog attacked him. Thank God he was ok.

I also have a miniature schnauzer the same colour as Atti he's called Pepper and he's 2 1/2 and a black pug Willow who's 1, and 2 cats.

But my special boy's the wee schnauzer so i knew exactly what you meant when you said Atticus was so in tune with you, as is my wee boy as i'm a diabetic and he knows when my blood sugar is low. He never leaves me, he always has to be touching me his paw on me etc.

What age is Atticus now? he's so brave. Hope you're still in touch with Paige!

All the best for the future for you two love the way you love him so so much and he you, just like my wee schnauzer couldn't be without them.

Angela (Belfast, Northern Ireland).