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.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Letter Home from Mount Garfield (June 5, 2006)

I recently found a letter I wrote to my father back in June of 2006.

I wrote him many letters and often they'd appear in my paper, the Undertoad. It got to the point that even though Jack Ryan had never been to Newburyport, barely a day went by when someone didn't ask how he if they knew him. And when he was injured in a car accident it was announced on the Newburyport radio station as if he was one of them. Gosh, I think he loved this bit of celebrity in a foreign land. My "Letters Home" turned out to be my most popular column and when I was back in Newburyport in April speaking about the book, one former subscriber asked, "How does your dad feel about the book?" When I informed the woman he had died a couple of years ago she looked sad, as if she'd lost a friend. And she wasn't the only one who looked that way for many who read the 'Toad felt they knew him - at least a little, because of my letters.

Because Jack plays a role in our book (Kirkus Reviews refer to him as "a haunting presence") I thought I'd introduce you to him.

* * * * * *

Dear Dad,

You would like it here.

You would like the way the rock abruptly ends and yields to a precipitous drop that leads to a vast expanse of green that stretches on for miles and looks so comfortable you’d think you could sleep on it. Garfield is one of my favorite summits for this very reason. It’s the contrast of gray stone above and green tree below and the various shades of forest that come together like a quilt in the Pemigewasset Wilderness and goes on that way until it reaches the hazy blue-gray of distant mountains.

From here the wilderness looks like anything but that. It appears peaceful, much the way the ocean looks from high above: no waves, no undercurrent, no danger, just a gentle rolling sea; peaceful, soothing. To the eye there are no trees, just a blanket of what looks like moss so lush you could feel its softness if only you could reach it to run your fingertips over it.

About now you’re sitting down to watch the Sox, but they will end up being rained out. Here in the White Mountains, there was until recently, a resplendent blue sky dotted with cotton ball clouds. Now the clouds have gone gray and stretched over the Pemi but they are not threatening. From time to time the sun pokes holes in the gray fabric to light the forest in a changing pattern of bright and dark greens.

If it weren’t for the black flies it would be a perfect day. It’s the first we’ve had in quite some time. Two weeks ago we walked through the pouring rain up to Starr King and Waumbek. The next day it was up the Osseo Trail to Flume and over to Liberty and down to Liberty Springs through mist and heavy clouds with no views. The following Saturday was bright, but hot and humid as we stood upon North and South Twin and then made our way to Galehead. The following day was the hike from hell. I melted in the high temperature and equally high humidity when we climbed Monroe, over Boott Spur and out to Isolation. On that final hike I broke down physically and the heat made the rocks on Boott Spur feel like a furnace, as if we were stranded on some strange wasteland. We stumbled out to the car at ten that night, tired, hungry, and thirsty. Yesterday on the way up Hale I was suffering again but by the time we reached the second stream crossing the humidity broke and I was reborn.

Today? Today is beautiful. Atticus, his dark hair a magnet for the hot sun, is happy the sun has decided to play hide and seek behind the clouds. Because of this his pink tongue is staying hidden.

As we sit here on this remarkably quiet summit we are surrounded by great mountains. To our left are the Twins and “little” Galehead. On the right is Franconia Ridge. Before us is Owl’s Head. (Oh, Owl’s Head, how I differ with most hikers when it comes to this mountain. I find it to be magnificent and self-assured and comfortable with what it is. Its large hump takes center stage from here. No need for a pointy summit. No need for rock above tree line or some dramatic peak. It is simply what it is and offers no apology for itself.) And off in the distance are the Osceola’s and Tecumseh and mountain after blue mountain.

I think of Garfield as the perfect front porch. It’s a front row seat to the world that stretches on from this point. Just sit back, put my feet up and I’m at home watching the world go by. It is a great pondering spot.

On this day, I could sit for hours and watch the sun and shade dance over the green below. It is mesmerizing. I am not the only one who thinks so. After a drink of water, some almonds and cashews, Atticus is taking in the scenes. I often wonder just what goes through his mind when he sits on top of a mountain and looks off in the distance like this. I’ve come to believe he enjoys these views from the top. Perhaps even more than I do.

If you could be here the only complaint you might have with this summit are the ledges. Your fear of heights would shake you if you got too close to the edge.

Recently I talked with another hiker about a shared fear of heights. We talked of ledges and slides and how when I’m atop them my legs quake and I feel gravity take hold of me, like a giant hand that’s about to reach up and pluck me over the edge. The other hiker told me of a different feeling, the worry is not so much about falling, but about coming face to face with the edge and taking a willing leap towards death.

I shuddered at such a thought and was reminded of that John Irving line that recurs as it is exchanged from one member of the Berry family to the next throughout the Hotel New Hampshire, “Keep passing the open windows.”

On those few occasions in life when life seemed unbearable I sometimes joked with myself to “keep passing the open windows.” But in all honesty, I don’t think I would ever have the courage to even consider suicide. Besides, the experience of life is just to interesting for me to pass up, at least at my age.

I find it interesting that you loved these mountains as much as you did and many of your children inherited that love from you, but the only 4,000-footers you have ever stood on top of are Cannon, Wildcat and Washington, where a tram, gondola, train, or an auto road reached. Because of that you have never been able to see some of the wonders I have seen this past year. Because of your age, your diabetes, heart, emphysema and everything else, the only way you will see some of these mountains are through my eyes, my photos, and my words. I try to remember that when I hike, try to be mindful of things you would find interesting, or be awed by. Unfortunately I fear neither photo nor word will ever do these mountains justice.

Today, while I climbed, I thought of you often. How could I not? Just a few days ago I discovered what you had been trying to keep from us: That 86 years is long enough and that you stopped taking your large inventory of medications and have decided to let nature run its course.

There’s something to be said for that. And it’s not like you’ve decided to stop passing the open windows. I understand there’s nothing left for you. You’ve grown old and tired. You feel broken and have missed mom for nearly 40 years.

Neither you nor I know how long it will be before your planned departure comes, but I want you to know that I am proud of you. It’s your life; it’s your choice. You are going out on your own terms.

Selfishly, I feel a little different about your decision. I will miss you. I feel foolish to have wasted as many years as we did in that awkward Irish dance father and son do. Too much time was wasted, time that can never be regained.

Knowing now more than ever that you will not always be there awaiting my phone call or my letters, I really wish you were up here with me today. Garfield was my first 4,000-footer and it is a love-at-first-sight kind of summit. I climbed it in September of 2004 and throughout the entire winter I returned many times in my thoughts. When the time comes years down the road, this will also be my last mountain. For when my ashes are spread, I think this is the place they will be launched from, so that I can be scattered over the thick, lush green wilderness below, surrounded by these mountains I love. These mountains you have loved, even if only from the valleys or from your recliner at home through fading memories and what I bring back to you.

You would like it here.

You would love it here.

Much love from your youngest son,
Tom (& Atticus)


cooperhill said...

Thanks for sharing this. Looking so much to the book.

That whole area between Washington (massif) and the Glen Boulder trail junction is an interesting place. I felt the opposite of your story when I was there - chilling winds. Maybe we remember the days the mountains chewed us up and spit us out more?

Anyway. Hope all is well and thanks for sharing.

Claire said...

Thanks, Tom. I found myself ubable to stop crying after reading this. I miss him terribly too

Janice Badger Nelson said...

This was very heartfelt and lovely. It made me miss my own dad who died in 2001. Interestingly, his birthday is on September 20th, the day your book comes out. That is good karma. Your book is going to be a smash hit. I am so looking forward to reading it.

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Chris, you are right. My experience in the mountains teaches me that I remember the difficult hikes where I've been tested more vividly than the easy days.

Claire, thank you, sister. I think you will cry a bit when you read the book as well. (Just a bit. Okay, knowing you and your big heart you'll cry a lot.)

Janice, thank you for your continued enthusiasm. It's truly appreciated. Look forward to finally meeting you and your husband at the Brookline Booksmith.

Jordan said...

This is beautiful, Thanks Tom.

1HappyHiker said...

Very touching, Tom! You father must have been deeply appreciative of such insightful letters.


Thomas F. Ryan said...

Thank you, Jordan.

John, I picked up my love of letter writing from my father. It's only right that he received so many from me and that so many learned so much about him through my Letters Home. Tanks for your nice words.