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, February 09, 2012

"Tis not to late to seek a newer world..."

There is a joy and a simplicity I feel when walking with Atticus. He is always just who he is. There is no play-acting, no posing, no trying to slip into some role that will make him more appreciated, and he never worries about fitting in whatsoever.

Over the past six months we've hiked fewer peaks than we have over similar stretches in the last six years. The difference being that our book was published and we went on tour. We continue to do appearances throughout New England and I'm fortified by the sheer numbers of folks who turn out. Of course Atticus could care less who is there. In his own Taoist way he's there and I'm there and that's all that matters. So instead of sitting up preening for the appreciative audience, he walks in, I pick him up, stand in front of the crowd with him sitting in the crook of my arm, and begin to tell our story. Before long he rests his head on my shoulder and falls asleep, his tender snores soothe my ears. After that I place him on the table and he lies down in front of all those people who turned out to see him and goes back to sleep. Occasionally he'll flop and ear, or twitch one of his bushy white eyebrows. Rarely does he do more than that.

Would any of us be so composed and relaxed in front of an excited crowd?

Atticus and I are comfortable pretty much wherever we go. Perhaps it came from the earliest days when I carried him everywhere I went when he was but a wee pup. Or maybe it's because we just fit well together and always have – as if we were made for each other. Perhaps it's all the mountains we’ve climbed or how each of us has faced our share of health issues over the past few years - always side by side. Whatever the reason, he is simply who he is and I take comfort in that.

Not long ago we were in front of a standing room only crowd in Cambridge, Massachusetts and I spoke as I always do - from the cuff, perhaps with a bit of wit and Tourette's mixed in for danger. (One never knows what I will say next. Heck, I don’t even know.) Someone asked a question and it had to do with defining our story. Oh, the places I could go with such a question. And how to boil it down into a simple answer. After all, there are many messages in Following Atticus. What I came up with was something that sounded like the following: "When we are little and standing in front of our bedroom mirror, we dream of hitting the winning homerun in the World Series, catching the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, being elected president, or being given some great award. We dream innocently of being great. But then life comes along and through the decades it wears us down and before long we are thirty or forty...or fifty, and those dreams of our youth are forgotten. No one dreams of growing up to sit in a cubicle five days a week, or beating his wife, or becoming an alcoholic. So our story is how one little dog led me back to myself, led me back to being that little boy and all the wonders he dreamed of and we came to it by crossing over all these beautiful mountains in New Hampshire."

Tennyson was correct when he said, "Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” It's never too late to pick up where we left off when innocence left off – no matter how old we are.

Last night I sat with a friend who is struggling in life - truly struggling. He is mired in fear and has a difficult time making a right step. He gets glimpses of magic but falls back on the old dysfunctions that nurtured his shortcomings and he sits and he doubts and chooses to believe in anything but happy endings. But all I could think about was how at any time in life he can start anew 'to seek his newer world...' All he has to do is to take a step, a blind step, perhaps even a giant step into the unknown. I thought off how life had dealt this fellow a raw deal but at the same time while his life was in ruins he still has a choice to make. That's when I thought of something Rumi wrote: "“Do not be satisfied with the stories that come before you. Unfold your own myth.”

So what does all of this have to do with a little dog and the magnificent White Mountains we live in? Everything.

There was a time when I faced my fears and made that same kind of leap of faith.  I followed a little dog into these mountains – two neophytes. We climbed the 48 4,000-footers in spring and summer; then in fall and winter. And what I discovered was this great, mysterious, and mythic land was the medicine I needed. Of course Atticus was my avatar; my guide back to myself for he held the innocence I had lost.

We didn't know what we couldn't do when we set out to hike 96 peaks in 90 days of one winter. We simply went because we found peace, tranquility, and virtue in the journey up and over those summits and down into the shadowy valleys.

After sitting in a dark and brooding room last night down in Massachusetts, with a friend who appears to have a difficult time believing he could make such a leap, I'm half ashamed to say that some of his hopelessness rubbed off on me. But when Atticus and I returned to the mountains and stepped onto a forest path this morning, all of that changed. We were back where we belong.

In the crunch of the snow underfoot, in the passing under the archway of trees, in the climb up and away from what once held me down, we arose as we always do, and conquered what I needed to conquer, what we all need to face and defeat time and again in life. 

Climbing mountains is a wonderful metaphor in life, in ascending beyond doubts and distractions that have us believing we can’t be great or that our own personal story doesn’t matter. 

Nature offers up a wonderful setting for us to regain what it means to be human.  (And how ironic that I became more human by getting away from society and following a little dog.) 

Today, as we sat alone on a little summit in solitude and the sun felt warmer than it should in February, I felt clean and healthy but thoughts of last night continued to race through my mind.  But to my left, about five feet away, without a care in the world, sat little Atticus – content.  I needed that mountain today.  But more so I needed that little guide who led me to the top and then had me breathing just as simply and happily as he was when taking in the view. 

“’Tis not too late to seek a newer world…”


Liam Lama said...

It seems the world is covered in snow at the moment, it certainly is in England! a great post
Best Wishes

Mike said...

Nice, Tom. As always, your words let me "walk" along with you and Atticus. Thanks for helping me start my morning with a mountaintop view. Also, I agree completely that we can all pursue a newer world at any time, but it does require some pursuit.

Karl said...

Very inspiring post, Tom. I really enjoyed it. The mountains are medicine indeed. A way to clear your head and realize what's important. A realization that there are far more important things in life than the rat race...such as being happy. Thanks for the quick smile this I'm sitting in a Cleveland hotel, running the rat race...can't wait to get back to NH today. BTW, your book has been good company in the airports. Seems to be the only time I have to read these days.


Mark Truman said...

This was a wonderful meditation Tom. There are times that things (our real or metaphorical) mountains drive us and others when they just call us, are there for us and comfort us. I hope you friend is able to find that place and find his peace there.


Tom (and Atticus) said...

Mike, you are so right. We can change our lives, but I think a big change is one of the hardest things a person can do.

Tom (and Atticus) said...

Karl. thanks for bringinh us to Cleveland with you. Get home safely.

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Amen, Mark. Gosh, I hope he does too!

Tom (and Atticus) said...

Liam, enjoy the snow!

Kate&Ciara said...

the best medicine is found "outside"

Pam Hicks said...

Thank you once again Atticus & Tom. As always your words & feelings & experiences are profound, & profoundly useful. Since reading your book in September, you have become a significant & refreshing & inspiring part of my daily life through your Facebook posts & Blog. I am so grateful.

Tom (and Atticus) said...

Pam, thank you for those wonderful words!

Janine said...

Thank you for the wonderful post, as usual. You always leave me thinking, which in my opinion is the mark of a great writer. Very few books have affected me the way that yours has, and I am thankful that you continue the experience through your blog and Facebook pages. I hope your friend reads your pages and knows how much you deeply care about him. It is hard to walk away from a friend, but sometimes you have to or be pulled down with them. We all need to remember to take one step, breathe, and then take another and keep on going! Thank you again for making my day.

1HappyHiker said...

Tom, there is so much to ponder and comment upon in this posting. I'll limit myself to affirming that it is indeed never "too late to seek a newer world.” And, I'll add that to "unfold your own myth", I think one needs to take on those characteristics that you ascribe to Atticus, i.e. "He is always just who he is. There is no play-acting, no posing, no trying to slip into some role that will make him more appreciated, and he never worries about fitting in whatsoever."


John said...

As usual a wonderful essay that "verbalizes" much of what I have felt. Perhaps your friend needs a dog, the woods and a few mountains to climb?

Tom (and Atticus) said...

Janine, thank you. Thank you for your good words and good thoughts. And you're right about the breathing part.

Tom (and Atticus) said...

John (One Happy Hiker), I can really relate to that Rumi quote about unfolding our own myth. Break the mold, be the star of your own movie, live your life. It's all good stuff.

Tom (and Atticus) said...

John, thank you for your comment. My friend knows the wonders of nature and animals. What he needs is to put down the bottle. Not sure it's possible though. I'm rooting for him but it's a tough road - especially since he's in denial.

TinaL said...

Very touching.....

Laurie said...

So true, individually and in the wider scheme of things. I recently read your book, then found your blog. What a lovely post to find today. Nature can heal all manner of things, to be sure.

Adele McConnell said...

So glad yours was February's "Book of the Month" in our rescue organization's newsletter or I might have missed your adventures altogether. I will be tagging along from Texas now with Moose, Magoo and their big brother, Web, a 14-year-old Brittany (always) by my side.

Anthony said...

Tom, as always great to hear how you and Atticus are getting on. Your book is wonderful and we have furnished many of our friends and family with your truly inspiring story over here in England. My wife and I are also proud owners of a special mimiature schnauzer called Casper. He is five soon and has also changed our lives without a doubt. He has so many similarities to Atticus, although we have yet to climb any mountains!!

Kathy C said...

Hi Tom,
I am very sorry for your friend, I hope that he can realize in time what is happening.
Not only is it hard for the individual but it is also extremely hard on the people closest to them.
One of the hardest things to do is to love that person enough to let them fall and hit the bottom until there is nothing left, then pray that the are able to climb their way back up. I have been lucky twice in my life with this, first my Dad who has since passed and the one closest to me now. Both have made their way back and realizing how much life there is to live and turned into amazing people. Addiction of any kind is a terrible disease, but it has to be that persons ultimate decision to live and no one else's.

As for your book and your blog, like many you have inspired me in so many ways to look at things differently. I have been lucky to speak to and meet some great people who are also having a hand in that.
For 20 years I have been looking at the whites with awe and can never get my fill of their beauty, I believe that I am now ready to reach out and touch them. It's been a longing inside of me for so long that it's time to give into and I feel excited for it.

Thank You and All the best,

Brooke Elaine said...

Like Adele said--MSRH (Mini-schnauzer rescue Houston)of which I am a volunteer and have gotten my past two mins from, featured your book in our Feb. newsletter and I keep posting about it telling everyine to read it!! So many truths and so eloquwntly spoken from the heart!
May you and Attiucs continue to walk thru life together and blog about it so we can partake as well!!

Sarah L said...

Tom and Atticus, a friend gave me your book last week and I've been enjoying it with Lola, my fabulous 8.5 year old mini schnau. To say we are enjoying it is an understatement, and I'm so glad we've found your blog so that we can continue to follow your adventures.

Lola has come on some local hikes (last xmas was very muddy here) and many walks -- and she loved snowmaggedon. We haven't tried any mountains yets, but feeling inspired/tempted now!

I hope you are enjoying a lovely Valentine's Day together -- a great dog is a wonderful Feb 14th companion :) !

Myriam (the Netherlands) said...

Dear Tom & Atticus,

I just saw you on TV here in the Netherlands on Animal Planet.
I think it's great what the both of you are doing and already have accomplished.
There's just one word that explains how I feel about what you're doing and that's: RESPECT!
I hope you'll enjoy each other's company for many more years.

Kindest regards,

colleen said...

I just read your book on a cruise. It was in the ship library. I laughed, I cried, I worried, I rejoiced in all your adventures, hikes, sorrows. I loved how you connected to your dogs, yourself and your family. I have recommended your book to all my dog loving, hiking friends. Great job Tom and Atticus. I wish I knew you both.

L.Jordan-Kay said...

Hello Tom and Atticus I stumbled across your post as I was flicking through the notables. I loved it. I to have a dog (see picture on blog) and your beaut lured me in to reading your posts. I can totally relate to you saying Atticus is not concerned with lifes trivalities he just is.
Today my husband and I walked Moo in a tree arboretum near to where we live she was soon caked in mud and smiling fiendishly trotting along just happy doing her thing but she has to have an enormous 30 metre lead which looks a bit ridiculous. She is a beagle cross she likes to run and not return- we think she secretly thinks tip is a fabulous game to play. Because of this she gets a lot of curious stares she is oblivious because she is gloriously happy just going for it. And i think dogs like you said remind us to just go for it

Val said...

Here I stumble upon someone doing what they absolutely love, spending time with a special friend who just happens to be a dog.

I spent every possible moment with my buddy hiking and exploring, he also rides my mules with me. Very cool.

Atticus and yourself are an inspiration.

To explore with a dog, is to explore on a whole new level.

reviewcatch said...

The view is so great. Thanks for this writing.