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, July 26, 2012

A Shared Joy

Tom & Atticus: a shared joy.
Black Cap is our fall back mountain. It’s the place we go when we don’t have time for a longer hike but want to experience a summit and soak in spectacular views.  It’s also the mountain we seek out when we are returning to the trails after a physical ailment. 

A couple of summers ago I nearly died of septic shock and was in North Conway’s Memorial Hospital for eleven days after my gall bladder blew up.  My doctors, in turn, nearly died when they discovered four weeks to the day of cutting me open Atticus and I had climbed Black Cap, even though I still had tubes sticking out of my torso and a large drainage bag.  But hey, sometimes you just need to go where you get your strength. 

Last Sunday Atticus and I returned to Black Cap, this time it was because he’s been suffering as of late.  A month ago he was detected with a tick-borne disease and was put on a serious dose of medication that appeared to take as much out of him as it did the disease.  Our vet described it in simple terms so that I could relate, “It’s like we would feel if we had mono.” 

But over the past week he’s been regaining his energy with his health and I know my friend well enough to understand he missed sitting on top of a mountain and it would be good for his health and his spirit…just as it was for mine in the summer of 2010.    

At 2,356 feet, Black Cap has a substantial height without being overpowering.  And because most of the elevation is gained in the drive in our car along Hurricane Mountain Road, it’s a perfect mountain for rehabbing on.  The trail is easy enough and the elevation gain is only about 500 feet in just over three miles, round trip.  But for the ease of the hike, the bang for the buck is incredible when you see the views.

On the way up, Atticus did what he’s been doing for the past month – and is so out of character for him – he got behind me and let me lead.  But as we reached the familiar fork in the trail and went off the right to avoid any potential crowds, at least for a little bit, the slightest bounce returned to his legs.  We kept curling around the back side of the mountain, slowly gaining elevation on this, the more gentle route to the top, and when we were within a quarter of a mile of the top he sensed it and picked up the pace even more. 

There have been times on an unfamiliar peak when we are close to the summit where I’ll say, “Do you want to go say hello to the summit?”  His response is a quicker pace, occasionally even a bouncy trot with ears happily flopping around as he runs forward with enthusiasm I haven’t seen known since I was a child.  But he’s been to Black Cap enough to know when he’s close and he took the lead and led us up over the stone ledges to the top.

And there, once we poked out of the trees as it always is, was that spectacular visage waiting for us.  North stands Kearsage looking noble and massive.  Off of Kearsage’s right shoulder stands Evans Notch and several of the Maine mountains.  Off of its left shoulder and in the background is Washington, and the rest of the Presidential Range looking stately.

When I picked up and sat him on my shoulder he was quite at home as we looked to the west towards the Moats, Cathedral and White Horse ledges, and the Pemigewasset Wilderness beyond.  And to the southwest, almost looking like a faded painting from one of the White Mountain artists of the 1800s, stood the rocky ridge of Chocorua.  Behind it was much of the Sandwich Range from Passaconaway through Whiteface, the Sleepers, and the Tripyramids.  We know all these peaks.  We’ve climbed them more than once and they are like looking into the faces of old friends for us. 

Atticus sat on my shoulder and together we gazed out at the view until I heard him sigh and felt that comforting moment when he released his weight and completely relaxed into me.  After drinking our fill of the views we turned to the camera and this is the sight you see here.  It wasn’t until we got home and I saw the photo that I noticed that great, giddy grin of his. 

Atticus is now ten years of age.  Any person who has ever lived with a dog will tell you how such a simple sentence will snake its way deep into your heart and touch a place of sadness.  And when I look at that photo I drink it in now as we drank in those views this past weekend: with hunger, appreciation, and gratitude.

When A. A. Milne penned Winnie the Pooh I cannot imagine he ever completely understood how much wisdom would last for generations from the pages of his little children’s book.  Just consider this single bittersweet sentence: “I used to believe in forever, but forever’s too good to be true.” 

Love a dog and you find yourself connected perpetually with childhood.  You feel the happiness, the carefree nature, the innocence of it – all through a link with a four-legged friend who can’t speak English.  It’s such a gift. 

Here I sit now, writing this, knowing that we are on the backside of the mountain we started climbing so many years ago, and even if Atticus lives for another nine or ten years it will simply not be enough for me.  Just as it’s not long enough for anyone who has ever known such friendship. 

When Atticus first arrived in my life I had no idea where that little puppy and I would go together.  Not even my imagination could give me the slightest hint of the endless mountains we’d climb, or that we would end up living in them, embracing a simple but joyous existence.  But this photo says so much.  It’s the love we share and the love of the mountains we both share. 

It’s for this reason that I love this photo.  The connection between us is evident; the smiles are just as connected as our bodies are.  We are two unique souls who found our way to one another.

Yes, I am haunted by the thought that "forever's too good to be true," but I’m also old enough to understand that all we really have is today…and the wagonloads of memories we’ve collected together.

Thank goodness for all those experiences. . . . and for photographs like this one.


Suzanne said...

Very much "liked". Best wishes to you all. Suzanne

Sharyn Fein said...

I cannot express the feelings this brings to my heart and soul. I am so happy to be a part of your experience. Thank you

Anonymous said...

Amazing picture, amazing writing. I only wish that our canine (and feline) companions could live a long lifespan. Thank goodness you and Atti are making many great memories together. And thank you for sharing some of them with us.

(PS - sent you an emial to the gmail account re my Scruffy book. Did you get it?)

Karen Lybrand said...

Wonderful thoughts. I have a 12 y/o lab. We definitely need to embrace every day.

Sue said...

You are so right, Tom. Enjoy every day. Nick had a run-in with a possum in the yard a couple of months ago and wrenched his back. For the first time in his twelve years I can see that he will probably not recover 100% and it makes me very sad.

Judy Howard said...

Wonderful article that shows your love of nature as well as the profound love you and Atticus share. You are right, forever IS too good to be true; but what you have (and have had) WILL be forever in mind and heart. Some of us have never been this lucky, you know.

Rebecca Boren said...

My beloved 40-year-old nephew does of MS a year ago tomorrow. It's magnified with dogs, of course, but it's not only with them that forever is not enough.

Suzanne Saxon said...

With a smile on my face and tears in my eyes I can so relate to the bond. Everyday is a treasure with our best friend. I had a bond so similar for 16 wonderful years, and although that bond could never be replaced, I opened my heart again to a new four legged friend. With that a new story begins.

Ginny Suhr said...

Thank you for that post, Tom. I needed it today. My little Louis lost his battle with congestive heart failure just last week, so I feel right with you that hunger, appreciation, and gratitude...along with sometimes overwhelming sadness and grief. We, too, were two unique souls who found our way to one another.

I hope you are enjoying your break, spending time with the ones you love. Thanks again for sharing today...meant the world to me.

And seeing Atti's smile again in that photo didn't hurt, either. :)

Penni Glenz said...

So poignant...touching....and bittersweet. My eyes are misty as I consider that my "forever won't last forever" with my beloved Yorkie boy Rusty who is 8 years old. I can't imagine life without him.
People who truly love dogs have a depth of feeling that others cannot know. You have to live it to understand.
I am so happy to have found you and Atticus through your writing....You have put a voice to those feelings inside of me that haven't been expressed.
Where do the years go? The years of living life with our beloved dogs rolls on,I think, quicker than those years do with people who have never experienced our shared joy.
As always Tom...thank you for your beautiful words and pictures.

Pam Hicks said...

Profoundly beautiful, as always, Tom. Funny, at some point I was going to scroll through your older FB posts because I remember you talking about getting within 500 feet of a summit when you were thinking about what you might be able to do with William. It sounded like a hike I could handle, not being an experienced hiker. I will print this post & take it with me for when we are in the North Conway area in September. Thank you....for everything!!!

Silvia G. Soos-Kazel said...

Tom, when I saw that photo of you and Atticus the other day, I thought to myself now I can really see the pure joy that this man and his little friend share with their intermingled lives and their mutual love of the mountains and nature. Both your happy expressions revealed all! Thank you for your eloquent words in your writing about our relationships with our four legged friends. No one ever knows the length of time they have on this earth; so yes, we must cherish the time granted us with those we love so dearly. The time we are given to share that bond and love with our dogs is unmeasurable! You and Atticus are very fortunate to have the opportunity to live a friendship that some seek for a lifetime. Therefore, many are so pleased to at least view & feel that they are partaking in an example of simple, but happy existence. This due to your generous sharing with others and letting them into some parts of your life. Wishing you and Atticus the privilege of enjoying your beautiful friendship for some time to come. Warm regards to you, Tom, Atticus and of course, Will.

Bev Ash said...

I can't remember when my dogs stopped playing...I just know there is a huge wicker basket of unused toys in the corner. I can't remember when they simply stopped greeting me at the door..I can't remember when our walks became so slow...Tom, being haunted is the right word...and so many times with a sick sinking feeling in my stomach and a breaking heart.. I have practiced my goodbyes..and yet for every morning my girl..Molly.. 17....who has just recently developed health issues.. follows me to the door...for every meal she enjoys and for every warm breath she takes.....I am filled with gratitude. Thanks for the timely article...

Anonymous said...

We had 16 wonderful years with Honey, our Jack Russell until September, 2010. But there is hardly a day that goes by that my wife and I don't have a memory of her. I know that she is in heaven and hopefully we will be together again. We have to love them while we have them and always keep them in our hearts and memories once they are gone.

Colleen said...

Thank you Thank you Thank you, for sharing that picture with us Tom. Atticus looks his old self with his happy floppy eared grin. i have missed that little happy face lately. So glad that you got to see it, and see the love in his face. I do believe that our pets love us in their way. Glad you got to have this time together, and that you graciously shared it with us.

Anonymous said...

My favorite photo thus far. You both looks so happy. Love the smiles! :D K

Marv said...

I feel like a little kid with a new toy since I found your audio book 'Following Atticus' and then your website! Listening to the adventures on CD and reading the blogs has drawn me into your world and I, probably like so many others, feel like you've become an old friend. That's a compliment to your style and friendliness of your written word - you aren't afraid to show readers your heart. Although just new into your world, I'm already inspired to head out to the mountains and reacquaint myself with hiking a few old and new trails out in the Kananaskis and Banff areas in Alberta. I'm only a stones throw away! I own two aging poodles who won't make the adventure but I have a little four year old 20 lb tenancious Yorkie Terrier cross who might just enjoy the trip. Wishing you continued adventures with your dear Atticus and quiet moments with Will - look forward to the next installment already!

Anonymous said...

You both look great. I love the picture. I'll go back to it after thinking about "forever" so I can leave with a smile. I sometimes have the same thoughts out on the trails with my little hiking buddy, just not so well stated. He doesn't have to live forever; only my "ever".


Betsy said...

Tom, I have taken the liberty of printing this posting. You have the gift of setting to words what many of us feel when we look at our wonderful companions. And, this article has especially touched my heart.
May you and Atticus have many more wonderful hikes.

Ellen Snyder said...

Hi Tom -- I love Atticus' grin. Kodi shows a similar happy smile when he greets after we are away or on other special, happy occasions. It is not an every day smile so we know he is particularly elated when he shows a wide, white-teeth grin. Nice to see you both in such high spirits. Ellen

Marv said...

I’m coming to the end of the audio book (from the library) and feeling a little despondent. I have so enjoyed listening to the story of "Tom & Atticus" for the past couple weeks while I’ve been travelling around town, savoring every adventure and the psychology behind the relationships woven into the chapters. I looked forward to jumping into my car at every opportunity!!
(How long did it take to record that audio book??)
It must feel amazing every time you read another response on either your blog, Twitter or Facebook. You have gone worldwide, reaching out to other countries; making a difference globally. How it must warm your heart and soul to know that you have touched so many people (and canine companions) in such positive ways. Perhaps this is what a “rock star” feels like when they look out upon a sea of people, all singing their songs word for word, note for note! Imagine that, Tom and Atticus, “rock” stars (rock = mountain, get it??! Groan!).
I look forward to reading continued updates/blogs and read previous ones before the two of you caught my attention. Should you ever get the notion of putting out another book, I’m quite sure you’ll have a line-up of people waiting (not so) patiently. Blessings to you all, Tom, Atticus and Will – what an outstanding life, chock full of memories, and the ability, talent and willingness to delight us all by sharing your life.

Anonymous said...

You all have been such inspirations. Tom, you look happier than ever. Can't believe the new found energy of Will and Atti is on the mend...yay! Thought I'd share a vid for you tonight...enjoy and keep creating new adventures to write about. Your life is just beginning in so many ways.

Poppy Q said...

What a wonderful post, and the photo of the both of you is awesome. I agree - Mr Atticus does have a big grin on his face. Enjoy your moments together, and try not to worry about what the future will bring, none of us know.

Julie Q

G. Berry said...

Of the dozens of photos of the two of you, this one has to be the best!
G. Berry

Geby said...

Very interesting to read your article. I am happy to visit on your site

Foster said...

Tom- I just finished and very much loved your book. Thus, I am a new follower of your blog. I've favorably reviewed your book on my blog if you would care to take a look. You have inspired me to get out and do the hiking that I love with my dog, Kit.

James said...

Hi – Will you please post a link to your Blog at The Hiking Community? Our members will love it.
It's easy just cut and paste the link and it automatically links back to your website… it’s a win win. You can also add Photos, Videos and join or start Hiking discussions if you like.
Members include: Hikers and Outdoor Lovers
Email me if you need any help or would like me to do it for you.
The Hiking Community:
James Kaufman, Editor