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.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Choices Made On One October Hike Continue To Shape My Life

Life is about choices and Will has chosen to live.
We lost a good friend recently.  The cause of death was the past.

When Atticus and I moved north from Newburyport I began my life anew.  Some would say that it wasn’t dire that I make such a drastic change because I had a pretty darn good life as it was, but after seeing what the mountains had to offer and who I was when I was in them I surrendered to our new adventure to see what would come of it.  I sold my newspaper, The Undertoad, said goodbye to many friends I wouldn’t be seeing as much of anymore, and stepped boldly (if not a bit nervously) into my new life. 

I brought only what was necessary, leaving behind many possessions, and I shocked friends by even leaving behind all the copies of The ‘Toad.  More importantly I gave myself permission to leave behind much of the stress, anger, drama, and chaos that used to fill my days. 

On one of the first afternoons Atticus and I lived in our little place just south of Franconia Notch, we set out on an afternoon hike up Cannon Mountain.  It was midweek and we had it all to ourselves.  We reached the summit, sat high atop the tower, and looked down at autumn as she spread herself beneath us everywhere we looked.  Until that day I had mostly hurried up and down every peak we climbed but something changed on that hike.

While we were on top of that viewing tower a smile slowly spread across my face, my eyes crinkled, and with only Atticus and the mountains as my witness I laughed long and hard as if I had just been told a great joke.  My little friend nudged my leg with his nose like he wanted to hear the joke as well.  I lifted him up in my arms and there we stood, slowly looking out in every direction.  His body relaxed into mine and I heard him sigh and then I did, too.  All the while that smile stayed on my face. 

The afternoon sun washed over us and we lay down on the platform, my head resting on my backpack, his on my chest, and took a nap.  I have no idea how long we slept for but when we awakened I was refreshed.  

We took our time walking down the grassy ski slopes and after a while the pine trees gave way to October’s colorful foliage and the sun dropped lower in the sky and eventually behind the mountain.  We were draped in a pleasant late afternoon shade and every now and again I found myself laughing.  How mad I must have sounded to the mountain gods that day – a man breaking out in laughter for no apparent reason. 

Throughout the afternoon we hadn’t seen another person and as we rounded a bend four souls turned their heads to look at us when they heard the laughter. We stopped where we were, Atticus sat by my side, I smiled, and gave the onlookers a wave.  They simply watched us bemusedly, I imagined, but didn’t say a word.  Then again bears don’t talk.      

We had stumbled upon a mother with her three cubs playing in the grass and when it was clear we weren’t a threat they went back to what they were doing.  When it was clear they weren’t a threat I sat down next to Atticus and we watched them frolic and tumble over one another.  Occasionally the mother bear would give us a look but seemed to give us very little thought otherwise.  We must have sat watching them for half an hour on that perfect afternoon. 

It was on that day that I finally understood I had escaped a life that wasn’t bad, but wasn’t the life I was meant to lead.  When that family of bears disappeared into the woods we made our way down the lower stretches of the mountain and I made a promise to myself. 

In spite of what some of the critics of my newspaper would say – or those I exposed, I’m no fool.  I understood then, as I do now, that life throws a lot at us and we can’t escape the ups and downs that challenge us.  We can, however, decide which ones to deal with.  I decided then and there that the only drama I would allow in my life was the kind that was unavoidable.  The real life and death kind.  People get sick or hurt or lose their jobs or their homes.  Life happens and it's not always pretty.  You can't avoid that kind of thing.

Not long ago the woman I love asked me, “Don’t you worry about anything?” 

“Yes,” I said.  “I worry about you and Atti and Will but that’s about it.” 

On that October day five years ago I swore off negative people and those who didn’t add much to my life so that I could better appreciate those who did.  I let go of much of whatever it was I was angry about from my past and came to the realization I was responsible for carrying it with me all those years.

Bobby Kennedy loved quoting Aeschylus, “And no one was angry enough to speak out.”  The Undertoad was many things and it helped shape a city but part of that came from my being “angry enough to speak out.”  However, its impact came with a cost. 

Each day brought something new to be angry about, people who loved chaos and lies, and I found myself choosing to live in the darker shades of life.  A lot of good came out of it all in the community I loved.  Lies and scoundrels were exposed; heroes celebrated.  But trying to right many wrongs for eleven years in a seething little city took its toll on me.  Nietzsche wrote, “Be careful when you fight monsters, lest you become one.”  At my best I did wonderful things; at my worst I looked into the mirror and saw too much that I didn’t like.

And that’s why I was laughing on Cannon Mountain.  I finally gave myself permission to leave that old life behind.  Like a snake I shed my old skin and I could feel the past dropping away. 

A renewed man was born on that hike and I was free to choose what I wanted to be and do for the rest of my life.  I’d fought my battles and demons outside and in, but the mountains gave me a new chance.  By following Atticus over thousands of miles and hundreds of mountains I discovered my bliss and learned to enjoy life's simpler pleasures.

Since that day I’ve done my best to ignore the unnecessary stresses. The old newspaperman in me can see a toxic person from a mile away and I steer clear of them whenever I get the chance.  In my Undertoad days I was quite outspoken.  If you’ve ever seen me at a book signing you’ll know that part of me still exists, but it comes with a smile these days.  Deep within, however, I reserve my old edginess for those who aren’t so nice and I guard my happiness and those I care about with all I’m worth. 

So recently when a friend who meant a great deal to us repeatedly exhibited that they couldn’t let go of their drama-filled past and actually continued to welcome it into their life in a way that impacted our friendship I made a difficult decision.  I knew I had no right to ask that person to change, so I made the choice to say goodbye.

It’s not easy to lose a friend because lord knows true ones are hard to come by and I didn’t take my decision lightly.  It only came after we had many discussions. 

Not an hour goes by where I am not saddened by the loss of our friend.  But here’s the thing, I don’t question my decision.

Life is too short for the things that don’t and shouldn’t matter.  More importantly we define our lives by the choices we make and the boundaries we keep.

Whenever I’m weary over the loss of our friend something I do several times a day reminds me what’s important and how I should live.  As many of you know, Will cannot make it up and down the stairs on his own and we live on the second floor.  Whenever he has to go to the bathroom I gently hoist him up and we hug each other, his head next to mine, and I carry him outside.  This was something that was impossible and dangerous to do in those first days we were together.  Will had been abandoned and was in great pain. He was angry and came with his own wagonload of drama and I knew to avoid his teeth whenever I tried to pick him up.  Back in May, when he first arrived, he didn’t like being touched all that much or carried and my hands still carry the scars of that first couple of months. 

Today you wouldn’t know he’s the same dog.  Gone is the anger and the pain.  Gone is the resentment and his own share of drama.  He let it go and let love and trust and a new life in. 

So you see, whenever Will is cradled in my arms I’m reminded of the me I saw on Cannon Mountain that October day.  We both arrived here in the White Mountains a bit worse for wear and had to figure out how to get to where we needed to be.  

Life is made up of choices.  I made a choice that day and continue to choose a better life than the one I used to lead.  Since he came to live with us Will has made the same choices and that has made all the difference - in both of our lives.