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, May 15, 2014

A Letter to a Friend

Dearest friend,

Early the other morning, when the faintest hint of light filtered into our backyard, Atticus and I drove down Rt. 16 to the southern side of Chocorua and walked through the awakening forest on the lower reaches of the mountain. 

While you’ve been away the mountains have begun to bloom.  This past week the colors of the forest floor were vibrant and hopeful and they far outshone the ceiling where treetop buds slowly emerged like stars waiting to shine.  It’s the only week of the year that it’s like this and it's such a treat to behold that I wished I could stop time, or at least make it linger a bit longer until you return to the mountains you love.  Alas, there is no stopping nature, nor is it possible to make time wait for us.

The air was cool and damp and the dawn smelled fresh.  Dew drops clung here and there like tiny crystals as we moved silently along the trail.  On either side, the speckled leaves of trout lilies appeared and infantile beech leaves were shed their shells and began hanging like perfectly creased sleeping green bats. Underfoot there was mud, running water, dry earth, and both slick and dry rocks. 

When Atticus and I first came to the mountains on weekends it was to escape a busier life. As you know, we quickly got caught up in peak-bagging, but then things changed after a couple of years of that rigid madness when I returned to reason and remembered why we'd come north.   

In the beginning, mountains didn’t start out representing checkmarks on a list for me, and when they  reclaimed their rightful place atop my priorities, things came into focus for me.  The forest was once again mysterious and magical.  The greens were rich, the scents so strong I was transported to a land of enchantment, and our time up here became more rewarding.  Other than that peak-bagging misstep, Atticus and I hike for the experiences, the views, and not so we can say we’ve climbed a certain a specific number of times so that we can claim a certificate or get our names on a website.  It’s because I stopped counting peaks that I cannot tell you how many times Atticus and I have been to the top of Chocorua.  It's in the double digits, I know that much, and all but twice have been at moments of the day and year when we had the tabletop summit to ourselves.

At busier times the mountain, gets to feeling a bit like Disneyland as a conga line of hikers march up the Piper Trail, and the rocky horn of the great peak looks like fruit being smothered by crawling ants.  (Then again, you already know this, and this is one of the reasons you've never climbed it.) 

But who can blame the crowds?  It’s a breathless place to be and so close (compared to other peaks) to the people coming north along Route 16 from Massachusetts.

As we climbed through the forest this weekend and the trees became shorter and twisted, the sun climbed with us and snuck peeks down into the trail at us.  Although it would grow warmer throughout the day, the air was still cool at that early hour and just below the final push, I turned to feel its golden warmth on my face.  That's when I felt Atticus's wet nose poke my shin.  This is what he does on mountaintops to take in the view while sitting in my arms when our eyes are at the same level.  I picked him up.  He leaned against me, looked over the scrub brush, into the sunlight, and sighed. 

I couldn’t help but watch him.  The tip of his pink tongue revealed itself and his gaze went to the south and east.  In that light I could see the gray that's been coming on.  It's worked its way up his body and after all these years it is just now finding its way to the crown of his head and the side of his muzzle. 
His eyes, normally so dark, were ablaze in the sunlight and it was clear he was happy.  He sighed again, let his weight settle onto my arm and into my chest, and we stood there awash in that welcoming spot for several minutes.  

When I put him down we scrambled up the last steep pitch to the summit, but it’s clear that this year it’s different than it's been in the past.  He's led and had to wait for me.  But lately, even in our walks around Jackson, there are times when he follows me.  I noticed it more so on the climb up Chocorua.  I stopped for him as much this weekend as he used to stop for me in years past.  I made sure he had plenty of water to drink and I gave him the option to turn back, as I often do, but he refused.  Instead, he stood up and led the way, then we walked together, and, from time to time, he dropped back again.   
On each of the other trips up the mountain, he stood proudly atop the rocky plateau of New Hampshire’s most majestic peak with a sparkle in his eye and looked down at me and waited for me to join him.  But this time we arrived on top together. 
We shared more water, I gave him some treats, and then we shared the view with him in my arms again. 

Since we've first started hiking, I'm happy to say that
I’ve lost track of the checkmarks . . . but not the experiences.  Each of the mountains we’ve climbed is another paragraph in the story of our lives.  One by one they add onto each other and build and build what we share.  But when I was holding him the other morning and we slowly turned three hundred and sixty degrees, it hit me that there will come a time, perhaps not too far away, when it will no longer be the two of us up there.   

As I wrote at the beginning of this letter, there is no stopping nature, nor is it possible to make time wait for us. 

Atticus is now twelve.  We climbed Mount Garfield, our first peak, when he was two.  Reality and memory have the ability to swirl together and create sadness in us when considering how those we love age.  From this end of the journey, the seasons and peaks flash by like clouds on the wind.  When I look back on them all after a decade, especially from atop one of our favorite mountains, it hits even harder.   

I do not know how much longer Atticus and I will be able to do this together, but I know we still have mountains before us and summits to reach.  I’m just not in as much as a hurry to get to them these days.  
Time changes us.  Our bodies, our expectations, what we are grateful for.  I figure in order to get to those waiting peaks, we’ll have to reverse our roles in the future.  There will be an increasing number of days when Atticus will be following me.    

We sat by ourselves on top of Chocorua for an hour.  He, a few feet away looking north to the higher peaks, me, first reading your letter about the birch tree in your yard for a third time, and then with pen and paper in hand to write my response.  The gentle kiss of the breeze, the pleasing warmth of the sun, and the silence of the mountaintop made it a heavenly spot to sit and read and write. 

In time we heard some voices off in the distance.  Not long after we saw the approaching hikers.  Atticus came to me and nudged me with his nose to let me know it was time to go.  I packed up and when I stepped off the summit . . . he stayed behind.

“What’s up Pump?”

He answered with his eyes.  He always has. 

I knew he wanted me back up there with him.  He came close and looked up at me so I picked him up again.  We drank in one last long view before I put him down.  As he hopped onto the lower rocks and made his way down, I stayed behind and realized there are so many mountains left for us to visit still, and each time may be our last visit on that one mountain.  Something caught in my throat when that realization hit me.  I steadied myself, took a deep breath, and then slowly followed him down that pitch, and we began the walk back to the valley.

After I began writing this, your latest letter arrived. I’ve already read it once and I will take it out back to the river to read it at least once more.  But before I respond in full, I have to say that you’ve captured your surroundings so well.  You always do.  What I particularly moved by was what you wrote about the dust: “It is so fine that it dances in the air with the slightest breeze and swirls around with voices echoing off the steep canyon walls.  It settles into every pore of my skin and lays in the tiny wrinkles, creating the appearance of delicate, earthen-colored lace laying over my exposed arms and legs.”

Who knew dust could be so exquisitely captured in words?  This is the exact reason why I sent you Diane Ackerman’s “The Natural History of the Senses”.  Your ability to observe and record and string poetic words together gives you a kinship with her.  You both have the ability to turn the common into the treasured, and I believe you will become fast friends with her writing.

I know you will return soon enough and the mountain greenery of New Hampshire will be a welcome sight to you.  It's good to get away, but for people like you and me who have fallen prey to the enchantment of this region, there's nothing quite like it. 

We look forward to seeing both of you soon.  Until then, walk in beauty.


Janice Hummel said...

Thank you again for painting a beautiful picture with words.

Barbie Perkins-Cooper said...

How I love the journeys of your adventures with Atticus and the mountains. Your writing feels like a soft, warm kiss, embracing your readers with their touching words. Thank you so much for all that you do. Most of all, thank you for teaching others the beauty, respect and love we share with our blessed animals. They enrich our lives so much!

Mary in A2 said...

Beautifully said, Tom.

Jackie Christian said...

This is ,as always, beautiful and poignant, Tom. AYour writing is just beyond beautiful. Thank you.
And once again, I am preparing for another adventure for the summer. Last summer was spent at the north rim Grand Canyon. A summer of learning to say YES because you had taught me how. An adventure of a lifetime. As we prepare to go to Colorado this year I was not looking forward to it. However I have decided in my heart and mind to look for the small things, the blessings, in every thing and every place. I will be there for a season and hope to have memories for a lifetime. Thank you Tom, Atticus, and Will for showing us the way to seek and find the good everywhere.

Cara said...

Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Currently I face saying goodbye to my friend of some eleven years, as she approaches her fourteenth birthday, a tired, worn little dog of infinite patience and yet a quick snap of the teeth occasionally. May Peace attend us all.

Jackie Christian said...

Your words are beyond beautiful and transport me away! Thank you, Tom. I spent last summer on north rim Grand Canyon learning to say YES to so many wonderful adventures I would never have thought of. I thank you, Atticus, and Will for teaching me to LIVE life! This summer we are going to Colorado. I was not excited but have decided in my heart and head to look for the small things, the blessings in everything. Thank you for helping me do this. As always, your daily posts touch my heart and I am inspired to be better, to seek more, to say YES! Thank you Tom, Atticus, and Will.

Anonymous said...

Lovely sensory writing I will share with students.Thank you. Paula

Liz said...

I cried as I read this Tom. We've had to prepare to say goodbye to so many of our friends - both human and animal over the last 30 years - last year our dear old Lab George - and I'm aware that aging is a process that takes no prisoners. So thanks for your words. They remind me to be gracious yet resolute as I go through this process too.

carolyn bonier said...

Again I enjoy your writing and sentiments so much. I am finding with my own aging that what was once possible no longer is. However, life continues to offer the gift of various wonder filled experiences. Also, thank you for suggesting a book for your friend. I have found that the books you mention are well worth reading!

Nancy Duncan said...

Beautiful writing transports me from Mooloolaba Beach in Australia to the mountains of the NE. Such a gift. Thank you.

Carter W Rae said...

Tom Your words are so powerful they touch my soul and your love for each other is but a reflection of your outlook of life and relationships that define us all .. I always await your posts here and on FB ! We are always very appreciative of your consideration in sharing this all with us we all really love you and your guys and this beautiful journey Thanks and peace in your journey (((HUGS))) to Atticus and William L. too ...

Anonymous said...

As always, thank you for sharing your world with us.

It sounds as if Atticus knows too that he does not know if he will make it back to that particular mountain top so he wants to soak it in.

Each hike is different even if it is to the same mountain.

Betty said...

Hi Tom,

Thank you for sharing part of your day and the words of your friend.

The gift of writing is one so many of us never receive, all the more reason to be grateful for writers and their glorious writings. They take us to places we might not ever have the opportunity to visit. Tonight I hiked to a summit and visited a canyon.

Your words write to my heart and I feel them very deeply.

The journey we have with our buddies is cherished time. I have so many sweet memories made with Quincy. A blessing.

Hugs from here to there to you Atticus, and Will.

Peace dear friends and sleep tight.

Anonymous said...

You have touched me so deeply with your words. My life has been shattered with so many profound losses over the last few years, with the prospect of even more loss to come in the near future. Sometimes it overwhelms me and I find myself on the floor gasping for air. You remind me that it's a journey we all share: love, loss, acceptance of what is. All we can do is let go into the moment, whether on a mountain's peak or stuck in city traffic. Some people believe we choose what happens to us; I only wish we had that kind of power. However, what we can choose is how we react to our life's situation. You words inspire me to walk a different path .. perhaps with a little more wisdom, a little more grace, a little more gratitude, and A LOT more courage. Thank you Tom, Atticus, and Will, for your inspiration and encouragement. Time to get up off the floor, take my next breath, and look to the horizon.

Bonnie said...

Tears spilling over so beautifully expressed.

Allie Brown said...

Oh Tom-You are what Carlton & I miss so much from our life in Newburyport. You are a most remarkable person from whom great strength and inner peace are received by all who come in contact with you!

Ursula Reikes said...

Thank you. I feel as if I was walking the trail, then sitting on the summit admiring the view. It's a place I've never been, but hope to get to someday. Since reading your book, and now your blog, I find that I appreciate life a little more and say thank you more often.

Wishing you many, many more days with Atticus and Will.

Anonymous said...

Another wonderful read Tom. Such a nice description of the forest to start your letter. Because Atticus is a few years older than my buddy, you are in a sense giving me new ways to experience the coming years. My buddy thanks you.


Sidney said...

I got very emotional as I read and realized that Atticus and I are on the same path in life. Thanks for expressing it so beautifully. I will try to see the beauty he sees in each step I take in this aging process.