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, March 05, 2015

Atticus's Different Winter Hiking Season

I think perhaps the gift that comes from Atticus turning thirteen is that as he has slowed down, I have too.  The difference being that I'm doing it by choice.  I now pay attention to different things on our walks through the woods.  Instead of being in a constant hurry, as we were for our first winters, when we were still peak-bagging, and being oh-so-proud of the latest epic adventure, I now take stock of the little things. Instead of hikes of more than twenty miles, or those where we reached the summits of three or four or five mountains in a day, now even the shortest walk in the woods is filled with wonder.  The gentle fall of snowflakes and the quietude that accompanies it.  The way beech tree leaves turn from yellow to bronze to brown to a ghostly yellow and how they flutter even when there doesn't seem to be a breeze.  Animal tracks, both big and small, and the stories they tell as we follow them through the snowy carpet of winter.  The warmth of the sun, even on days when the temperature is below zero.  The sound we make walking through the snow, the crisp and clean air we breath, even the taste of snow, which we both enjoy.  Gifts abound and they surround us in the natural world.

These days Atticus lets me know what he's up to.  He always has, but as the years have progressed he now cancels hikes, or stops after only a quarter of a mile, which he only did perhaps five times in the first few years of winter hiking.  For us the one mile round trip to Diana's Baths through a winter wonderland of frosted pines is enchanting.  The hike up short but scenic Middle Mountain gives us plenty of mileage for a day.  And then there are the times that surprise me.  The first that comes to mind is the ten mile round trip up and down North Moat a few weeks ago.  It was like the "old days" for us. 

I'm not sure what Atticus can do when it comes to mileage anymore.  But that's the point.  It's not important.  I wouldn't say that Atticus has retired from hiking, it's just that he's retired from extreme hiking.  Once the weather and trail conditions determined where we went in.  Now, along with that, I let my aging friend also have a say. 

I've never felt a reason to push him, but by setting the bars lower in what I hope to do, I'm opening up the possibilities that come with shorter hikes.  And still, Atticus and I get out and get to enjoy it.  I like that he still thrives during these outings and when I put myself in his shoes . . . well, I guess I'd be about eighty some odd years old, and to be able to do what he's doing now when I'm that age - I'll take it. 

To make the trails easier for him, we now hike more at night when the trails have been broken out by other hikers. What we miss in views we make up for in wonder.  To sit on an insulated pad together and look up at a crystal clear night with stars in abundance and the planets and the moon overhead is a gift not enough people appreciate.  Not just in winter, but any time of the year.  It's just that the view is prettier in December, January, and February than it is in warmer months.

If we are fortunate, we all get older.  We make adjustments.  But that doesn't mean there's any less wonder out there.  Emily Dickinson reportedly rarely left her yard in Amherst, Massachusetts, but she saw the divinity in everything.  William Blake wrote, "To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour."  Things don't have to be epic or huge to be transcendent.  The universe blooms everywhere - even right outside our doors or just down the street. 

Do we miss some of the higher peaks we'll never get to together again?  I can't speak for Atticus, but I do.  But part of gratitude is when you realize that what you have is enough.  In learning to slow down and relax my expectations, we continue to enjoy the trails and the seasons.  Both those that cloak the mountains and valleys around us, and the seasons of our lives, as well.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Atticus and I Walk the Line Between Being Extroverts and Introverts

The other day a friend told me I was an extroverted introvert.  As much as those two clash, I think it’s true.  After living in the center of a small city, often being in the middle of controversy with my newspaper, and feeling like a good size fish in a small fish bowl, I changed all of that, dropped the drama, and have learned to relax into the quiet and the sorely needed decompression. 
When I think back to those days running the Undertoad I sometimes wonder if it really happened at all.  It was an exciting eleven years, one never to be forgotten.  But heck, it was it stressful.  And yet it was also the life I chose.

Has it really been seven years since we moved north? 

I am a man who loves my friends.  I love to talk and laugh and it can be at loud levels.  But a side that has grown through the years also loves the gentle quiet of this mountain life.

Years ago I wondered how I would find the money to move north.  Now I wonder how I will find the money to buy a small farm.  I’m not sure how it will happen, but I don’t doubt it will.  It’s just the way things have always been in my life.  Catch a dream, set a goal, make it a reality.  “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”  That’s Ralph Waldo Emerson talking.  From what I’ve noted in my own experiences, though, it is true. 

Farms in the Mount Washington Valley are expensive.  Too expensive for what I need and want.  So my dreams take us over toward the Vermont border just west of our tenth highest peak, Moosilauke.  They take us north to the flatter lands in Whitefield and Lancaster, with inspiring views of Waumbek and Cabot, and the jagged northern peaks of the Presidential Range.  And they take us east, to the foot of Evans Notch – the quiet notch.  The very private notch. 

In summer these are all close to ideal, but each area can be isolating in deep winter.  We’d be stepping away from the comfort zone of the North Conway area, where some of our good friends live.  We’d be out in the middle of nowhere, compared to where we live now.  This used to frighten me.  But now it’s becoming more appealing. 

This is my introverted side.  It’s the part of me that could be a monk, if I threw out the religious part and just held onto the spiritual.  It really is a world away from sitting on the third floor of a three story brick building looking smack down on the center of Newburyport and writing about it.  Back then it took us half an hour to walk to the post office and back – only a block away.  We’d stop and talk to people.  There was always information to get and to give.  The city lived in my head.  It was a constant hum of personalities and news. 

How did I spend seven years without at least one night out of Newburyport? 

Times have changed. 

My dreams take me a world away to a rustic farmhouse, a little red barn, some animals, faith that it will all work, the peace that comes from a marriage with nature.

One of the reasons my friend brought up the “introverted extrovert” thing was because we were talking about the upcoming event in Groton, Massachusetts.  There’s an eight hundred seat auditorium.  In a short time more than three quarter of the seats have been reserved.  By April twelfth there’s a good chance every seat in the place will be filled.

“How does that feel with your desire for personal privacy?” she asked.

“It feels great.  This is an event when Atticus and I will be there and it will be hectic and exciting and I’ll enjoy meeting a lot of people and seeing some familiar faces.  And when it’s done, we’ll be exhausted and more in need of solitude.  Atticus will sleep the entire three hours home in the car.”

“So you like these events?”

“Love them. That’s Tom the extrovert.  Loud, expressive, emotional.  Then it’s back to being quiet, defining boundaries, defending boundaries, and living with the rhythm of the seasons.  Atticus and I will enjoy the divinity of alone time on some of the quieter mountains.”

While reading bits and pieces of an interview with Pico Iyer the other day I came face to face with this comment and it felt like an old friend I’d just met for the first time: “The point of gathering stillness is not to enrich the sanctuary or the mountaintop but to bring that calm into motion.”  Iyer also said something that resonated with what it was like that first summer Atticus and I began hiking, “Almost instantaneously I felt that I’d stepped into a richer deeper life, a life that I’d half forgotten.” 
It was always there, but I never tended to it. 

Ten years ago, when Atticus and I did our first round of the four thousand footers we were both awakened.  It was a journey into the unknown together that led us to the known.  Such a mystery.  Together we learned and grew and discovered. 

We all grow older, and Atticus and I are doing that together.  He’s far older than I am so I pay attention to his needs, but this is something that has always been done by both of us.  As our journey continues, I’m not the only one who has changed.  These days he’s not as into the crowds and the rush and hurry world as he used to be.  Both of us have become countrified. 

As I sit here looking at a topographical map of the White Mountains hanging on the wall in front of my desk, I look at those place I spoke of before and realize that I am craving that delicious isolation that comes from finding a quiet place to lay our heads and to wake up every morning.  So what if Best Buy and Whole Foods are more than an hour’s ride away from where we are now and they’ll be further away from wherever it is we end up?  We have found a way to get by.  The quiet and peaceful life continues to call us further away.

As long as the tension between extroversion and introversion exists within me, I’ll know there are more surprises ahead for us.  That’s the part of the journey that enriches and forces us to grow through the light and the dark, through uncertainty and faith. It’s something called life.