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, June 24, 2007

Light prevailing over darkness on the Hancock's

I am reminded time and again that in the darkest times we find our way by the ethereal glow of starlight and moonlight.

During the last couple of miles of Friday’s hike back from the Hancock Loop Trail I watched Atticus and his carefree and light-hearted bounce with delight. In the past two years we’ve done this hike six times now, but the sixth time was different. It wasn’t the rain or because my torn calf held up well. It had to do with all the people along for this stroll in the woods.

Atticus led the way, as he typically does; and I followed. Between us there were more than 200 people. They ranged from four to 94 years of age, men and women, professional and blue collar, educated and scarcely educated, wealthy and poor. Call them guardian angels if you will, shining like heavenly orbs through the darkest night.

This winter we hiked to raise money for the Jimmy Fund and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. I’d spent a lot of my own money during our Winter Quest. When Atticus got sick I wondered how the medical bills would be paid. Out of nowhere people stepped forward. A Newburyport chiropractor held a fundraiser. So did a coffee house. Atti’s favorite Italian restaurant (they give him meatballs) followed suit. Milk bottles with his picture on it showed up on shop counters filled with change. A bagel and pizza shop is planning another fundraiser in July. Two wonderful people formed the “Friends of Atticus” and opened up an account in a local bank and donations came in unsolicited.

So you can see why we had company the other day, why we’ll have company on every hike we make in the future. This little dog has his friends.

Winter seems like a decade ago. But now so do the cataracts and the two tests that showed hyperthyroidism.

There was sweet satisfaction in seeing him skip along as if he doesn’t have synthetic lenses (with the tiniest springs to hold them in place) in each eye. It was grand to see him hop over roots, rocks and fallen trees. There was a simple joy in watching him climb up the steepest part of the trail towards North Hancock, like a monkey using hands and feet. A smile spread across my lips in watching him sit on the outlook even in the rain showers, seeing him catch fleeting glimpses of the Osceola’s through ghostlike clouds drifting by. Oh, to see again.
If it weren't for the "poodle cut" on his legs, a byproduct of the surgery, there'd be no way of knowing anything had been amiss.

The American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists has the following motto, “…that light shall prevail over darkness…”

How perfect.

In our case it means more than just his vision. That light comes from love and community, both here in Newburyport and in the hiking world. It reflects how lucky we are to have friends.

This was not our first hike since the cataract surgery. But it’s the first hike where I didn’t find myself thinking about his health at all until the end when I realized how bouncy and healthy he was.

On Friday, even though we were rained on, and I struggled on the one extended uphill of the day, light prevailed over darkness while we walked under brooding skies with our friend TJ as he added numbers 17 and 18 to his list. Atticus and I have had the pleasure of being on each of the hikes with him. I’ve been able to see each of these mountains anew through our friend’s eyes. And he had the pleasure of seeing the little dog that just six weeks ago was going blind bound along like these are his mountains. He was delighted as much as I was.

During the days when we couldn’t hike throughout the spring I seemed to lose my center. I need these mountains and all they bring. I need them to strip me down to my core, to simplify my life and renew it. Whenever I am in these wondrous hills I always think that this is what church should be like and I find myself thankful for the gifts of the day. Moving my thick body up the steep sections I find myself in a confessional and each mountaintop is my communion. And yet as much as I love it here, I have to adjust to it, have to let my other life dissolve; I have to surrender to it anew.

But with Atticus it is different. To him he’s at home the very instant we set foot on a trail he’s in his element. Where I am a guest trying not to leave a trace, trying to relax, for him it is effortless. He’s part of the natural world I long to be accepted into.

I’m told I did a good job in training him. Perhaps, but all I trained him to do was to fit in with society. He teaches me to become my base self again and again on each hike.

There are those who argue, and correctly I might add, that dogs don’t care about lists. Some would even say they don’t care about mountains. I cannot speak for other dogs but I can speak for this one. He’s different up here. He loves the beach, the woods in Newburyport, fields of grass teeming with wondrous scents, but up in the mountains he’s something altogether different. Don’t ask me why or how. I just know it when I see it.

It’s like knowing a friend for a very long time and seeing his face the moment he falls in love. It’s hard to describe but it’s not hard to see. Suddenly your friend is transformed. That’s what it is like with Atticus in the mountains.

And now, because of the kindness of many friends, he gets to enjoy this wonderful place like he always has. He doesn’t miss a leaf or blade of grass or toad. He sees everything with his new eyes.

The hike to and from the Hancock’s is far from outrageous when it comes to some of the hikes we’ve done. But for me, at the tail end of this hike, I found myself contemplating what happens when darkness falls and light finds a way.