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, September 28, 2008

Rainy Days

Autumn's colors are already near peak here in the Whites. It's stunning, even on a rainy weekend. Since there was no hiking there was work done on my book...good work. And to get through the gloom of the weather and not being out on a mountain, now that my leg is healed, at least we have more Ken Stampfer photos from our hike earlier in the week to South Moat. (The other dog with us in the photos is Dawa, a Burmese Mountain Dog we were watching last week.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Ophthalmologist Using His Eyes... capture the more photogenic half of T & A.

Doug Cray's Good Doctor

An interesting note about our friends Ken and Ann Stampfer, who we hiked with yesterday: Ken is a well-respected ophthalmologist in the big city and who we got to know through hiking up here. However, it also turned out he was my the ophthalmologist of my dearly-departed Newburyport friend, Doug Cray (the former NT Times reporter who covered Kennedy and Johnson in the White House). It's a small world. Ken's a terrific doctor, but also a great photographer and one of the joys of hiking with he and Ann is seeing what he does with his camera. Between the both of us, we took more than 270 photos yesterday. Hre are two of Ken's shots from the summit of South Moat.

Escaping to South Moat: A Slide Show

Pity the poor list chasers who climb a peak simply because it is over 4,000 feet high. Those who constrict their journeys in this way never get to experience the pleasure of the Moats, a range that casts its afternoon shadow over the towns of Conway and North Conway. Today, Atticus and I had company: Ken and Ann Stampfer; and Daiwa, the dog we're watching this week. Each of us, in our own way, needed to escape today, so we did, to the beautiful summit of South Moat. It was one of those rare days where we spent as much time on the summit as we did climbing the mountain. As you will see from the photos, it is a beautiful place to be. You can check out the slide show here and make your own mini-escape. By the way, that's a hint as to the name of this music. If you figure it out, you win absolutely nothing other than a pat on the back for knowing your movie soundtracks.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A New Slide Show Is Up

What’s this, a new slide show? It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Sorry, things like injuries (to me and my camera), trying to write for a living, moving and existing like a gypsy have thrown some kinks into the works.

This slide show is a marriage of two shorter late afternoon hikes: a hike along the White Ledge Loop Trail and a climb up Potash. On both instances, me and my shadow (hint) got out late enough to enjoy the growing shadows (another hint) and to see the sinking sun turn everything a dusty golden color.

Without further adieu, here’s the latest production from Tom & Atticus. You can
reach the slide show by clicking here.

Good Morning Agiocochook

For the past few days we’ve been dog/cat/house sitting in North Conway. From the street, the house, which is just a quarter of a mile off the main mayhem of the shopping strip, looks like an ordinary ranch in a quiet neighborhood. However, step to the back and every room has a view out towards the Presidential Range and the Wildcats and Carters, not to mention Cathedral Ledge and Mt. Kearsage. The view from the open deck is magnificent!

Looking out from the deck your eyes drop down to a vast cornfield with a snake of river bend trees wending their way through the middle of it. Then come the hills, then the mountains; and in main focus is the great Agiocochook herself – Mt. Washington. All of it sits under a sky so beautiful it couldn’t be painted to look any better.

On our first morning here, I woke up to see Agiocochook with a pink blush, as if I wasn’t supposed to see her that early in the day, with a scarf of clouds winding through the foothills. A half an hour later the sun came up and turned the cornfields to gold with its Midas touch! Oh, to be a painter at such a time as this.

I’ve included four photos from the morning.

Black Cap: September 21, 2008

Original plans called for a hike up to South Moat, and maybe Middle Moat, too. However, with a thick haze in the air, the weather was not the best for viewing, which is a must on the Moats, so we postponed the hike for a day or two and instead did Black Cap.

Black Cap is a small peak quite popular with those in North Conway. It looks down on the town and across to the Moats and other peaks. At 2,369 feet, it’s not the tallest mountain but the views are great, even on a day like today. The trail is just over a mile long and gains 700 feet of elevation in the time it takes to go up the Black Cap Trail.

Today we had the company of Dawa, a Burmese Mountain Dog we’re taking care of for a few days. As Atticus led the way, Dawa and I followed along, alternating the second and third position between ourselves in our little parade to the top.

Just over 700 feet is not a killer workout, but up is up and so I felt it, but it still felt good to be out and about and to be back at the car an hour and fifteen minutes after we left it, even after a leisurely summit stay.

By the end of the week, now that my leg is better, I fully expect we’ll be back to doing 4,000-footers, mostly on “this side” (the eastern side) of the Whites.

In the top photo, that’s Kearsage North behind Atticus.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mt. Potash: September 17, 2008

Here in the land of dial-up Internet I can't post as many photos as I would like. That's unfortunate because today I took several photos I would love to share with you all. I spent the day writing while Atticus spent the day sighing and then at 4:00 pm we were on the trail to climb Mt. Potash off the Kancamagus Highway. I brought a headlamp but got back down before darkness completely set in. What a great little mountain this is. I've hiked it before but it was perfect for me today since I'm working my way back up after getting over a leg injury.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Great Dame

I keep raving about this area we're holed up in for the autumn. Here's but one more example. On the way home from our hike on the White Ledge Loop Trail this afternoon, we took the shortcut, which goes across a little bridge at the southern end of Chocorua Lake and looks up at the mountain of the same name. Is it any wonder the White Mountain Painters of the 1800s took such a shine to Chocorua. Of course it helped that it stood not far from their route to North Conway.

Monday, September 15, 2008

An Afternoon Walk On The White Ledge Loop

My leg has finally healed and Atticus and I took a walk along the White Ledge Trail Loop late this afternoon. It’s only 4.4 miles but it has enough elevation to count as a workout. It was good to sweat and swear and pray my way to the top of something more significant than a hill again. I’ve missed the mountains; as I’m sure Atticus has, too.

When we stepped onto the trail we immediately dissolved into Mother Nature’s embrace with a wonderful snap of anticipation. How wonderful to have that old feeling back. It is the best part of our little sojourns into nature. We leave civilization behind as soon as we enter the wild and, in a way, become more civilized. There is something about the woods that urges me to revert to the innocence of childhood, to a more base self. As Robert Frost once said about the woods, they are “lovely, dark and deep”. It’s the “lovely” part that seduces us to return time and time again. It’s the “dark and deep” where the soul work is done. There was a reason Jung compared dreams of walking in the forest to a journey into the subconscious. They are one in the same.

Away from the busy world there are no distractions. But that’s the main reason why most people don’t like to hike alone. It can be unsettling to be alone with your own thoughts. But for me, each hike becomes a prayer and a meditation. In my prayer I talk to God; in meditation God talks to me. (I daresay God’s language is far more respectable than mine. A friend, a heavy-hitting Baptist, was shocked when I admitted there are times I swear while talking to God. “I would never!” he said. “I guess I just have a more intimate relationship with God than you do,” I said with a taunting smile.)

As a writer, hiking with Atticus is perfect for me. How comforting to have my little friend along, but how nice it is that he doesn’t prattle on about the inanities of life and simply walks silently forward. There are no growls, no barks; nothing he does is a disruption. A friend who is not fond of hiking with dogs once told me the best part about a hike with Atticus was that she didn’t even know he was there for the entire eight hours we were on a trail. “If all dogs were like Atticus, I’d get one,” she told me.

On the trail, the only noise I hear, other than occasional bird song or the sigh of the wind, is that of my own breath and beating heart. Think about that, when was the last time that’s the only thing you heard? How delightful to fall so deeply into myself and get to the middle of everything simply by taking a walk in the woods.

There is another thing about walking in the wilderness with Atticus that adds to our life together. In the woods we become equals. I get to feel as primal as he does. We walk and experience things the same way. We get to the top the same way. Because of these shared experiences, there is nothing more simple or pleasurable in my life than sharing these mountains with him. But it wasn't always that way. He had to train me, first.

The entire first summer we hiked I started my stopwatch with each hike and ended it when we reached the car. I was obsessed with time. There was no leisurely summit sitting, no time for taking advantage of viewpoints. It took me a while to catch on, but by watching Atticus stop and sit and take it all in that it finally dawned on me that I was missing the best part of getting to the top. I eventually ditched the stopwatch and sat with my dog. Since then an entirely new world has been revealed to me. The Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote: “Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring – it was peace.”


This is why Atticus’ blindness a year and a half ago was so devastating. His lovely eyes had become useless to him. His favorite thing in this world is too find some dramatic ledge with a view and sit there and ponder. Thanks to modern science, surgery fixed both of Atticus’ eyes and now he seems to have a deeper appreciation for a gift that had been taken from him.

The White Ledge Loop does not have the most dramatic views but we came upon one nice ledge today where we sat and relaxed the afternoon away. We sat there until the sun eased behind the lovely Chocorua. As we made our way down from the ledges, the lowering sun took its heat with it and the woods were filled with a pleasant chill and a hint of the season to come while we walked down the path of earth, stones, pine needles and old leaves. In the shade an entirely new set of scents emerged. A breeze found its way through the forest and I could have sworn I heard Autumn giggling just out of sight, behind a nearby tree who was daring enough to wear red leaves already.

This Past Winter's Tragedy On Franconia Ridge Relived By The Lone Survivor

For those of you who followed our winter adventure, you know the measures I went to to keep my little hiking partner safe. And by keeping Atticus safe, I also kept myself safe. There were certain days we just wouldn't hike, or at least not go above treeline. On February 10th, two men either ignored the well-reported forecast or were ignorant to it. The result? One of them died - frozen solid on top of Franconia Ridge near Little Haystack. It's a place we hiked over twice this winter, both times on warmer days with no wind. The hiker who survived lost various body parts and in this weekend's Nashua Telegraph he told his story. The full article can be accessed by clicking here. But I warn you, it's a horrific story. I'm including a snippet below:

About halfway between to Little Haystack Mountain, Fredrickson's eyes had closed up from frostbite. Osborne then took the lead, with Fredrickson's hand on his houlder. They stumbled along, falling a couple of times from the wind, blinding snow and exhaustion. Fredrickson started to fall behind by the time they had reached Little Haystack Mountain. "At one point, I looked back, and he was curled up in a fetal position on his right side. I walked back to him." Osborne told him, "Fred, you got to get up. You got to get up." He had lost his gloves again. His hands were indescribable, his fingers curled grotesquely." He kind of rolled over and said, 'Oh my God, they're going to take my hands.' I said, 'Fred, you've got to get up now. We're almost to tree line. Once we get down below tree line we'll warm up and everything will be OK.' " He just wouldn't move. He became unresponsive. Looking back, it was pretty clear that full hypothermia had set in for both of us." Hard as it was to leave his friend, Osborne knew he had to keep going." As I walked away, I had this conscious thought, 'I'm 36 years old, and this is how I die.' Strangely enough, I was at peace with myself." He made his peace with the people he knew. In his mind, he expressed his regrets for the mistakes he made in life, and for the mistakes he made on this hike." My last thought from there was looking back over my shoulder and seeing Fred and being sad about that." Osborne climbed onto the top of a ledge. "From there, I don't remember anything until I woke up in the hospital."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hello from Writer's Heaven

Good morning,

There was nearly frost on the pumpkin here in the country this morning. I knew it was cold when I woke up in the middle of the night and had to grab another blanket and when I pulled it up over us, Atticus didn’t bother to climb out from beneath it. He was still undercover when I woke up this morning.

I love the fall. Yes, I know it’s not really fall yet but I swear I heard Autumn giggling behind a tree when I took Atti outside for a tour of the yard. I look forward to the fall season here in our temporary home. I cannot imagine a more bucolic and perfect place for haystacks and cornfields and pumpkins on the porch. The farms here meld into the mountains and the mountains, other than Chocorua, who loves the attention, are gentle but beautiful green arcs. They may not be as dramatic as the jutting peaks of Franconia Ridge, but they are striking nonetheless. What makes the Wonalancet region even more beautiful than the area near Franconia Notch is the land below the mountains is bucolic and at ease with itself. Here there are no tourist attractions, natural or otherwise. There is no long five-fingered paved parking lot at the entrance to the Flume, nor are there the skeletal remains of a garish water park (that runs only three months of the year) fronting the ridge.

Here tourists are outnumbered by the small number of headstones sprinkled throughout the area in nook and cranny graveyards and farms set a scene both nostalgic and poetic. The White Mountain artists of the 1800s discovered Chocorua but I’ve seen no evidence that they moved inland along the rest of the Sandwich Range. United States President Grover Cleveland made his summer home here and John Greenleaf Whittier wrote his love letters to the mountains just down the road. But the beauty of this place is such that I can imagine Frost in a farmhouse whittling his words; Yeats, sauntering along the mushrooms and ferns of the woodland streams composing ballads to the little people, or Melville looking up at one of these mountains instead of Greylock to write of his great white whale. Here you can see Washington Irving penning the “Tales of Sleepy Hollow” or picture E. B. White looking up at a spider in the doorway of his barn and spinning a tale about Charlotte. This is a writer’s idea of heaven.

The people here are hearty but much friendlier than in other isolated places in the mountains. They welcome you to town with earnest smiles on their face and are genuinely glad to see you. At the general store they ask about your particulars with a laid back grace that makes you want to stay for a while and put your feet up. On three different occasions people have come up to me at trailheads to introduce themselves. The conversation usually goes like this: “This must be Atticus! Hello Tom, I heard you two were moving into the area.” They are friendly but not so much so as to break the spell of the place.

When I was walking along rustic Ferncroft Road the other day, I saw a woman building tiny stone cairns on the wooden footbridge connecting her home to the dirt road. I told her I liked her row of cairns. “Oh,” she said, a gentle smile easing across her lips, “these are my rock people. It’s good to have them around.” Then, while standing down next to the stream bed and leaning on the bridge had a comfortable face-to-face conversation with Atticus as if she’s known him her entire life. As she spoke he sat and watched her animated face and the soft movement of her hands.

Atticus loves the area because there are so many footpaths to discover I don’t think we’d get to all of them even if we lived here for 20 years. So far our favorite is the Brook Path. It runs for two miles and there is never a place where you can look up at the mountains. The view is of the woods and of the Wonalancet River it traces. In my three years in these mountains I’ve yet to find a more beautiful trail.

The graceful path up to Mt. Katherine is an easy walk but it’s still three miles of exercise to the ledge overlooking a farm that stretches towards the skyward peak of Chocorua. Seated on the summit rock there are also wonderful views toward the tops of Passaconaway, Wonalancet and Whiteface.

Within a quarter of a mile from where I’m sitting, Hemenway State Forest sits on either side of us. We often enter on a snowmobile path and walk through a forest dotted with mushrooms and ferns and the murmur of the river. We constantly find signs of bear and moose here and the trail ascends until it meets up with another trail for another short climb that ends at a fire tower. The stairs are thin and steep and I have to carry Atticus to the top but once on the top of Great Hill there are views in every direction and the view of the Sandwich Range, from Sandwich Dome in the west, all the way over to Chocorua in the east, are unbeatable.

Perhaps what I love most about this place is that it feels like a secret, like a soft whisper from one lover into the ear of another at a crowded gathering. Here the world softens, it lingers, you can feel yourself breathe, you can hear your heart beat. The mountains are startling, but not just because of their size and shape and their green grandeur. They literally startle you because you don’t know when you will see them. You can be walking along the road or a trail or through a cornfield or by a cemetery and out of nowhere you will sense you are being watched. You look up and see nothing but the clean blue sky or dense trees and you walk on. Take a few more steps and literally out of nowhere a peak has come out from its hiding place and is watching you with the curiosity of a child.

When my friend Paul came up for a hike I asked him if he wanted to get some ice cream. We drove by mountains, through open fields and by the occasional house and cemetery but no stores. I turned down a rutted dirt road, then an even ruttier dirt road and ten miles after leaving the house we arrived at a small dairy open 24 hours. You take your pick from of ice cream and cheeses at the Sandwich Creamery and they trust you will put the right amount of cash for your purchase through a mail slot in the wall. If you don’t have change, not to worry, there’s a vat of loose change in which you can find the correct amount.

Recently a friend wrote to note that Atticus and I were now in the boonies. She added, “You probably don’t even have streetlights where you are.” She is right, about the boonies and the streetlights. But we can see the stars here as I’ve never seen them and the moon climbs the sky like a ghost on a haunt. At night I half expect to stumble upon a scene like the one in Will Moses’ “Girls Night Out” where witches gather around a cauldron in back of a farmhouse, kept company by black cats, ghosts and pumpkins.

Now you can see why I’m so excited about autumn here where the landscape plays like a Danny Elfman tune, both spooky and pastoral.