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.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ken Stampfer's Photos from Mount Resolution Hike

No matter how big a little dog you are, you can always use a hug. And sometimes it's just as comforting just to sit around with a friend and take in the views.On Monday we hiked Mount Resolution with Ken and Ann Stampfer. Our hikes with K & A are always enjoyable, but they are doubly good because I get to relive them through Ken's wonderful photos a day or two later. Here are some of his shots from our Memorial Day hike.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Nice Encounter On The Davis Path

On Monday, hiking from Jericho Road up to Mount Resolution to the bottom of the Davis Path, we didn't encounter many hikers all day. However, we ran into the friendly trio made up of Jim Roy and the brother and sister team Brian and Jen Miville, members of the Views from the Top and Rocks on Top on-line hiking communities. It's always a pleasure to meet these refreshing and upbeat folks. We had a chance to visit for a bit and Atticus got a good back scratch from Jim (top shot by Ken Stampfer) and then the two stopped horsing around to pose more formally (bottom shot by me).

Our Morning Walk

It’s a brilliant blue-sky morning that started with a chill in the air. On our morning loop through Jackson Village I wore gloves, fleece pants and a fleece top – unusual for me this time of year, but last night dipped into the 20s.

Our regular walk takes us by the Wentworth Golf Club, which before the sun climbs up the far side of Thorn Mountain, could just as easily be Augusta National. It’s a pretty manicured course. One of its highlights is the covered walking bridge that arcs gracefully over the Ellis River. If we are early enough, there are no people out and about and only the sprinklers are hard at work on the greens. The next turn we make brings us to Route 16B and over another covered bridge. It, like the golf course’s bridge, is picture perfect. From there we stroll by a variety of inns and restaurants, a few shops, a small band box (with apologies to John Updike) of a red library and an historic white church – what quaint New England town would be complete without a white church in its center? – before we come around by the golf course again. If we are late enough (after 7:00 a.m.), Atticus and I sometimes stop at the J-Town Deli and get a bagel. We sit outside at one of the outdoor tables or in one of the rocking chairs while inside the usual local suspects solve the problems of the world – another comforting cliché of a quaint New England town. Then it’s back here to the house.

It’s a fine way to start the day and it has more to do with just the mountains ringing the town or the pretty buildings. Here in Jackson people take pride in the way things look. Flower gardens are not ostentatious but they are noticeable. Lawns are lush and well-tended. Park benches are sprinkled throughout the area.

But it’s more than just that. It's the people. Before I moved here many people would raise an eyebrow and say, “You’re moving to Jackson? They’re very snobby there, you know.”

What do I know; after all I’m new to town? But from what I can see people here are pretty friendly. Atticus and I walk along and people greet us as they walk by; and if they are driving by, many of them wave. The only negative interaction I’ve had thus far with a person I might consider a snob is an older woman who was with her husband. She noticed Atticus walking by my side, sans leash or collar, and she spoke without moving her teeth, “Don’t you think he should be on a leash?”

I responded in a kind voice and a wink, saying, “Don’t look at me, you’re the one who married him.”

Other than that I think this is a beautiful place and I’m happy to consider it home. It’s much more pleasant than most, if not all places, I’ve ever been.

It’s close to civilization (North Conway) and the wild (many great hikes). This past Saturday Atticus and I drove to never-easy-to-reach Mount Waumbek up in Jefferson. I was pleasantly surprised to make it there in 30 minutes. We hiked early, then hit North Conway in the afternoon. Yesterday we drove to the start of the Davis Path in lower Crawford Notch and it was only 15 miles away. That's so different from when I lived in Franconia Notch. I got used to everything being far away. I expected the same coming here to the most eastern of the three noted notches but that’s not the case. Everything but Franconia Notch is close enough at hand.

As for the house, we could not wish for anything more. It’s a simple place but Atticus, finally away from other dogs for the first time in eight months, is as happy as ever. He’s more relaxed and enjoys each of the rooms we spend time in. As I write this he’s sleeping behind me on the red futon in my writing room looking like he doesn’t have a care in the world.

Years ago, when I sat in the middle of the maelstrom of Newburyport politics I was edgy, quick to anger and downright ready to defend myself at the drop of the slightest hint of a threat. I had gone to war with an ethically questionable police department and times were tense, to say the least. The Boston Globe wrote a story about how two of my trash bags had miraculously showed up at the police station and two detectives were going through them. The tires of my car were regularly slashed. Threatening notes were stuck under the windshield or mailed to me. And you know what calmed me down and made me feel like I lived in a home and not a foxhole? It was when I got Max, and when Max died and Atticus came along. I watched them sleep the way Atticus is sleeping next to me now. It reminded me what life was like when it was innocent and carefree. Seeing them sleep that way made me want to feel the same way again.

These days I feel that way nearly all the time. On the rare occasion I glimpse at the often arrogant machinations of the utterly predictable cast of characters who fight over who will lead the city of Newburyport, I recall something a high school teacher used to say, “There are no such things as small towns, only small minds.” In a flash I'm happy to be here instead of there.

Looking at Atticus stretched out on the futon, one ear dangling, another ear propped up against the backrest, one leg stretched out, the other tucked beneath him, I thank him (and Max) for teaching me the things I most needed to learn. It’s because of them that I’ve left the Sisyphean angst to others. Instead, I’ll take the mountains.

*(The top photo is from yesterday's hike to the ledges of Mount Resolution. The bottom photo is of Atticus on the living room couch.)

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Windy But Beautiful Day In The Mountains

Today Atticus and I hiked with Ken and Ann Stampfer. Our destination were the ledges of Mount Resolution. It was well worth the 10-mile round trip journey. What a beautiful day, even if the winds made it seem almost wintry at times.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Same Mountain, Different Seasons

The last couple of posts featured Wednesday's hike to Mount Moriah, one of the 4,000-footers. We haven't been there in more than a year with our last visit coming in winter. To see just how different the conditions were then as compared to know click on this link and check out the video.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Photos from Iron Mountain

I received the following on the hiking website Views From The Top: "Iron Mountain itself has a great view, but it really doesn't get better than simply at the end of Green Hill Road. You'll know what I mean when you go there." Boy, was the poster ever correct.

These shots are simply from the parking area and the meadow just across the way at the start of the hike of Iron Mountain. Well, all except the last one is from the beginning. The last one is from one of the ledge just shy of the summit.

Mount Willard

More housekeeping... Last week we drove the 30 minutes to Crawford Notch and climbed to the top of Mount Willard, a smaller mountain standing below Avalon and the rest of the Willey Range. It is only a mile and a half walk each way and the elevation rises gently. Nevertheless it has a summit affording beautiful views down into Crawford Notch. We reached the summit at 8:00 a.m. and the early morning sun played havoc with my camera lens but here are some of the shots.

Monday, May 18, 2009

North & South Doublehead

Ten days after moving into Jackson, we have an Internet connection at the house. Time for a little bit of housekeeping.

Last week, we took advantage of our proximity to North and South Doublehead (it’s only three miles) to take a late afternoon hike up to the twin peaks. North stands at 3,053 feet and South at 2,939 feet. Definitely not the highest peaks in the White Mountains but the trails to get to them are very steep. They are short but leave you gasping for air. And while North doesn’t have much a view, the view from South Doublehead will also leave you gasping for air, but not out of exertion – simply out of the beauty of the views from three different locations. Here are some shots from the hike.

Photos of Stanton & Pickering Hike By Ken Stampfer

Among the numerous pleasures of hiking with Ken and Ann Stampfer is to be the recipient of some of Ken's photos of the day. Because it's typically just Atticus and I alone on the trails, we don't get many shots of the two of us together. Here are just a few shots from our hike on Saturday. If you are looking for more photos by Ken, stop off at the Mountain Wanderer in Lincoln. Or you can just pick up nearly any one of the Steve Smith's books and you will find Ken's photos.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sunday Morning From The Met Coffeehouse

It's Sunday morning and Fairpoint failed to turn on our Internet on Friday so updates will be sporadic until they do. I'm sitting in The Met in North Conway using their WIFI while sipping a Rory-borealis (latte with white chocolate and hazelnut). Just stopping off to drop off a few photos from our hike across Stanton and Pickering yesterday. These are two smaller peaks with big views and they are only five miles from the house. It's been a good week as we've explored the Doubleheads, Mount Willard and now Stanton and Pickering. Hopefully the house Internet will be turned on tomorrow.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Monday Morning in Jackson

Our life in Jackson has just begun, but I feel as th ough this is the place we are indeed meant to be. Atticus, I'm quite sure, is thrilled to be on his own again, away from other dogs for the first time in eight months. Life for him, is back to normal.

I'm still awaiting Internet connection at the house so we're down here at the J-Town Deli. It's a quaint hangout and there is an interesting clan of locals who breakfast here each morning and solve the problems of the world. Having done that in my past life, I now leave that to others and Atticus and I instead sit outside, on the small brick patio near the roses.

We start the day at 6:00 a.m. with a stroll – a loop just under two miles long through the heart of idyllic Jackson. It takes us by one dog barking to be let off his leash, the local golf course, a covered bridge, through another covered bridge, by a country store, several stately inns, the tiniest but most perfect library I’ve ever seen, and, of course, by a great old church. (Why picturesque New England hamlet would be complete without a pretty white church?) All the while we are serenaded by sweet birdsong and surrounded by hills and mountains colored a thousand shades of green. The traffic is sparse, even on Route 16. It’s that way in Jackson even at the busiest time of the day, which, I imagine is around 10:30 when the locals gather at the post office to get their mail. Many of the people who do drive by are more relaxed than city folk and they show it with a welcoming wave or a nod.

I hope to get out on some hikes this week and particularly look forward to climbing Doublehead, here in Jackson to get a grand view of the town and of the surrounding mountains.

That's it for now, as we've got to get back to the house and write.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Einstein: I want to know God's thoughts...the rest are details.

The kitchen doors are flung open to the late-morning fog and soft green trees line the Saco River while it curls through the 100-acre field soon to be planted with corn. Varied birdsongs spill into the kitchen.

Many would think the view dreary; I find it mysterious…and comforting. It is nature – soft and alluring. It gently calls to anyone who stops to listen. It whispers to come closer.

I’m seated on the bench against the wall beside the wooden table. Next to me Atticus has made a nest out of a coat he found on the bench and he’s curled into innocence. He likes to be near me when I’m writing. Perhaps he finds as much comfort in the background noise of my tapping on the keys as I find in his soft snores. Like an old married couple, we’ve grown accustomed to each other’s peculiar noises.

For seven years he’s listened to me do this. For seven years I’ve watched him turn off the troubles of the world and he’s reminded me of the security I once found in innocence. For those seven years he’s been my guide as I find my way back there. He has led me from the tempest in a teapot political strife of Newburyport I used to think mattered, to this life.

From this bench, next to this little dog, that old life is not missed in the least bit. How could it be as I look out on field, trees, river and the lower spread of hill and mountain?

It’s like Einstein once said, “I want to know God’s thoughts…the rest are details.”

The details can be so mundane.

Long ago I started The Undertoad for one main reason: a mayor was taking a beating simply because she was a woman, a newcomer and a lesbian. It just didn’t seem right.

I believed in something and took steps to do something about it. Of course, no journey is so simple. But take on small minds in a city and you become a target yourself. The more I wrote, the more tangled I became in the mundane spools of clinging threads of now-meaningless stuff.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, back then I loved the intrigue. I loved weeding the garden, shining light in the dark places and poisoning the poisoners. Being Irish, I loved a good fight. Being the editor of The ‘Toad, I found myself embroiled in many fights.

I’m sure The Undertoad itself was my own attempt to make an imperfect world a bit better. In some ways I succeeded simply by striving. In other ways I added to the clutter.

On the rare occasion I check in on the political scene in Newburyport through the many local blogs, I cannot believe the life I used to live. Watching as this one or that one goes on and on about the details that won’t matter in the least bit tomorrow – to quote a former girlfriend – it makes my ass ache.

There comes a time to make the world better by fighting for a good cause. Then you realize perhaps the greatest good you can do is by making yourself your cause, but refining what is there. By putting a better person into the world you make the world better in your own way.

A few years ago I realized that after spending enough time listening to small town politicians talk and I grew to appreciate the strong silence of a little dog’s company on a ten-mile hike along a mountain ridge. Watching Atticus summit sit in a prayer of serenity, I learned to do it myself.

I’m glad I put in my time. I learned how to write and tell a story. But I’m also glad I saw the light and moved on. Enough of the details – I wanted God’s thoughts.

So a year and a half after leaving Newburyport, here the two of us sit: me listening to him snore; him listening to me type; both of us listening to birdsongs even Mozart would envy.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Tom & Atticus Move to Jackson, New Hampshire

A baby snake; a small mouse; the gutted remains of a bird – these are the gifts left for me over the past few days here in the house in North Conway. Mineu and Stella, skilled hunters both, take pride in depositing their bounty in the house. Finding creatures, both alive and vivisected, in hiding spots around here makes me wonder just what I haven’t found.

For his part, Atticus does well with the two cats and he and Dawa, the dog we are watching while house sitting, get along just fine. (They get along even better on the trails when we bring Dawa for a hike. That doesn’t always happen, however, as Dawa is 11 years old and gets worn down from time to time.)

Yesterday morning, while hiking Peaked Mountain, it was just Atticus and me and we both appreciated it. That’s the way it will be starting on Thursday night when we move into the house we are renting in Jackson. Once there we will get acquainted to the place, make it into our home, set up a writing place and begin discovering the nooks and crannies of Jackson as we have here in North Conway.

Jackson is only a ten minute ride up Route 16 so it is close enough to all the amenities I’ve grown to appreciate in North Conway after a year in Lincoln and seven months in Tamworth. But at the same time, even though we’ll be living right on Rt. 16, we’ll be off the more beaten path.

The Jackson place is great: three bedrooms, two fireplaces, a combination kitchen and living room space. It is furnished so the only thing we’ll need to bring is my writing and hiking possessions and groceries. The place already has wireless Internet and I’ll take over one of the bedrooms and turn it into my writing room.

As for those of you who just read that and said, “Ooh, a guest bedroom,” think again. I am, as my Newburyport brethren will attest to, a bit of a recluse when in my home. I am social, to an extent, and always at my own terms and love to get to know the people in a community, but I like my privacy. My goal in Jackson will be to write more than I ever have and friends understand that and appreciate it. As for my siblings? I don’t have to worry about them as they are mostly agoraphobic and as distant from each other and me as though we were strangers who once grew up together.

I take some comfort in knowing that Jackson is not convenient to most people I know and it is fitting that the trailhead for the Rocky Branch Trail is only five minutes from the house. Fitting, because it leads to Mount Isolation, one of my favorite 4,000-footers, and I long for the pleasures of being isolated again.

The house sits just ten minutes south of the heart of Pinkham Notch and 25 minutes from Crawford Notch in the opposite direction. With Bear Notch Road open now, access to the Kancamagus Highway is quick and easy, too.

There’s a television at the house but no reception (it’s used for DVD’s). That’s not problem since other than the year I lived in Lincoln I haven’t watched television for about a decade. I won’t be missing much there. So long as I can follow the Red Sox on the Internet and the radio I’ll be fine.

I cannot tell you how much I’m looking forward to settling into a place and having a home again where we can stretch out and feel comfortable. It will be great for Atticus, I’m sure, as he was not ready to live with Geneva (our friend’s Christine dog) for as long as we did in Tamworth, or with the cats and Dawa here for the past month. For him it will be back to business as usual – just the two of us for a while. Having our own place will allow much more focus to the most important things in our lives right now: hiking and writing.

Over the next couple of days I’ll be dropping a few things over at the house and getting ready to move in. I’m just hoping the Mineu and Stella don’t chip in a get me a surprise housewarming gift. I really have no need for baby snakes or rodents – dead or alive.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Tonight's Mount Washington Sunset

With just three nights left here in North Conway until we move into our new home in Jackson, Mount Washington is treating us to some wonderful sunsets. Here's the latest episode of "As the Sun Sinks Blissfully Into the Night".

The Green Hills Preserve

This morning's hike up Peaked Mountain and Saturday night's sunset hike up Black Cap, took place on land controlled by the Nature Conservancy in the Green Hills Preserve. For a pdf of the brochure available at trailheads, click here. The Nature Conservancy website can be accessed here. Our next hike in the area will be to Middle Mountain. By the photo of Atticus on the summit of Peaked Mountain above, it's clear I'm not the only one who considers the Green Hills to be an underrated treasure.

The Enchantment of Peaked Mountain

While a young boy, I was often cuffed up the back of my head on Sunday mornings while kneeling in the unforgiving pews of St. Joseph’s Church. My father, and everyone else at Mass, hung their heads in prayer; but I looked upward.

In a hoarse whisper my father would say, “Hang your head – now!”

When I wouldn’t he’d slap the back of my head. When I still refused to look down he’d do it again. Again I’d refuse and he’d give me a look that said, “Wait until we get out of here, boy.”

At the end of Mass I would explain to him that I didn’t want to hang my head. I told him more than once, “I want to see God; and I want him to see me, too.”

That never seemed to be sufficient explanation so like all good Irish Catholic fathers mine attempted to beat the audacity out of me. Yet still, the next Sunday, I’d look up again, perhaps a bit more sheepishly, but nevertheless, I looked up.

That’s what I was thinking while walking along the Peaked Mountain Trail this morning. Hope, in the form of light green chutes, pierced the barren forest floor; and new leaves hung from long-gray tree branches. The morning sun backlit the greenery and drew my eyes up through the trees towards the light and I was in church again. Or more like church the way it was supposed to be, the way prophets and holy men envisioned it when they found their religion.

I followed Atticus on the sing-song up-and-down trail for the first mile and raised my head into the beaming light of the forest, “I want to see God…”

It is that time of year when the forest yawns and stretches and is ready to get out of bed. Here in the North Country those first breaths come later than in other parts but that makes it all the more memorable when they do come. Always, winter wanes but hangs on for another six weeks and there is that thought, “Will spring ever get here?”

Today, it got here.
Oh, I know there have been warmer days and wild flowers have dotted forest floors, but this is the first day I felt myself wrapped in green and sensed the warm tendrils of summer carried through the breeze. Summer, after all, like all seasons, has a smell, and a hint of it was carried in this morning’s spring breeze.

The easygoing, gently rolling, somewhat uphill trail ended after a mile when we reached the second information kiosk. (This is where the original Peaked Mountain Trail comes in from the old but now-extinct Thompson Road trailhead.) The trail turned right and it turned up, as steep, at least for a bit, as any trail climbing a 4,000-footer. I was thankful for rocks to plant my feet on and the occasional twists and turns to the trail that broke the uphill struggle. While still cool, a summer sweat ran down my back. Even Atticus was feeling the push up the trail and his pink tongue made its first appearance of the season.

The trail eased when we reached the exposed granite slabs and the stands of red and pitch pine and turning around we had views of Mount Washington, Mount Adams, and the entire length of the Southern Presidentials. That was good enough reason to take more breaks to catch my breath and take a drink of water, and feel the joy of solitude.

The trail was marked well with blue blazes and eventually we reached a false summit. From here on…well, from here on the last quarter of a mile to the top of Peaked Mountain is a little steep in places, but it’s also a special place. We walked through emerald and gold plants and twisted pines and over great slabs of stone working our way towards the summit.

G. K. Chesterton, an English writer, once wrote: “The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in fairy books, charm, spell, enchantment. They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery.” Here on this little peak, we found ourselves in such a place.

There are moments in the mountains when I’m alone with Atticus where I feel all the magic of childhood gather within my chest with a sudden breath. I cannot tell you why some places are this way and others are not. There are certainly higher peaks and while the view from Peaked Mountain was fine, there are greater views in the Whites, but still there is something about the summit that weaves enchantment. In two miles we had only climbed 1,100 feet and stood at 1,793 feet but it may as well have been a different world altogether.

Not far below the flat roofs of outlet stores and big box stores and hotels dotted the valley floor, but above them stood the likes of Chocorua, Passaconaway, the three Moats. We may as well have been miles above the hustle and bustle of commerce below for that world did not exist. Instead, we sat alone on the mountaintop with the world at our feet and the magical pulse of nature everywhere around us.

Alone on these peaks with Atticus, I take inventory of my self and catalogue my thoughts. In the struggle to get to the top of even the smallest peak, I find myself renewed. It is my own communion, a return to childhood, a renewal of faith in feeling the magic wisps of nature. And, it is my way of striking out against the mundane in life.

At the end of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s memoir Wind, Sun and Stars he writes about a long journey by train. The train’s first class and the sleeping cars were empty when he took a late night walk the length of the train. Eventually he came to the third-class cars and found them packed with thousands of Polish peasants, asleep, but not peacefully. He walked through this rubble of life and saw the human and the inhumane.

He wrote: “And I thought: The problem does not reside in this poverty, in this filth, in this ugliness. But this same man and this same woman met one day. This man must have smiled at this woman. He may, after his work was done, have brought her flowers. Timid and awkward, perhaps he trembled lest she disdain him. And this woman, out of natural coquetry, this woman sure of her charms, perhaps took pleasure in teasing him. And this man, this man who is now no more than a machine for swinging a pick or a sledge-hammer, must have felt in his heart a delicious anguish. The mystery is that they should have become these lumps of clay. Into what terrible mould were they forced? What was it that marked them like this as if they had been put through a monstrous stamping machine? A deer, a gazelle, any animal grown old, preserves its grace. What is it that corrupts this wonderful clay of which man is kneaded?”

Eventually he came to something that captured his thoughts: "I sat down face to face with one couple. Between the man and the woman a child had hollowed himself out a place and fallen asleep. He turned in his slumber, and in the dim lamplight I saw his face. What an adorable face! A golden fruit had been born of these two peasants. Forth from this sluggish scum had sprung this miracle of delight and grace. I bent over the smooth brow, over those mildly pouting lips, and I said to myself: This is a musician's face. This is the child Mozart. This is a life full of beautiful promise. Little princes in legends are not different from this. Protected, sheltered, cultivated, what could not this child become? When by mutation a new rose is born in a garden, all the gardeners rejoice. They isolate the rose, tend it, foster it. But there is no gardener for men. This little Mozart will be shaped like the rest by the common stamping machine. This little Mozart will love shoddy music in the stench of night dives. This little Mozart is condemned .”

Troubled and sleepless, Saint-Exupery returned to his private compartment on the train and thought about the troubled tangle of men, women and children he’d just seen: “What torments me is not the humps nor hollows nor the ugliness. It is the sight, a little bit in all these men, of Mozart murdered.”

I suppose, my entire life has been a fight not to give in and give up like many have. I’ve been horrified by the idea of being ‘stamped’ or having the Mozart in me murdered.

These climbs to magical mountains – big or small – ensure me that I am still alive and I am renewed time and again.

I’m now 48 years old, I’m still that little boy in church: I want to see God; and I want him to see me, too.

Mount Washington Sunset

On Saturday night we enjoyed sunset from Black Cap. On Sunday I thought we'd have no such views but this was what we saw from the valley floor in North Conway.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Mary Oliver's "The Sun"

Have you ever seen
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone--
and how it slides again
out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance--
and have you ever felt for anything such wild love--
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure
that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
or have you too
turned from this world--
or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?