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, August 06, 2009

Starting the Day on Black Cap

Summer’s waning. It hit me this morning when I got out of bed at 5:15 and beat the sun up by nearly 30 minutes. In the past six weeks we’ve lost daylight. Funny to think of it that way with August just under way, but it is true. Time flies. It always has; it always will.

Soon after I got up, Atticus and I were making our way through the sun-dappled forest. The air was cool, the path gentle, the woods greener than I’ve ever seen them in August. We moved over rock and root and smooth earth, deeper into nature, higher up the small mountain, into my prayers. Heart and lungs started to wake, then legs. The tightness in my low back eased. So did my shoulders. The forest enveloped us. Birds settled on branches and watched us pass, occasionally filling the air with song. The only other sounds were my steps and breath. Sweat ran down my face, rivulets flowed down my spine. In the quietude with a body in motion, I reached that release that comes with the Zen moment that is born when I’m not pushing too hard or in too much of a hurry to get up the mountain. Thoughts mingle with breath, both are inhaled, both expelled. The tide comes in and then goes out again. Freedom.

From time to time people ask me if I miss Newburyport. This question is never asked of me up here, it’s always asked by Newburyporters. In the mountains people understand how special this area is. Folks from Newburyport, however, can’t imagine wanting to live elsewhere but where they live. I couldn’t at one time either. Such was the draw of that little city where the Merrimac flows into the Atlantic. But times change, people do too. Or at least people can change. That’s what happened to me. I loved the intrigue, the tempest in a teapot world of Newburyport politics and couldn’t imagine wanting to ever go anywhere else. I was in the middle of everything that happened. There was even a six year period – the first six years of running The Undertoad – where I only spent two nights out of town. Imagine that. In six years I spent only one weekend away. It was all Newburyport all the time.

The shift started when Atticus and I climbed Mount Garfield with my brothers. I couldn’t believe such places actually existed in the world. I stood on that rocky summit with views over a seemingly endless ocean of mountains and I felt God’s rapture. Over the next two years I returned often. I didn’t realize it at that time, but I began to understand that I no longer belonged in Newburyport. Here in the mountains I found the peace I’d always sought.

Then came that winter when Atticus and I tried to complete two rounds of the 48 in 90 days. It was at times a brutal but magnificent challenge. We ended up four hikes shy of our goal. But it was during that quest when the final shift took place. Atticus and I were walking along the sweeping snowfields between Mount Washington and Mount Monroe. We were alone on that ethereal February day and the wind howled and the clouds rose like ghosts out of the ravines and flew by. Halfway down the cone of Washington Atticus stopped and waited for me. Just as I reached him a curtain of clouds rose and revealed the summits of Monroe, Eisenhower and Pierce under a sky so blue my eyes ached. They were caked in ice and snow and we were wrapped in winter, this little dog and I. By the time we reached Pierce we’d be on our 65th peak of the winter.

Atticus put his front paws on my leg and asked me to pick him up. He settled into the crook of my arm and together we looked out at those mountains below us and before us. There was no sign of civilization, or of life itself, just an astonishing, vast wasteland of white. Alone on that mountainside with Atticus, that’s when it hit me – we’d come too far.

I had literally walked out of Newburyport and my life there and into my new one. I had unintentionally left my life behind and there and then I understood that there would be no going back for us. It was a lonely and horrifying, but at the same time, liberating sensation.

When I returned to Newburyport the two of us were thrown back into small city life and brought back to earth, especially when Atticus went blind and the cancer scare surfaced. I would at first fight the change by trying to stay with the familiar. I even entered the race for mayor. But it was not to be. I would end up dropping out before the election. I was being called home. Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, said it best, “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

I wasn’t the only one who saw it. On her
Newburyport Blog Mary Eaton would later write:

“I remember watching Tom at a Newburyport City Council meeting after that experience was over, and thinking to myself, ‘The mountains have captured him.’ And they had. And there was the ultimate, ‘Shall I stay in Newburyport, or not stay in Newburyport’ question, when Mr. Ryan threw his hat into the ring as a mayoral candidate this fall. It sounded as if when it came to Newburyport, MA, that in the end, ‘all passions were spent.’ And Mr. Ryan left Newburyport, MA on October 1, 2007 for the White Mountains of New Hampshire.”
Mary was right, my Newburyport ‘passions were spent’. But there were other passions that took hold.

In Newburyport I not only wrote about politics, I planted myself in the middle of them. I literally inhaled them. Far too often that translates into writing about how mankind fails and what is wrong with the world. That’s especially true in a place once known as ‘Cannibal City’ because of its politics. On the other hand, the mountains revealed to me what was right with the world. It brought me back in time to a place where I wasn’t so jaded or dubious and I believed in magic and was filled with awe and wonder.

So do I miss Newburyport? Well, let me answer it this way. Yesterday we began the morning with a walk to Diana’s Baths. We were early enough to have it to ourselves and we sat on a rock slab at the top of the majestic falls where I said my prayers while Atticus watched the water flowing, spinning and churning past us. Today we started the day by climbing Black Cap, a short peak with stunning views. One day a waterfall. The next a mountaintop.

Interestingly enough I inherited my love of both politics and the mountains from my father. I thought of him this morning when we reached the top of Black Cap and the rays of the morning sun. He would have loved this life. There was something, however, in Jack Ryan’s life that refused to allow him to reach for his dreams. It was as if he believed they would always be just out of reach for him.

Towards the end of his life he told me about a dream he had the night before. He had died and was approaching the gates of heaven. Inside he could hear Mozart playing. Not just the music of Mozart, but Mozart himself. He could also hear the crack of a bat and the cheer of the crowd. His brother-in-law Bill Shea was already in Heaven and he spoke to my father.

“Jack, the Sox need you to pitch. Hurry up and get inside here!”

Then he saw my mother, his beloved Isabel, and her mother and father and they all told him how much they loved him and how much they’d missed him.

He hurried to the gates with a young boy’s bursting exuberance. When he reached it, the angel standing guard said, “I’m sorry. You are not allowed.”

When my father told me that dream he had tears in his eyes. Without saying it, he’d summed up much of how he saw his life.

So here I sit, not just writing a book, but also chasing after my dreams, after starting the day on a mountaintop with Atticus, and I know – I just know – that Jack Ryan would have loved this journey and this life.

My father, in his younger years, loved poetry. One of his favorites was Tennyson. He’s also one of my favorites. Today would have been Tennyson’s 200th birthday. One of the only poems I ever memorized is his “Break, Break, Break” and I recited it this morning while we stood surrounded by mountaintops. It goes like this:

Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

O, well for the fisherman's boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O, well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.

Here’s to dreams and the willingness to chase after them. Life is, after all, fleeting.

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