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.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Here's To Bold Beginnings

There are two Jacksons in my life. Both are special to me. One is a new friend. It’s Jackson the town. We moved into last May and already it feels like a home I never want to say goodbye to. The other Jackson I’ve known a little longer. It’s Mount Jackson and it sits proudly looking out over Crawford Notch. It seems as though for some mysterious reason Atticus and I are linked to this mountain and it knows us well. It calls to me when I need it most and understands what I most need.

If you listen well, you come to know that all mountains have stories to tell, but what’s different about Mount Jackson is that it seems to know my stories. It extracts them from me even when they are secrets I’d rather not share; even if I wish it wouldn’t. There are some things a man would rather keep to himself. But this mountain does what it will to me and even if I resist it wins out and my heart is opened and my secrets spill out on the rocks and trees.

It’s as if in that initial climb upon entering the forest the trees are taking my temperature as if to say, “What did you bring us today, Tom?” Sometimes I smile and walk briskly up without much breath lost. Other times I struggle. Yesterday I struggled. Nope, I cannot hide myself from this mountain. It can read my mind and whatever is in it plays out in my body.

At my worst on any climb when I feel I cannot go any further I slow my pace and count steps. I tell myself that when I get to 100 I can take a break. But that doesn’t come until later in a hike when I’m tired from the climb. Yesterday, just a couple of minutes after stepping on the trail, I was hurting. I was weighed down by a heavy heart. The steps came slowly and I started counting and I was so weary I barely made 50 steps before I stopped. I began again. Again I was lucky to reach 50. This went on the entire way up the mountain. We had it to ourselves and it’s a good thing because it was clear the mountain wanted my undivided attention to reach deep inside of me and study what was wrong.

You see, I have this friend who is in dire need. He’s at the most important crossroads he’ll ever come to in his life and he’s paralyzed by fear. He’s attempting to leave a tragically troubled life behind and move forward towards a life he’s always dreamed off. I’ve given my friend and his quandary a lot of thought and energy. He can see where he wants to go and everything is laid out perfectly waiting for him to just say yes to his greatest adventure. But try as he will he cannot take those first steps. It’s as if life has been too cruel to him and he believes he’ll never have anything but shattered dreams.

Now I know this man well and I realize the only way he loses is if he doesn’t move forward. And I’ve tried my best to get him to believe that and to move forward but no matter how much I try I cannot help him. And after all this time I believe he is at the end of his rope and there’s nothing I can do.

No wonder I was struggling up the mountain yesterday, taking 50 steps then stopping to catch my breath before struggling to reach another 50 – I was carrying him the entire time. I kept promising myself that if I could go a little farther it would somehow send him a message that he could go a little farther, too. I struggled on the mountain, just as he is struggling in life. I found it hard to breathe, just as he finds it hard to breathe when anxiety wraps itself like a snake around his lungs and fills them with fear.

I know myself well enough to know that no matter how much some climbs test me all the suffering goes away as soon as I reach the summit. After that all becomes clear. There is no more pain or suffering. So as I shuffled up the mountain, following a very patient Atticus, I worried for my friend and dedicated my climb to him.

My friend reminds me so much of my father. And Jackson reminds me of him, too. In the days leading up to his death this same mountain reached inside me and helped me to understand a man who had been a mystery to me for most of his life. We often warred with each other because he believed that daring to dream was the worst thing a man could do since none of his dreams had come true. But I differed with him. And so we often went years without speaking all because one of us lived in a world built on dreams and one refused to give them air to breathe.

It’s no wonder I chose Jackson for our hike yesterday. It wasn’t intentional – at least not on my part. But I cannot speak for this mysterious mountain.

Eventually we reached the top and as soon as Atticus and I stood there looking from the face of one mountain to the next it was as it always is – the trouble in getting there disappeared and all that was left was the reason I dare to take that first step – even though I know it’s going to hurt by the time I get to the top. Once on top everything is so clear.

Yesterday as I sat on that mountaintop with Atticus on my lap as the gray jays nibbled sunflower seeds out of my hand. I remembered what T. S. Eliot wrote:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

The only tragedy is never taking that first step.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Atticus in his New K9 Top Coat Body Suit

Recently the good people at K9 Top Coat were good enough to give Atticus their Arctic Fleece Body Suit. When we first started winter hiking he wore another of their products but that was five years and four pounds ago. The new suit is perfect for him in that it is much more fluid than the older suit.

He wore it today on Mount Jackson, even though he didn't really need it. It wasn't cold and besides, he's built up a resistance to all but the lowest winter temperatures. Still, it was good to get him some practice in it and it kept the snow from clinging to the hair on his legs.

The boots are his purple set of Muttluks.