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.

Monday, August 30, 2010

A Few More Ken Stampfer Shots

That's Ann Stampfer drinking in the view from the top of Thoreau Falls with Atticus in the middle shot. If you're a hiker chances are you've seen Ann plenty of times on the trails - they've been just about everywhere in these mountains through the years - and you've probably also seen her in the pages of various Steve Smith books since Steve uses many of Ken's shots.

It's rare that Atticus and I hike with anyone else but we make an exception when it comes to Ken and Ann. They have always been supportive of our fundraising efforts and have been there for us in pretty much everything we've done since we met that first year Atticus and I started hiking. As a matter of fact it was Ann who believed I had a book in me before just about anyone else did. . . including me. Most importantly they also love Atticus and are his fairy god parents.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Ken Stampfer's Photos from Our Thoreau Falls Hike

Yesterday Atticus and I were joined by Ken and Ann Stampfer for the hike to Thoreau Falls. Ken, as always, had his camera in hand and took many great shots. These are just a few of them.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Hike To Thoreau Falls (Dedicated to My Drainage Tube)

Why a dedication to the drainage tube sticking out of my side? Well, like George Harrison is about to tell you in his song, I've got some mixed feelings. The tube is painful and awkward and I really do want it gone. And yet having it there reminds me that I beat the odds and I'm alive, partly because of the poison it took out of my body when things weren't looking so good.

It has become such a big part of our lives. It dictates what we can and can't do. Some things (like yawning late at night, breathing heavily during a hike or sleeping on my stomach) are extremely painful. However, because of the drainage tube I was able to hike for the second time this week and that is something that made both Atticus and I extremely happy. How elated is Atticus these days? Well, I'll let the pictures show you! And just the fact that he allowed me to photograph him this soon after he suffered the world's worst haircut should tell you a thing or two as well. He's just pleased as punch that we are always together once again.

Today's hike was 10 miles on an out and back route to Thoreau Falls. It was a lovely day to be in the woods and the trails were mostly flat. This made for easy going which isn't a bad thing for our second hike of the week.

The slide show
can be seen by clicking here. And not to worry, there are no photos of the drainage tube in the slide show.)

Friday, August 27, 2010

Our Hedgehog Hike

When it comes to the start of a hike Atticus and I are very different. I sit in the car at the trailhead, taking inventory in my head to see if I remembered everything and I consider the challenges awaiting us once we enter the woods.

I'm not sure how he knows it, but shortly before we arrive wherever we are heading to, Atticus ceases to sit and stands at the side window, looking off into the distance like the captain of a ship in days gone by seeking out land after so many weeks at sea. But as soon as we pull in he has happy feet and is anxious to get going. Watching his unbridled enthusiasm I always think of something Hafiz, the Persian poet, wrote: "The earth braces itself for the feet of a lover of God about to dance." For that's what he looks like: filled with joy and expectancy; a child on Christmas Eve. And yet as soon as we enter the woods our roles switch again. He's no longer the child; I am. He moves by rock and root, stream and tree with a calmness of one who is at home. I lose my mature self in the magic of the forest where birds I cannot see serenade us and the breeze shakes the leaves. No matter how often I enter the woods I am forever a visitor, awakening to the strangest of dreams for the very first time.

I've missed our hikes lately and watching Atticus on Tuesday I realized I am not the only one. He entered the woods, stopped and inhaled. I heard him sigh like he often does on a mountaintop. And I stood and watch him looking about that verdant land as if waiting to be recognized.

A lot of people ask me if Atticus acts differently since my surgery.

"Only on the trail," I tell them. "He stays closer to me than he used to."

Oh, it's not like he acted like some dogs who romp and roll through the forest and do the trail three our four times with all their galloping back and forth. He usually stays a constant 20 yards or so in front of me. But since the surgery he's now much closer. He knows it hurts for me to breathe deeply and he stops and looks back on me often with a concerned look on his face. He also seems to understand that I have to stop more often than I used to but this doesn't seem to bother him. He's home again, happy to be where he is, happy to be leading me towards the mountaintop.

On Tuesday we hiked Hedgehog. It's a favorite and we do it every year, sometimes twice. I chose it because it was step up from Black Cap in both elevation gain and distance, but not too much of a step up. As much as I'd like to be doing something longer and higher this drainage tube in myside reminds me not to get too ambitious. As it turned out, Hedgehog was ambitious enough. We went around the loop counter clockwise and stopped for a much needed break on the summit. We drank, shared almonds and a roast beef sandwich. We took in the views of the Tripyramids, Sleepers and Passaconaway (which looms above Hedgehog and looks more massive than it does from any other place I've seen it). There was a breeze and there were beautiful white clouds riding across the blue sky. In a few minutes I forgot all the pain I went through getting to the top.

From the summit we moved down to the next challenging part, a partly steep decent into the forest and there were places where I had to leap or run down a few strides. With each of these Atticus stayed behind and watched me with an appraising eye. Then when it was clear I was okay he'd join me. For the numerous times we've done the Hedgehog loop I never thought of that section as particularly challenging but everything's different these days. We're starting from scratch, learning to walk again by putting one foot in front of the other.

I decided to go counter clockwise because I knew fatigue would grow and I saved my favorite part of the hike for the second half. The East Ledges of Hedgehog are one of my favorite places in the Whites. There is a naturally formed stone couch that sits on a wide and deep flat porch of mountain rock. It drops off suddenly into rolling sea of lush green forest and that flows along until it starts to climb again, leading towards mountains named after some of the greatest Indian chiefs this land has known: Chocorua; Wonalancet; Passaconaway. We sat on the couch, drank some water and took in the view. We visited for a while and were pleased to have it to ourselves.

That's the great thing about a mountain. No matter how hard you have to work to get to the beautiful places, all difficulty is forgotten and all that remains is the grandeur. It doesn't matter whether the mountains is 6,000 feet or 2,500 feet. It's always the same.

Legend has it that when Passaconaway, the father of Wonalancet and the grandfather of Kancamagus, died in 1666, a sleigh pulled by wolves rose up flew through the sky, delivering him to Agiogochook, which is now known as Mount Washington. I took a long look at the mountain named after him, closed my eyes and imagined that sleigh flying overhead on its way towards Passaconaway's heaven. I then though about Passaconaway. I'm sure he would be relieved knowing that most of the mountains he loved were spared and protected from development, just as he would have wanted.

After spending time on the East Ledges and bidding adieu to Passaconaway we entered the forest again and worked our way back towards the car. It was slow down the trail but since we had nowhere to go it didn't matter. We simply had to make it down the mountain and back to our car.

That night as Atticus and I sat on the couch together a cool autumn wind teased us through the open window and I thought about how content we were. Six weeks prior doctors wondered if I was going to live. Now, we're back to climbing mountains again. Now we are back home again.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Slide Show of this Morning's Hike Up Hedgehog.

Today marks the six week anniersary of my surgery. The drainage tube is still in my side (and it still hurts). It makes it difficult to move quickly, bend over, reach for things, and most importantly...breathe. At night when I yawn the pain goes through my torso. And yet as slow as we moved today it was so worth going to the mountaintop. We both needed it. And although the five mile loop went slower than ever for us, we finished safely and we're now home relaxing and remembering a fine day on Hedgehog.

The slide show can be seen by clicking here.

On Hedgehog This Morning

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Atti-Cycle

As we gear up for a hike tomorrow with posts to follow, here's a shot just sent to us by Susan Dunker-Bendigo, the head librarian here in Jackson. It's from earlier in the summer when we had the Atti-cycle out to run errands. Susan got a kick out of it and took a picture.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Slide Show from Black Cap Hike Today

It was a little warm and a bit hazy but boy did it feel good to get back out on a mountain again. My body didn't always agree since I'm still recovering from surgery but this was simply soul work and I really needed that. Here's the slide show.

Four Weeks After the Day of Surgery

I think my doctors are more than a little surprised how much Atticus and I have been walking so soon after surgery. (After all, they weren't so sure I'd be leaving the hospital when I was at my worst.) Yes, as I reported last night, the tube and the surgical site still hurts and I have to be careful when I move. However, we're out and we're active. And if Dr. Battle and Dr. Tilney were surprised by how much we were walking before, I've got another surprise for them on Thursday when we meet to decide if I need more surgery or not. This morning we climbed Black Cap.

Now Black Cap is not the area's biggest mountain nor is it difficult to reach. But it is a good little workout even when I'm in shape. We've been up top several times before but today was a little different. I couldn't wear my hiking shoes. That would mean I'd have to bend over to tie them and that hurts a bit too much. I also didn't fasten the straps on my pack. That hurt too much as well. We went a lot slower than I've ever gone but I'm told by a friend we brought with us that she couldn't have gone much faster herself. And that's something else that was different: we hiked with another. As you know, Atti and I usually fly solo, but today I was a bit insecure and if I got into trouble I wanted someone there.

Happily there was no trouble. My side ached and this tube is causing it to throb as I sit here hours after finishing. But all-in-all it was a success.

For the past four weeks I've been living under other people's some extent. Today I took back some control and it felt good. There are times you just need to get out of your head and out on top of a mountain.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Four Weeks Ago Tonight

Four weeks ago tonight Atticus and I were given a ride to Memorial Hospital in an ambulance. Although I didn’t know it at the time things weren’t looking all that good for me. Oh, I knew I was sick and couldn’t make the trip myself – that’s why I called 911. I just didn’t have any idea how much danger I was in.

When the EMTs took my temperature I was 104.9. My blood pressure was extremely low. And I was in something called septic shock. I didn’t know much about it at the time but I’ve learned a great deal since then. This was all because of a gangrenous gallbladder that I weathered thinking it was a stomach virus. I was sick for more than a week, then hiked four out of six days, then was sick again for five days. On that fifth night I knew I couldn’t take any more.

As doctors have noted, it’s a good thing I called then. Had I not, I might not have been able to call and my corpse would have eventually been discovered.

And things were so bad within me, the poison of the sepsis was already in my blood when they cut me open the following day and I wouldn’t know it until after I was out of the hospital that my doctors were very concerned about me even after the surgery for six or so more days.

My doctors, Stuart Battle and Bob Tilney, have told me more than once how tough I am, how others might not have survived. They talk about my pain threshold and my fortitude.

I know differently. The day Bob signed me out of the hospital I had him show me how to change my own dressing so I could save money by not paying a visiting nurse. Well, that first night I stood in front of the mirror in the bathroom, Atticus looking up at me with more than a little concern on his face. Slowly I peeled back the large dressing that covered most of the scar, some wicking material sticking out of a hole, and a drainage tube coming out of another hole. The tube was long and ran down to a large bag and I was supposed to drain the bile from it each day.

I did okay at first and it took me ever to unwrap the bandages since I was being extremely cautious. When I first came eye to eye with the scar, the holes and the drainage tube I was okay. I didn’t feel nauseous in the least bit. But after about five minutes of standing in front of the mirror I started to feel faint and I had to go lie down.

I change my dressing every day and each day and while the wicking material is gone a small hole remains, I still see the long scar and the tube, while no longer emptying into a bag, remains. It’s always strange sight to see it there, sticking out of me like a tail. And every day when I look at it I get weak in my knees.

See what I mean? Not so tough after all.

To further prove my point: When Bob Tilney took the wicking material out and told me I could take a shower for the first time in two weeks I didn’t run right home and shower like you might think I would. I was afraid to. It took two more days before I could build up the courage to stand in the shower.

I’ll never get used to the tube and it hurts as much now as it did in the beginning. I suppose some of the pain also comes from the deep tissue that was cut open in the neighboring area. It takes a while to heal. But I associate the pain with the tube.

I’ve come a long way since my first day back in the house. I looked around the house and wasn’t sure how I was going to get around. And yet life is so different than it used to be. I think about every move I make now and calculate how much it will hurt.

Do I really want to get up for that drink of water? Am I really hungry? Can I put off going to the bathroom? How far can I roll over in bed before the pain kicks in?

The good news is that I’ve become pretty self-sufficient and Atticus and I get out for three walks a day: two of 1.6 miles each and a shorter one. This took some time to build up to and I can feel myself getting stronger. It takes a while to loosen up and my right hip is kind of sore because I favor that side without even knowing it.

Whenever I go to the hospital for a checkup (about once a week) either Bob or Stuart remark how strong I look and how it doesn’t look as if I’d had surgery. But I know better. I never feel as strong as they tell me I am but they make a point out of how far I’ve come, how I’m still alive, and how I’m progressing rapidly.

Last Friday Atticus and I were back at the hospital. He’s become a favorite there. Some have heard about the book and some just know about Atticus himself. While we were waiting for my appointment in radiology we sat in the lobby and seven or eight staff members came by and took his photo with their cell phones. He sits and looks at them as he’s always sat and looked at people who remark how different or cute or smart he is – like it’s no big deal. And they take his photo and go on their way.

Of course the nurses up in ICU and in the regular section fell in love with him. He was my constant companion when I was in there. My friends retrieved him every night, much to his chagrin, but he spent each day with me. We spent a lot of time walking laps together. These were our first steps towards taking a hike. They were, of course, baby steps. And unlike a hike, where he always leads me, in the hospital, while I struggled along slowly while trying to catch my breath, he walked right by my side as if he was going to catch me if I fell. He really is something else.

When we were in radiology a doctor shot dye in my drainage tube and it ran right up to the area where the gallbladder used to reside (they took out two thirds, leaving the remaining third because they didn’t want to endanger me – that’s how messy it was when they were in there) and the common bile duct. This was done so they can decide if I’ll need another surgery. I’ll meet with my doctors this coming Thursday and they’ll tell me how they think we should proceed.

There will be a drum roll in my head when they enter the room and tell me the verdict. Of course I’m hoping the surgery is all done and I can get back to living a somewhat normal life.

That’s what I was thinking about tonight as Atticus and I walked the 1.6 mile loop a lot slower than we used to. I thought about how nice it will be to let these holes in my body heal up and to eventually get rid of this hideous tube. I was thinking that as my right hip limped along a bit and I tried to move slowly enough so that the surgical site didn’t hurt. But more than anything, as I took category of all that took place and how close I came to losing my life I thought about what a gift such a night as this one is. Sure the walk went slower and I moved along with some pain but I’m alive – alive and able to enjoy a walk with Atticus.

Looking at him sleeping on the couch now as if he didn’t have a care in the world I'm reminded that it's the simplest things that matter most - no matter the cost of admission. Life is good.

The way I see things these days is not unlike how Robert Frost saw things in his four line poem "A Question":

"A voice said, Look me in the stars
And tell me truly, men of earth,
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth."

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

A Happy Couple Drops in on Us

While in recovery mode things have been pretty quiet around here lately. So it was big news when two playful hummingbirds started coming around. I took these photos this afternoon and have yet to find a way to set my camera fast enough to catch those amazing wings. As you can see, I'm not the only one captivated by the fast-flying couple.