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, November 18, 2010

Our Thanksgiving Column for the Northcountry News

(Photo by Ken Stampfer.)

Three years ago, when Atticus and I moved north from Newburyport, we lived in a small apartment in Lincoln. One of the first hikes we set out to do was Mount Hale which wasn’t all that far a drive. Hale is one of the four thousand footers but it’s not too steep nor all that challenging, and the distance to the top is just over two miles. It had rained the night before and all throughout the morning, but by early afternoon the sun arrived and it turned into a golden October day so we hit the trail.

We were happily walking under the colorful canopy of trees and making good time until we came to a small stream which is never deep but it cuts a rocky trough across the trail and eventually falls into a little gorge. We had climbed Hale several times before and it is so narrow at that point that Atticus always leaped across the sleepy stream. But after the rain it was making a ruckus and running higher than usual. I easily hopped from one side to the other and I waited for Atticus to do the same. However, for the first time ever on that trail he didn’t hop across it. Instead he stood looking at me from the other side of the water. It was clear he wanted nothing to do with the crossing. So I hopped back across and went to pick him up but instead of arching his back up like a cat as he always has so I could reach under his belly and lift him, he lowered himself into a sphinx position on the rock. He not only refused to cross, he didn’t want me picking him up either. We sat there for a few minutes and when nothing changed we returned to the car and drove back to Lincoln.

The next day we returned. When we came to the same stream Atticus refused to cross once again. He lay down and the message was loud and clear, “I don’t want to go across to the other side.” For the second day in a row we turned back.

We returned on the third day and the water was no longer running high nor was it roaring by us. This time Atticus went ahead of me and in a single bound made the other side and we went on to climb to the top. On the way down the mountain we ran into a friend, an incurable peakbagger. When I told him how we turned back twice in the previous days he couldn’t believe it. “Why didn’t you just pick him up and make him come?” he said.

“Because Atticus has a say in all of this,” I told him. “If he wants to turn back, we turn back.”

People often want to know the secret of our success up here when it comes to the number of mountains we’ve climbed in each of the four seasons. Well, that’s the way it was from the very beginning. Atticus has never been spoiled but he’s always been allowed to have a say on whether or not he felt comfortable with challenges found on a hike. In the past several years he’s only turned back six or seven times on hundreds of hikes and I smile when he does it, simply because I know he takes advantage of his right to make a decision.

To us it’s all about trust. And that was ingrained from the very beginning when he arrived as a five pound puppy just eight weeks old. His breeder told me, “Carry him everywhere you go…and don’t let anyone else hold him for the first month. Y’all will bond that way.” I followed every bit of advice she gave me, including that little morsel, and she was always right. We bonded from the very beginning and that has made all the difference in every aspect of our life together.

Friends in and out of the hiking community often marvel about Atticus’ almost human demeanor, his sense of security and his comfort, and they ask me how I got him to be that way. I joke that the key is to have a dog that is smarter than me, but then I tell them about how I was told to carry him around that first month. But there was another component to the way I raised him from the very beginning and I don’t go into it because its roots are complicated. The truth is I’ve always treated Atticus the way I wish I’d been treated when I was growing up. I don’t typically tell him to do anything. I often ask him and always say “please” and “thank you.”

You can laugh if you want, but it’s gone a long way in allowing him to be the dog he wants to be. It even led Maureen Carroll, one of Atticus’ doctors at Angell Animal Medical Center, to say to the people on Animal Planet that Atticus is a little different than other dogs, “He speaks English with his actions.”

I’m often asked by other hikers, “What’s the key to developing a relationship with a dog in the mountains when hiking?” It’s simple. Don’t treat him like a dog. Treat him like a friend. My old Catholic upbringing reminds me this is simply the Golden Rule: treat others as you wish to be treated.

Interestingly enough, years after I got Atticus, I approached his breeder about her advice to carry him wherever I went and not let anyone else hold him. “That worked so well,” I told her. “Where does it come from?”

She smiled, paused as if wondering whether she really wanted to tell me, and then said in a soft, almost vulnerable voice. “That’s the way I always wanted to be loved.”

In this complicated day and age when the world seems crazier with each passing month and the American Family has gone through change after dysfunctional change, we’ve come to understand that families come in all shapes and sizes. And sometimes the family you end up with is not exactly what you pictured when you were growing up and watching all those Hallmark commercials.

Atti’s breeder put it best a couple of years ago, “Love is love. God tells us we are supposed to have love in our life. He doesn’t say it just has to be between a man and a woman. Seems to me Atticus gave you the family you always wanted.”

And she was right. I often think about that when he and I are standing atop a mountain and looking off into the distance together. It’s a place where two individuals from different species cross over and have found our own little world. It’s kind of like Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, “Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking together in the same direction.”

On Thanksgiving Day this little dog and I will pack up some turkey, stuffing, vegetables, apple cider, and water, and head to a mountaintop. We will share the view, our meal, and our good fortune in finding what nearly everyone is looking for.

Here’s hoping all of you spend Thanksgiving in the way you wish and with those you love.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Some November Shots (Today's)

Some October Shots

It's now mid November and the leaves are gone, but these shots are from a morning walk through the Pudding Pond area. Going through my files today I found them and decided to put them up.

Where Are You Guys Going?

During our afternoon walk up Black Cap today, we ran into two wonderful dogs, Spike (L) and Jessie (R). When we tried to get them to pose for a picture today Spike and Jessie had a difficult time sitting still for a shot, which made Atticus give them this look. Even if they didn't get the concept, they were very cute and good company.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lost Dog Was Found! Read Comments Section Below Post

I just received this email. Tomorrow Atticus and I will head out there looking for Gary. But hopefully he'll be found by then.

Hi Tom-
I’ve followed your blog for a while and I know you post on views from the top and like dogs. I wanted to post something on views from the top but I’m not a member. My husband lost our dog in Conway today at noon. At the green Hills preserve TNC property in Conway. He is 30 pounds and friendly, looks like a border collie with keeshond coloring. His name is Gary. My phone number is 908-887-3809 or 603-724-5264. He is about 2 feet tall at the shoulder. He has an orange ‘don’t shoot me jacket’ on today. He was last seen near the top of the peaked mountain at the green hills preserve off of Thompson road in Conway. I’m 3 hours away from there and have no idea what to do other than to get the word out to anyway who might be willing to help.

Lisa Bowman

Friday, November 05, 2010

Chocorua in the Clouds

Now that we aren't constrained by any of the various hiking lists (all 48 4,000-footers; all 48 in one winter; all 48 during each of the twelve months; 52 peaks with a view), I let the day dictate where we will hike. If it is sunny and beautiful and there are views to be had, we head to a peak where we can take advantage of the day and look out at a sea of choppy mountains fading to blue as they ride off into the horizon. On a cloudy day we hike places like Waumbek, Hale, or Cabot, where there are views - but they're not all that great.

But the other day we switched things up. It was cloudy and there was a threat of rain in the air and the woods were haunted by a mist that crept through the trees like restless specters. The woods can be extra magical on such days because you stop using your eyes and your other senses take over. You hear, smell, and feel every bit of mystery and the woods can seem truly enchanted.

However, on that day, a voice within me urged me to go up a mountain, high enough that we were above the trees and standing on solid rock, wrapped in the clouds. On such days, on a foggy mountaintop, you can feel as though you are standing on the edge of the world and all else disappears. It's an illusion, of course. The world is still there and mountains are nearby and down in the valleys people go about their business as they always do. However, in a cloud on a rocky summit you can easily forget that and everything becomes surreal.

So it was that Atticus and I drove over to eastern end of the Kancamagus Highway and climbed up Mount Chocorua by way of the Champney Falls Trail. The trail is named for Benjamin Champney who is considered to be the founder of the North Conway Colony of artists who came to the White Mountains during the 1800s. Champney was one of the most prolific painters and he welcomed others to the area. His paintings, along with those of other White Mountain Artists were some of the greatest landscape paintings in the world at the time and they would influence generations of people. Artists like Champney, and writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Thomas Starr King, and poets such as John Greenleaf Whittier and Lucy Larcom brought visitors to the mountains and for those who would never see them, they brought the mountains to them. Their works of art was part of the reason that the forests were ultimately wrested from the hands of the timber barons and given back to the people in the form of the White Mountain National Forest by way of the Weeks Act. But that’s a story for another time.

At first the woods had that mysterious feeling I just mentioned. Fog wreathed in and out of the trees. The trunks of trees were moist and the bark very dark while the evergreens looked lush. We walked along a stream that was rushing by and we stopped for a bit to listen to its song. Then we started to climb in earnest. That's the great thing about the Champney Falls Trail. You're going up and you can feel your body working but it's never to the point where you feel you are exhausting yourself. Along the way we stopped to check out the falls. We sat and listened to the water pounding on the rocks and watched the spray fill the air around the water. Then it was back up again and we kept going, climbing along some switchbacks until we came to the edge of the trees. Having been to that specific point before, I remembered the fine view of the summit you get on a clear day. But standing there in the clouds, seeing nothing but still knowing the rocky edifice was near, was almost thrilling. And that feeling of mystery we'd encountered in the woods surfaced once again. We dipped back into the cover of the trees before at surfacing above the evergreens for the last time.

The rocks were slick with moisture and we took our time maneuvering over them. Step by step we climbed through the clouds and Atticus led as he always has. That we had no view didn't matter in the least to him. If anything it gave him a reason to keep moving because there was nothing to stop to look at. Upward we climbed, higher and higher until we came to the last pitch up to the great cone that has been captured by hundreds of artists and in thousands upon thousands of photographs. When we finally reached the top Atticus took a look around and then sat at the highest point. There was nothing to see but it was clear he wanted to enjoy the summit.

He drank some water, then I drank. We then shared our lunch. Moisture was everywhere. It wasn't raining but everything was wet and I was happy I'd tucked my camera inside a plastic bag in my backpack. There would be no need to take it out. And yet sitting upon one of the most glorious peaks in the state, a place where the views are simply breathtaking, we still enjoyed our summit experience.

First off, the typical Chocorua crowd was not there. The mountain was all ours. And while the views were obscured, the feelings weren't. In the end, that's the reason we climb. It's not for the views or the number of peaks we can reach or check off a list. It's about the feeling we get up there. It is special one – the closest I’ve ever known to sublime. The mountaintops are where earth and heaven meet, where deities were once believed to dwell, where legends were created.

We stayed on top longer than usual, even though there was nothing to see and as we slowly made our way down the great mountain and returned to our waiting car, I felt renewed and ready to go back to the world where we often forget the sublime, where business and politics rule, where our greatest hopes are often lost. But that’s the reason we climb mountains, to bring that feeling home with us. Even on cloudy days. I suppose it’s a lot like faith in that way. You believe in how special the world is even if at times it doesn’t always feel that way.

(The photo is from a hike a few years back. It was taken on Mount Truman. Atticus hasn't had a color on since we moved to the mountains three years ago. Oh my....has it really been that long?)