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, June 30, 2011

Kindred Spirits

Atticus and I have just returned from Pudding Pond. The day has a carefree, breezy, September feeling to it, with the leaves gently twisting and turning about and an occasional ripple seen on the water. Tomorrow the roads of the Mount Washington Valley will be choked with traffic for the holiday weekend and their mechanical whine and roar and the beeping of horns will be heard in those gentle woods, but today it’s peaceful.

When we walked around a bend near where the beavers have built a dam at the northern end of the pond, we encountered an elderly gentleman enjoying the peace and quiet. I didn’t want to interrupt him as he contemplated the water but when we drew near he turned and asked, “Is that Atticus?”

This gentle man’s name is John and we talked for a good twenty minutes while Atticus sat patiently either watching us or the pond. I’m guessing he is in his early 70s but when he told me of Boomer, a dog he lost two years ago, he could have been a boy. Watching his old eyes turn young, I smiled.

“He lived to be fifteen,” he said. “But he had cancer and he got worn down in the end but we still got out every day. One day I was sitting down on top of a mountain in Stowe and Boomer came and sat down next to me.

“I felt him lean against me and I knew he was telling me it was almost time to say goodbye.”

John paused, and he smiled while remembering his friend.

“It was the most intimate thing I’ve ever felt – to share that moment with him. I’ve never felt anything like it before or since.”

It would have been a sad thought for most, but I liked how this old man framed the memory. He considered it something special. After all those years together, after numerous adventures shared, two friends were getting ready to say goodbye.

Atticus is only nine, but lately I’ve noticed a catch in his rear hip. When he’s spread out on a dog bed or on the floor and stands up he lifts his right hind leg for two or three steps. Used to be I was the only one of us who limped after a hike, but his limp started a few weeks ago after a traverse of the Moats. He was fine during the hike, fine hopping out of the car, and had no trouble climbing the stairs to our apartment. It was only after a few hours of sleeping that he limped.

Four days later we hiked Caribou Mountain in Evans Notch and he was just fine. But that night the limp returned. Over the next week, especially during rainy days, the limp was clearly evident but only on the first three steps. After that it disappeared and he walked with a normal gait.

I made an appointment with Christine O’Connell, our local vet. I hoped it was Lyme disease because that’s something a bit of medicine can straighten out. My bigger fear was arthritis. Atticus finds himself on a mountaintop and I can’t imagine him enjoying life much if he can’t be up on top of one every now and again. Luckily, Christine said it was neither and even complimented his range of motion – especially for a dog his age. The problem is more muscular than anything else. So each morning and night I massage his hip and he lets me stretch it out and take it through range of motion exercises. He still limps when he takes his first few steps after lying down but at least now I feel like we are doing something about it. If it persists we’ll head into Angell Animal Medical Center and enlist the help of a specialist.

I figure no matter what it is; he and I will find a way to work things out, just as we always have. And yet while my bigger fears have been assuaged, I realize he’s not as young as he used to be. There were some hikes when we went over twenty miles where he would limp just the slightest bit the next morning but it never lasted long. But it’s never been like this. I’m smart enough to know that time does not stop and the years wear us down.

I was thinking about that as we climbed the Edmunds Path on Monday. We walked up the gentle grade at the beginning of the trail through the early morning diffused light of a lush green forest with spongy moss and healthy leaves all about. We climbed higher and reached a steeper section of the trail and we stopped to rest often, not for him, but for me. Our stops never last very long. Sometimes it’s just ten seconds, other times thirty. On rare occasions I sit down and when I sit he does too. It was while we were sitting there in that forest that I looked at his bright eyes and that little pink tongue and smiled.

These are indeed special times. These memories we’ve made, and are still making, will last my lifetime. Even something as simple as sitting for a spell in the woods on the side of a mountain casts its spell on me. How special it is to share that silent sacrament with another.

I’ve come to think of Atticus’s aging as a gift, for no longer am I deluded by my youth or his. We are both on an equal playing field these days. Even if he were to live another nine years it would still be too short a time for my liking. It’s like it says in Pooh’s Little Instruction Book: “If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.” Who among us who has known the company of a good dog can’t relate to that?

So these days I am thankful for not only where we’ve been but also for every experience we will encounter between now and the end of our time together.

On Monday, when we climbed above the trees, looked towards the towering Northern Presidentials, and found our way across the tumbled rocks on the trail to the intersection with the Crawford Path, I watched Atticus move as easily as he always has. And I did as I’ve done hundreds of times before, I watched this little dog who is so dwarfed by the great peaks of New Hampshire take his place among them as he sat and took in the view.

During our twisting climb up the switchbacks to the summit, I followed Atticus as I have for five years and when I stopped to rest he could sense I stopped and he did as well and waited for me.

At 4,780 feet Eisenhower is the twelfth highest peak in New England. Its flat top serves as a fine front porch that looks out at Franklin and Monroe, Washington and Clay, Jefferson and Adams. Even being so close from that twelfth highest peak, the others loom like giants in their varied shades of green from emerald to dark and the clouds cast shadows over the ravines and forests, rocky tops above and gentle valleys below. The dimensions are vivid and almost too colorful to comprehend!

There we stood together, Atticus and me, looking out at all of that. Eventually I picked him up and our eyes looked out at those mountains. I heard his familiar sigh and the comforting feel of his body leaning into mine.

So today when I heard old John telling me the story of how old Boomer leaned into him and offered an intimacy he’d never known – even though he’d been married and had children, well, I could relate.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Following Atticus Facebook Giveaway

As you can tell by this photo, Atticus loves his Bio-Cuddler from Muttluks. And when we go on our book tour he'll have on along for the car ride. He also loves the Bio-Mat from Muttluks as well and spends time sleeping on that as well.

Over on our Facebook page we're giving away one of each when we reach 800 'likes'. So come on over and join up. If you are already a member send your friends over to our Facebook page.

Friday, June 03, 2011

A Good Question

During my eleven years running a newspaper in Newburyport I found two things I’d always wanted: a place to call home; and a family. That small, charming city on the North Shore of Massachusetts was the first place I ever knew that felt like home. And the friends I met there became the close family I’d always longed for.

When I was there I watched a few of them move elsewhere or saw a few die of old age. Either way I was left brokenhearted. Then, three and a half years ago Atticus and I were the ones to leave. Now we look back on fondness on those years and our friends who remained behind tell me they miss us. One of those friends is in his late eighties and quite a remarkable man. Until he recently collapsed in his apartment, he’d never spent a night in the hospital his entire life. Unfortunately he’s spent quite a few of them there lately and he now resides in an assisted living facility. Time marches on…even if we wish it wouldn’t.

The other day Atticus and I were sitting with him in his new room and he asked with a worried look on his face, “How are you doing? Do you have enough money? Do you have a good life up in the mountains?”

I put my hand on his and told him not to worry. “Life is good, Ed.”

“Really? You don’t miss the life you used to lead here? It was a very exciting time.”

“No, I don’t miss it. I love the mountains. They feel like home.”

It’s a simple question and one we should ask ourselves from time to time, “Do I have a good life?” And I’ve thought about my friend and his dwindling days and his question a lot over the past week.

The day after we saw him Atticus and I parked at the end of Zealand Road and walked the four and a half miles through Zealand Notch to Thoreau Falls. Spring had come to the northern portion of the White Mountains. The trail was surrounded by new growth on the ground below and on the buds at the end of the tree branches above. Varying shades of green greeted us as we made our way over rocks and roots, across numerous footbridges, and along the tumbled-down boulders that used to be part of Whitehall Mountain. There was a gentle breeze that kept the bugs away and made the walk along the old railroad bed quite pleasant. When we arrived at the top of Thoreau Falls we sat on the rock slabs next to the high-rushing water and I took off my shoes and felt the chill of spring as I dangled them in the current while Atticus drank from the edge while staying dry. We shared our lunch, watched birds come and go, took some photos, and then returned the way we came.

On another day we set out late in the afternoon to climb Mount Tecumseh. Now some in the hiking community poke fun of the shortest of the 4,000-footers, a distinction it shares with Mount Isolation at 4,003 feet high, but they’re being shortsighted. It may not be as tall as Washington but it’s a tough climb and there’s a stretch a little over a mile long where you feel like you’re stuck on a never-ending rocky Stairmaster. Toward the top the trail levels out for a bit before it comes to a junction where you can go right or left. Both paths take you to the summit but for some reason each time Atticus chooses the path to the left – I think because it looks like it goes up while the other one wraps around the mountain. Having reached our destination we sat and ate and drank once again before making our way down the mountain. However, instead of walking back the way we came, we made our way over to the ski slopes of Waterville Valley and walked down the steep-slanting grass through the growing afternoon shadows. The advantage of taking the ski trails down is that it saves your knees and feet from the twists and turns of the rocks on the trail, but you feel it in your quads even more. The other advantage is that on the open slopes there are some wonderful views of the Osceolas and the Tripyramids you don’t get anywhere else.

That night we returned to our home here in Jackson by way of the Kancamagus Highway but it took a little longer than usual because we stopped and watched a Bull Moose eating in a pond.

A few days later we returned to Zealand Road and climbed Mount Hale, another 4,000-footer. In less than a week the green of the forest had gotten richer and looked more like the deep green of summer even where the sun splashed down on top of it and left bits of gold here and there. We started out later in the day and the heat and humidity made the mountain seem steeper and taller than it actually is. But by the time we reached the top we were rewarded with a refreshing, cool breeze that had us forgetting the difficult climb almost immediately.

Last night, while walking along the Wildcat River we saw a funny little branch with fresh greens swimming upstream against the current. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out what it was but we were captured by the attempts of that little branch to go where it was most difficult to go. And sitting there watching it for a while I finally realized that branch was attached to a beaver. After a bit that beaver gave up trying to swim upstream and instead came ashore not ten feet from us and started eating that little branch. He thought nothing of us watching him eat his dinner and we all sat and kept each other company for quite some time.

After leaving him we came to the tiniest of toads and I almost stepped on him. He froze underneath my hiking boot. Just as we had with the beaver we stayed with that little toad for quite some time.

Throughout all of these little adventures where we mingled with nature: sometimes working hard to get to where we were going, other times sitting and just enjoying a waterfall, beaver, toad, or moose, I thought of my elderly friend and his question.

He and I both know his days are numbered and worrying about me gives him something to hold onto. Since he asked me that question I’ve been writing him a long letter and it has included each of the things I’ve just written about. My conclusion is that I indeed lead a grand and fortunate life. Where I once catalogued the comings and goings of a city wrestling with the growing pains of gentrification as it tried to figure out what it wanted to become – and this all this all too often had to do with writing about the shortcomings of people – I now spend my days with a little dog watching the wonders of life unfold on a daily basis. And I keep coming back to something Camille Pissaro wrote, “Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.”

You see, that used to be me. I was one of those people who looked at a tree or a bird or a sunrise and saw nothing. It took a little dog and a lot of mountains to remind of the important things.