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, 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.


Cindy K said...

Hey Tom,
Thanks for the poke even though it made me cry. I didn't know how much I needed to read just what you wrote to gain some perspective and get out of my own head-space. The mean-spirited stuff being doled my way is nothing compared to the loss of a good person or forgetting to focus on the wonder(fulness) in our own world. Nature, be our teacher.
Best always,
Cindy (Hampton)

1HappyHiker said...

Ah Tom, you have such a talent for so eloquently stating many of the same thoughts I've had!

Like you, for way too many years I was a city-dweller. But now that the mountains, forest, lakes and brooks have become my landscape, my world is much more satisfying and "real"! To quote Albert Einstein: "Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better."


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, I can't wrote 'took off your feet' - pretty cool trick :)

Love your blog!


Thomas F. Ryan said...

Chris...thanks for pointing that out. Sure would have been difficult to get back to the car had I actually done that!

Cindy, thanks for your response. Hang tough. Life comes and goes. I have faith in you.

John, you and I have so much in common when it comes to our thoughts and feelings up here. I consider myself lucky to keep such good company.

Janice Badger Nelson said...

Lovely post.

I live vicariously through your adventures until we can escape boring suburbia and my husband's long commute to Boston each day.

We love our home in the mountains, we just cannot get there often enough. You are so lucky to have found your true home there.

Here is one of my favorite quotes about the mountains and nature in general; it is all so healing.

"Look at the trees, look at the birds, look at the clouds, look at the stars... and if you have eyes you will be able to see that the whole existence is joyful. Everything is simply happy. Trees are happy for no reason; they are not going to become prime ministers or presidents and they are not going to become rich and they will never have any bank balance. Look at the flowers - for no reason. It is simply unbelievable how happy flowers are." ~Osho