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, April 18, 2013

Being Boston Strong, My History With The Boston Marathon

This weekend I turn 52-years old.  As a gift to myself I'm
returning to running for the first time in 22 years.
I'm at the tail end of a bad cold and the last thing I wanted to do was climb a mountain.  The first thing, and what I've mostly been doing, is rolling over and going back to sleep. 

Then Monday came.  Not just any Monday but Boston Marathon Monday.

It used to be my favorite day of the year.  As a kid we had it off from school and were charged with excitement because of the early morning reenactment in Lexington and Concord, the morning start of the Red Sox game, and, of course, the marathon itself.  Growing up in the suburbs of Boston only a couple of towns away from Hopkinton and having an older brother who was a great runner who ran in the race when only a teenager and being nurtured on the legends of Johnny Kelly, Tarzan Brown, Clarence DeMar, Johnny Kelly the Younger, Jock Semple, and Katherine Switzer, I couldn't help but be seduced by the drama of the day.  To me these people weren't mere mortals - they were gods capable of superhuman abilities. 

On one of those Patriots Days when I was young I was one of four friends relaxing in the shade on a neighbor's front porch listening to the race and we all made a pledge to run the marathon by the time we were twenty-five.  But those were the days before my legs went bad.  In junior high and high school I spent the better part of two and a half years on crutches.  Four full legs casts immobilized my left knee, one did the same to my right.  There were also two surgeries on the left knee to combat the problems in my legs and when the surgeries were completed the doctor was pleased. 

"You'll be fine.  You'll be able to walk without trouble but don't plan on being any kind of an athlete," he said.

I believed him.  For a while.  But as my teens turned to my early twenties I remembered that front porch pledge we four friends made and I tried running.  It wasn't easy.  As a matter of fact, back then it was always painful.  But I knew pain from those earlier years and I knew I could deal with it so I ran on.  Not far, just enough to say I was running.  Maybe four miles.  I never entered any races but always thought about one.  The one. 

Patriot's Day is the third Monday of every April.  The date floats.  As fate would have it my twenty-fifth birthday fell on the day of the marathon.  With a few months to go I upped my mileage.  Still not very far but I was still running.  Ten days before the race I ran the farthest I'd ever run - 11 miles.  Somehow after that I knew I could do it.  When the day came I lined up with the rest of the "bandits" (unofficial runners) in mass behind the numbered runners who had qualified.  Before even reaching Heartbreak Hill I wanted to stop.  I'd run fifteen miles and I'd had enough.  My head dropped, I put my hands on my hips, and admitted defeat.  Around then I felt a tug on my arm and a fellow said, "Come on, if I can do it, so can you."  I wanted to reach out and slap the man with the voice and tell him about my legs and their troubled past.  When I looked up he was standing next to me looking quite lean and fit and . . . with only one leg.  The other was a prosthetic.  His name was Pat Griskus and on that day he pulled me along with him and we ran several miles together.  Eventually I finished in just under four hours while Pat set a record that day for a runner with a prosthetic. 

I would run Boston for the next four years and graduate to Ironman Triathlons...three of them.  The first was on the Cape, the next two in Sunapee.  All the while I looked as out of place as I have on the mountains.  I was never chiseled and lean.  I had strong legs, a strong heart and lungs, but a double chin.  Those experiences in my late twenties would later fuel my belief in my endurance in these great mountains we hike in.  And once you run Boston it is always in you.  It's part of who you are and will always be.  It made me believe in myself. 

So on Wednesday, with the unthinkable actions of the previous Monday in my head and sunken heart, with the thought of three dead - one an eight year old boy, and legs amputated and other limbs lost, not to mention hopes and innocence lost, I decided that my cold would have to take a back seat while we sought our reality.  We didn't hike too high or too far.  Instead we worked slowly up a steep section that wears me out at my best and I stopped often, coughing and sneezing.  I ached a bit, wore my fatigue like a heavy coat, and took a seat more than I'd like to admit on the way up.  But there on that slow climb I sat sweating, catching my breath, watching spring fight through the last remnants of snow and ice, and heard the birds sing - and I could feel the mountain come to life and me with it.  
We climbed to some of our favorite ledges, I lay on my back looking up at the sky and when I was rested I sat up and took a seat next to Atticus who was looking out at distant mountains and down at a nearby lake.  I thought of the life we led back in Newburyport, a forty-minute ride from Boston...a life filled with chaos and the corruption I covered in my newspaper and what now in comparison looks to be a dizzying pace of life and I was thankful for these mountains of my childhood we rediscovered together.  Sitting up there surrounded by nature I said my prayers and everywhere I looked I saw God.

John Muir has a great quote that goes like this: “The gross heathenism of civilization has generally destroyed nature, and poetry, and all that is spiritual.”  I thought about those words and how crazy the world can be and how it seems as though it's getting crazier all the time.  I thought about those who would terrorize us, those who would destroy not just nature, but the nature within us and a totally different thought came to my mind.  When I remember that horrible day I will not remember one person's horrific deed, but the reactions of so many more.  I'll remember that some runners, having run twenty-six miles, decided there was something more important than rest and ran an additional two miles to Mass General Hospital to donate blood.  I'll remember the doctor who ran the marathon and then went to work and operated on some of the victims.  I'll remember the incredible humanity of the first responders who ran toward where the bombs were exploding to help others.  When I think of these things I understood that terrorists will never win - if we don't let them.  Humanity is too strong for that. 

And this is why I climb mountains.  It's for the perspective.  It's for the way it sets my mind straight and helps me see what's most important.  Most importantly nature and the mountains resets my soul.

Life is not about what some would take away; it's about what we put back into it.  it's about possibilities.  Whenever I get tired climbing a mountain I think about my first Boston Marathon and how an amputee stopped to help a full-bodied young man who was ready to give up.  That spirit has stayed with me and always tells me that anything is possible.  It's what makes me and so many others Boston Strong.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Another Great Adventure for Will

Will has decided to stick around for a while...and become a television star.
As of late we’ve been enjoying the bridge between winter and spring by taking several adventurous hikes.  There were trips up Cabot, Moosilauke, three of the southern Presidential peaks, the Moat Range, and even the simple but scenic Boulder Loop Trail.  However, as I as sit here writing this I’m thinking instead of a hike that’s yet to come.

A year ago, in a state without any mountains, an elderly dog – deaf, mostly blind, and arthritic – was dropped off at a kill shelter by the only family he’d ever known.  (They had reportedly grown too old to take care of themselves, never mind the old dog.)  Imagine what that had to feel like for him: to be fifteen with hindered senses and left in a strange, cold, and unfamiliar place far away from home.  Imagine the shock to his system, the fear, the sense of betrayal.  Even worse, imagine the utter hopelessness.  Understandably the little dog was angry and flashed out with his teeth whenever he could.  Sometimes he did it, I’m sure, not out of anger, but because he was in so much physical pain.    

To add insult to injury he was hungry, had been crated for so long he paced in circles and didn’t understand freedom, thought little of stepping in his own feces and often his hips were so weak he’d fall in his urine and didn’t have the strength to get up.  He just lay there suffering in his own waste.

Who would want such a dog?

His prospects for another chance were grim.  When all was darkest, all hope had to seem lost, someone at the shelter with a big heart reached out to the New Jersey Schnauzer Rescue and let them know of this old dog and impending death sentence.  The good people at NJSR swooped in and saved “William”.  But saved him for what, you might ask.  Sure, he would no longer be put to sleep, but what kind of life would he have and who would want to adopt him? 

That’s about the time we were asked to help find him a home.  And we did – ours.  We understood it was only a temporary arrangement.  We were simply giving him a place for the last month or two of his life (if he made it that long), and were affording him the opportunity to die with dignity. 

Before we met him and I realized how bad off he was, I had hopes of getting him up a smaller mountain in hopes that he would get something out of it.  Then I met the poor little wretch and knew that wasn’t going to happen.  He couldn’t walk very far and he was in such pain and had so little trust that whenever I picked him up he tried to bite me.  That very first day I wondered why anyone had bothered to keep him alive. I felt the humane thing would have been to put him out of his misery and I wondered how long it would be before I did that.   

Well, May became June and June turned to July and by this time Will was a bit stronger.  He ate well, slept plenty, and learned to trust my touch.  There were still flashes of rage and I had to be careful how I handled him so he wouldn’t turn on me.  When September rolled around Will surprised us by making it to the autumn and he even appeared to be getting younger. 

When October arrived we reached my original goal, which had seemed absurd that first day.  Will made it to the top of Pine Mountain with the help of a wheeled cart, not unlike a child’s stroller.  We pushed him up the dirt road, up part of the rocky and root-crossed trail, and even carried it in places.  It was a grueling day and you could ask why we did it if this little dog was so far gone, even with the advances he’d made?

The answer is an easy one for me.  I believe in the magic we find here in the White Mountains.  I believe this is a special place and that the mountains are here for anyone…even a little deaf, arthritic, and mostly blind dog with trust issues. 

After I had announced our plans to get him to the top of the mountain there were “dog experts” who questioned my sanity and felt what we were doing was cruel but we did our best to ignore them.  And because we followed our hearts instead of their advice a funny thing happened that day.  When I held Will in my arms as Atticus sat by my side on that flat summit, that once-angry little dog who couldn’t see much of the view reached out and did something he’d never done to me.  He licked my cheek.  A simple kiss.  He then lowered his head against mine and looked out with his cloudy eyes.  And there we stood sharing the view together, just as Atticus and I have stood thousands of times before.

I won’t pretend to know how much he could see and I don’t imagine he could hear any of the bird song or the way the wind sighed in the autumn leaves.  But it was clear that something changed that day.  Will, who had been mending a bit, became even younger.  He grew closer to us and more appreciative.  For the first time he started following us around our apartment and wanted to be included in what we were doing. 

Now I’m sure there could be many reasons for this but my romantic heart likes to think it had something to do with the same magic Atticus and I have felt in the mountains since the first day we climbed Mount Garfield in 2004.  And why not?  You don’t have to see or hear to feel love or magic or the presence of God, no matter which god you worship.  The Abenaki Indians knew this was a special place.  So did the White Mountain Artists who flocked here in the 1800s along with writers like Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Emerson. 

If Will’s story had ended that day it would have been a fitting conclusion to his life and while we would have missed him, we’d have been quite happy for him and for ourselves to have witnessed his redemption.  But it didn't end there.  The unexpected happened.  He lasted through the winter months and now while the snow melts he’s bouncing around, not like the sixteen year old who has several special needs, but like one who understands he’s been given a new lease on life. 

Will can walk, but not very far, and his ears still don’t work, and his eyes can still only see shapes and shadows, but he now loves being held, and I’d like to think he loves this life we’ve given him.  He greets each day with a dance the first thing in the morning – an enthusiastic, twisted, drunken, half-pirouette which often ends with him tumbling over and sprawled out on the floor like baby Bambi on ice.  And yet he gets up, dances again, falls again, and does it all with joy. 

His body may be broken but his heart has grown strong at the broken places.  The little guy is straight out of a Frank Capra movie and is as joyous as George Bailey was at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

s become every happy ending we could hope to see.  Except there's one catch.  There doesn’t appear to be an ending in sight.
Instead Will is busy writing the next chapter of his life.

Last September, Atticus and I were invited to hike with Willem Lange and the “Windows to the Wild” film crew.  We took them for a five mile hike up Hedgehog and told them a bit about Will and his redemption, which back then was nothing compared to what it is now.  The show aired last week on New Hampshire Public Television and ratings went through the roof while on-line hits were astronomical.  The show’s producer emailed us and asked if we’d like to do it again.  And we are.  But this time we’ll be joined by one more.  This time we’ll be taking Will to another mountaintop by pushing him up in his Will Wagon and they will capture this trek on camera for all time! 

You cannot imagine how much this truly thrills me.  Not only does it prove that no matter how bleak our prospects may seem, no matter how dire and dark and hopeless, there’s always a reason to go on – just as Will has.  It’s a perfect lesson in faith.  To believe in what we can’t see. 

It also pleases me in another way.  Too often there are some who think these great mountains we live in belong only to those with great physical abilities: to the endurance athletes, the fitness fanatics, and the peakbaggers.  But I prefer to see the White Mountains as more universal, just as the Abenaki did, as did the White Mountain Artists and Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Emerson did.  To me they are beyond words and comprehension because of how they make us feel. 

Here in the White Mountains anyone can be inspired and renewed.  It is our own Eden where each woodland trail, sparkling stream, and mountaintop offers us a glimpse into vast but simple mystery of what it means to feel the miraculous and to feel alive again.  And we’re all invited to experience the magic of it all.  Even a sixteen year old mostly blind, completely deaf, once hopeless dog.  If you doubt me, just tune in next autumn when the show airs and see for yourself.