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, August 22, 2013

The Sun & Moon

Atticus sitting on Chapel Rock watching the sunset.
“Be scared. You can’t help that. But don’t be afraid. Ain’t nothing in the woods going to hurt you unless you corner it, or it smells that you are afraid. A bear or a deer, too, has got to be scared of a coward the same as a brave man has got to be.” ~ William Faulkner

The years have taught me many things but one of the most important is that change is everywhere and we do our best when we come to grips with it, accept it, and then figure out how to move forward in spite of it. 

Last night, walking through a hot and humid last hour of daylight along a dusty road, I was watching Atticus.  He’s now halfway between eleven and twelve.  In comparison, that makes him older than I am.  That thought had a tinge of melancholy to it but not enough to change the mood as we huffed and puffed uphill while the sun passed through the trees to the west and we stopped often to take drinks of water. 

We were on our way to Pine Mountain. It’s an old friend to us.  And yet as many times as we’ve been there, the road walk is never as easy as I expect it to be.  It rises hundreds of feet in elevation in one and a half miles.  Much like walking up a ramp.  At the top of the road there sits the Horton Center, a religious camp now closed for the year, and a short trail to Chapel Rock called “A Pathway to God.”  The first time I went to Pine Mountain I had no idea how stunning the views from Chapel Rock were, but I took that trail because the name intrigued me.  I mean who wouldn’t want a pathway to God? 

What I found was indeed a bit of God. Before us was heaven (to paraphrase Thoreau) both under our feet and above our heads.  The wide sweeping valley south through Pinkham Notch is epic in the way it sprawls like a rich carpet.  Route 16, which can be seen for a bit, is a mysterious thread through the wilderness promising new journeys, destinations, and adventures.  Above and beyond, the wide panorama arcs from the Carter-Moriah Range down to the Wildcats. Across the notch to where a bit of Mount Washington can be seen, but the view is predominated by a staggering and pointed nearby Mount Madison.  Not far away, in the shadow of Madison, sits the main mass of Pine Mountain.  High atop Chapel Rock the views carry over to the west and north and to the primordial Kilkenny Range.  It’s a humble climb to a prolific place, where I am always humbled in relation to what God has created. 

Whenever Atticus and I sit on that highest rock it’s as though we are sitting on top of the world.  Our own little world.  A sacred pinnacle where I am visited by deep and lovely and transformative thoughts.  It’s a place for man and dog to meditate. 

Seasons come and go, years pass, and always we find ourselves atop that rock slab – three constants: it, Atticus, and me.  Last night, however, things were a bit different.  We haven’t been hiking much these last four months.  In July Atticus had a toe amputated because of cancer.  The margins were clean but the high mitotic index warned us that trouble was lurking so we elected to start chemo.  The first of six sessions went okay.  There was some abdominal unrest, one round of vomiting, but overall he did well. 

One of the pleasures of living with Atticus is that he takes care to express his needs and comfort levels.  He doesn’t climb a mountain if he doesn’t wish to, nor does he get off the couch if he doesn’t feel like it – which is hardly ever the case but it’s the way it was just over a month ago.  So it’s been easy taking this unknown journey through cancer and chemo with him.  He lets me know how he is feeling and my job is to pay attention.  It’s the same way he’s always been there for me.  In the three weeks since his first treatment we have climbed Black Cap, White Horse Ledge, Peaked Mountain, Potash Mountain, and last night it was Pine Mountain. 

I’m told the second round of chemo, which is tomorrow, can be one of the worst.  So it was important to me that we get out and up to where we are happiest just in case it will be a while before it happens again.  That’s why we ventured along that dusty road through heat and humidity to get to our sitting place just before sunset.  With the end of daylight just ahead Atticus sat down and looked not at the surrounding peaks as he typically does, but to the yellow sun, which soon became orange, then pink, and then – and then it was gone.   It was only after dusk surrounded us that Atti walked over.  He sat by my side and drank the water he had declined before so he could spend time with the waning sun.  He ate a few treats and put his now-three-toed paw on my lap.  His pink tongue was showing, not from the heat, because the cool had settled in, but out of what seemed to me to be joy. 

With three toes on my lap and Atti’s sparkling eyes looking into mine, I stood and scooped him up as I’ve done thousands of times before in these mountains, rested his fanny in the crook of my arm, and took a slow turn to take it all in.  We looked as we always do: content, happy even, filled with awe, but more importantly we stood as we always have – together.     

My friends keep worrying about us and how we are handling the cancer and chemo.  I tell them without the slightest pause that we are fine and will be throughout it all.  I’ve said it before, but that’s the gift of something like cancer.  There’s no time for anything other than what’s genuine.  You leave take out the trash in your life, ignore anything that isn’t important, protect that which is most important, and always – always – cultivate love.  Standing there with our heads at the same level, and I imagine our hearts pretty even as well, I think we were both smiling. 

That’s something I’ve learned lately.  Cancer can take toes, larger limbs even, perhaps even a life, but it cannot rob you of what’s most important unless you allow it to.  Cancer may kill, but love is untouchable. 

I had chosen Pine Mountain for a few reasons.  It’s a great peaks to get back into shape with, we treasure the views from various outlooks, but also because on this night we’d be able to watch the setting sun from Chapel Rock and then hustle down the trail, across the boarded walkway, up through the dark, dusky tangle of rocks, roots, and trees to the trail to the top of Pine Mountain Trail to the second viewpoint.  When we emerged from the forest to an open ledge we found what our friend Ken Stampfer (who is far more scientific and gadget-wise than I am) told me we’d find, the full moon rising over the shoulder of the Moriahs. 

We moved quickly to get there in time and when we stumbled into the opening to a breathless stop, we watched an orange moon rising through the haze in the night over the dark bruise of layered mountains.  So beautiful.  So perfect.  So private and intimate.  I picked up Atticus and four eyes watched that ghostly, glowing moon. Then I placed him on the table of rock three feet high that stands in the middle of the ledge and we sat side by side.  Two sighing souls taking in the ethereal night. 

A gentle breeze swirled around us, the murky woods behind us produced nighttime sounds, and we sat in perfect harmony with it all.  We had said goodbye to the sun, now we were greeting the moon, as it elevated ripe and mysterious. 

Atticus and I have finished many hikes in the darkness and it always tugs upon my childhood fear of the dark, but it also emboldens me.  As I told my friend Dee last night, “Life is so short, why would I want a fear to rob me of something as beautiful as what we were seeing?”  Of course it’s one thing to sit on a mountaintop and have a conversation with silhouetted mountains, the moon, and all those stars, but where I often have to steal myself is returning to the woods where the it’s darker than anything I’ve ever known and my headlamp creates lurching shadows of witches, ghouls, and childhood demons as we pass by trees and limbs. 

But that’s part of the excitement, I suppose. To go where I never would have gone before, to experience these new adventures in daylight and darkness.  Of course what makes it all safe and sound and worthwhile no matter how gloomy and dreary it gets is to have Atticus by my side.  Then fears become adventures, challenges become opportunities for new experiences, and life becomes all that more textured. 

Who knew after all these years of walking these trails in darkness that it would not only help me grow into the man I wanted I dreamed of being as a young boy, it would get us ready for our greatest challenge.  For a journey through cancer and chemo could be considered just as frightening to a man as the nighttime is to a little boy afraid of the dark.  But facing these challenges together, Atticus and I are armed with faith, friendship, and love. Because of that, anything is possible. 

Tomorrow, as Atticus has a port in his front leg accepting the poison meant to kill cancer, his paw will be on my hand as it was the first time, and it will be just like walking those dark mountain trails.  It’s not the forest or the darkness that defeats you, it’s the fear.  But we’ll be together and because of that there’s nothing to fear.  It’s but one more adventurous chapter in this book called life.

The full moon rising above the Moriahs.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

A Friend Is A Friend

Dear friend,

These are the days we live for.  It’s a perfect August afternoon and Atticus and I are sitting out by the garden under the shade of the trees.  I’m on one of the Adirondack chairs and he’s on a folded blanket.  We’re both as filled with contentment as can be.  Just a few feet away the crawl of the pumpkin vines appear to be headed in every direction and the tangle of bright wild flowers is perfect for our humble backyard.  They’re also a good place for old Will to trundle through causing butterflies, bees, grasshoppers, and dragonflies to take flight.  But not right now. He’s inside listening to Beethoven, snoring blissfully away, and dreaming (I imagine) of the life he now has, and not the one that abandoned him.

From time to time one of the chipmunks that shares the rocks around the rustic property scurries to the top of the nearby stonewall, picks up a morsel of food I’ve left out for them expressly, and sits on his hind legs like a prairie dog and watches us.  Atticus returns the gaze and happily we all look at each other while the chipmunk nibbles away. 

Why feed the chipmunks? I must admit that I never did before I moved to Jackson. Atticus and I were in the former library listening to an old Yankee complain about what chipmunks were doing to her garden.  So she filled an old bucket three-quarters full with water, floated a handful of sunflower seeds on the surface, and placed a small piece of narrow wood across the top of the bucket, lining it with more seeds. The chipmunks followed the trail of food and then found the jackpot floating in the water.  When they reached down to get the bounty they fell in and drown.

Although that old woman is very kind to me, we don’t give her much attention.  Instead we give it to our chipmunks and that’s why I feed them.  I’m trying to balance her out.  For some reason I get the impression the little critters know they are welcome with us because they sit and watch us all the time. This morning when I cradled Will in my arms after he had gone to the bathroom, one stood on a high rock just three feet away watching us.  When I moved closer, the chipmunk leaned a bit closer to look at Will. 

“He can’t walk up the stairs on his own,” I said.  “Have a nice morning,” and then I carried Will past and the chipmunk watched us go up the stairs.  (So you see, I not only feed them, I talk to them.)

If we get lucky enough, we’ll see a bear, maybe two.  I don’t think they come looking for what I put out for the chipmunks since the portion is so small, just enough to offer them a gift and to apologize for the actions of your Yankee neighbor, who everyone but the chipmunks seems to like. 

The breeze is gentle and it sends the leaves whirling and turning on the trees. Birds sing, a bee buzzes by us occasionally, and I noticed Atticus licking his paw.  But it wasn’t the one with the three toes.  It was his whole and healthy paw.  Not the one where the digit was amputated because of cancer.  I wondered how that new-look foot would feel today.  It’s only twenty days post amputation and yesterday was an active one for us.  Well, relatively active.  Compared to the last three months when we haven’t been able to hike, it was a big day…just not compared to what we’re used to doing. 

Friday was Atticus’s first chemo treatment and as is the case with chemo, it’s a crapshoot.  Many will say that dogs handle it far better than humans and from what I’ve read they do, for the most part, but it’s still poison being pumped into the body to kill fast-growing cells and one never knows.  Before that first treatment we prepared for the worst and hoped for the best.  We got the best. 

That afternoon Atticus was a bit lethargic but by Saturday morning Atticus and I walked a good flat portion of the Bryce Path.  Later in the day we walked for two miles on the same trail.  By the end he was tired and happy to be back at the car, but it was clear he was also happy to have returned to the woods and the soft paths carpeted with red pine needles.  Sunday we got out for two more walks but they were gentle and Atticus wanted to take it easy.  By Monday he was hopping around and happy.  We took three walks for the first time in months and the total was between four and five miles.  On Tuesday he seemed fine. 

Watching him closely and realizing Atticus never worries about saying he’d rather turn back than go on, I decided to take him to the Black Cap trailhead.  We started out early in the morning on the path we’ve walked a hundred times.  We took it slow and easy and on the way up Atticus stopped far more often than he ever has.  He stopped and panted, his tongue out, his lungs working to move air in and out. 

“You want to go home or keep going?”  I say this to him whenever he is tired.  He knows how to head for home when asked, although he doesn’t chose that option very often.  Yesterday, each time I asked him, he looked me in the eyes, took a pause as if he was trying to decide what he could do, and then moved forward. 

For all the trails, all the miles and mountains we’ve traveled together, I think this is the first one we’ve ever walked up side-by-side.  This was his hike and I let him set the pace.  We drank a lot of water along the way.  At the fork where left will bring you to the summit in three-tenths of a mile or right will get you there in half a mile (but it’s easier), we went right – as we always do.  Slowly we moved together like two old friends just happy to be with one another.  From time to time I sat down on the trail next to him, poured him some water, and he drank.  After he drank, I drank from my bottle. 

Halfway up that longer but easier route we stopped at the hidden ledges with the view to Chocorua, Passaconaway, the Moats, and other faded peaks.  We always stop there to enjoy the panorama.  The ledges aren’t really all that hidden but most people pass them by in their hurry to get to the top.  For us though, it’s one of our favorite places, this little hideaway, and yesterday was perfect.  We sat next to wild blueberries bushes and I picked them and we shared.  While I continued to eat he walked away from me, to the middle of an opening in the trees, and sat down and cast those eyes of his out toward the ripple of mountains on the horizon.  I heard his trademark sigh, saw his body relax, took a photo of it and sent it by text to you, and finally let you know what we were up to. 

It wasn’t long before we returned to the trail and made our way up that curl of earthen path that wraps around the western slope of the mountain.  Summer was in full swing and just above the high brush tops of mountains were visible as were an armada of floating clouds sailing the blue sea of sky.  We continued on side-by-side, moving slowly.  One last time before getting to the top I stopped to offer him water but he refused it. Instead he moved ahead of me. 

In the beginning years of our hiking when it was clear we had a mountain to ourselves and we neared the top I used to say, “Do you want to say hello to the summit?”  He’d look at me and then spring forward.  Not quite a run – more of a happy trot – and he’d moved quickly and for the first time leave me behind.  I could see him ahead of me sitting on top of the mountain while I was still climbing.  These days I no longer say it because he does it on his own, but I didn’t expect it yesterday, not with the fatigue and the cancer and the chemo, but that’s exactly what he did.  He bounced along, his ears flopping with every step and his swagger seemed to be saying to the mountain, “Hello, old friend.  I’m home.” 

At the top he waited, turned to face me, and sat when he saw me taking out my camera.  I don’t imagine he intended it but he sat in a proud manner with his left foot, still looking like a three-toed claw, closer to the camera as if showing it off.  I took several photographs and then called Rachael Kleidon, his wonderful vet.  She was with a client and when she picked up the phone she was nervous.  “Is everything okay?” 

“Not all emergencies are bad, Rachael.  Sometimes it’s good to take time out for just the opposite. I just wanted to call and tell you that nineteen days ago you amputated Atti’s toe.  Five days ago we started chemo.  Today, at this very moment, he’s sitting on top of Black Cap Mountain.” 

Her joyous response was why I called her.  She’s been invested in our journey in a way that speaks of friendship more than doctor – client.  Rachael and I talked excitedly for a couple of minutes with wonderment in our voices.  When I hung up I turned to look at Atticus and he was at the highest point watching the clouds and saying hello to the other peaks.  Little Buddha had returned to his summit sitting.  I sat behind him and took it all in.  But this was not just his moment and I think he wanted me to know that because he stood up on that highest rock and looked back at me. 

Spend enough time with any close friend and actions and expressions say far more than words can. I climbed up next to him and sat down just as he wanted me to.  He sat down again, his body pressing into mine, our eyes looking out at hundreds of places we’ve been throughout the White Mountains, many, I’m sure, we’ll never get back to together – not as he gets older.  We sat for several minutes without anyone else there and when I looked at him my heart was filled beyond anything I’ve ever known and all that love spilled out of my eyes.  I wiped away the tears that kept gently rolling down my cheeks and I said the short prayer I think I’ve said on every single peak we’ve ever climbed.  “Thank you.” 

I never know who I am saying it to.  It’s never really mattered to me.  I just say it and it feels good, and it feels right.  

The chemo will continue through the middle of November.  I’m told there will be good days and there will be bad.  I’m told it’s unpredictable to know how he will handle it all and how he will feel going forward.  But I don’t think there will be any truly bad days, because no matter, he and I will be together in land we love and call home.  So cancer and chemo will can continue to be a part of our lives for a few more months but I don’t really care.  We are where we are supposed to be.  Together. 

Thank you for your friendship.  I have relied on you and all our other close friends for inspiration when we needed it most.  It’s been the best medicine for me as I’ve taken care of Atticus and Will.  We look forward to seeing you soon, and sitting on a mountaintop with you.  

Onward, by all means,
Tom (& Atticus [& Will})
Atticus M. Finch, back home again.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Our Afternoon Visitor

Twice today young bears visited us.  The first, a smaller one, was in the yard when we pulled in.  It watched us for a moment and then ran away.  This one, a bit bigger, was standing at the foot of our stairs when we came down them, it then flopped on the ground a few feet from us, and when I told it to leave and clapped my hands it climbed up on the rocks.  That made me laugh.  Atticus was sitting by my side watching and when I said, "Gentle but walk with me please," and took a couple of steps towards the young bear it ran away. 

It's not good to let bears get too comfortable around people because that's how they become a nuisance and are often put down.  So as much as I hate chasing them away, it's what we have to do.  Usually it's the younger ones that stick around.  Mature bears leave when they see us.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

The Day After Chemo Treatment One

The sun has set behind the mountains in Jackson and with one fan in the window of the writing room blowing out, the cool of the early evening flows in through the open windows here in the living room.  Just a few feet away, the music of Johannes Brahms flows just as easily out of a small wooden speaker on top of the coffee table.  Nestled on the floor with his ear pressed against one of the table’s wooden legs is Will. 

He seems to like Brahms because he does this on occasion with some music he likes – quite often symphonies.  He cannot hear it, of course, but he feels the vibrations. His body has the slightest rock to it as if he is conducting with his heart.  When I move around the room his eyes follow me, but his ear is steadfast.  It’s married to the vibrations. 

Just above Will, Atticus is stretched out on the couch.  He’s sleeping but when I move about the room his eyes also follow me.  He’s tired and he should be.  For the first time in more than a month Atticus took two pretty good walks.  Both through forest paths lined with soft, rusty pine needles.  The first was too short; he wanted to walk a little further.  But the walk this evening was longer and he was happy to get back to the car and is content to be resting now at home. 

The fact that Atticus took two good walks the day after his first chemo treatment has me smiling.  His foot seems fine.  The amputated toe does not hinder him and he walked without his Muttluk to protect it.  There is the slightest limp, detected only by his floppy ears being out of sync in the way they move with each stride.  But the bounce in his step belies any evidence of cancer or chemo.  He’s not ready to go up a mountain yet, but he was certainly ready to be out in the woods trotting along meandering trails.

Toward the end of the second walk we stopped by the lake. I sat on a log and he sat a few feet away at the water’s edge watching a couple of ducks.  After a few minutes he came and sat by my side and together we watched the clouds looking down at their own reflection in the smooth-as-glass lake while the laughter of children from the busy side of the lake played in the background.  He and I didn’t look at each other until it was time to leave.  I felt his eyes on me and said, “Okay, you ready?”  With that we both stood and walked together along the trail. 

We’ve been through a lot these past few months and while Atticus and I have had each other, what we haven’t had was our hiking.  It’s a strength for us and peaceful place to retreat to and renew ourselves.  It was finally good to be getting reacquainted with the woods we love.  The broken bone in my left foot is only a memory and he seems to feel the same way about the bones removed from his left foot. 

Emerson wrote, “In the woods we return to reason and faith.”  This morning and this evening we did exactly that, but we also returned to where we are most comfortable, where the outside world fades away like a dream at waking and our souls are filled and our spirits elevate. It felt right to be where we were listening to birds, watching red squirrels and the smallest toads we have ever seen.  At one point I picked one up, held it in the palm of my hand, and together we sat looking down at it as the toad looked up at us.  It didn’t seem panicked or in a hurry to leave because when I placed it down on the log we’d found it on it stuck around for a while – and so did we. 

It feels good to know we’ve now made it this far and what we share will only be fortified by nature’s embrace now that the beginning stages of hiking have returned.  This is the world we are happiest in, where the seasons dictate the pace of life, not technology, time clocks, or social life.

One of the advantages of having Atticus as a hiking partner is that he has no trouble stopping on a trail and letting me know he wants to turn back.  He didn’t do that today, but what gave me the confidence to walk as far as we did when he is supposed to be most susceptible to fatigue is knowledge that he knows his limitations and understands he has a right to choose.  I’m told that in this chemo portion of our lives we’ll be on a physical rollercoaster.  There will be good days and bad days; days when we feel like we can climb mountains and days when just making it out into the backyard will be enough. That’s okay.  We’ll take whatever is offered. 

Soon enough we will be sitting on a mountaintop once again.  Then another. And another.  I know the mountains will come and they’ll mean even more to us now than they already did.  That’s something I didn’t think was possible.  But watching Atticus bounce along the trail today was a hint of things to come.  In watching him I felt a joy that is indescribable and I can only imagine what it will be like once those walks get longer and we start to go up – up until there is no more up, which is what Atticus has always done.  

Those days are coming, but tonight here we are – two of us listening to Brahms, all three of us feeling him, and I’m dreaming of the mountains we love as never before.  Oh, the hikes we will take this autumn will be gifts indeed – there will be peace and laughter and gratitude and joy.  Most importantly there will be the two of us.