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.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving Traditions

Yes, where we go is important, but not nearly as
important as who we share the journey with.
Some traditions should be protected; others should fade as memories do, and we should make room for new ones that elevate us.  Coming from a big family, it’s akin to sacrilege to step away from something we’ve done for decades, but for me there came a time when I wanted something different.  So over the last several Thanksgivings, Atticus and I have not driven to our crowded family gathering, but instead stayed in the mountains.  Weather permitting; we look for an empty trailhead and climb a solitary mountain.  This is not difficult to do since on Thanksgiving; the trails are as quiet as a whisper. 

I don’t think there’s ever been a mountain I did not give thanks on.  Yet, on Thanksgiving it seems especially so.  Perhaps it’s knowing that while most of the rest of the country is caught up in where they are expected to be, Atticus and I are instead where we want to be.  While the eastern seaboard is manic with traffic and plane and train travel, we are alone – blissfully alone.  There is no football.  No big meal.  No family dysfunction to wade through like a minefield while trying to force a Hallmark moment out of fractured relations.  It’s just the mountain, Atticus, and me.    

It’s for this reason, the stepping away from the complicated to the simple, and the contrast of who I once was to who I am now, that Thanksgiving has become my favorite day to hike.  Rarely if ever do we ever see others out on the trails.  And when we return to our humble little home after a day of hiking, I feel far more filled with gratitude than I ever have after a day of eating a huge meal, sandwiched between traditional appetizers, and multiple servings of pie.

In the weeks leading up to the holiday, friends will often ask what our plans are.  When I tell them we are spending Thanksgiving alone they bristle and express worry about us.  We then get numerous invitations to join them.  I assure them that we’ll be off on our own by choice and there is no sadness attached to it; they don’t seem to believe me though.  But, after all the football games are over, the turkey carved, the pumpkin pie eaten, the long drive home, and getting ready for a round of compulsive holiday shopping, they often say to me, “I wish I’d done what you and Atticus did.”  I understand that they don’t always mean climb a mountain.  Typically it’s more about spending a holiday the way they wished they could. 

Last Thanksgiving we climbed Little Haystack, Lincoln, Truman, and Lafayette on a crystal clear Thanksgiving Day.  We did see others, but only a handful of people.  On Black Friday, a perfectly colored description of the day, we climbed South Moat.  It was so warm I wore shorts.  How fitting it was to stand high up above the outlet stores of North Country, turn my back to them, and gaze off into the Pemigewasset Wilderness where nature presides.  Through both hikes, my heart was filled with things I was grateful for.  It was a true Thanksgiving. 

In past years, we’ve hiked parts of the Presidential Range; Waumbek; the Carter-Moriah Range; the Kinsmans; and on Crawford, Resolution, and Giant Stairs on the holiday.  I’ve never regretted it and at times I even think, “Where should we go next year?” with excited anticipation. 

This Thanksgiving, however, it appears we will be breaking tradition again.  Not out of choice, but out of necessity.  The cumulative effect of the chemotherapy has been wearing Atticus down.  It’s not the occasional vomit, or the night of chemo tremors.  It’s more like a general malaise when it comes to exercise.  When people see Atticus and I out in the car or at the post office or in a store, they can’t tell anything is wrong.  He greets them, often gives them a smile, and is happy.  However, when it is just him and me, I notice it.  Where we used to go for three walks a day, now it is often only a single short one.  Our hikes have mostly stopped, although I still drive to a trailhead occasionally, gear up, and set off up the trail. Atticus often stops after a half mile or so and lets me know he’s had enough.  It’s not always easy to see him this way, but I’m fortified by him knowing he’s always had a choice, and he seems to get that I respect his choice to turn back.  It makes going through chemotherapy together easier when he knows what he needs and shows me in his own way. 

So tomorrow, when we set out to hike a simple peak, I won’t be expecting much, and we may not get very far at all.  But I will be grateful knowing there is only one chemo treatment left for him; that he knows he can stop on the trail when he wants to; that soon enough we’ll be done and slowly the poison will lessen its grip on him, and we’ll be back to hiking the peaks we love.  I’ll also be thankful for the gifts cancer has delivered into our lives. 

Yes, gifts.  Cancer forces you to look at things differently.  You pay attention to the little victories and to the blessings in life.  To us all of this has simply turned into a different kind of mountain.  It’s like many of the tougher hikes we’ve been on in the past: we set a goal, face adversity, work through it together, and grew closer in the end. 
I’m thrilled that when cancer came knocking we had a insightful vet in Rachael Kleidon who has allowed us to take this journey side-by-side, including being together in the operating room and during the chemo treatments.  I’m also thankful we had a choice to chase the bully.  We didn’t have to go through the chemo treatments.  I could have ignored the rate at which the cancer was spreading and just been happy that the amputation appeared to be successful.  But had we not taken this next step, the six chemo treatments, I always would have wondered.  As Rachael pointed out, it’s much better to face the bully (my term, not hers), than it is to play catch up. 

I’m also grateful that other than limiting our walks and hikes, cancer hasn’t taken much else from us.  Instead, it has given us the opportunity to further define ourselves by our choices and our attitude.  We are still Tom and Atticus, and we are still climbing mountains, they’re just a different type of mountain. 

And come next Thanksgiving, Atticus and I will be on another quiet peak, our only company the peak itself and maybe the wind, and when we look off at the distant peaks surrounding us, I’ll also look back on all of this and say, “We made it…together.”

So this Thanksgiving, instead of being someplace I’d rather not be to make others happy, I look at it this way, “We are right where we are supposed to be.”  You have no idea how comforting that is.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Short But Special Journey To Ourselves

Atticus M. Finch on Square Ledge with Agiocochook in the background.
The notches can fool you, especially when winter comes for its annual visit.  It’s especially so in Franconia and Crawford, and while less so in Pinkham, the wind and cold conspire to make you think it’s much worse than it really is.  The trick is to remember that as soon as you step away from the wind tunnel near the road and enter the forest, the wind becomes a non-factor.   silent. 

That’s the way it was Wednesday in Pinkham Notch.  Stepping out of the car was a chilling (literally) experience.  The parking lot at the Appalachian Mountain Club was icy with small drifts of snow and repeated gusts battered us.  After crossing Route 16, I put my MicroSpikes on and we started down the Lost Pond Trail.  Once in the sun dappled woods the wind was a silent memory as we walked carefully over the tumult of rocks, planks, and frozen ground along the Ellis River toward the pond. 

I was happy to see Atticus moving gaily ahead of me, ears flopping, legs with a spring to them, and a gleam in his eyes whenever I caught up to him.  Quite frankly, that’s not how it’s been over the past month since chemo treatment number four.  His weekly blood work has been great, his appetite strong, and he’s downright gleeful when we are out driving from store to store and meeting our friends.  But where once we walked three times on those days we didn’t hike, totaling about four miles, he’s now only doing a single walk a mile in length.  He doesn’t want to do much more than that. 

One of our favorite hikes, along the Hedgehog loop, is five miles of heaven to us.  We return to the root-crossed trails, open ledges, and expansive views as if returning to an old friend and the mountain always welcomes us.  We know it so well I think we could walk the trails blindfolded.  But on a perfectly sunny day last week, with mild temperatures and the pleasant scent of autumn everywhere, at the one-mile mark, Atticus stopped and looked at me. 

“You okay?” I asked.

In response he sat while continuing to hold my eyes with his.

“Do you want to turn back and head home?”

With that, he stood up, gave me a knowing look, and started back the way we came.  He moved easily enough, didn’t seem tired, but he knows himself well.  For him to not want to hike says a great deal.  That’s as far as we’ve gone in the last few weeks. 

I’m reminded by those who know more about chemotherapy than I, about the cumulative consequence.  The poison kills cancer cells, but it is a coldblooded killer that has no conscience about killing good cells, as well.  Chemo is but a hired mercenary, brought in to fight another bully.  The body becomes a battlefield and at times, a wasteland. 

We knew this going into it, but it’s still tough to watch.  We’re now five treatments into the six Atticus will have, and I am quick to point out that this was my choice.  To hunt down the possibility of hiding cancer cells and get rid of them, instead of just sitting back with fingers crossed and wishful thoughts.  We walked toward the fire, and I’m happy we did. 

Over the past few months, we dealt a bit with vomiting and diarrhea and some strange side effects.  However, Dr. Rachael Kleidon and I adjusted the plan, and Atticus has adjusted, too.  That’s made things better.  But what we are dealing with now is like an invisible blanket of quiet exhaustion.  Atticus knows what he would like to do as he springs down the stairs on our way to a walk, but a hundred yards down the road he stops and wants to turn back. 

I remind myself his energy will return when the chemotherapy stops after next month’s final treatment.  I also know we are where we are supposed to be.  Neither one of us does the pity party thing.  There is no “poor me” or “poor us”.  (I even go so far as to have the moderators delete well-meaning comments on our Following Atticus Facebook page when people write, “Poor baby.”  I just don’t like the whole victim thing.) 

When we made it down to Lost Pond and turned back the way we came, I was thrilled to see Atticus decide to go up the trail to Square Ledge, instead of heading back to the car.  And it felt right to me, too.  The sound of our feet against the snow, the bite of my MicroSpikes, the soft stab of my trekking poles in powder, the way Atticus kicked up powder as we moved up the trail. 

The entire hike from trailhead to the top of Square Ledge is only half a mile, but it climbs five hundred feet in elevation, with most of it coming in the last couple of hundred yards of trail.  It’s steep…extremely so.  The rocks are a rugged mess, as if someone has blown up the mountain.  You have to be careful where you step.  So while it was only a half mile up, it was about as intense a half mile as any you see in the White Mountains.  Yet there was Atticus, bounding from rock to rock, wading through snow drifts, striding into sun and shadow under a brilliant blue sky that comes with subzero wind chill days.

Neither one of us is in good shape these days.  It’s been the least amount of hiking we’ve ever done in spring, summer, and fall.  Add to that the chemotherapy, and it’s a wildcard about how Atticus will feel on any given trek. 

But for this one day; this one startling, beautiful, breathtaking day, when wind and cold gave us a taste of what is to come, we climbed as we’ve done thousands of times before, chemo and cancer merely backdrops to the main act in front of me.  As we climbed, I watched, I smiled, at times I even laughed out loud as Atticus was who he has always been on the trails and will be soon enough again. 

Once on top, Atticus walked to the edge, sat on the windswept rock, and looked out at Mount Washington in her glorious white gown.  So beautiful!  Both mountain and dog.  I gave him some time until he got up, walked over to me, and nudged my leg with his nose.  I picked him up, our bodies pressed together, our faces side-by-side, and he sighed, let his body weight relax into my arm and chest, and we took communion together. 

In the frigid temperatures my hair had grown some icicles and I found that cold tears were running down my cheeks.  I didn’t feel sad, nor did I think I was crying, but when I felt his tongue kiss them away while they flowed, I realized the tears were for happiness and beauty and this peace we share together.  Being a fifty-two year old man, not a lot brings me to tears, but being there on the open ledge with Atticus in the midst of all we’ve been through and are going through, I found a great release.  My small friend twisted his body in my arms so that he could look at me.  He took one paw and put it on the far side of my neck and draped his head over my shoulder and together we stood silently and happy. 

By the end of the day we had hiked no more than two miles, but it came at a perfect time.  It came the day before our next to the last chemotherapy treatment.  It came when we hadn’t been hiking.  It came when we needed to feel and not just see the mountains.  Sometimes all we need is a bit of trail, a short mountain experience, a view shared with a hiking partner, and we are renewed and ready for whatever comes our way. 

This morning when Rachael Kleidon injected the poison to kill a greater poison into his front right leg, Atticus rested his head on my hand, and relaxed he napped.  I respect Atticus too much to put words in his mouth or to try to tell people what he would say if he could, but I’d like to think that as the chemotherapy was taking place, the medication he and I both needed had already been received yesterday, standing above Pinkham Notch, keeping company with the greatest of New England mountains, the one once called Agiochook.