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 19, 2014

It's a Perfect White Mountain Morning for Hiking

If there were a perfect day to hike in the White Mountains, this is it.  The world is brimming with life.  Birdsong is everywhere.  The trees and grass are lush green.  Wildflowers spring up and sprinkle the world with their joyful colors.  Even though the mosquitos and black flies have been terrible lately, a good wind exists to keep them away.  Temperatures will get to seventy degrees but no higher.  Views are boundless.
These are the mornings I daydream about all winter long, the ones I desire for in the long, dark winter.  I imagine dipping into a vernal wood with expectation and excitement, swallowed whole by the forest where things are wild and mysterious and only the path beneath our feet is tamed.  Even then there are places in these White Mountains where the trail doesn’t seem tamed.  Many of them.
People in other regions where mountains are higher and without the rich green we enjoy, often laugh when they hear we climb mountains four thousand feet high.  “That’s nothing,” they say.  “We have real mountains here.”  But if those people ever make it here they no longer laugh. The trails are more rugged than what they are used to. There are few switchbacks.  You simply go up and along the way there are twisting roots and jagged rocks along the way.  They eat their words in between gasps for breath while trying not to sprain a knee or an ankle.  New York’s Adirondacks are even tougher.

Alas, this is not a hiking day for us.  We won’t be on a trail until after next Thursday’s appointment with Dr. Malakoff, Atticus’s cardiologist at Angell.  She’ll do an echocardiogram as she’s done for years. I’ll be by his side watching that amazing heart of his – full of life and blood and love – and she’ll show and tell me what she sees.  Interns will gather round.  If all goes as expected, Rebecca will start him on the heart medication we’ve been expecting for seven years now.  Each year she has told me, “He looks good.”  Each year she tells me there will come a time when if the murmur worsens he’ll need a medication to help his heart pump more efficiently.  I’m told it’s nothing life threatening and our days will return to normal.  I look forward to that. 
Until then, I pay attention to the other gifts found in these mountains.  The ones you don’t have to hike to. 
This morning, we were up early.  Right after the sun.  The solstice is just a collection of hours away and light comes early and burns past eight at night.  We went to Jackson Falls because no one was there.  Watched the rush of the water, listened to the song of the woodland spirits.  After that we went to a local beaver pond with some apples. I cut them up into sections and tossed them to the beaver family floating back and forth in front of us.  We’ve done this for years and when they see us by the shore they come closer. This morning I counted five in their flotilla.  One summer there were seven.  Last year I saw only three.   
I find peace and joy in watching the beavers bob for apples, like children on Halloween, then grasp them in their tiny claws and dig in with those giant teeth.  It’s a humble act, to feed and be fed, and a gentle one. 
This morning, one of the elders came out of the water and approached where were sitting on the cool earth.  Atticus was by my side.  They looked at each other, then the beaver looked at me. There was no more than ten feet between us.  I tossed him a wedge of apple. He picked it up, sat back on his plump rump, that giant, flat tail lying on the dirt behind him.  And he ate.  I tossed him another.  And a third.  When the apples were gone we all sat in silence letting the morning wash over us. 
He stayed where he was and watched us as we watched him.  All three wild in our own way, each enjoying the freedom, and this act of communion. 
I heard a car pulling down the road, gravel kick up from under its tires.  It slowed when it saw us with the beaver.  It stopped, a car door opened and a woman got out with a camera.  The beaver looked at her, got up, dragged his tail back into the pond and that was that. 
She was nice when she apologized for ending our moment but I told her not to worry.  “We were done anyway.”  The old beaver swam out, turned back and came towards us.  She took a few photos, and then he was gone.  Under the water, after a loud splash of his tail.  We’d see no more of him or the rest of his family.
Living in the mountains is not just about the views from the top or the mysterious trails we travel upon.  Often the little gifts are found by ponds and streams, in meadows with sweeping panoramic views, or in the wildflowers which rejoice and reach to the sun.  We came here to live a different life, to escape traffic and rush hours, time clocks and the laws of busier communities.  We came here to breathe and smile and to just be simpler – to own less and have more.
There will be no mountain trail for us today, but we’ve already packed in a lot of life and it’s not even nine o’clock.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Farm Sanctuary, Vegan Muffins, and a World Off the Edge of the Map

We are inside now, but not long ago Atticus and I were stretched out on an island of shade beneath a tree in the backyard, looking like a couple of sphinxes.  We were catching the scents of summer, luxuriating in the soft breeze while watching Will meander slowly - circling, sniffing, occasionally jumpstarting himself with a front-legged hop. 
A crow rested on a branch not ten feet above our heads.  He too was watching Will. 
A few minutes later, atop a two foot high rough hewn stone wall that serves a the base of a gravel patio for the rarely used downstairs unit, a chipmunk sat up on her hind legs.  She kept her eyes on Will.  The 'munk wasn't afraid, I could tell that much, or else she would have skittered away chirping her little head off. 
I don't pretend to know what animals are thinking (heck, I've discovered it's dangerous to pretend I know what people are thinking), so I don't even try when it comes to other species.  But if I had to guess, I’d say the shemunk was curious, perhaps even amused.  It's not the first time a member of our local chipmunk community has taken the time to watch Will from less than five feet away.  Nor was it a first to see one of our neighboring crows cocking his head in Will's direction and sitting silently.  The rarity lies in the silence of one of our crows. They are a rowdy and chatty bunch who wear their emotions on their wings.  (Last year, Butkus, our resident senior bear, a fellow bent and grizzled by the years, was walking across the backyard, saw Will circling not ten feet away, and paused to watch him doing his little Will dance, before going off to do whatever old bears do.)
It was a pleasure to watch all of this for half an hour this morning, putting aside what "needed to be done" to fill myself with what is actually needed in life.   I only interrupted when Will appeared to tire, his pink tongue flagging out of his mouth.  But even as I approached, put my hand in front of his blurry eyes so he could see me and I wouldn't stun him with a sudden touch, the shemunk and the crow didn't budge. 
I like that our life has reached this level of simplicity and peacefulness.  When I carried Will upstairs like a drunk tossed lovingly over my shoulder, Atticus came with us.  I put Will down and retrieved some sunflower seeds and brought them outside. The shemunk walked a few stones away and I put down a handful for her, then tossed some more over toward the driveway for the crow. 
When I was upstairs getting Will some water, I looked down on both our neighbors and watched them enjoying their treats. 

This morning is the first time it hit me that we won't be living in Jackson for several more years.  And it feels surprisingly fine.  This is a pretty town, a quaint town.  It's rarity for small communities up here in that it has a sidewalk to stroll through the village on a one mile loop.  Most places don't have that.  You walk on the road or seek out dirt roads or hiking trails.  But here, a sense of community is found on the small 1.2 mile Jackson loop. 
I will miss that part, the constant waving from passersby in cars who greeted us the very first day we arrived before knowing a thing about us.  But I am excited to be working towards a small farm.
I have thought about the farm for a few years and always gathered information on it.  I've read books, followed other farm sanctuaries on social media, came up with loose plans, and last night when I posted about it, it took a more concrete form for me. And that’s the reason I posted about it.  By putting it out there, I did so not seeking advice, but in writing a public contract with myself.  I wanted to actualize the next step of the dream.
Never one to follow convention, I do my best to ignore unsolicited advice. Oh, I have a few people I lean on and seek out, but I choose to keep it small and I have faith things will work out. It just keeps things clearer for me.  “Simplify, simplify” as Thoreau wrote. 
Besides, while farm sanctuaries are not entirely new and are sprinkled throughout the world, my vision is a bit different since it is my vision.  I like that we live at a time when that's possible.  Where it’s okay to do your own thing, within reason. 
When I started my little newspaper, The Undertoad, from scratch, the experts told me it was unwise and it wouldn't work. When Atticus and I set out to hike all the forty-eight four thousand foot peaks in one summer another group of experts told me all that was wrong with my plan.  They were more vociferous when we took to the winter peaks.  And, of course they could be heard from when we decided to move away from Newburyport, a place I thought would always be my home.  (Hell, even two Amazon reviewers knocked the book because they didn’t like my decision to follow my dream.)
My life has been seasoned by defying convention.  I spent the better part of my junior and senior high school years on crutches and often in leg splints or casts because of problematic and painful growth plates. Two surgeries didn't help much.  I was told I shouldn't expect to do too much with my legs as I aged, but I had a dream to run the Boston Marathon.  Two weeks before the 1986 race I ran eleven miles.  It was the farthest I'd ever run.  I promptly deemed myself ready to jump in as  bandit behind the official runners (joining thousands of others unofficial runners).  The twenty-six point two miles was an epic adventure and I finished in 3:48:49.  It was the happiest day of my life.  I went on to run five Boston Marathons and one Boston Peace Marathon.
Two years later I signed up for an Ironman distance triathlon on Cape Cod.  At the time, the Cape Cod Endurance Triathlon was one of only seven Ironman length races in the world.  My girlfriend at the time reminded me that it consisted of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike, and a 26.2 mile run.  She also reminded me I signed up only five months before the race and I didn't own a bicycle and not only could I not swim, I was afraid of open water. 
I've always been this way with dreams.  A seed is planted and it bursts forth and I throw myself with passion into the next adventure.  That's exactly what this farm is going to be, if I can make it happen.  A new adventure.
I tell you all of this not to toot my own horn, because goodness knows I've probably made more mistakes in my life than most I know, but to say that experts are forever wonderful at telling us what is not possible, and whenever I’ve ignored them it’s been well worth it.  The goal is not always attained, but growth is.  And isn’t that what life is all about? 
The genesis of my farm idea comes not from Atticus and Will, so much, as many have assumed, but from a childhood dream.  Seeing how crazy the world was, I thought about how cool it would be to adopt about twenty kids, all from various nationalities and go live on a deserted island and raise them to live in harmony, no matter their supposed differences. After they grew up they could then go forth into the world and hopefully make a difference.

This was also the first of the seeds that had me wanting Atticus (and later Will) to be not who others thought they should be, but who they were destined to be. It’s also why I’m so turned off by the definition of breeds.  (Yes, I pay attention to physical needs of various breeds, but as for the rest, I toss it out the window.)    
On this farm, I envision animals of different species who get to be who they were meant to be and not mankind's definition of what they are supposed to be.  I like the idea that we currently live in a little green patch of the world where chipmunks don't have to be afraid of dogs and crows leave the chipmunks alone as well.  I like this bit of harmony I've stumbled upon.
So you'll excuse me when I tell you I ignore unsolicited advice and set my own course, throwing caution to the wind and by believing in the infinitude of all souls. 

Our farm will have music playing everywhere.  Not too loud.  And it will be beautiful music.  I also dream of baking the world's best vegan muffins in the crisp morning air, perhaps sharing one or two with a friendly, polite pig who is allowed in the farmhouse on occasion.  I imagine a world where a duck and a goat can possibly become friends, while a cow and llama go for a walk together into a shady corner of the field to have a quiet lunch.  I will continue to hike and explore these mountains I love that have called my name since I was a child, and who knows who my future hiking partners will be.  I mean don’t be surprised to see Atticus and myself traversing my favorite mile in the White Mountains, that stretch of otherworldliness running from the top of Mount Starr King to Waumbek, with an intuitive and bold goat on off hours when no one else is around.

I will have a few trusted professionals who are veterinarians, along with a handful of farmers who know far more than I do about such matters.  But both the vets and the farmers are the kinds who will leave room for creativity and possibility.

I look forward to this next adventure and figuring out a lot of things I don’t know. A study of my life will tell you there have been many such moments.  There’s something that draws me to a life that is unorthodox where coloring outside the lines is not only accepted, but preferred.  Discoveries of the self (and the world) are made, after all, where the maps end and the unknown begins.

Onward, by all means.

P.S.:  Oh, and in case you were wondering, that Ironman distance triathlon on the Cape in September of 1988?  I came out of the water next to last, made up ground on the bicycle, and avergaged ten minute miles on the marathon portion. My finishing time was 12:36 if I recall correctly. The following year the race moved to Sunapee in southern New Hampshire.  I passed out at the sixteen mile mark of the run.  However, the following year, inspite of some crazy internal bleeding, I finished in 11:00.  That was my last endurance event.  Up until now.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Morning After

It’s early in the morning and I was awakened by the cackling of the crows outside our bedroom window.  They make a racket, but not a bad racket.  I often wonder what they are chortling about as they go one with one another, never in soft voices, always cawing out with passion and self-assurance.  It’s clear they don’t care what anyone thinks of them.  I like that about them. 

The other thing that woke me up was Will’s grumbling.  He wakes up in the middle of the night, or really early in the morning, before the sun is up, and stumbles out of his bed like a soldier still drunk from the night before, bumping into things as he makes his way into the living room to get a drink of water.  Perhaps a snack from last night’s dinner, as well, which he never quite finishes.  This last part drives Atticus a bit nuts, to see food being left for later.  Fortunately, Atticus is good about leaving it even though I know he is tempted by it.  When Will comes back into the bedroom he’s still a bit wobbly, but not nearly as much.  He flops down, always touching his bed but at least half out of it.  He grumbles because he’s cold.  I wake up, cover him with a blanket or two again, and he grumbles two or three more times before the snores take over and he’s goes somewhere else for a few hours and we hear little else from him.

Will sleeps well the day after an event.  He’s a fellow who likes routine and when out of it, he doesn’t sleep as much.  He slept in the car on the way to last night’s event, and again on the way home, but while there he walks around non-stop unless he’s being held.  Just like the early morning crows he doesn’t seem to care much about what else is around him.  He’s not bowed by perception.  He simply is who he is, but I think he misses his bed. 

Last night he spent half of the event with Kathy Lanigan, a Following Atticus member who met him in Concord at an event the first week Will came to live with us, and again in Hopkinton, NH at another where she was kind enough to spend much of the event with him while Atticus and I did our thing. 

Atticus is next to me, lying perpendicular; we are connected at the hips.  When not in bed, however, we connect through the eyes.  We don’t have to be physically touching, just through a silent and watchful gaze.  Last night he wasn’t all that impressed. He stretched his body on the blanket on top of a table and looked like he was sleeping, but he didn’t miss a thing. Always the eyes follow me. 

On the way home from Bethlehem, on a night with clouds carrying today’s rain, there were still a few stars to be seen so we stopped to clear our heads.  We were at the crown of Crawford Notch, a place Nathaniel Hawthorne likened to the gates to Dante’s underworld.  I brought a couple of headlamps along and we entered the trail that leads to Mount Jackson.  We weren’t heading to the summit, but to a lookout just off the trail soon after the beginning.  It’s called Elephant’s Head, and from the road that’s exactly what this rock formation looks like, ears and trunk included.  It’s a twisting little climb and took us a bit of time since I carried Will in my arms and took care over the rough rocks that make up most of our trails here in the White Mountains.  When we spilled out onto the flat ledge on top we looked down into the darkness and up at the shadowy and dramatic rock formations on either side of us.  We were dwarfed in the pitch by the silent behemoth of mountains and by the bottomless pit. 

Atticus sat and seemed to be interacting with those mountains rising above us and the few stars looking down on us. He sighed and sat.  He did what he does when we get to a viewpoint, even on a night when there wasn’t much to see. 

Will sat on my lap.  He didn’t sleep. I supported his head which dangles from a loose neck like an old flower, and he also seemed to be taking in the quiet and shared solitude of this natural cathedral. 

After an event it’s good to get out for a few minutes of quiet.  They really are exciting and fun, the crowd is ebullient and the exchange between speaker and audience is palpable.  But afterward we three seek out a space where there is nothing but nature. 

Sitting on top of Elephant’s Head last night, and here in bed this morning, I pick up pieces of the talk and think about the faces we met.  I never remember what I say after a talk, and sometimes I think that’s a good thing.  It just rolls out there and I laugh and sometimes people laugh along with me.  But what I enjoy the most, and is the most fleeting of a public event, is meeting people after the talk.  I always have to keep an eye on Atticus and Will to make sure they are comfortable, but the other eye and both my ears go to the conversations I’m having as people come up to get a book signed. 

I’m one of those authors who considers himself very fortunate to hear the stories I do from many of you.  I like to know where people are from, look into their eyes, even if just for a second, feel a connection between two strangers who don’t feel quite like strangers, and listen.  I’m moved by how far some folks travel from to see us, and moved by some of the stories.  Often I hear about cancer or the death of someone they loved and how our story was shared with the person before they died or maybe it’s how it was read as a family or how the person is finishing (or starting) the four thousand footers.  But the one that gets to me the most, and I think I hear this at nearly every event, and sometimes more than once, are the number of people who have left behind unhappy situations because of what they read in Following Atticus. Many times it’s women leaving behind abuse and this catches me to the quick.  They’ve been beaten, controlled, their freedom smothered, their dignity robbed from them – but not completely, because somehow they found a way to get out and move on and put the pieces back together.  Sometimes it’s about leaving behind a job or a career or a marriage that wasn’t horrible, but wasn’t what love is supposed to be about.  These stories of change and transformation are the ones I enjoy the most. 

Last night I met an elderly couple.  He was excited and going on, she lovingly looked at him and the line of people behind them, and softly redirected him, “We’re getting married this weekend. Please write something about that in our book.”  They had both been married for years but had lost their beloved spouses in the last few years only to find each other to start anew.  I told them about Will’s story a bit more.  The part about it’s never too late to love or be loved again.  They smiled and went on their way, ready to get married, ready to trust in love again. 

Another woman last spoke softly.  So softly I had to put my hand on her shoulder and lean in with my ear.  At first she looked at my hand and then warmed to it and smiled and leaned into me. She was gentle, both in demeanor and in voice.  “He used to hit me,” she said.  She stopped. Gathered herself and began again. “I left.  I left when I read about you changing your life. I’m happier.  I have a ways to go but I belong to me again. Thank you.”  She pecked me on the cheek and she was gone. 

I don’t always remember the names of everyone, but I don’t forget the faces, especially the expressions, and I never forget the stories. 

It will be a slow day for us. The morning after is always slow. We pace ourselves.  We’re worn out, but filled up at the same time, looking to move forward. Inspired by what I’ve heard.  Events are draining but uplifting.  It’s one of the reasons I’m careful about which ones to accept.  But in the day after I pick up the pieces of what I’ve heard and think about those who shared a small but important piece of their life with me.  And I’m grateful.

Monday, June 02, 2014

A Health Update on Atticus

Atticus climbing Chapel Rock on Pine Mountain last week.
I never worry about protecting Atticus in the wild.  Bears, moose, raccoons, porcupines, skunks, raging rivers, sheer cliffs, powerful winds, high heat, subzero temperatures, howling blizzards.  He’s handled all of these easily enough and knows himself well.  Nature is where he is most at home.  He’s a part of it and equal to it.  It’s where he belongs and it’s where he blossomed. 

Where I feel the need to protect him is in society, whether it’s in brick and mortar villages or on-line communities.  If you read our book, you know that I raised Atticus as an individual, to be “his own dog."  More importantly than his size or his breed has always been his right to be an individual.  I like that his journey has been a distinct one.  It’s also been a respected one, and not just by me, but by those who know him well. 

So you’ll excuse me if I am a bit vague when it comes to some things pertaining to him, because I do my best to keep him out of the all-encompassing boxes we tend to throw upon dogs.  In our little world, I never really noticed his breed or paid heed to it.  Instead, I’ve considered him an equal when it came to the peaks we have climbed over the last nine years.  With all we’ve been through together, he’s earned the right to be my equal.     

Recently, my hiking partner has been struggling and not only in the mountains.  On our regular twice daily one and a half mile walks around the Village of Jackson, he’s suddenly been lagging behind.  He’s always led; I’ve always followed.  It’s typical to see him twenty or thirty yards ahead of me, hugging the side of the road as oncoming drivers looked upon him with a curious eye.  But over the last six weeks, something’s happened. 

He starts out beside me, but after the first quarter of a mile he drops behind and I wait for him. 

Half way around the loop his tongue comes out and we stop and get a drink along the shores of the Wildcat River or at the counter of the Backcountry Bakery and Café. 

On the last third of our walk, his panting has been noticeable and while I never pretend to know much of what he’s thinking, it has been clear, as he trails behind me that something is terribly wrong as he looks up into my eyes with what I guess to be sadness.  After the walk, he often spends ten minutes panting heavily. 

This is a far cry from two months ago when we hiked to the top of North Moat and back.  It is a ten mile round trip with some darn steep sections. He handled it perfectly, always ahead, and looking back to check on me.  It was like all our old winter climbs.

The other morning we did Pine Mountain, which is more off a walk than a hike.  It’s four miles of easy going, other than one steep climb that we skirted.  The only time he pushed ahead of me was when we reached the viewpoints, which he knows by heart.  He’d trot ahead, his tongue would hang out, sit to look out over the landscape and when I caught up to him all I could look at what him.  My heart was pulled downward into a sea of sadness.  It looked as though the years had finally caught up with him.  So gray. So tired.    

Over the recent handful of days, the difference between who he was two months ago and who he had become is shocking.  He no longer trots forward to greet friends.  He seems to be a different dog.   

This led us to meet with Dr. Rachael Kleidon this morning at North Country Animal Hospital. She knows my hiking partner well and has worked with us for a few years now.  I had already filled her in on all that was happening when I sent her a text last week.  Chest x-rays showed his strong bones and that beautiful heart of his.  No signs of any major problem.  His heart is a bit bigger than when he was young because he’s had a lazy heart murmur for six years that Rebecca Malakoff, a cardiologist at Angell Animal Medical Center, keeps track of on a yearly basis.  Blood was drawn; an ultrasound performed.  We spoke of our options.

Rachael will call and confer with Rebecca today and we’ve got a plan to implement that has to do with a medication Rebecca’s been expecting to have to prescribe to Atticus sooner or later,  but was always surprised he hadn’t needed it yet.  Perhaps that’s the work of all those mountains.  Who knows? 

Traversing the curiosities of the human body is difficult enough for doctors, but non-human animals are all the more difficult because of the language barrier.  It can be a lot like putting together a puzzle, seeing which piece fits where and trying to figure out the mystery that lays behind the discomfort. 

Soon enough we’ll take a trip into Boston to see Rebecca Malakoff, but for right now we are in Rachael Kleidon’s caring hands and I feel pretty good about it.  Rachael tends to err on the side of caution and whenever we’ve worked with her it’s gone well.     

Rachael did point out that what is going on with Atticus has nothing to do with the chemotherapy he went through in the latter five months of 2013.  It’s a heart thing.  He’s growing older. 

Rachael feels confident that we will be able to figure out the problem and it won’t keep Atticus off his mountains if we fit together the puzzle in the right order.    

This was our first step in taking action against whatever is robbing Atticus of his breath and the pleasure he takes being in nature.  There will future steps, but today it feels good to have a plan of action and two good doctors looking after him.

For now, he gets to continue being Atticus M. Finch, and soon, we hope, he’ll be back to doing what he most enjoys. 

Looking at him sitting on the banks of the Ellis River and watching it pass by our backyard I smile at his peculiar spirit and I’m looking at a text that was just sent by a friend who has surrendered to nature as much as we have.  It reads, “How can we not love the lives we lead?”

Amen to that life, to the mysteries and challenges, peaks and valley.  Amen to it all.