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, August 15, 2014

Sharing the World with Will

As the sun was setting and dusk draped itself over the Village of Jackson yesterday, Atticus and I took Will out for a walk.  Well, technically, Will rode while we walked. 

The Will Wagon has proven to be indispensable for us since it gives Will a freedom to get out and about.  It’s always been important to me that he doesn’t stay a shut in.  That he gets to enjoy the things we all enjoy: fresh air, the wind in our faces, the smells, textures, tastes, sights (as limited as they may be), and social interaction. 

Will is mostly happy sleeping much of the day away, he, like all of us, likes to get out and do things, even If he can’t do many things. 

I was laughing as we walked along the road with Atticus in the lead; Will stuck his head out of the unzipped portion of the Will Wagon on the left hand side to better watch Atticus and the world pass.  His pointed ears, looking not unlike a silhouette of Batman, and his head off to the side, looking like an engineer in an old locomotive.  He rides contented along.

I had a rare thought of my mother.  I don’t think about her much because I don’t remember much.  She died so long ago.  I was seven.  What does come to mind is an occasional drifting memory.  She had Multiple Sclerosis by the time I came along, the ninth of nine children.  She wore heavy braces on her legs and made her way around the house on crutches, the metal ones that wrap around your forearms and offer up a soft clank each time they are planted.  After she died the crutches stayed behind and in my high school years they became my constant companions.  I had problems with my legs and most of the time there were either casts or immobilizers on my left leg and I’d hop around with great dexterity on those same crutches that gave her freedom to move in our house.  At one point, in the summer before my senior year of high school, I started doing four mile loops with them through the Medway late day summer air.  I was determined not to be held back and to be able to get out into the world and away from the house on my own.

But outside, Isabel Shea Ryan needed a wheelchair if we went anywhere.  And my father did a great job of making sure we went plenty of places.  What a sight it was, Isabel in a wheelchair, often with my father pushing her, followed by nine kids.  Trips to a restaurant.  Shopping.  Even up to the White Mountains on vacation. 

So last night I thought about how we used to take turns pushing my mother around as I pushed Will around.  The concept is the same, to not let those we care about be shut up inside and isolated from the world because of a physical limitation. 

When I push Will, Atticus does his own things, gets his own stimulation.  He leads the way, or floats behind.  He likes it better when it’s just the two of us and we have more freedom, but he’s patient and kind when Will is with us. 

We stop often, so that Will can experience things we take for granted most of the time.  The rumble of the covered bridge when cars pass through it, or the smell of the aged wood.  A patch of wild flowers.  Visits in the front yard with Kevin and Michelle at Flossie’s General Store.  At the town park I take Will out and let him trundle unevenly along, circling and hopping.  At first he hangs around me, a little tussling and wrestling between us, and then he gets bolder and starts to investigate what’s around.  I let him go for quite a distance to give him his freedom.  Every now and then I redirect him or bring him back to where we are and he starts out again. 

Then there’s the soft lapping current of the Wildcat River.  Atticus drinks from it on our walks but I carry Will across the rounded rocks that are difficult for him to negotiate and I help him stand in the river.  I think of the elderly I used to care for during a short chapter in my life and how much they would have loved to feel wild waters made soft by the miles they have travelled, fresh and cool, swirling around their feet on a summer night. 

From our home, the loop we do is 1.4 miles, and we pass by a few inns, some restaurants, the post office, and Carrie’s Dutch Bloemen Winkel.  In the early morning, the promise of a day is dawning and all looks optimistic in the soft, golden light.  At the end of the day it feels differently.  Lights slowly come on like the stars coming out above us.  I think of what it must feel like to Will as we roll along to see the change in the lighting, to feel the textures his wheels pass over, to feel the coming night.

As we rumbled across the old Stone Bridge last night, we waited for Atticus, who was sniffing some wild roses.  I took Will out again and held him in my arms. We both looked down on the water and followed the current through a corridor of darkening trees until it disappeared in the distance.  Even then I tried to imagine the sensations he might be feeling.

While approaching home, on the last stretch by the golf course, two locals called out to us and we crossed the road and stood on one of the greens chatting with them.  Atticus said his hellos and they greeted Will, who they’d never met.  I took him out and let him bounce around the spongy putting green and it gave him a chance to pick up speed and enjoy his freedom.  I chased him down and carried him back to where we all were.  That’s when Will had the opportunity to feel another sensation.  Being held by the woman we were chatting with.  She squeezed him in her arms and he graciously accepted it.  He sat snuggled, his face against her cheek, watching me, inhaling her soft scent.

While the three of us talked, Atticus watched and sat while we stood, and Will was cradled for several minutes before he wanted to get down and bounce on the green again. 

By the time we arrived home, the stars were out completely.  I had my headlamp on and a pair of glowing eyes looked our way from the back of the property.

“Hello,” I said to the passing bear, before the three of us went upstairs and left him sniffing Will’s wild flower garden.  As soon as we got inside Will took a drink, then found his way into the bedroom and went to sleep.  The ride to touch his senses capped off a full day. 

I’m not Will but I do my best to recognize him by putting myself in his place.  He’s elderly and highly dependent on me, but he leads a pretty cool life.  I know I’ll most likely not live as long as he is going to.  Most of us won’t.  But I think of myself as an old man and I consider what I’d want if I was in his place.  Time to time I come up with new ideas about what to share with him, but mostly, I know what he appreciates is a place to belong, someone to belong with who cares for him, and allows him to be who he is.  Although I take care of Will, I avoid many of the endearing terms some like to use with animals, just because, while cute, they minimize, they put animals below us.  That’s not my intent with Will.  I like the idea of honoring his life.  Of treating him as I would any elderly individual.

When I worked in that nursing home with many long-forgotten people, I would sit quietly with them and ask, “Would you tell me your story?  Tell me about what makes you happy?  Who you miss and who you love and what you want to do today?

In his own way, by the responses he gives me, elderly Will, ancient in so many ways, tells me his story and I do my best to honor it. 

Will has his limitations.  We all do.  But I look at him and see he’s more alive than many people I know who are supposedly in the prime of their lives.  We start the day by me carrying him downstairs.  We end it by me pulling a blanket up over his body as he lies softly snoring.  In between, he lives.  We live.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Walking with Jack Ryan

My father loved words, and he loved books.
Whenever he found one he didn’t know he looked it up in the dictionary, then pulled out encyclopedias, and even Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. 
He was a well-read man.  In his early years he had high hopes and big dreams for someone who was Boston Irish and whose father was a milkman, delivering to many of the ramshackle neighborhoods of Boston in a horse drawn carriage.  But that humble beginning was not about to hold my father back. He dreamed of being a Harvard man, or, at the least, a Boston College graduate. 
He was neither.
After the war, he went to school at Northeastern but never received a degree. He and my mother were busy pumping out children, and he needed to work.  He took a job with Bell Telephone and stayed with them for more than thirty years.  He climbed the corporate ladder, about as far as anyone could who started out as a pole climber without a degree.  Then his back went out.  After that, he was retired in his fifties.
As he aged he continued to read, and I can remember him sitting in his recliner with a pile of library books nearby.  He no longer read the classics.  Or even much literature.  Mostly it was mysteries in the years I knew him.  He was a Robert Parker fan.    
One day I came home from school, and he had tacked something on the small bulletin board in our kitchen/dining room. It was a typed piece of paper with the names of various flocks of birds.  He was thrilled to have discovered that a flock of crows was called a “murder." 
It’s ironic that as much as he loved to read, I hated the idea of it. It reminded me too much of him.  With his temper and its ability to erupt at the slightest provocation, I wanted something more.  Something not Jack Ryan.  Here I am at fifty-three, a few years younger than he was when he was forced to retire, bemoaning that I picked up reading as late as I did in life, and hoping I’ll grow old so I can continue to read as much as I want. 
I was thirty when I thought myself dumb and uncultured so I decided I would read a classic a week.  Moby Dick was the first on my list. I finished three months later and had to force myself to do so.  Reading became easier after that, and more enjoyable.  From the classics I discovered the likes of Richard Bach, John Irving, and Tom Robbins.  I was off and reading!
Yesterday morning, while Atticus and I wove through the warming woods along a path carpeted with red pine needles, through a glen of cathedral pines, I first heard and then saw a great commotion in the branches ahead of us and up above. The largest flock of blue jays I’d ever seen were calling out to each other to announce our trespassing.  They’d hop from branch to branch, took short flights to other trees in the lofty neighborhood, sometimes swooping down into the air and then rising into a higher location on another tree.  They made their various calls to each other.
Atticus and I stopped for a moment. He sat, and I squatted and soon the blue jays returned to what they were doing before they arrived, all the while keeping their eyes on us. 
Were my father still alive and in the woods with us he would have whispered to me, “They’re called a ‘party’ or a ‘band’ of blue jays.” I would have acted like I didn’t know, like I’d never read the thumbtacked piece of paper he posted in our old nicotine-stained kitchen. 
“That’s neat,” I’d say.
He would be pleased with himself for teaching me something new.  And as we talked in hushed whispers Atticus would have turned his head back and forth between us, following the conversation as if it were a tennis ball in a match. 
I think of Jack quite often, but I don’t miss him.  How can I when I carry the best parts with me and act many of them out on a daily basis?
I’m not oblivious to the distant father, the one who beat us, who berated and demeaned us at his worst.  Nor do I care to invest much in the man who seemed to wish he didn’t have children as he aged in the years after my mother died.  I’m aware of that man, but choose to see the other parts of him, the better parts.  These are the portions of him he lost along the way – the dreamer, adventurer, the bright man with the capacity for wonder.  These are the parts I prefer to live with.
He would love this life we’re leading.
At first he would have been ticked off by our taking in Will, but eventually he would have recognized that in their old age, battered, disappointed, and frustrated by what life could have been, he and Will were indeed confederates. 
Although we always had dogs and cats, gerbils and parakeets, rabbits, and rats, he never warmed to them. They were simply there and something else to take care of.
But I can remember when I brought home Max and one of my nieces, who was somewhat hyperactive at the time, kept getting in his face. She finally cornered him beneath the table cloth during one holiday and came out crying because Max had bitten her in the head. It wasn’t a bad wound. She was more frightened than anything else. When the report came to my father, I’m sure he hurt my sister’s feelings when he said, “Max bit her? Good!  She deserved it.” 
From that moment on he looked at Max more kindly.  (By the way, it was the only time Max ever bit anyone in the year and a half he lived with me.)
By the time, Atticus came around, and we’d visit my dad during Red Sox or Patriots’ games, Jack would look at Atticus, his thoughtful and quiet ways of following our conversations – during commercials only, because that’s when we’d talk – and he’d say, “He’s different. So quiet. He acts like he’s listening to us.
Just after Atticus came into my life, one of my brothers bought a puppy.  My father wasn’t much of a fan of “Duggan.”  He’d mutter about him, turn to Atticus and say, “Thank you.”  In response Atticus would sit silently raising a single eyebrow to Jack. 
“For what?” I asked him. 
“For being Atticus." 
This visit had taken place right after another visit from Duggan.  One the day Duggan was there, Jack grunted and rose with great effort out of his worn recliner on his way to the bathroom, and another can of iced tea, only to find Duggan standing on the kitchen table.  My father was not a gentle man, especially to repeat offenders.  He told me that Duggan “learned to fly that day.”    
Here in Jackson, Jack would love the crows that visit in the early morning. He’d drink his tea with them and watch the finches come and go.  (And he’d say, “They’re called a “charm” of finches.”  And I would say, “I didn’t know that.”)  He’d be stunned by the bears.  First at the wonder of them, then their ease.  He would include them in his letters to wartime friends, his brothers and sisters, and my sister-in-law, Yvette, his favorite pen pal.
Like us, he would have no use for the heat of summer, and he’d drink his iced tea throughout the hottest months. 
When I think of him when we are walking on the trails, he is my age and doesn’t seem so much like a father, but more a friend.  He was not a huge hiker.  With up to nine kids in tow, depending on the year and our ages, we mostly did the White Mountain tourist loop. He was a windshield tourist, but we always made time to walk small trails and sit by the crystal streams.
I think that was his idea of heaven.  Sitting by a stream, watching the sun bounce diamonds off the current as it flowed over the rocks.
After he had died, I became close to his last remaining sister, Marijane.  She lived in Arizona, and we emailed and spoke very often. We became great friends.  She taught me a lot I didn’t know about father.  I returned the favor by teaching her a great deal she didn’t know about her brother. 

As a gift to him, even though he was dead, I flew Marijane out to travel a few stops on the Following Atticus book tour with Atticus and me when the hardcover was launched.  We talked mostly about Jack, how he would have loved every bit of this journey. 

He and I are so very different.  In other ways, in the ways of reading and nature we are very similar.  In our love of words and books we are twins, except I am so far behind in my reading I don’t spend much time with mysteries.  I read literature and the classics.  I still read poetry, something he stopped when he was young, but never stopped appreciating. 

A couple of years before he died, right after a Red Sox game ended and Atticus and I were heading back to Newburyport, eighty miles away, he said, “You’ll do alright.”

“With what?”

“When I die.  Out of all my kids you’ll do the best.  I’ve always made fun of the way you are expressive, sentimental, and all that.  But you’ll do well because you don’t hold back. You won’t have the regrets.”

And Jack is right.  I don’t.  There are things he could have done better, and things I could have handled in a different manner.  But I don’t miss him.  I love him and carry him with me. 

I don’t mourn death.  Perhaps that’s a byproduct of my mother dying when I was seven.  I don’t know.  I used to struggle with goodbyes, but that doesn’t happen as much anymore.  Since I have chosen a simpler life, I do my best to pay attention to what’s here and what’s now.  And who is here. 

In many ways, Jack’s still here, as we walk through the woods and up mountains and along streams.  The White Mountains were vacationland for him, and he’d love every bit of it.  Something he’d like even more – although he wouldn’t admit to it – is that I’m telling you about him now.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Some Hiking Dogs Are Being Pushed Too Far

I find myself worrying about the dogs, so I try not to read about them. 

The dogs I'm talking about are those who hike.  Not all of them.  Not even most of them.  Just the ones paired with an increasing number of obsessed hikers.

There have always been obsessed hikers, and most fall under the category of "peakbaggers."  There is a compulsion for these folks to climb every mountain there is on any list there is, and lately, it's gotten rather crazy.  Peakbaggers now have the Internet.  Hiking websites abound, and the self-celebrity that includes solipsistic posts of yourself doing any old thing appears on-line in any number of places.  Whether it's on Facebook sites or those that offer hiking trail conditions.

The idea of hiking the four thousand-footers came from a group intent on getting people to check out other mountains and not just Franconia Ridge and Mount Washington.  It was a fabulous flash of brilliance that sent trampers to each of the four corners of the White Mountain National Forest and introduced them to places they wouldn't have otherwise noticed, or ventured over and through. 

Steve Smith and Mike Dickerman have introduced many to these mountains through their book, "The 4000-Footers of the White Mountains."  Included in every chapter is a variety of ways to climb each peak, what you will see when you get to the summit, and other fascinating tidbits, including history and nomenclature.  I fell in love with this book as I fell in love with the mountains.  It was a wonderful introduction to hiking and who better to introduce the highest mountains of New Hampshire than Smith and Dickerman, two passionate trekkers who made these mountains their lives?  There's not an ounce of ego attached with their writing, and as can also be said about the two authors. 

Many, myself included, have used this book and then went on to explore other mountains in the region. In this way, it goes hand-in-hand with the reason the Four-Thousand-Footer Club was created.  Finish the list (on the honor system), send in confirmation to the Four Thousand-Footer Committee of the Appalachian Mountain Club, and you get a nifty patch and an even niftier scroll.  Do the "fours" in winter, and you get another patch, another scroll from the committee.  Do all sixty-seven of the "fours" in New England and get another patch and scroll.  Do all 67 in winter and get yet another.

That all seemed well and good.  But now independent websites have been set up to reward people who hike each of the forty-eight in one winter.  Eight years ago this totaled about a dozen known individuals. Total.  The idea of getting attention for completing the winter "fours" in one calendar winter and having your name and photograph included on a list had the number of people attempting expanding.  The website lists twenty who finished them all this past winter alone.  In the winter of 2011 – 2012, there were thirty-eight finishers!

Now another website has formed.  It's for what is called the "grid", and it's made up of self-labeled "gridiots."  Hike each of the forty-eight in each of the twelve months, no matter how many years it takes, and you get a patch (not sanctioned by the AMC, I should add) and your name and photo on their site.  Once that website was created, it sent the obsessed down another rabbit hole chasing with the same zeal people once went to the mountains to escape.

These same people came up with yet another website listing all of those who have "red-lined" the White Mountains.  Red-lining means hiking each and every trail there is.  Used to be old-timers were the only ones who accomplished it, or at least those who had been hiking here for decades.  The same is true for those who used to do the "grid."  But that's all changed.  It's the age of the Internet when everyone gets to be a celebrity, whether they should be or not.  Kim Kardashian and Parish Hilton anyone? 

Human neuroses are common.  Let's face it, we're all screwed up to some extent.  No one is perfect.  As long as the dysfunction doesn't go too far, and no one is hurt, it makes for interesting and colorful characters - a wonderful concoction of human life.

And so what if some folks like to go a little nuts when it comes to playing follow the leader and get your name on websites so they can say, “Look!  Look at me!”?  This is, after all, the “White Mountain National Forest, land of many uses." 

But here’s where it crosses the line and borders on neglect and abuse.  It’s the way we treat our four-legged hiking partners. Particularly in red-lining with dogs. 

It’s one thing to march through life with our own mess, but to endanger a dog so you can get attention is just wrong.  There are numerous trails in the White Mountains dogs should not be on.  You can start with the Flume Slide Trail, Huntington Ravine Trail, the Six Husbands Trail (or, as many feel, any other trail that comes up out of the Great Gulf and heads to Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Clay, and Washington). 

Recently, I’m told; the Randolph Mountain Club has contacted Smith and Dickerman, also the editors of the “AMC’s White Mountain Guide," to ask them to educate hikers not to bring dogs onto the Ice Gulch Path because of the danger it holds for the four-legged hikers. 

This column may seem strange coming from me since Atticus and I used to be peakbaggers – three years of the monotony cured me of it.  But from the very beginning there are trails I would never allow Atticus on. 

I’m not sure if he could have done them or not, but the point is not could he have done them, but why would I have risked him doing them?  I can’t speak for anyone else, but I didn’t get Atticus to hike with, I got him to share life with, to share a friendship with.  In the process, I took on the responsibility of looking out for his well-being in a world that is increasingly busy and crazy and created by mankind.  I found that by coming to the mountains it tipped the scale and allowed him to be in charge more.  Hence the name of our book, “Following Atticus."  In a society, I have the final say of how things go.  In the wild, Atticus has more of a say, often the greater say.

I believe we get dogs to get back to basics, to touch our primordial side.  Even as I avoid websites and Facebook pages where there are numerous hikers, I’ve recently been told of puppies being brought up the Franconia Ridge Loop over the rugged Little Haystack, Lincoln, Truman, and Lafayette for their very first hike.  Of dogs doing a twenty-three mile traverse across the Pemigewasset Wilderness (and five four thousand-foot peaks) in winter before they are even one-year-old.  Of others finishing several rounds of the forty-eight by the time they are two or three years old. 

The ignorance of a beginning hiker is one thing.  (Our first summer Atticus and I hiked Flume and Liberty on a day in the low nineties.  Looking back now, I ask, “How did we do it?”  Then I ask, “Why did we do it?”  Ignorance is why.  But live and learn.)

Unfortunately, it seems those who are imposing their obsessions on the dogs they hike with are the experienced hikers.  They are as determined as “Little League Dads” to show how special their dogs are.

This group of people have an interesting way of talking when they push the limits with their dogs. 

On a nasty weather day above treeline they’ll post, “Sparky was fine today, but I wouldn’t bring other dogs up here in this kind of weather.” 

When it comes to long-distance hikes where they push the pace and the mileage, “Finished the thirty-three mile loop in eleven hours and Molly wasn’t the least bit tired!”
And for those who can’t wait until their dog’s bones are mature enough to handle distance hiking, “Max turned one last week and finished the Bonds Traverse.  We stopped a lot, and he seemed fine.  He probably could have kept going.” 
In the winters Atticus and I hiked the “fours," I pretty much gave up my job to make sure we had the best weather days to choose from.  We let the weather and our bodies dictate what we would do.  And thankfully, Atticus never had trouble telling me he didn’t want to hike.  There were several days we showed up at the trailhead where he didn’t want to get out of the car.  So we didn’t.
Since that point,I’ve been asked by numerous hikers if I’d lead the charge to persuade the AMC to change their rule of not offering patches and scrolls to dogs who finish the winter peaks.
I always stayed out of it.
Until now. 
So why am I speaking out now?  Because for years many who hike with dogs have asked me to.  I'm just not speaking out in the way they wanted me to.  I don’t think dogs care about patches and scrolls, so I wish the AMC never started the practice of awarding them for even fair weather hiking to dogs - as they do. 
I’m also speaking out now because the mania has increased, and I believe dogs deserve better than how they are often treated by some.  The best we can do for any animal in our lives is simply to put ourselves in their place and try to figure out what’s important to them. Last I checked, Atticus never once has logged on to Facebook to check for updates or wondered how many peaks another dog “bagged” this week.
We should always speak out for the well being of animals simply because they cannot speak for themselves.