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.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Seasonal Meditation

We were out in the dying light late yesterday, and in the new light of this gray New England morning.  We were walking.  Walking and thinking and reflecting.  I do some of my best writing this way.
Steve Smith, the author of several White Mountain guide books and a friend of ours, takes copious notes when out on a trail.  A section of his home is devoted to decades of tiny notebooks filled with his scratched observations.  We once compared writing habits and he was surprised that I do not take notes on a hike.  Instead I walk with Atticus and Nature and a theme is delivered to me. I ruminate on it and allow myself to actually feel it.  I bring that gift home with me to my writing table.  That's how it is when we hike, and now when we are hiking less and walking more.  This is how I write. 
Recently, while corresponding with a friend, I shared some experiences Atticus and I are going through that are new for us.  We have been discussing the aging process and how I notice signs that things are different for my friend.  As he ages we change the way we do certain things.  We grow together, even as he gets older.  So while his physical limitations accrue, so do the gifts of the experience of this friendship and shared love and life. 
I've come to realize that most of the mountains we've come to know intimately - the mountains who have helped shape our identity and this bond - will never see the two of us together again.  There will come a day when I return to them, but Atticus won't be with me. 
Fortunately, there is so much more he and I share than just our love of mountains.  We still enjoy our walks; our visits with the cool running waters of streams, brooks, and rivers; sitting on the side of a trail to catch our breath and let the setting of Nature catch up to us; and just being at one with Nature, or in our little home.  Atticus is supportive of Will by being understanding and patient.  But where Atticus thrives is when it's just the two of us out on an adventure either big or small.  Away from man made noise, and wrapped in the sounds of sighing trees, birds singing, chipmunks chirping, the grumble of bears we sometimes encounter, and of course, the rustling of leaves overhead and now underfoot as they fall from the trees.
Old age delivers lessons for us to learn together.  It's one thing to take in an aged Will at fifteen; it's entirely different to pay attention as Atticus ages before my eyes.  It's a process and together we handle it as a team.  I prefer to consider it a new mountain range to traverse.  

Walking through corridors of colored trees and watching a handful drift carelessly down upon us, spiraling to a quiet resting place to create new life in coming years; it’s easy to think of the passage of time. Of life and death.  There will come a day Atticus will die.  There will come a time when I do as well.  It’s something none of us can escape.  I learned this at an early age and I tend not to obsess about it, although I understand most other people do.  For some reason I do not fear death.  The adventurer in me thinks of it as a mysterious new beginning.

This was my contemplation while enjoying the glory of leaves as we strolled along the solitude of a country road, the only sound being the three crows who were following us from tree to tree and calling out their pleasantries or obscenities.  In the autumn we get a great lesson of how graceful that passage from life to death can be.  It's natural.   
When we returned home this morning I responded to a friend’s letter and wrote something I’ll share here with you as well. 
"Those we love, after all, are never really gone.  We may not be able to touch them any longer, but they can touch us and most likely always will." 
But death will have to wait, for today we live.  I don't mind visiting with it in my thoughts now and again, but these are the days for living.  I know that by the way Will is doing his best to jump up on me as I bring food to his dish.  He doesn't get very far off the ground with those two front paws.  He's more like a wind-up toy.  Yet his exuberance makes up for what his physical abilities lack.

So it's onward we go.  Onward, by all means.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Renewing Vows

My dearest friend,

I fell in love again today.

I read your latest letter and took it with us into the woods where it warmed me from the autumn chill.  As I walked with Atticus, you were with us as well, for I know you’d be just as enchanted by where the forest took us.  It was a different trail, one I never knew existed.  We strolled through the fading greenery and met with maples half red, looking like last night’s woodland elves didn’t finish painting them.  The path moved gently up and down, like a children’s rollercoaster and we rode it happily – deeper away from the unnatural noise we live into and into the natural world we thrive in. 

Atticus was young again, happy to be trotting with me through a realm cool and fragrant.  Pine cones here.  A few fallen leaves there.  Slick roots.  Boulders split in two allowing our passage.  Cool earth underfoot.  The air was clean and sweet enough to drink.  We stopped more often than Atticus wanted to, which is a nice change from what he experienced in the warmer more humid months.  We stopped so I could sit and look about us to see things we might miss if we were moving as we had been. 

With each pleasant break, I looked into Atticus’s eyes and he into mine.  I measured his age, thought about how just thirty minutes before he was having trouble on a linoleum floor, but once back in the forest he was moving as I hadn’t seen since early last spring.  Rolling along an undulating trail, that turned here and there to some mysterious place awaiting us, before we left that behind as well to move forward, ever onward. 

I thought about a repeated comment many who have lost the friendship of a dog have posted regularly on our Facebook page in regards to Will: “Treasure every moment.”  Whenever I read it I understand it’s more about their grief than anything else, but I also look at Will and Atticus and everyone else I love, you included, and say to myself, “Why wouldn’t I treasure every moment?  I always have since starting this new life.”  To me it’s only natural to always embrace and exhibit gratitude.

What made today even more special was discovering this new place to walk.  We had the sun dappled forest, the singing birds, sighing trees, and mountain breeze to keep us company, but that was it.  Other than my thoughts.  Watching Atticus move along I laughed aloud a couple of times and said what I often say in the woods, “I love this place.  God, how I love this life!”  Call it a simple exclamation or yet another prayer.  Either way works. 

I know Atticus and I will never return to most of the places that drew us here in the first place but to find our own hundred acre wood to rally through without a care in the world brought out the best in both of us.  I was breathing happiness.  At times we jogged up a slight rise, around a seductive bend, and when we came to an especially beguiling splash of red in all that green I stopped to take it in.   It wouldn’t have been right not to pause and take it in.

Falling in love again . . . I owe that to the forest and the lower reaches of the mountains.  To walk through the trees as we did today was reminder of what we treasure.  A fresh feeling in the midst of the familiar.  I felt as excited as a child and I wouldn’t have been able to speak even if you had been here because I was breathless, not with work but through beauty.  It’s the sixth sense that works for me.  It always has.  We can see, touch, taste, hear, and smell, but what matters most to me is how I feel when with a person or a place.  Today’s gift was a reminder of love, a renewing of the vows – to love and to cherish until death do us part.  Such is the ecstasy of walking through a new mystery and realizing that there are miles and miles to go that will both remind us of another special time, but also teach us again that each new day in the natural world is an adventure if we simply appreciate it. 

As I notice visible signs of Atticus aging, my challenge now is not to pay as much attention to what we can no longer do, but to the gifts still within our grasp.  Time spent in the forest where our bodies are free and filled with life are one of them.    

Today I fell in love again, and I knew you’d understand deep in your pilgrim soul.