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, January 22, 2015

The Stars Never Cease To Amaze

There was a time when night hikes were highly uncomfortable for me, but all these years later I seem to find more enjoyment out of them than I do when hiking in daylight.  It’s ironic.  The same trepidation resides upon entering the woods.  The same feeling of unease and nervousness.  The same childhood fears, tinged with fervent imagination of things that go bump in the dark.  But add to that feelings of pleasant mystery and expectation.  It’s spending time with a mountain when everyone else has gone home. 
At night, the branches, bare in winter, grope at us as we pass, feeling like the bony hands of witches as they brush up against my backpack or jacket. At higher elevations the conifers are misshapen like sinister wraiths. 

But at this age, after ten years of hiking with Atticus, I now realize how much I appreciate the night sky.  The contrast from seeing nothing in the woods, to the euphoria of seeing the stars burst from the blackness as we leave the trees behind is breathtaking.  Constellations come to life.  Giant bears and fish and mythological heroes dance on top of the shadowy profiles of the mountaintops.  They look down on us, and all of mankind.

As for hiking at night in the winter, it’s the best season of all for it.  The sky is clearer than in summer.  The other night, while on such a trek through the woods, I stopped to catch my breath and to offer Atticus a treat, looked skyward, and the following came to mind:  “Here in New Hampshire, what we lack in daylight in the winter we more than make up for by starlight.” 

Has anyone ever seen the moon and stars more clearly than in these three months of cold where nights stretch on and on? 

We’ve been out twice after dark enjoying the trails recently.  The first time was after a recent thaw when Echo Lake in North Conway was freezing again.  We circled the shore, and then climbed up between Cathedral Ledge and Whitehorse Ledge.  Once on top of the sprawling snow and ice covered rocks of Whitehorse, we could hear the sound below of ice forming.  Air bubbles being forced out and reminding me of the song of whales.  It added to the night.  Not only were we seeing the mountains in a different light – where there is very little light, but the sounds were very different as well.  We sat on a blanket on the ledges and listened to the songs and watched the stars swirl slowly above us. 

Then, just the other night, after a day where we hadn’t gotten outside much, Atticus and I left home at about eight o’clock and drove along the Kancamagus Highway until we reached the trail for Potash.  It’s a simple enough mountain and less than four miles round trip, but it is also a peak, in the right conditions, where winter hikes are easier than those in the other three seasons.  A massive network of roots and large slabs of rock often slick with run-off are covered with snow and all is smooth.  The other night, after this past weekend’s rain, it felt like Styrofoam as my MicroSpikes bit in and held firm.  Atticus moved easily along the snow.  His eyes struggle as he ages with darkness and dimension, but I wore two headlamps and all was bright for him and he felt comfortable. 

There is a section of Potash where the trail ascends steeply through thick woods until it comes to a small, open ledge with a view out to Passaconaway.  When we reached that spot that massive mountain seemed all the bigger, highlighted by the heavens as it was.  We wove our way back into a twisted trail through the woods again, with some steeper pitches before we reached the next set of ledges.  It was all I could do not to fall over due to the overwhelming view of the constellations.  It was intoxicating and I had to stop moving to look up.  I spread my arms as if to embrace the experience and drink it in to make it a permanent memory. 

Atticus doesn’t always lead like he used to.  There are times he follows me now.  But not on the inclines.  He still feels comfortable going first and I follow as I always have.  The higher we climbed, the more we saw of Passaconaway again, but then also East and West Sleeper, the three peaks of the Tripyramids, and finally, cresting the summit, a view over to the rising hump of Carrigain, the double mounds of the Hancocks, and the expansive sea of peaks and valleys of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. 

Atticus was two and a half when we climbed our first mountain.  We’ve now been at it for just over a decade.  In all of that time something has never changed.  Once we reach the top he expects to be picked up so he can sit in the crook of my elbow, our heads at equal height, and together we look out at all that nature has spread before us.  I wait.  Sometimes it comes right away and at other times I wait for up to ten seconds.  Then I hear it and feel it.  My little friend lets out a deep sigh and his body settles into mine and together we fall into the scenery together. 

During the daylight, each season lends its own strokes of the paintbrush to the scenes we take in and become part of.  But at night, especially in winter, things are starker.  They are cleaner.  It’s a black and white vivid photograph and the stars never fail us. 
When we return home after a night hike, especially when it is cold out, our tiny home never feels more ready to welcome us.  Outside adventure leads to indoor comfort.  We sleep well and after we awaken the next morning I often look back at what took place on the mountaintops the night before as a dream.  Thankfully, it is a dream that doesn’t fade with the coming of the sun and we are more content - more filled with both life and peace.     

Monday, January 12, 2015

Writing the Book of Will

There is a divine snow falling gently onto the bare branches of the black ash tree outside the picture window as I sit writing about Will.  It’s a comfortable setting.  Comfortable and cozy.  A candle with a pine scent flickers nearby.  Steam rises and gracefully swirls upward from a mug holding cinnamon tea. 

On the couch, I can hear the low murmuring of Atticus’s snoring.  It’s apropos accompaniment for Handel’s “Water Music” which provides the melody for the song I’m typing.    

There is an ease in this open room, which is bright even when dark clouds gather overhead.  Our senses are alive and memory and emotion come together to the extent that I half expect to see Will waking up in his dog bed, letting his eyes cast about the space until he finds me.  I imagine him lying there for a little while, and then getting out from under his hand-made blanket knitted with kindness, taking a loud drink of water, and then making his way over until he reaches my side and looks up at me with his big eyes and long lashes.  

That’s one of the joys of writing.  Words breathe so much more than just life into a subject and once they are written, polished, and set firmly in place, they can live forever.  

Many have asked about Will’s story in book form.  It’s being written now and I’m about halfway through it.  But here’s the thing – it’s not just Will’s story.  It is also the story of the mountains and rivers, the bears and moose, the butterflies, chipmunks, wildflowers, the blue skies and white clouds, the moon and stars,  and it's also the story of Atticus and me.  This is our story. 

Sometimes our role in life is to play the star.  On various occasions we can play supporting roles, or our main job is to bear witness.  And then there’s the ensemble that infuses everything within a story with love and adventure. 

So many talk about how much they miss Will.  I don’t.
  Our journey together has not ended yet.

I feel fortunate to be able to share his story with hundreds of thousands who will eventually read our book when it is ready.  For them he will just be coming to life and by the time they finish the last page, they may miss him as some of you do, but there is a very good chance their lives will be influenced by Will’s and being touched, they may change because of it.