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 11, 2015

Surprised By Joy

There are moments I am surprised by joy, even on days when I am already happy. It seems to me that these periodic bursts of bliss are tied into nature. Such was the case this morning as we walked the woods below White Horse Ledge along a spider web of trails crisscrossing the Bryce Path. 
Although early, a hint of the warmth to come later in the day could be found in the sultry scent of the forest. It’s a musky delight that comes from the earth and trees and the slightest (almost imperceptible) bit of haze in the air.  It’s like leaning into a lover and finding the hint of perfume on the nape of her neck. The woods still felt cool, but I could tell it wouldn’t be that way for long.
A gentle breeze stirred loose pine needles and sent them tumbling down to earth around us. Atticus stopped as if to inhale the scent of a wild animal every now and then.  The dirt underfoot wasn’t damp, but it wasn’t dry either. The best way I can describe the coming of the day’s heat is the same way I’d describe the coming of a storm in late afternoon. The subtle shift in electrons, the receptors in our skin that allow us to feel atmospheric changes, and, of course, the smell of it all. 
To be afoot in a forest to witness this change has a primitive appeal to it. It had me reflecting on Thoreau’s, “The savage in man is never quite eradicated.” And this had me thinking how grateful I was to have some of that savage still within me. 
As has been his style lately, Atticus tailed behind, unlike the first ten years of our hiking together. It’s his age. He still enjoys the trails but the pace is different. He rarely takes the lead, and that only happens when it’s cool or else he wants to make sure we take a certain trail.
When we came upon the Bryce Path a second time, he surprised me by taking a left turn and heading up toward the saddle that sits humbly between Cathedral and Whitehorse ledges. It’s a short section of trail, but steep enough to make you stop, grab hold of a tree on occasion, and gulp for air, and then gulp down some water as well.
In that saddle, which has a feel of the medieval to it, with its pockmarked sign slightly leaning to the right, one almost feels transported to the days of old when knights were horseback would come trotting by, the air was thicker, but still refreshing enough to be pleasant.  We made for the top of Whitehorse Ledge, the taller of the two, and the one that is private because you cannot drive to the top of it. I was pleasantly surprised to see Atticus bounce along the climb, looking back over his shoulder for me, stopping every so often to wait for me whenever I rested.
Halfway from the saddle to the summit, we came to a ledge where we have sat many times in the past, often watching a full moon rise above the eastern horizon. Below us was the emerald green of Echo Lake and across the busying valley sat the mountains of the Green Hill Preserve. The air was denser, the temperature rising. But gosh, how it felt grand to be out there in the aging day, following my aging friend.
Once on top we shared the view and some water. Then I paused and thought of my friend Annie who is in Sloan Kettering today, hoping she remains cancer free after seven months off treatment. A few prayers were sprinkled over the valley and sent high above. Then, without any longer delay, Atticus was on his way again, curling round the backside of the ledge, on to the southern boundary, and eventually reaching the forest floor after a rumble through the boulder field. 
When we reached the car, we were both happy to have been out there, but also happy to be done. The drive home with windows wide open was a blissful reward.  Now to be home writing about it, with the air conditioner going, is another. That’s savage within me is taking a backseat to the civilized man now as I sit at my old writing desk and Atticus snores contentedly nearby. 
We stopped peak-bagging several years ago, about the time I decided to count experiences instead of mountaintops. That’s when we set about hiking for the beauty of it, letting our desires take us instead of following the strict orders of one list or another. Now in this summer of no expectations – due to Atti’s age I often say he’s retired – I am surprised by joy more often than ever. Each walk in the woods, whether it is half mile or five miles, comes as a gift. Nothing is taken for granted. We enjoy it all, and luxuriate whenever possible – especially when we come to streams where we wade and Atticus drinks and it feels a bit like heaven after a good walk through a forest which is now greener than I could have imagined it being back in the naked cold of winter.
On days such as this I realize we’ve come to what may be the most appreciated hiking chapter of our time together. It’s the one where so little is expected and so much is appreciated. It’s a time for us, and not others. To walk in the woods because of the love of it, and the passion our feet feel as we walk slowly and deliberately, at times surprised by joy.    


colodreamer said...

Joy comes to us at the most inauspicious times....when we least expect are very blessed and lucky to find yours with Atticus...thank you for sharing your joy.....

Donna Jean said...

I was surprises by joy today also when I saw you had a new blog for us to enjoy. As always I love your stories of hikes or time spent with Atticus. I also said a little prayer for your friend & mine I believe, Annie. Your writing lifts me up and I thank you for that. It makes me appreciate all that I do have and not think so much about what I wish I had. Hugs to you and Atticus & onward by all means!

Linda P. said...

Beautiful thoughts beautifully written. We all need to take time to appreciate and enjoy what we can do just like Atticus does. There really is beauty everywhere to enjoy. I've missed your blogs - so happy you're back.

Shelly Ann said...

Beautiful, Tom... Thank you for sharing this blessing. My best to you and Little Buddha <3

Kay Giblin Schraff said...

How special it is, through your writings, to be a part of the incredible journey you and Atticus share.....a journey that renews itself every day, with new joys and experiences. In my heart, I cannot see Mr. Finch as old. Rather, he is seasoned, albeit slower, but still enjoying the spark of new hikes...with his best friend. Thanks for taking us along on your hike today! I am grateful for you both.

I too remembered Annie today...she is incredible!

unknown said...

The forest comes alive with your words. How I wish I could be there in reality. We finally had a day -- a whole day, mind you -- of a delightfully soft rain, as you get in Ireland. But as I live in drought-stricken Southern California, rain very rarely falls here, and when it does I savor it and enjoy it while it lasts. There is no other smell like damp earth after a rainfall! Heaven!

Vero 61 said...

Thank you Tom...and Atticus too!

Jan Reed said...

If the "dog-human age equivalent" charts are accurate, Atticus and I are now the same age--he is 13 and I am 68. So I relate especially to your descriptions of his hiking abilities, his stamina and his decisions about how far is far enough! I suspect I know quite well how his body feels. And yet we're always pulled forward, by a smell, a sound, a memory, an intuition. Some days are like that, and sometimes we find joy. I hope that I continue to age as gracefully as Atticus does. I am now adopting him as my role model. I will take nothing for granted. I wish the two of you many more shared days of this golden time.

Judy B said...

Thank you for this meditation on joy. You and your friend Atticus are blessed with kindred spirits

Lana said...

So happy to see your latest blog...wondered where you were!!


MDBranquinho said...

Hi, there! I have read this post with lots of pleasure as if I could also feel everything as described. I love dogs and I think I will come again to read more. I also have got 4 blogs which take me a lot of my free time because they are very much visited and people leave a lot of comments. Thank you so much for your writing!

David P. Turner said...

I had to post a comment about this blog having climbed Bryce Path between Cathedral and Whitehorse, my wife and me climbed to Cathedral Ledge using Bryce Path with another couple. We had never climbed it and found it to be very steep and frightening. We can relate to this climb having to stop every ten steps or so to catch our breath! We are in our mid-fifties and not in the best of shape but we are hopeful that these hikes will help us get into condition and shed some weight!

I just finished reading your book “Following Atticus.” Thank you so much for writing such a great adventure about you and your best friend, Atticus. It has inspired my wife and me to get out there and hike the forty-eight!

Our first mountain climb was Mt. Tom, a learning experience! We climbed this mountain first as a dedication to you for writing such an inspiring book! We completed Mt. Tom on May 30, 2015. I am keeping a journal of our hikes and have written why we chose Mt. Tom as our first mountain. Lucky for us, Mt. Tom is a moderate hike! We are hiking the moderate mountains first so as to build up our stamina in preparation for the strenuous mountains. We wish there were more moderate climbs! My wife keeps saying we should do other hikes to get into shape and not do the forty-eight first, but I keep thinking that we are not getting younger!

God bless you and Atticus and thank you for sharing your adventures together!

Dave Turner

Anonymous said...

I came across your book at a 2nd store in my home town of Moncton, NB Canada. I couldn't tear myself away from it and found myself laughing and crying. I once had a friend like Atticus. A little white dog that saved me from a black hole and brought light, meaning, laughter to my life. She was my friend, my family, my hiking and camping partner, she enabled me to do things that I never would have done alone. She's been gone for a while now but reading your book made her come alive again for me. Thank you for that.