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, January 22, 2016

April Is Getting Closer

The last of our gear has arrived. Camp stove, pots and pans, water filter, sumptuous six-inch memory foam mattress, tent, lanterns, back up batteries for all our electronic needs, coolers, and on and on and on.

We have everything we’ll need to set out on the third week of April. From there, if we need anything else, we’ll pick it up on the road. 

The plan is to spend four or five nights a week camping and two to three nights a week in affordable motels. Much of that will depend upon the weather.

One of the advantages of setting out in spring is that not only will we see wildlife emerging from their winter torpor, we’ll also have a good chance of seeing their young. Oh, how exciting that will be!

This will be so different from the trip my father took us one in the summer of 1969. We won’t be going to the regular tourist hang outs and we’ll skip most of the National Parks to give Atticus more freedom. Still, it will be nice to pass through some of the National Park Service land during its hundredth anniversary.

I’ve only set up connections with a few friends along the way. The plan was always about traveling and seeing the land and not so much visiting with folks. Of course, there will be many interactions along the way of the unplanned variety. There are interesting people in the world and I look forward to meeting some of them as their fate intersects with ours. 

The night before we set out, we’ll take a hotel room three hours to the south, right in the Medway vicinity. My old hometown doesn’t hold any special allure to me, other than it being where I used to come from, and that it is the place where my parents, Jack and Isabel are buried.

On that first day, we’ll visit their grave at sunrise. Then it will be down the street, around the corner, and about a mile away to the house I grew up in. I don’t think anyone lives in it any more, although I’m told they are fixing it up. But we’ll stop there and park on the little dead end street it sits on. 

On the day we left on our own one-month long trip across the country, seven of us sat in the car waiting for the final checks before my father hopped into the station wagon. My two eldest siblings weren’t making the trip with us, because they had “grown-up” things to do. But here we were, all sitting together, packed in tension and nervousness and excitement. It was Jack Ryan’s idea to take his children away from the home where our hearts were heavy due to my mother’s death six days before the previous Christmas Day. We were off to see America, in the hopes of trading heavy hearts for winged ones. 

My memories are not so strong of my childhood. But I do think the closest we ever were again was on that morning, sitting and waiting for the adventure to begin.

So that’s where Atticus and I will sit for a few moments of silence. I’ll try to remember the innocence of years gone by and I’ll say a prayer for my father and my mother and for good luck on our journey. Then, I’ll start up the car, leave that dead end road, turn left, as we did forty-seven years ago, to the west to everything that is waiting for us.

That first night we’ll stay with friends Tammi and Marybeth in Pennsylvania. The next night will be our first in a campground, most likely on the Outer Banks. After that, there isn’t much planning. Just a couple of feathers born by the wind and tied together by a lifetime of friendship.  

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Chipmunks and Squirrels and Hope in a Dark Season

My father used to sit at his kitchen window, a cup of tea in front of him, the smoke of a cigarette spiraling into the air, and cuss at the squirrels raiding his birdfeeders  They drove him crazy. He’d bang on the window, or open it up and yell at them.

It didn’t matter. They always came back.

He’d think he’d come up with some new contraption to fend them off, to keep them away from the seeds he put out for his beloved birds, but it never worked. Not for long, anyway. Such is the ability of squirrels to solve puzzles.

You could say that in those last years, when he lived alone, he was cursed by squirrels for they became the bane of his existence. 

When Atticus and I first moved to Jackson, it was in the spring. Soon after, we met a sweet old lady who was very active. When she found out that I fed the squirrels and the chipmunks, she visibly shuddered.

“Why on earth would you do that?” She demanded. I couldn’t help but think of dear old dad, especially when she went on to tell me how she coped with them during gardening season.

“I take a big metal pail and fill it up halfway with water. Then I take a narrow piece of wood and lay it across the top. After that, I lined that wood with sunflower seeds.”

“I’m not sure I follow,” I said.

She smiled. Not a kind smile. It was a cunning one. “The chipmunks loved the sunflower seeds and would go up on that piece of wood to retrieve them, but the wood was so narrow they’d fall in the water and drown.”

That’s when it was my turn to shudder. That’s also when I decided I’d always feed our chipmunks and squirrels.

I don’t feed our local bears and don’t put out anything when the bears are active.  But the rest of the year I take comfort in having a kinship of kindness with all other wild things. I put out seeds and fruits for the various souls that visit our yard. It’s become a regular thing, one that is quite popular with our winged and four legged neighbors.

Nearly every morning, soon after the sun is up, three crows balance on the lone tree that floats in the middle of our backyard. It’s not well and every year there is some talk about removing that old black ash. But I don’t dare, for while it’s the last tree to dress herself in leaves in the spring and the first to drop them in September (and even then they are not very pretty), the local wildlife take comfort in that tree.

One night, when I was taking Atticus out one last time before we went to bed, I saw two sets of eyes about five feet off the ground in the black ash. I walked over next to the tree, those four eyes transfixed by my beaming headlamp, and came face to face with two curious baby raccoons. They sat in that tree looking at me from just two feet away, and they were just as interested in me.

Through the past six years I’ve seen all kinds of life in that tree from the regular visiting birds to hawks and owls. I’ve also seen bears who were comical in the way they seemed to think they could hind behind narrow branches as if they were invisible.

Here it is, the middle of winter again. There are a couple of feeders on the tree, both loaded with a variety of seeds. On our second floor deck, I have a suet feeder and a sunflower seed feeder. The way they are set up and designed, they are marketed as “squirrel-proof.” This would please my dearly-departed father. But then he’d howl at me for the way I take a small bucket of seeds out nearly every morning, and spread them across the top of the snow. These, as you might have guessed, are for the squirrels.

Each morning, just before I refill the feeders, I find myself reading either poetry or essays. Today, I read an essay bemoaning what was going on in the world today from the hatred of terrorists, to the hatred of presidential candidates, to the hatred of militiamen, and I was reminded to hold onto hope.

Today’s essay, written by Omid Safi on the On Being website, contained the following: “A few days ago I was reminded when a friend posted a note on social media about an old tradition in Ottoman societies (today’s Turkey, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Bosnia, Greece, etc.). Whenever it snows, people go to the top of a mountain and scatter seeds for birds. The reason is as simple as it is immediate: birds are creatures of God. And as the Prophet said, if you want the All-Merciful God to show you mercy, show mercy to the creation of the All-Merciful.”

And there I had it. In a world where terror and hate often take over center stage and the front page of the newspaper and the first story on the evening news, there are millions of us in the world doing something so simple as feeding birds (and squirrels) in the bleak midwinter.

I’m not sure about you, but I believe in a world were millions perform these random acts of kindness.  Something as simple as filling a birdfeeder is reason for hope, there is reason to believe in kindness, and there is proof that our hearts can be as active as our heads and our egos.

Such is the light of day in the darkest and the coldest of the four seasons. Hope exists, sometimes anonymously. 

Monday, January 04, 2016

We Stalk What Could Be Our Last Adventure

April is approaching rapidly. Soon we'll be in our old but reliable Honda Fit, its fender held together with a few patches of duct tape, and headed south, then west, then north, and finally east. I figure it will take us two months and up to twenty-thousand miles.

I also have come to figure that it may very well be our last adventure. 

Atticus is aging quickly. He's better than Will ever was when he was with us, but things are changing. He's now completely deaf, his eyes can't always see me unless I move and he is helpless with shiny floors and the depth perception in going down the stairs. Yesterday, his hips gave out on him three different times. That was a first. But as always, we'll make do and figure things out. Or as Paige, Atti's breeder, used to say way back then with her southern twang, "Y'all will work it out."  And she was right, we always have.

Instead of concentrating on what he's lost though, I'm throwing myself into what we still have. That's this friendship and this upcoming adventure. 

If I miss the mountaintops, I would imagine he does too. But from April 21 through June 21 we'll drive to all the natural wonders possible, concentrating on ones where there aren't crowds. And for places like the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, we'll try to get to the popular places in off hours, typically first thing in the morning for a few pictures.

As some of you know, we'll be targeting National Forests instead of National Parks because N.F. are more dog-friendly. And while some allow dogs off leash, Atticus will need his in most places we go just so we don't get separated. Being off-leash for all these years was so successful while we climbed mountains because he could hear my every whisper and respond. Now he cannot hear my loudest bellow. 

So like Tennyson's Ulysses, when the spring flowers start to appear in the mountains, we'll be on our way facing Atti's old age and whatever the world and time has waiting for us.

While looking forward, I cannot help but pay tribute to the past and all those mountains and all those miles and the things most with two or four legs wouldn't even dream about. From the first day, I've taken out as much as I can of what divides us, especially the words people use as labels, and put my energy into what we would make together in a unique manner.  And that's what this trip is about. It's one more time into the breach of a limitless life while we have it to share. Only mystery awaits us going forward, even this grand adventure is a mystery, and I have no idea what time will bring to us, but for now we have Tennyson's Ulysses to look toward, and his words at the end of the famous poem. 

"Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

To strive, to seek to find, and not to yield...yes, two friends who have been through much will do it at least one more time, while he can still enjoy it. Best of all, we'll do it our way. 

Onward, by all means.