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Narnia Lost by Tom Ryan

Tom and Atticus
Tom and Atticus

Late in the spring of 2005, Atticus and I were climbing Cannon Mountain and had reached what would become one of my favorite places in the White Mountains – Cannon Cliffs. For two novice hikers it was an astounding view and when I stepped through the shrubs and stood on those cliffs, nowhere near the edge mind you, and looked across Franconia Notch to the awesome sight of Lafayette, Lincoln, Little Haystack, Liberty, and Flume my fear of heights heckled me. But my fear had a dancing partner – a sense of awe.

Atticus, who does not mind heights, got closer to the edge, sat down and took in the view, as he has on every fair weather hike we’ve ever gone on since that time. Me? Well, with shaking legs, I slowly lowered myself down onto a rock and even once completely seated I had a thrilling fear run through me that at any moment the hand of God would just reach out and snatch me over the precipice.

Cannon was our second 4,000-foot peak of the summer; a summer that would see us hiking all forty-eight of the highest peaks of New Hampshire in eleven weeks. However, at the time, I had no idea that we would get them done so quickly. Nor did I realize those three months would be one of growth and bonding like none I’d ever experienced.

Soon after leaving the cliffs we were on our way toward the summit when we encountered a woman walking in the opposite direction. I asked her how the summit was.

“Didn’t make it,” she said. “Came to a bog and I realized there was no way I was going to get across it so I turned back.” She went on to tell me that she only had five peaks left to finish all forty-eight.

As we said goodbye she headed down the Kinsman Ridge Trail and we nearly followed her. After all, if a “seasoned” hiker like that was turning back, what chance did a couple of rubes like us – an overweight, middle-aged, out-of-shape newspaper editor and a twenty pound terrier – have of making it to the mountaintop?

For whatever reason, we continued on and with every step I dreaded the thought of what awaited us and asked myself the same question repeatedly, “What the hell is a bog?”

Whatever it was it had to be impassable and challenging and could quite possibly be the end of our quest in only our second hike. But what awaited us was not some giant sinkhole that would drag us to our deaths, but merely a very large puddle.

“Really? This is why she turned back?” I said as both man and dog skirted the edge of the large puddle, Atti’s paws and my shoes barely getting wet in the process. I was certain there was something far more vast awaiting us. But there wasn’t, and we made it to the tower atop Cannon without incident.

What I learned that day was first, that no matter how fearful I was, there was something within me that was willing to face those fears – weather it be the way heights paralyzed me or some impossible challenge blocking the trail. The second was that I could not take another’s perception or experience of the mountains as my own. Atticus and I would simply have to experience them for ourselves. One woman’s bog would simply be our puddle.

Recently, when a friend of mine started her own quest to hike the forty-eight, she talked with amazement, dread, and some fear of the challenges that await her. She wondered how many days it would take to get across the Bonds, or out to Owls Head and back. When I told her it was not as tough as all of that, I remembered that first summer Atticus and I were up here. Each hike was a new adventure, and seemingly an entirely new world with what at the time seemed impossible tasks on some mythic hero’s journey. There were several moments when I wondered how we’d get past the next challenge facing us, but we always did and through it all we grew, swallowing one fear after another.

After Cannon came the two Osceolas, then Carrigain, the Hancocks, and Jackson. We came north every weekend and hiked two or three days. I couldn’t help myself. I was drunk with the passion of reaching every mountaintop as soon as possible. We weren’t simply climbing the mountains, we were inhaling them. And before I knew it our summer was over when we stood atop West Bond on a twenty-three mile hike.

In the coming days, instead of being proud about what we had accomplished, I was depressed. I was empty and lethargic and realized that the quest was over and I was now lost. Atticus and I had stepped away from the comfort of beloved Newburyport, a small city on the North Shore of Massachusetts and entered into our own private Narnia just two hours from our cozy apartment. But now Narnia was lost to us. We had found a sense of discovery and I had regained a sense of innocence in the process. But with the goal attained I felt like I’d simply awakened from the most wondrous dream and I longed to get back there. I just didn’t know how.

When my friend recently asked me for any advice I could give her regarding hiking the forty-eight, I told her, “Don’t rush. Every hike, every mountain will bring you a child-like magic and you don’t want to take one drop of it for granted.

Atticus and I would soon discover other challenges in the form of winter hiking or in other peaks that were not quite as tall but were just as special. But there will never be anything like that first summer of hiking for us. It was new and special and enchanting, and once it was done I knew it would never come back to us. So my advice to my friend and other hikers throughout the last seven years has always been quite simple and not technical in the least bit – savor every bit of your journey. Savor the tests, your fears, the accomplishments. But more than anything, savor the magic of what it’s like to be an adult who gets to feel like a child once again.

About Tom Ryan

Thomas Ryan was the founder and publisher of The Undertoad, a Newburyport, Massachusetts newspaper and went on to write the popular “Hiking with Tom & Atticus” column in the NorthCountry News and Mountainside Guide. During the winter of 2006-2007 Ryan and his dog Atticus climbed 81 4,000-foot peaks while raising several thousand dollars for the Jimmy Fund and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for the fight against cancer. Then, in the winter of 2007-2008 the duo climbed 66 4,000-foot peaks while raising thousands of dollars for Angell Animal Medical Center in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Because of their fundraising efforts Ryan and Atticus Finch were inducted into the Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) Hall of Fame as the co-recipients of that organization’s “Human Hero of the Year Award” at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Tom is the author of Following Atticus which was published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, last September. It chronicles their adventures in the White Mountains and their lives together. It is currently one of five finalists for the New England Non-Fiction Book of the Year. The paperback is due out today, August 7, 2012, and can be purchased anywhere good books are sold.

32 comments

  1. Thank you for reading our post on this day the paperback of Following Atticus is released. I’d also like to welcome our Following Atticus Facebook friends to this wonderful site. If you enjoy hiking, you’ll love SectionHiker.com and what Philip Werner has created here. Onward, by all means, Tom & Atticus.

    • Tom, I love this piece, especially the ending line. We should all “savor the magic of what it’s like to be an adult who gets to feel like a child once again.” Your journey with Atticus shows us that we must pursue such feelings, because they do not simply come to us. We can all find adventures, even in our daily lives, but we must create them.

  2. Katherine Harrington

    Loved it! Makes me want to go hiking (but maybe not until it cools off…it’s predicted to be over 100 degrees again today). Love your writing style. Can’t wait to read your book :)

    • Thank you, Katherine. Oh, and I agree with you. No way Atticus and I are stepping on a trail when the temp gets higher than 85 degrees. We’ve become cool to cold weather hikers through the years, especially after our winter hikes.

  3. I describe you to others as ‘the modern day philosopher’. I love your writing style and inclusion of literary themes and find your blogs to be inspirational. I am a dog lover but not a mountain climber, at least not yet! All the best on your paperback launch. I look forward to meeting you at RJJulia.

  4. Tom, I tend to stumble across your articles at the exact moment I need each one. Sharing a surname with Atticus and living in the Whites help with my connection to your fine writing. Keep on livng—and sharing—the magic, you two.

  5. Tom,
    I love your writing. As a beginner hiker I find your work inspiring. Your book was my companion this past June when my youngest son, Shiloh, was born here at Memorial and then transferred to the NICU at Maine Medical. I agree with Kathy Finch, your articles and book, are uplifting, comforting and comical. My little family and I are glad Atticus is doing well. We follow you on FB. I wish I could have made it tonight to your launch. Thank fully, the wonderful people at White Birch Books have set aside a copy for me. Congrats on your big day! I look forward to reading many more. Take care!

  6. Wow, Melissa, I’m honored that Followin Atticus was with you when you went through all of that. I’m hoping Shiloh is doing well now, and so are you. Thank you for commenting.

  7. As usual, Tom, your abilities at heartfelt prose come through exquisitely in this beautifully written piece. Wishing you much success with the release of the Following Atticus paperback due out today.

  8. Tom,

    Your article proved nostalgic for me.Having lived in New Hampshire, I have climbed many of the peaks you mentioned, often with a dog. I fell in love with mountain climbing in 1975 with my first climb, Mt. Washington, but I only managed to complete 20 of the 4000-footers.

    New England is truly blessed to have such wondrous landscapes.

  9. Hello, Jane. Glad to bring you a dose of nostalgia. New Hampshire’s a beautiful place to be, and I’ve come to know it all the more because of my relationship with Atticus. Thanks for commenting.

  10. Beautifully written, Tom, as always. Good advice for all hikers. Nice work!

  11. in the beggining of this summer, i went to my local library to look for a book, not knowing what kind. i asked my librarian for suggestions, he just gave me a blank stare and said said ” well right now i can help you, i’m bussy ” well i felt so incomplete, here i am an avid reader and i can count on someone that to tell you the truth was not bussy , he was only checkin books out, and no one else was there just me. and he looked miserable. and so i asked myself if yu live among books then be happy. i could live there. any ways so i began to rummage around the return books this one in particular stood out… and so i picked it up, looked at the cover and knew right away it was goin to be a good one…tom and atticus !! thank u so much. i’ve been in those mountains and it felt as if i was back again. this is the first summer that i did not go back, so it felt like camping again. favorite campground Lost River”

    Sonia

  12. Thought provoking piece Tom. Jane (earlier commenter) and I lived in New Hampshire for close to 30 years and loved it. I got to choose where we lived for the first 30 years, Jane likes it hot, so now we live in Sarasota, Florida for the next 30 and then the kids get to pick which home they want to put us in!

    We loved hiking in the White Mountains with our dog too. They’re like kids in a candy store. They see the world through their noses and all those new smells must be a huge jigsaw puzzle to solve. Our dogs always ended up walking twice as far. Why is it the odors never follow a straight line?

    I’ve heard of your book, Following Atticus, but haven’t as yet read it. I’ll be sure to get a copy soon. I can’t read enough about hiking.

    One of your previous commentators, caught my eye, Kathy Finch, trail name, “Kit Kat.” She is quite a hiker herself, having hiked all of Maine. Anyone that has completed that section knows what a challenge that is! Hmmm, Atticus has the same last name, “Finch.”

    “Kit Kat” came to my rescue when I did my Appalachian Trail hike in 2008. She picked several of us up after Mt. Mooselauke, hauled us into town (North Woodstock?), fed us and returned us to the trail. She ranked as an Uber-angel as far as we were concerned. Later, she again went up to Gorham and helped out again. Talk about a brute for punishment. I often wonder if she was able to air out the vehicle properly after that?

    Thanks again Tom. Continue to inspire us!

  13. Thanks, Mr. Ryan. Meditation-stirring allusion to a lost Narnia. I’m reminded of Mr. Lewis’ vision of Heaven as the simultaneous experiences of both newness and oldness, wonder and familiarity, adventure and rest. “Behold, I make all things new!” and “Welcome home.” We do indeed find in ourselves “desires which nothing in this world can satisfy.”

    Best regards,
    Joe B.

  14. Tom, great post and I like your advice.

    Good luck on your winter hikes, I think you might find a new special feeling standing atop a snow covered peak!

    Nothing makes an old trail new like a few feet of snow!

    • Oh, you are so right, Mazzachusetts. During our first three years of hiking Atticus and I reached the summit of 168 four thousand footers in winter. It was incredibly different, peaceful, and, at times, much more challenging. Winter hiking is an entirely different beast. And some days in winter, it’s actually warm enough that Atticus gets to do his summit sitting as if it were summer still. A warm sun helps.

      • Ahh haha I read your post wrong, I thought you hadn’t started your winter treks! My bad! And that’s a lot of winter summits, you two are machines! I’m always extra impressed by the smaller dogs that can peak bag.

  15. Wonderful post Tom! Loved your book too of course. So heartfelt, so honest, so well-written! I hope the paperback sells really well for you. I have also been bitten hard by the hiking bug and am about to finish the NE 67 4ks and have started on the hundred highest. After finishing the 4ks, I too felt a little lost, but found that it was short lived. So many adventures out there! I recently organized a hike up Jackson for small dogs and their friends, but many had to cancel because of the heat and threatened thunderstorms (which never came). At 10 lbs, my dog Sophie is an amazing hiker, although she doesn’t seem to enjoy the views the same way Atti does. But she ceratinly enjoys the trail! i’ve always wondered whether Atticus enjoys the company of other dogs or if he is so connected to you that other canines hold no interest?

  16. Pam W, congratulations on getting to all those peaks. Once you get that bug it’s nearly impossible to get it out of your system. Thank goodness!

    Atticus loves to meet other dogs. And then about ten seconds later he loves to move on. He’s great with other dogs, they just don’t seem to hold much allure for him. Not sure why that is. Perhaps it’s because his strongest bond is with me, and I can be the same way with people; or if it was because he was an only puppy; or maybe it’s something entirely different.

    On the trails we rarely enjoy hiking with others. It’s such pure private and peaceful time for us.

  17. Tom (& Atticus), Thanks! This is very encouraging for a novice like myself. I will be picking up a copy of Following Atticus this week for more encouragement! – John

  18. Tom, I just this minute finished reading Following Atticus. I couldn’t put it down (yeah, I know, a cliche). Really, I couldn’t. I purchased the print copy and it went with me to places I won’t mention here, but I will say that Kathleen Meyer (How To Shit In The Woods) would be proud of me.

    What a read! I love a trail read that makes me part of the writers family. I felt like I was there with you and Atticus all the way.

    I’ve also managed to get out there in some pretty wild weather, and your descriptions were spot-on. It is environment that can be difficult to put into words. Your concern for Atticus’s comfort really hit home with me. So many put their dogs in danger by not paying attention to basic things.

    Over the years I’ve hiked with several of our dogs. One was a Bicshon Frise, a very unlikely ball of hair that loved being out there. In many ways, dogs are like their hiker owners. In my book, Three Hundred Zeroes, I described the hikers one sees setting out from Springer Mountain in Georgia in the Spring. I hypothesize trying to pick which will finish the thru-hike. The most unlikely, 90 pound woman, with a tarp and no money, will make it to Katahdin, and the muscular, football player, with all the latest gear and a bank account to match, won’t. It is all about attitude and psyche. Atticus has that “attitude.”

    In the hiking community, there is always a debate around whether to take a dog or not, especially on long distance hikes. I’ve always felt that as long as they’re well behaved and socially adjusted, they’re welcome. Too many weekend-wonders go out with a dog that has no sense of place and can spoil the outdoor experience for many. On the other hand, many dogs can be a sheer joy. I was hiking through Virginia with a fellow with a dog named “Petey,” and he was wonderful to be with, even in the shelters. I have a feeling he and Atticus would have been great company for each other, as well as the other hikers.

    I’d rank your book as one of the best I’ve ever read. Period. Great story, good writing and wonderful dog. I’ll post a review on Amazon in a couple of days, but I like to let my reviews distill a bit before I post them.

    Thanks for telling a story that gave me so much joy.

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