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, August 10, 2017

From Our Time on the Trails this Morning

I don’t spend much time in the past. I don’t wallow in sadness, spend prolonged periods mourning or wishing things were different. On occasion, though, I find myself thinking of those who have left this life. It’s only natural. Memories float to me like the fragrances of wild flowers or the smell of late afternoon shade on a hot summer day. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my Aunt Marijane, who I wrote about in “Will’s Red Coat.” 

She comes to mind when I’m ruminating on something, not so much trying to figure things out, but merely digesting a turn of events, a new horizon, or a moving experience. 

We both had the gift of gab and could talk for hours several times a week, but we also knew the importance of listening to each other. It's is one of the reasons our love and friendship flourished as it did during the time we had together. 

What I miss about her is the way she listened. 

Just listened. 

She didn’t feel the need to offer an answer. She didn’t make suggestions. She was present, offering herself completely to me. 

That measure of selflessness is equal parts wisdom and heart. People who want to know what you are feeling and thinking, instead of telling you what you are feeling or thinking, or should be.

Too many listen merely to respond. Like conversation is a tennis match and you’ve served, and they must return volley. But what a gift it is to just acknowledge someone, to offer yourself without judgment, without ego, without the need to be clever.

As we walk in the woods each morning, and then again each evening, my feet move thoughtfully, like the prayers I’m uttering. That’s where my answers lay in wait. In silence, through walking meditation.

One of the attributes about having a quiet partner to share nature with is an animal's ability to be quiet. There is communion between us as we share a trail but still space for our independent thoughts. In the forest, reflections come and go, and before long we’re merely out there together striding in the natural world while filling our souls. 

Lately, I’ve noticed how Samwise has matured over the past year. This morning it was evident as we were striding along an earthen path and came around a bend only to stand face-to-face with a doe and her fawn. They tensed and readied to leap and bound off. Before they did, however, I crouched down slowly next to Samwise, who was fully alert, and I whispered, “Let them be, please. Let’s just watch, okay?”

No leash. No collar. No need for a hand or a firm voice to restrain him. 

He sat next to me; his body was as ready to spring as theirs were. Yet he stayed still, as did they. When he relaxed, so did they. Instead of bolting, they lingered before peacefully meandering on. The fawn, trailing behind her mother, looked back at us curiously as they moved through the undergrowth. The mother seemed to know we were not a threat.

These moments of growth serve as graduation days for Samwise, notches on the wall where I can see how far he’s come.

Were Marijane still alive and I told her about this she would offer no explanations or reasons or answers as to why things occurred as they did in the woods by the stream early in this morning. She would have taken it in, and we’d talk about it. What’s there to say, after all? An experience was offered and she received it.

When people ask me what changes I’ve noted about myself since returning from our trip, I tell them I’m quieter, more peaceful than I already was. Delving deeper, “I don’t feel the need for answers as much. I was already feeling that way before the trip but that sense of experiencing life without having to define it is more prevalent now.”

After Thoreau had died, Emerson memorialized him. In an essay he wrote: “He resumed his endless walks and miscellaneous studies, making every day some new acquaintance with Nature, though as yet never speaking of zoology or botany, since, though very studious of natural facts, he was incurious of technical and textual science.”

I can relate to Henry in that way. The science of being isn’t that important to me. I’d rather just be. 

In the forest, along paths that wind through communities of trees in all stages of life, death, and rebirth I feel the same way. Science is necessary, but I leave the need to know such things to others for that’s not why I come to the woods. 

Marijane hiked right up until the last decade of her life. She was fond of sharing trails with those she loved, but mostly she went into the desert with only a four-legged companion. Sometimes I see her walking that way. Sometimes I talk to her, and I know what she’d say in response to my observations. Her voice rings clear. When we sign off, she joyously offers the same closing she did in life, “Walk in beauty, Tommy.”

I do my best. 

A loving friend often asks me the best part of my day. I fear I bore her because my answers rarely change. It’s typically about our time in the forest, away from the busy world where we are embraced by the natural world.

Last week I climbed my first mountain in quite a while. It was clear that I am still rehabbing, still gaining strength because it wiped me out. It’s the up and down that messes with my blood pressure and my heart. The dizziness stirs, and I pay attention to it. After a break, it relaxes its spell and Samwise and I continue. 

Still, even knowing that climbing up is still difficult for me, I am enthralled with the forests and the streams that nourish them. Slowly I gather strength. A few months ago I couldn’t walk three miles. Now we log between six and seven a day. At the beginning of spring, I could not have crouched down as I did this morning near the doe and her fawn without getting dizzy. 

Just as Samwise matures, my balance and my cardiovascular system improve. Parts of me died last year, and as in the trees that keep us company, there is regeneration within as there is without. 

I don’t enjoy every step, as a well-wisher suggested the other day. Hiking is hard. But I do appreciate the earned ache in my hips, the way my heart beats at a healthy cadence, and how good it feels when I lay down each night with a book on my chest and a cool late summer breeze caressing me from the window above our bed.

The other day, for this first time in years, I bought some new hiking equipment – a backpack. That is a victory itself. 

As I told Marijane the other day, “I’m in the game again.”


In this contented monk-like existence, I feel abundantly alive. In spite of all I survived, I often think of Tennyson’s words at the end of Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Upcoming Chapters

We are home, and it feels…

It feels…

It’s interesting. 

It’s as if I’ve had a tune-up. I have a set of goals staring at me from the corner of my old desk. They each feel like invitations to go another adventure. 

For now, I won’t go into them. Suffice it to say that I'm overjoyed to be 
back on the trails we love, swimming and wading in the rivers and streams, and putting in more mileage than we have in the past year. 

Our kitchen has welcomed us home, as has my writing desk. Oh, to sit here is a joy itself. There wasn’t much writing done these last three months save for a few letters and cards to friends. But the written word beckons me. 

There are two projects I’m currently working on. Both are in the beginning stages. My first novel, and another memoir, a bit different than the last two. 

An excitement greets me that is fresh and tantalizing when I pick up a pen or sit down at the keyboard to let the words flow. It’s different than it used to be. Writing “Following Atticus” showed me I was a storyteller. “Will’s Red Coat,” helped along by maturity, experience, and my health issues, showed me I was an author. 

In “W.R.C.” I took more chances, felt freer, and bolder because…

Because . . . Let’s face it, when you dance with death, it loosens things up. It didn’t change me as much as it reminded me of what I wanted to accomplish. 

“Will’s Red Coat” prepared me for what comes next in my writing career. It let me know I can handle a novel, that the books will come more freely now. Although I will always love “Following Atticus,” Will’s book may never be replaced as my favorite no matter how many books I author. It’s not so much the story, it’s the writing and where it came from. It’s a new level. 

As my friend, Paula pointed out, “There’s more of you in there. I really got to know you.” 

Thinking about what comes next now has the butterflies in my gut swirling about. After “Will’s Red Coat” I fully believe there are no limitations to my writing. While I grew through my various sicknesses last spring, I’ve grown even more since then. That adds to the tools I can call on. 

As for Samwise, he’s also grown a great deal. The book tour and the road trip were intense lessons for him. (One day I may tell you about the time he and a bison touched noses.) To see him extend himself into the world, to know his limitations and what to take chances on is a joy to behold.

The other day, when a friend asked me if we would ever go out west again, I was honest in saying that I’m not sure. Doctors tell me I’m doing well, considering all that has happened, but the odds are against me living a long life. 

As one doctor put it, “The best way to describe it to you, Tom, is that there was a dumpster fire inside of you.”

Some things cannot be replaced. 

I have no plans on dying anytime soon, but it’s a reality I need to confront that I may not live into old age. All the more reason to write as much as I can, while I can. 

Before closing to go for an evening walk, I would like to tell those of you who came out to the book events just how much that meant to me. Seeing you face-to-face, hearing your stories, telling me how Will and Atticus touched your lives was a gift beyond any I have ever received. To hear you talk of your struggles with cancer, heart attacks, domestic violence, career changes, divorce, confronting your fears, and overcoming mental and physical challenges is the best medicine for me. That along with your comments about “Will’s Red Coat.”

Facebook tells me we have more than 245,000 followers on our page. As of tonight, there are only 112 reviews on Amazon and 253 on Goodreads.com. But gosh, they are magnificent! 

Thank you. Thank you! Thank you to everyone who has given a bit of themselves through their words in leaving a note about the story.

To see how “Will’s Red Coat” has moved those of you who have written reviews blows both my editor and me away. 

It’s incredible. 

By reading Will’s story, you’ve helped to keep his legacy alive. As I’ve said more than once, what was special about Will, what was relatable about him, is that he is every one of us who has ever been broken and had to choose a new direction. Like the subtitle says, he “chose to live again,” just as many of us have done. 

Onward, by all means. 
    

Sunday, July 16, 2017

All Roads Lead Home

I don’t own a television any longer. A few years back I knew of a single mother whose kids wanted a large flat screen TV but couldn’t afford one, so I gave her mine. 

I have not missed having one. 

We have been on the road for the eleven of the past twelve weeks, mostly staying in hotel rooms. I’ve yet to turn a television on. Tonight, though, will be a rare treat. The Red Sox and Yankees are on ESPN. It’s a fitting way to get us ready for the last three days of driving back to New England. 

I’ve changed the route we were going to take. We’ll still walk into our home on Wednesday, feeling comfortable in a place that has been whistling to us since we’ve left the bison behind.

Today, I told a dear friend that heading home feels a bit like getting ready for the first day of school. I always loved that feeling: the blank notebook pages and the buzz of the promise of what was to be. 

Back in Jackson, we’ll get back into our routine, but things will also be a little different. I look forward to sitting at my desk, writing as I digest recent experiences. I crave spending time in my kitchen and cooking meals from scratch once again. And yes, I look forward to the familiar trails that await our happy feet. But home is now different for us, just as we are different. 

I have some ideas of changes to make, pictures to hang, items to dispose of. The desire to become more of a minimalist (although not a full one) tugs at me these days.

“Do I need all these coffee mugs?” 

“What are all these pots and pans for?

“How many shirts does a guy need?”

I have no doubt we’ll be ditching about a third of what I own. 

This afternoon, we put an end to our time in Kentucky in a manner befitting our trek. We made our way through the fields and quiet roads of the hotels and restaurants that clutter these acres right off the freeway. Then we discovered a vacant lot, which led to a field of high grass. There was a faint path through it, and we could not help but follow along. Eventually, it took us to a stream shaded by overhanging trees and perfect for wading in on a hot and humid Kentucky day. 

Samwise brought me a stick, and I tossed it upstream. He waded after it, snared it in his teeth, and returned it to me. Again and again, we played out the cycle. It was delicious wading in that fresh, clean water. 

After a spell, I sat on a stone, my legs still in the water, while Samwise dried himself on the nearby grass, coming over from time to time to take a drink. 

How perfect is this, I thought. These simplest of pockets are what has defined our travels. Always in search of the quiet trail or path, sometimes the one that could barely be followed. Often finding our way through the back of highway rest areas through a hole in the fence, or a forgotten opening that led to a field or a neglected road or, in some cases if we were lucky, a forest path. 

These past two months have never been about many destinations. They've been about making up our minds as we drove down the road. Following wind and whim. I see it as a metaphor for the world, for life itself. I rarely care for the answers.  What excites me is curiosity and discovery. The mysterious is what lifts my heart and tells me to take note.


My favorite people are the ones who are never afraid to say “I don’t know.” Sometimes they say nothing at all. Or they understand I want to figure things out as I go. I’ve never been into the folks with all the answers and suggestions. After all, I want a life that works for me, and what works for me is not following the crowd. 

I remember an evening at Jackson Hole a couple of weeks back. I posted where we were, and I was flooded with suggestions on what to do, where to eat, what to see, where to go. One snag of advice echoed by several was a certain point along the road where the river bends and reflects the Tetons in the background at sunrise.

I already knew we were not going to stop there because it wouldn’t have been much fun for Samwise to sit right along the road waiting for the sun to show up. But as we approached the area, there were at least fifty people there, cameras and tripods set up to capture the way the rising sun hit the jagged peaks. 

We drove by.

Then another turn off that we were told about was upon us.  We drove by that one as well. 

Finally, I found a place where people don’t travel very often. I could tell by the conditions and the lack of signs. Bill got us to where we needed to be, and then we left him behind and walked along the river’s edge, not always seeing a path and therefore having to create our own. I sang out loud to give the grizzlies and moose some warning we were in the area. (If my voice didn’t scare them away, nothing would.)

Onward we walked, hopping logs, finding a path, seeing no one. Ultimately, though, we ended up in a crowded field, but what I loved about it was that everyone there was a wildflower. Among the yellows, purples, and pinks we played and luxuriated in this quiet and remote place. A sprinkling of bison was off in the distance. In another direction, a lone moose waded. Birds sang as the sun rose. And there was Samwise and I so far away from Jackson but feeling right at home.

Today’s late afternoon walk to the stream was a lot like that glorious morning in the Tetons. Simple gifts, solitude, quiet for giving thanks and saying prayers, and a place to play in with Samwise. 

Our trip has been about seeing much of the country outside of New Hampshire, but not always the most popular ones. I've sought out places of freedom where we could both enjoy ourselves. It has been a ball. But all roads lead back home because home is wherever we are. 

For nearly three months we have been away from our little hobbit hole and yet there was not a stitch of loneliness the entire time. I like that. It bodes well for the future, and it defines our current state. 

I know we are both ready for whatever comes because all that is guaranteed is the unknown. I figure we’ve learned to embrace that.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Our Big Trip, Six Weeks In


I have lost track of time. However, studying the calendar and adding up the days tells me we are now on Day 42. The original plan was 60 days, and I think we’ll come close to meeting that mark. We’re not quite at the three-quarter mark and yet time is running out on us. We need to be in La Grange, Illinois for a book event on July 13 and Andyville, Kentucky on July 15. I’m looking forward to both those events, but I also realize they’ll serve as a reality check that the daydreaming part of this odyssey will be over.


This has me doing something I haven’t done much of. I need to plan our days out carefully between now and Chicago to maximize what I want to see and do in the west. 

This evening, Samwise and I took a leisurely walk, then drove through the temperate air over to Whitefish, a few towns away, to visit their remarkable dog park. He is a social animal, more so than I am, and I see to his needs. I find plenty to talk about with those I meet, but I can also last days without conversation, especially when I am at home.

We met a genial fellow there who is originally from New Hampshire but has lived out here for more than a decade. Turns out he’s on the dog park committee and was justifiably proud that the New York Times listed their park as one of the ten best in the country recently. As Samwise played with his dogs we talked about New Hampshire and, before we left, I gave him copies of Following Atticus and Will’s Red Coat.

I don’t do that often, but it seemed the right fit and, he was quite pleased.

As we drove back to our hotel, the top down on Bill, Jackson Browne playing, and the golden light bathing us, I thought of something a friend recently asked.

“How are you going to handle returning home after seeing what you’ve seen while on the road?”

I replay that question in my head often because I like the answer.

“We live in New Hampshire, which has its own charms.”

Home is home.

I can imagine there will be a transition, to being still again, but we’ll be returning home just before August, the beginning of my favorite four months of the year in Jackson. There will be photographs and memories to think catalog. I have writing to catch up on. I like the routine of our simple life, as you can tell by reading about it in “Will’s Red Coat.”

Before we go home, however, there is still much to see, not to mention figuring out the way back to Jackson from Andyville when we do finally leave Kentucky. It will be a sweet route and one that is tempered in a gentler kind of beauty to the land. Already I’m considering a couple of days in a cottage or cabin if we can find one near the Finger Lakes in New York. A night in Cooperstown is also a possibility, and that always is a thrill for me.

Yesterday, we saw a deer, some long horn sheep, and several bison. The wonder of it all is still with me. We’ll be seeing more in the upcoming week, and hopefully some grizzly and moose, too.

I swear, watching that buffalo approach us yesterday was a thrill. I was ready to put Bill in gear in a hurry if need be, but the gigantic fellow’s tail was swishing back and forth casually. He appeared to be more curious that anything else as he approached, and then passed right behind us. 


Samwise has matured throughout the trip, even from that moment when he saw his that elk at the Grand Canyon and was excited by the idea of playing with it. With all the animals he’s seen since, he’s taken them in stride and remained a still and studious observer. I’m proud of him.

Even at the dog park, while he was racing and romping with others, whenever I called him to me he was attentive as he pulled himself away from the pack.

I look forward to seeing how this translates to the trails back home. Before, not only was his body too immature to hike, his mind was as well. He’s ready now, though. It appears I may be, too. 

Teaching Samwise to approach quietly so we can watch the ducks and heron. 
Over the next several days we’ll be back to rising before the sun to have the parks to ourselves, not to mention the best lighting for photographs. It feels weird to have the alarm go off at four in the morning while we are away from home, but when we get to linger in the solitude of places that will be crowded a few hours later, it’s well worth it.

As I sit here writing tonight, I realize that the full scope of this adventure will not hit me until long after we are home. However, I still make it a point to give thanks and take quiet moments to reflect on our good fortune, especially compared to where we each were just over a year ago.