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.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Hospital Dream

Something a little more personal tonight. Some thoughts about what went into writing Will's Red Coat and how we got where we are today.

In my sleep, I often return to a night from last April.

The dream comes for me now and then, and I am transported.

In my dream, I am sleeping. Sleeping so deeply it feels like I am floating in a pool of death, black and still. Everything is calm. Then something changes and I'm propelled out of the depths, and I wake up not knowing where I am.

Again, this all takes place in my dream. And while I am still sleeping, I feel like I am opening my eyes.

Where am I?

There is something on my face. I feel like I cannot breathe. I panic and try to pull it off. A nurse appears and takes hold of my hands.

"Tom, it's okay."

Her voice is kindness itself. It is understanding.

I search her face. I have never seen her before. She can tell I am confused.

"You are okay. You have been under for hours."

I try to talk, but there is something over my mouth. I want to breathe.

Again, she holds my hands. "You have to leave it on. You cannot breathe without it."

"Where am I?" Although it doesn't come out like that. It comes out like a moan. The angel nurse understands, though.

"You were moved to ICU."

"I thought I was dead."

After three tries by me, she understands.

"We won't let that happen, but for a little while, we thought you were, too. Something tells me you won't let that happen either, Tom."

That's when I wake up. Always at the same point.

I often find myself back in that dream, in that bright room.

I remember a little more of it each time.

I was fighting for breath and rushed from dialysis when I passed, I'm told. I was out for a very long time, some of it induced by the doctors.

I don't know why I go back there. When I do, I travel across fields of emotions. There are tears and smiles. There is acceptance.

When I learned I had a monstrous breathing machine on to help me; I asked the nurse for my phone.

"You can't call anyone right now, Tom. You need to keep the mask on. It is how you are breathing."

"I don't want to call anyone."

I had to repeat it so she could understand me.

"Then why do you want your phone?"

"I want you to take my picture so I can send it to my friends, so they can see I am okay... and handsome as ever. They worry about me."

She laughed, and I smiled and gave her the thumbs up, but you can't tell from the photo she took.

I don't know why my dreams take me back to this night, but it happens about once a month. They don't frighten me. It's just the opposite. I find a curious comfort when I return. The quiet. The starkness with all that flooding light as I emerge from the depths. There is an understanding that I am alive when maybe I shouldn't be.

I think perhaps I return to that place when asleep because there is no way to comprehend it all when I am awake. In slumber, I can float through it all and pick up a lost piece here and there.

I know there are no answers, although some pretend to know what they cannot possibly. It is all part of a mystery.

The other night, after I finished reading the opening of Will's Red Coat, I pointed out that I wrote it as two different people. The first draft before my extended hospital stay; the second draft much later, when I could finally think straight again.

When considering that strange night when I woke up, and they were emptying my lungs of fluid that was drowning me with a needle longer than any I had ever seen, it felt like I owned all I had ever known but was also starting from an entirely new place.

I would leave the hospital a month after that night and Atticus would leave me twelve days after my return. That's when the dream, or memory, came most often.

When I think of everything that has changed since that May Day when Will arrived, all that living, all that work, the struggle, the growth and joy and surrender, and then the parting, and my almost leaving, followed by Atti's leaving, I realize I'm changed from who I was before it all.

There is much that went into writing Will's Red Coat. There was the old me and the renewed me.

In the moments before we go on stage or in front of a crowded bookstore during each event of our upcoming tour, I will revisit all of this. I'll carry it with me when I stand before everyone. I will think of dear Will, resolute Atticus, and that night I go back to.

I am a charmed man to have experienced so much. I feel wealthy to be able to carry it with me.

In the next few days, our tour will be announced, and it will become even more real. After each event, after all that excitement, when we get back to our hotel room, and I turn out the light, I get the feeling I will say my prayers, and when they are sent off, I'll whisper to Atticus and Will, we did well tonight, my friends. We did well.

I look forward to seeing many of you out on tour during the few weeks we are on the road.

Onward, by all means.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

A Letter About Will's Red Coat

In the next week or so, advance reader’s copies of “Will’s Red Coat” will be making their way across the country to media outlets and bookstores to give them a preview of what is to come. (A.R.C.s are a paperback version of the book that is 98% done. It is used as a marketing tool.) 

In the past a member of our publishing team would write a letter to accompany the A.R.C.  However, this time I was asked to write it.  I thought I’d share it here with all of you this morning.

Dear Reader,
Just outside, a soft December snow falls. Evergreens, birches, and maples are coated in white. Even the lone old black ash tree that has been dying for years is made to look young again. Such is the magic of transformation through Nature.  
I no longer look at our backyard the way I used to before Will came along. He changed the way I see the simplest things, reminding me that they are often miraculous themselves. 
You see, Atticus and I always had the grandeur of the mountaintops, climbing close to three thousand of them in a decade. But Will helped me to recognize the extraordinary in what we often take for granted. The optimistic yellow of dandelions in the spring, the nostalgic smell of summer shade, the crunch of fallen leaves during autumn in New England, and the purity of icicles in the winter. They were all gifts that helped a fifteen-year-old deaf dog who struggled to walk and see—who had lost everything, including his home, trust, and hope—to regain himself. 
I brought Will here to give him a place to die with dignity. Those early days were rough for all of us, but on his way to dying, he did something no one expected. He chose to live again.
What was to be a brief two- or three-month stay grew into two and a half years of wonder. When the time finally came to say goodbye to Will, I was surprised by how right it all felt. Instead of grief I had nothing but reverence for a friend, who in the end, got it right.  

Will left behind a legacy where hundreds of thousands of his fans were touched by one bright soul. None of those more than me. Each day when I look up above my desk and see his red coat hanging there, I smile and think that Will, who was once an afterthought discarded in a kill shelter, was transformed into something extraordinary by Nature, and by love, faith, and friendship.
On the night before he died in my arms, I knelt next to Will and told him I would tell his story. I’m honored to have kept that promise. 
Onward, by all means,
Tom Ryan

You can pre-order Will's Red Coat any number of ways. It will be available wherever fine books are sold. But you can also pre-order a personalized copy of it from my local bookstore, White Birch Books.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Stars Aligning

Oh, how the winter night calls to us. Yes, there may be less light these January days than we’d like, but in the darkness, the stars shine brightly.  For me, it has always been a metaphor for my faith. 

The other night Samwise and I were in the forest, having timed our walk so that we were there in the darkness. It’s part of his training, and part of my joy. Slowly I have been introducing my young companion to various aspects of the natural world he’ll deal with when he’s ready to hike without limitation. 

A couple of weeks ago during a talk I gave at the Currier Museum of Arts in Manchester as part of their celebration of the White Mountain artists of the 1800s, I was asked why I was limiting Samwise’s time on the trails. The first answer is a simple one, something I fear is being lost as hikers become more aggressive with their pursuit of hiking goals. A dog’s body needs to mature. He’s just turned a year old, and I won’t feel comfortable getting him out on a mountain and on a trail longer than five miles until he’s eighteen months old. His joints and his bones need the time. 

However, there is another issue. It’s the mental aspect of hiking. Samwise is still a pup, gregarious and joyous with boundless energy. But he doesn’t know yet what he doesn’t know. He needs to be aware of his limitations. His first experience with ice was comical, but it was carefully monitored so that he didn’t fall through it into deep water. He’s still learning about wildlife and he’s so friendly I'm concerned about his encounters with those who might not take so kindly to his enthusiasm. Especially moose and porcupines. He’s also still learning to be a good citizen, to fit in appropriately with people and understand that it is not okay to jump up on folks when he meets them. Or to understand that not all people like dogs. 

I fully respect all of this, and I want him to be a bit more seasoned before he heads up into the mountains of New Hampshire. But that still leaves us plenty of gentle hiking throughout the region. A favorite locale has become Thorne Pond. I’ve written about its lyric setting before, but it is a perfect training ground for him to learn to sit, stay, observe, and be polite. 

Fortunately for me, he’s the smartest four-footed fellow I’ve lived with. He picks up on things quickly. He’s obsessively observant. He’s learned to sit and watch the locals like the lone otter and the lone heron as they live their lives around the pond. He’s done well with bears encountered along the trail, and although he sorely tempted, he restrained himself from running with a fox. (Frankly, I’m not sure the fox would know what to make of my smiling friend as he tried to lick him to death.)

More than any other dog I’ve been acquainted with, he loves to look up. At night, I’ll wake in bed seeing him next to me sitting and looking out the window. In the middle of the evening, he’s drawn to the moon and the stars. When we are in the car and moving down the road, when a bird flies overhead, he watches until it leaves his sight. Recently, when I bought a convertible and while visiting friends on an unseasonably warm Christmas Eve down in Newburyport, I took the top down. He was mesmerized by the lights downtown, and the stars when we reached the countryside. 

When we were in the woods the others night, I let him run as he’s wont to do, but I kept recalling him to my side. When we entered the meadow, I stopped in my tracks at the vision of Mars, the moon, and Venus lined up perfectly in a small area. I called Samwise back and asked him to sit with me. As I knelt, he sat. That’s when he looked up and saw the three celestial bodies together. He didn’t move, other than to keep his head craned upward in wonder. I felt his body's weight against mine, felt his warmth and his calm. 

The past year has been one of intense experiences for me. My near death, Atticus’s unexpected death, Samwise’s unexpected arrival, my long recovery, finishing the final draft of my latest book. But at that starry moment, all time and past and future disappeared. I felt my place in the universe with pure understanding. As Emerson would say in his Transcendental way, or Muir in his kinship of the wild, Samwise and I were with our peers out in that snowy field, with stars so brilliant, so bewildering, and humbling, I couldn’t help but feel I was part of all we saw. And that little line that divides man and beast vanished and what we shared was the sacrament of communion. 

Nature has a way of bringing us home. If we pay attention to her ways, if we have reverence for her, and gratitude, the song that emanates in her heart, plays in ours. Every vibration is there for us. Every quaver, every octave, and note. No matter what life throws at us – the good, the bad, the day-to-day – we are always part of the grand scheme of things. All we need do is recognize it. 

That night, with Samwise by my side, both of us intoxicated the heavenly firmament, I recited some simple words from that old New Hampshire farmer, Robert Frost. Perhaps his shortest poem, “A Question.”

“A voice said, Look me in the stars
And tell me truly, men of earth,
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth.”

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

ATTI - 48

I am a strange bird in that I toe the line between pragmatism and romanticism. This occurred to me last night as I looked back on what transpired at our town clerk’s office in the morning. Karen Burton, I must say, is the kind of clerk every small town should have. She runs everything cleanly and with a smile. And, if you are friendly, as we are, she gives grand hugs at just the right time.

I registered our new car with her by filling out the forms and writing two checks – one to the State of New Hampshire; the other to the Town of Jackson. Then she brought forth a set of new license plates.

That’s when I paused.

It hit me that I wouldn’t be carrying my old license plate with me and I thought about another vanity plate which would update the latest chapter in my life.

Stumbling for a bit, I decided to go with the anonymous numbers she handed me.

“Anonymous is good,” I told myself. “Yes, that’s the way to go.”

I thought about the times over the past nine years since we moved to New Hampshire where we’d be parked at a trailhead while hiking or merely walking in the woods and Atticus and I would return to our car to find people waiting for us.

The license plate gave us away.


It seemed harmless enough when we moved north from Newburyport, and it summed up our lives nicely enough. We were haunting the forty-eight four-thousand-footers religiously. But when I ordered them we were known only to the hiking community.

Times have changed.

Whenever Atticus and I shared the woods together, it was mostly just Nature and us. The soft sighing of the breeze through the trees, or the bellowing of winds above treeline. The murmur of streams, the rush of rivers. The challenge of a steep, rocky trail where every footstep was managed carefully, the comforting flat path through a flat forest. No matter what we faced, it was Atticus and me – and the elements.

So peaceful.

Although it was kind of people to sit by our car and wait for us to say hello, after miles in the forest my introverted self takes over. For however long we were in the woods introspection and reflection took over and to be jarred back to having to be “on stage” once back at the car always felt awkward to me.

Saying goodbye to the Atti-48 plates was the right thing to do.

Still, as the day wore on and night fell, and stars took flight, I thought of what those old license plates mean to me. Atticus never had a collar (until the very end when he was deaf), and he never had tags. There was nothing left behind for me to memorialize since, like me, he wasn’t into things as much as experiences.

However, as I sit here looking at Will’s red coat hanging on the hook above my desk, it now feels comfortable to have ATTI-48 right next to it.

As for the other plate (for there are two of them), it’s going to a very special place and the only other person I’d want to have it. It will soon be taking up residence in Steve Smith’s store, The Mountain Wanderer. Steve was our first friend up here, and his books fed our curiosity as two unlikely hikers took to these enchanted mountains. His guide books led us to where we needed to go.

His store is located along the Kancamagus Highway in Lincoln, and it is a gathering place for hikers looking for maps, books, advice, and conversation. It is the heart and soul of our hiking community, and its humble ways stand in stark contrast to the solipsistic hiking sites that now are filled with selfies instead of photos of mountains. Steve, and The Mountain Wanderer harken back to what is most important: the mountains, their lore, and their history.

I like knowing that Steve will have ATTI-48 with some of his other memorabilia. And he tells me people will enjoy seeing it in the window and fans of Atticus will smile knowing it is there.

As I wrote to a friend last night, I’m at a very tender place these days, halfway between Christmas and New Year’s Day. I stand on the threshold of an exciting new year where our second book will be published, and a third one will be written. I don’t linger too long with nostalgia, but occasionally it catches up to me and whispers in my ear, it’s gentle lips brushing against my cheek.

It’s been quite the year and switching that license plate out and replacing it with something completely different is just one more step away from a past that was fertile and unforgettable.

And yes, I understand a 2017 black on black VW convertible will stand out in a region known for “hiking vehicles,” but at least it won’t be quite the advertisement our old vanity plates were. But as I write this I cannot help but think of it as another page being turned. A page from a very extraordinary story in my life.