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.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A Tom and Samwise Update

In describing my current state of being to a friend this morning, I suggested that I'm feeling “like a jigsaw puzzle with three missing pieces.” So much has happened in the past eight or nine months. It’s easy to feel that the comings and goings of life are enough to make one dizzy.

My health continues to improve. Each morning I put on my blood pressure cuff and check my levels. Each morning I smile at what I see. I try not to think about the past too much with so much happening in the present, but some days it’s more difficult than others just to skip to the “now.” But still, that is where my life is. I’ve never been a fan of living too much in the past. Instead, I try to take things that inspired me and incorporate them into who I am.

I posted that portion of Mary Oliver’s poem today because this is how I live my life. At a time when so many proclaim absolutes, I prefer the flexibility of mystery. So, you’ll have to excuse me if I’d rather cling to her words:

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment,
And bow their heads.

One of the pleasures of being with Samwise these days is that I cannot wallow in the past. He demands the present. He demands I pay attention. He is right, of course. He deserves that. So I pay tribute to Atticus by incorporating what I learned with him along the way in trying to help Samwise grow into a healthy soul who fits well in society, and in the wilderness.

When I think of my late friend, sometimes I sigh. But mostly I smile and wonder where the years went. When people tell me absolutes about where Atticus is or what he’s thinking or if he appeared in the form of a rainbow or a butterfly or a cardinal, I pretty much ignore them. All I need to know is that he’s alive within me. That is nourishment enough.

As for Samwise, well, he’s a very different fellow. He’s young and finding out who he is, while letting me know who he is. He’s good company. Physically, he mostly stopped growing a few weeks ago. When he first arrived, he weighed thirty-one pounds. A few weeks after that, he weighed thirty-eight pounds. And a few weeks after that, he weighed thirty-nine pounds. He’s a good size. He’s strong and healthy. He runs like the wind and stretches out like a yogi. Mentally, he’s still very much a puppy, but he’s getting there.

When I saw him stop on a walk recently and sit to watch geese in a pond, I smiled at how centered and calm he was. He’s taken to understanding the word “gentle.” Now he’s gentle mostly on his own.

He still likes to chase things, including chipmunks and squirrels, but I see glimpses of his calm even around them. The other morning, a chipmunk was sitting on top of a stonewall. I reminded Samwise to “be gentle, please.” They came within an inch of touching noses before the chipmunk scurried away leaving behind a trail of squeaks.

My friends understand that we are happy staying off on our own. Occasionally we visit, but mostly we walk, I write, he naps, we sit outside, often by Will’s wildflower garden. Although Samwise enjoys chewing on things, he’s very respectful of my possessions and leaves them be. But he has his collection of chew toys he likes. We don’t buy many things, but this morning I had to replace his moose with a new one. The last one served him well. It had stopped making noise long ago, but he still enjoyed playing with it. But in the nearly two months he’s been here, Bullwinkle has become rather tattered.

This morning it was off to Four Your Paws Only. I grabbed a new moose, and he grabbed a chewy to his liking. Now we are home again, I’m back on Facebook again (having appreciated the break), and while I write, he plays. 

Life is simple, but always changing in our little patch of earth as we learn from the past and turn it into the present.   

"Mysteries, Yes"
by Mary Oliver
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds
will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
"Look!" and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Samwise Atticus Passaconaway Climbs His First Mountain

Samwise A. Passaconaway on the summit of Mount
Katherine. The great Chocorua is in the background.

Two months after getting out of the hospital, and one month after Samwise’s arrival, I had the pleasure of escorting my young friend to his first mountaintop.

As far as mountaintops up here go, it was more like a hilltop. But that doesn’t really matter. This morning, we stood atop Mount Katherine in Wonalancet and had it to ourselves. To celebrate, I ate cherries and Samwise had some of his favorite treats. Then he sat next to me on one of the flat summit stones, and together we gazed out at the prominence of Mount Chocorua set against blue skies and white clouds.

Eventually, he lay down and rested his head and paws on my thigh. While the breeze gently tickled the leaves, Samwise’s snores rose up to my face and turned a thoughtful look into a smiling one. Together we sat, with me gently rubbing his upward ear.

It was a good start for him. He’s too young to be doing the bigger mountains and the tougher trails. That can wait until he’s a year and a half old and his tendons and bones are ready for the rigors of our trails. Until then, we’ll still walk and hike, up to five miles, but I want to limit the impact on his joints.

This respectfully slow increase in intensity also works for me. I’ve got the distance down these days. You’d never know I went into kidney failure or that my heart was only thirty percent of capacity or that my legs were swollen to three times what they are now, or the endless hours I endured in dialysis.

This morning, without my shirt on, I looked at my chest and neck at the scars from my five-week stay in the hospital. They are not huge or unsightly, but there they sit on my body, a constant reminder of what I went through. I’ve come a long way between needing help to get out of bed.

Today, we kept it just under five miles with a walk along the trails in picturesque Wonalancet. We parked at Ferncroft and trekked along the Gordon Path. It’s a broad and gentle way, with but one hill. But that one hill had me stopping twice on my way up it. It’s pretty steep. Or at least that’s what my heart was telling me.

I kept to the doctor’s orders: “As long as you can talk when you are exercising, you’re doing fine.” And I was doing fine, but it was work nonetheless.  I could feel it in my chest (wonder if I’ll always pay as close attention to it as I do now), and in my hips, which are tight and rebel against me when I force them to climb anything at all.

Samwise was in his element. He stayed close to me, and when I stopped, he did too. He’d sit in the middle of the trail and wait for me. When I caught up to him, he’d start out again. He did some off-trail exploring, but not much of it, and was mostly respectful of the woodland creatures.

I noticed something different about him today, on our hikes, he checks in with me more often. His eyes search out mine. He remains close by. There’s a thoughtfulness to his actions. I like that. Once, when I sat down on a log, he returned to me, and I gave him a few treats and another draught of water. After that, he lay down on my feet and watched the forest as it stretched out before us. He was a calm as if he’d been born under that green canopy.

I put him back on the leash when we started a short road walk. He’s wonderful in nature, but he has a long way to go when it comes to co-existing with traffic. And it didn’t matter that we were so far out in the middle of heaven touched land, that we didn’t see a car. We did encounter a couple of hikers and the dog. They came from the opposite direction and while the people chatted, the dogs played. I like how he is with others of the four-legged persuasion. He is gentle and begs to play with them. Typically they comply, and he is thrilled by the dance.

Once the Red Path left the dirt road, we walked through a cathedral of ferns. They were everywhere. It was fresh and green and lush. Even as the sun lit up the leaves above, Samwise took on a shade just as verdant as the undergrowth.

When the trail angled up, I slowed. Then I stopped a few times. Whenever I did, he sat and watched me from ahead, never taking his eyes off of mine.

In past years, this was an easy enough walk for Atticus and me on days we weren’t hiking. But times have changed. It was an excellent introduction to going up for Samwise, and a way for me to ease back into it. 

At the intersection of the Pasture Path, we turned left and slowly made our way to the summit. Other than my reminiscing of the many times I’d been there before, it was no big deal, but it was pleasurable. The first of many.

On the way down, the trail’s rocks and roots reminded me of the importance of watching every step. This is where the White Mountains differ from many other places hikers gravitate to. Even a shorter, less steep trail like the Pasture Path requires balance and awareness.

At one point, Samwise jammed his paw and came over to me, holding it up for my inspection. I sat and held it. He watched my hands encircle his paw. I rubbed it gently. When I returned it to him, it was as good as new.

After one point one miles down along the trail, all we had left was a dirt road walk back to our waiting car. We stopped to soak our feet in a stream and to sit and watch the wonders around us. 

Once back in the car, Samwise fell asleep quickly. I was also tired. 

I’ve a long way to go to recapture the strength of walking uphill, but I have no doubt it will return.

Now we are home, and both of us are tired. As soon as I post this, we’ll climb into bed for a short nap.

Gosh, it feels good to be back out there again. For the past two years, I’ve missed the trails dearly. I wouldn’t hike without Atticus. He wouldn’t have understood me leaving him behind. Besides, the most important thing my late friend and I shared was not the mountains; it was the space we moved through together, bound in friendship. Our center was wherever we were.

I couldn’t be more pleased for Samwise. Just over a month ago, he was a day away from euthanasia. In his stay with me, he has proven time and again his joy for life. He’s a happy fellow. He never misbehaves. He also seems to understand already how to move on the trails and how the center lies somewhere between us.

Before long, he will cease to be a puppy and a pupil who needs to learn so much. Soon, he will be my hiking partner. My equal in many ways. That will come with time. As I said about Atticus when he was young, I never actually trained him. Instead, we just hung out together. It was learning by osmosis.

Samwise and I both had death sentences. Now you could say we share a life sentence, and nature is where we feel it most.

Mount Katherine by way of the Gordon Path, Red Path, and Pasture Path. (Map is from
 Mountain Adventures. The best map of the White Mountains.)

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Of Rocks and Leaves and Bears

On Thursday, on our way back from a quick four hours spent in Newburyport, we stopped at Chocorua Lake for the signature view up to the mountain of the same name. The water was calm and clear; the skies were blue with powder puff clouds. It was the most pleasant of summer days, the kind you remember from your childhood when being idle was good enough.

Samwise was fascinated with sniffing the woodland path near the water, and the stones placed there for people to sit on. Eventually, he settled next to me and took in the view and the breeze and the scent of summer by the water. Then, in an instant, he cocked his head, his ears rose, and he let out several shrill barks to raise the alarm. I put my arm around him and told him it was okay. I spoke calmly and as I did his ears relaxed and his body was no longer as tense and ready to spring. But he couldn’t take his eyes off what had upset him. It was a large rock, sitting in the lake, with only its top quarter above the water, and it stood only fifteen feet away from shore.

He’s not a constant barker, but if something startles him, or if he doesn’t know what it is and it looks strange to him, he sounds the alarm. He’s done it with leaves blowing in the wind, the Saco River, the cackling crows who loiter in the black ash in our backyard. One morning, we came out the front door, and he let out his shrill bark to let me know there was a deer twenty yards away. Heck, he even barks at people we encounter along the trail when they seem to materialize out of nowhere.

The other day, one good-natured woman petted him and said, “It’s kind of difficult to be afraid of that little bark of yours.”

For Samwise A. Passaconaway, it’s not about aggression, but being surprised. He’s a young fellow learning his way in the world.

This morning, on our woods walk, he met his first bear. He was off leash, as he always is when we are in the woods, and he ran into the underbrush, and his machine gun barking led to some crashing through the trees. Something big was rumbling along, startled by Samwise’s barks.

When I called him, he returned to my side, and I attached the leash to his harness. He continued to be vigilant and continued to erupt with his barking now and then. I sat down next to him, requested that he “please be gentle,” and stroked his wiry fur. He looked at me, then up at the tree where a young bear was trying to hide, and he growled.

Down into the gully we went, but instead of having him walk, I carried Samwise in my arms and whispered to him the entire time. Eventually we stood right below the bear. I explained to my little friend that brother bear is not to be quarreled with. Even further explained that Samwise A. Passaconaway’s last name translates to “son of the bear.”

At first the bear gnashed his teeth. He snapped his jaws a few times. And when he did this, Samwise growled.

I continued to whisper to him and then they both quieted down. Samwise was no longer tense in my arms. He relaxed and looked skyward to the young bear in the trees with curiosity. For his part, the black bear looked down on us, I think, perhaps trying to figure out what we would do next. But as I backed away and apologized to the bear for the early morning ruckus, he too seemed to be at ease.

Eventually, we walked several feet away and I put Samwise down and sat with him. The three of us watched each other, until we left the bear to do whatever a bear does on an early Saturday morning.

I remember, years ago, when we first started hiking, that I was fearful of running into a moose and having Atticus bark at it. For moose have been known to stomp on and kill little barking dogs who get on their nerves. So after our hikes, we drove to the more popular moose hangouts at dusk and whenever we saw one, I’d whisper to Atticus, “Pssst, moose. Please be gentle.”

We practiced that a lot. Whenever we were in the woods, no matter what the stimulation was, I could softly say, “Pssst, moose,” and Atticus would calmly sit down and look around for a moose. We did this especially in trails where moose were known to hang out. I wanted Atticus to be aware, and to be ready to be calm whenever he saw one.

Through the years, it worked. I even have photos of Atticus sitting twenty yards from a moose who is wading in a local pond and looking back at Atti.

I’m not sure how much of this Samwise will pick up. He’s still an excitable puppy of only seven months or so. Time will tell. But starting him on the path of being gentle cannot hurt.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Coming Soon to the White Mountains: Samwise A. Passaconaway

I don't know much about him, other than he's sweet
and less than a year old.

I wrote this to a friend yesterday from my cardiologist's office in Maine.

It is May 26, 2016.

Atti and I were supposed to be in Montana right now. But one of us is dead, and the other is sitting in a cardiologist's office.

WTF happened?

(As I just wrote that one of us is dead, the tears snuck up on me. I don't cry that much any more but it seems when I acknowledge he's gone, I do.)

What happened? Life happened. As it always does. 

When I told another friend that I was considering taking this death row dog in, he wanted to know why I would do that so soon after Atticus.

"Well, he needs a home, and my heart was meant to love. Plus, in case you forgot, I nearly died last month. Life is too short not to do what your heart tells you. And there's something about this fellow that calls out to me."

No, Samwise won't replace Atticus. No one could do that. But in giving him a life, through the help of the Conway Area Humane Society, who is flying him up here after plucking him from the kill shelter he was in at the last moment, I'm also adding to mine, and continuing the legacy of all that I've learned with Max, Atticus, and Will. 

Life is meant to be lived. I'm not a fan of feeling sorry for myself. I'd rather pick myself up where I fell, and move forward. There's a meaning in "Onward, by all means," and that's it.

How will things turn out with Samwise? 

I've no clue. That's part of the mystery of life.

Life happens, and so, gosh darn it, does love. My love for Atticus will be found in the nurturing of this young soul. 

Saving lives, creating friendships, transforming people and it any wonder why we support our local shelter and set up a memorial fund for Atticus there? Ironically, by supporting them, they now have added to my life.

Onward, by all means, everyone.

 If you would like to help us support the Conway Area Humane Society in Atticus's name, please click here. Who knows, the next life they save may add to yours. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Jung Believed Death Brings Us Closer to Life

Atticus M. Finch with a local moose.
Jung believed that death brings us closer to life, and there are few times we are more alive than when dealing with death.

That’s where I am these days.

Many are surprised that I smile as much as I do when talking about Atticus. But hell, I had it darn good for fourteen years. We were like an old couple who knew everything about each other, dancing to music in perfect harmony, never missing a step. There was little need for words, for we had melded together first in our initial bonding, then on the way to standing on two thousand mountaintops. Never underestimate the intimacy of hiking partners.

Yes, mourning is taking place and tears fall, but overriding all of that is a warmth that emanates from within that shouts, “You two got it right!”

Our non-human animal friends don’t have our same lifespan. We can see this as cruel, or we can take it at face value and appreciate what we do (or in our case, did) have.

Someone asked me about my outlook the other day, about going through what I went through in the hospital and saying goodbye to Atticus.

“I figure we have two choices,” I told him. “We can be broken and just lay down and quit, living in the past and loss, or we can figure that whatever powers that be have dealt us a hand and it’s up to us to play it. I may not always have a choice in picking my experiences, but I have the freedom to choose my attitude.”

In saying goodbye to Atticus, I sometimes find it hard to believe he’s gone, but more than that I smile at the joy of a life shared together that marched to its own drummer. We found a place where species didn’t matter, layered in love and dignity. From the beginning, I told him I’d treat him like an equal. He would never be infantilized by me or anyone else. When people referred to him as a baby, I reminded them that he was an adult, or even elderly (at the very end). I let him know he’d always have a say in what we did and where we went and how we did things.

From the very beginning, he hated wearing a leash, so we set out together to live a leashless life. That’s one of the reasons we moved to this small town because it was acceptable for him to walk freely. If it were an issue here, we would have chosen  another community instead.

And when Atticus decided he didn’t want to hike on certain days, we always turned back, or in one case, never got out of the car. Because of this, I didn’t have to worry about him endangering himself just to please me.

The only rules enforced in the beginning was that he treated everyone respectfully, and behaved responsibly. He was never a nuisance and was always polite and for that reason, he was invited into many businesses that may not always allow dogs.

He earned freedom and trust. People often commented about how he’d walk along Route 16 ten to twenty feet ahead of me, right on the very narrow shoulder of the road facing traffic.

A woman asked, “Aren’t you afraid he’s going to run into the street and get hit by a car?”

“No. Why, is that something you’d do?”

Not all souls are alike, but it’s our job to read those from other species and see their needs and abilities. Where Atticus thrived, others might not, whether it’s along a busy road or a mountaintop in winter, or sitting within twenty feet of the bears in our backyard.

Once, when people were pulled over on the side of the road and standing outside of their cars to watch a moose, Atticus and I pulled over and also got out. We took a seat on a small hillock close to the moose. He looked in our direction.  A man on the other side of the small marsh started yelling at me to get Atticus out of there for the moose would charge him. I mostly ignored the fellow, other than perhaps a small hand gesture suggesting he mind his own business. But the man didn’t and he continued to create a ruckus. Eventually, the moose did charge, not at us, but at the loud fellow.

I don’t know why animals felt calm around Atticus; I just know they did, and I trusted him to know what he felt comfortable with. Now and then, however, I’d remind him to be cautious. One night, on a hike along the Doubleheads, we encountered a porcupine. She immediately put her quills up and turned them in our direction.

“She’s nervous, Atti. How about if we just have a seat and let her know we mean no harm?” 

We sat and watched her and eventually she turned back around and sat and watched us. It was twenty minutes of bliss under the moonlight in the col between two peaks.

When I did speak to Atticus, it was as an equal. Words like “please” and “thank you” were commonly used. And when a woman I was dating took a video of a “chat” between Atticus and me on top of a mountain without me knowing, I delighted in watching it later. For I spoke with words delivered to a friend, and for his part, Atticus responded with his ears and eyebrows and eyes. That was his way of communicating.

People may be surprised to realize I’m not pining away, choked by sadness. It is because I have much to be grateful for, much to smile about, and I’d rather leave all that sadness behind. It has been my experience that many people like to dwell in sadness, and while that’s fine for them, it’s not a place I find very useful.

My friend lives within me, and I’m sure when the next book tour begins, it will be a challenge talking about Atticus and Will without breaking down on stage. The tears will flow, and I’ll need a box of Kleenex on hand. But here’s the thing about those tears, they will be caused more out of being part of something so powerful and good than they will be out of sadness.

For here’s the way I look at it, just what do I have to be sad about? I have been given the gift of life, of feeling and loving and being one of Creation's lively souls. The dance continues, no matter the tempo, and I persevere not only to just get by but to thrive.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Walking with Atticus at Thorne Pond

For all the certainty we chase after, what we mostly have in the great unknown.

When I am alone, I sometimes ponder my sickness. Not out of pity, but circumstances.  I contemplate how Atticus and I were both sick at the same time, and both of us could have died, but I’m the one who lived, even though it didn’t seem like I would some days.

I deal with my grief on my own. There is a public me who is mostly okay, and occasionally a flash flood of tears will let loose, but it happens more when I’m alone. I appreciate my friends and all the loving sentiments sent this way from people who know me from our book or from social media, but what I’m doing now is an inside job. It’s up to me to work through it and come out the other side. No one can help with that.

I usually post something on our Facebook page and then retreat, letting my moderators deal with the comments. Occasionally they’ll point out a few to me, and I’ll respond. But for now soul work is all important and what I need and want. Meanwhile, people tell me I should be broken, I should be incomplete, I will never heal. They tell me I should be smiling; I should be happy because of all we shared or thrilled by the public sentiment toward Atticus.

But what I want is for no one to tell me what I should be doing or feeling. I just want to be. This is the cost of social media, I suppose. It helps to step away.

Lately, I’ve been walking at Thorne Pond on my own. This was a favorite place of Atticus once he couldn’t hike anymore. We’d get lost in the woods, and by the river, with one of the only lowland views of the iconic Mount Carrigain. (It's ironic that you can see it from nearly every four thousand footer, but not from most anywhere else down below.)

Whenever I walk by the pond, by the ducks and the birds coming and going, across the stubbled field, and enter in the mint green woods, I feel release. My shoulders are suddenly unbound and unburdened. I feel myself looking around through the sun-dappled woods, and half expect to see him there. At times, I feel like we are walking together, not like we were in the last couple of weeks or even the last year, but before that when his legs had springs in them, and his ears flopped in happiness as he trotted along.

The other day I stopped where he used to get his drink of water. The day before that, when I was tired, I rested and leaned on my trekking poles. When it was time to go, I looked down to where he’d be sitting in the past, right beside me, and I asked, “Do you want to go first?”

Into the afternoon light, we walked as it splashed through the leaves and gave them tips of gold. Along the water, we moved as wind whipped up little waves and diamonds rushed downstream while reflecting the sun. We – my memory and me.

People are always telling me where Atticus is, what he’s doing, or what he’s thinking. They are well-intentioned, but the truth is, no one knows anything. We talk about what we wish was true, or what we want to believe, but in the end, I leave it all in mystery. That to me is gift enough for I believe in the grand unknown.

I have no clue if Atticus’s spirit is waiting for me somewhere. I hope it isn’t. I mean, I hope he’s off on his next adventure, because I may be a while, and I would be selfish to expect him to wait for me. What I feel as company is his inspiration and the love we kindled together into a flame. I will always have that, the beauty of how we touched each other through a fourteen-year-long dance of swinging and swaying, of embraces, and dips and lifts.

As I sat on a fallen birch tree, again to catch my breath, leaning forward on my poles, I found myself smiling. For the powers that be have delivered me through hell, and I’m optimistic enough to think, “What’s next?” in the most positive way. For I had something so special, so special that Atticus waited for me until I got out of the hospital to say goodbye. It was the exclamation point at the end of a love story that will never grow old for me.

During the final stretch of the woods, the sun had dropped from the sky and shadows spread their wings everywhere. But still I smiled, picturing him bounding ahead of me as I hurried along as best I could, my right legs limping out of weakness. And when I took the last turn and climbed a short rise, I grunted because my legs are still so weak, but when I stepped out into the remaining glow of the day, there was the pond and the mountains and green trees, and the only thing I could think to say was, “Thank you.”

“Thank you.”

“Thank you.”

A week from this Sunday, I’ll take this still withered body and my trekking poles, which I need for balance and to propel myself uphill, and I’ll climb my first mountain without Atticus leading the way. I’ll do it for him, and I’ll do it for me, one month after getting out of the hospital. It’s been a tradition for us. A month after my gallbladder surgery, he led me, my drainage tubes, large scars, and bag up a mountain. Then, just under a month of having his toe amputated due to cancer, we climbed the same mountain again. So it’s only right I push forward this third time...for him, for me, and for us.

While he won’t be leading me, he’ll be with me nevertheless, inside my heart, just as he’s always been.

One of my main beliefs is that nothing is truly ever taken from us. Things change forms and loss becomes gain. I will forever move forward from the difficult experiences of the past two months knowing I’m alive, and I have been given the gift of arduous experiences knowing they’ve made me stronger, wiser, and more complete. I'm not sure why things happened as they did, or why I'm alive while Atticus isn't. I leave all that up to the mystery of things. Through tears and smiles I move on, through difficulty and joy it's onward, by all means.

It’s like Joseph Campbell said when Bill Moyers asked him the meaning of life.

“I don’t think people are looking for the meaning of life; they’re looking for the experience of being alive.”

(I've created a memorial fund in Atticus's name at the Conway Area Humane Society. To donate to help animals in need, simply click on this link. Thank you.)