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, August 19, 2016

A Dream Reconfigured

Last winter, before Atticus and I both became ill, I had planned one last grand adventure for us. Because Atticus couldn’t hike very far, I was determined to let him see some of the astounding natural phenomena across the country. If we couldn’t walk to such sights in our beloved White Mountains any longer, we would set out by car and drive to see them. 

The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Devil’s Tower, White Sands, and an almanac of other such places.

The trip was to be completely selfish. Two friends doing something plucked from dreams on last time. We’d head down the East Coast, down to Key West and then along the Gulf Coast. The idea of seeing all that glistening blue-green water after a long White Mountain winter excited me. But the portion of the trip I was looking forward to the most started at Big Bend National Park in Texas. That was to be our gateway to where I most wanted to be - the West. New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas. On the way home, we'd hit Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. 

Sprinkled throughout the approximate 20,000 miles, and two months on the road, the plan was to stop in on half a dozen friends and my brother John and his wife Yvette in Minnesota. But mostly it was going to be just about us. Lots of solitude to mix with those incredible landscapes. A time to become anonymous and get lost in our friendship again. 

Alas, we both became sick. I almost died. Twelve days after I returned home from a five-week stay in the hospital, Atticus did die. He lay in my arms under a gentle rain at the foot of some pine trees. 

As fate would have it, another four-legged friend came into my life. It was much sooner than I expected. Within three weeks six-month-old Samwise Atticus Passaconaway came to Jackson. 

That first night, it was overwhelming. So much change. 

But that first night gave birth to a more optimistic first day. In the light, we set out in the car. I wanted Samwise to see the mountains that would become part of his life. There was a stop in Woodstock to visit with Ken and Ann Stampfer, and in Lincoln to visit Steve Smith at the Mountain Wanderer. It was a good day. It led to another. And another. During those first times together, Samwise showed how tied to me he was and when we went to the forest, off came his leash. Freely he cavorted with me along the trails, staying close but drinking in the wonder. 

I knew from those first few times off-leash that he would be a good partner. He was smarter than any puppy I’d ever met, and it was important to him that we stick together. That’s when it hit me. 

The trip was back on. We’d deliver some of Atticus’s ashes to the Pacific Ocean he never had the chance to see. One of Samwise and my first chapter's would take the place of what I was planning for perhaps the last chapter in the story of Atticus and me. 

We were going to go in December, returning home in February, before the release of “Will’s Red Coat” in March. But that meant leaving out a lot of the states I was excited to visit. We would drive to the west coast, as I had originally planned, head as far north as Oregon, and then reverse our route. 

But recently, when talking to Cassie Jones, my editor at William Morrow, and Brian DeFiore, my agent, I let them know we’d postpone the trip until after the book tour for “Will’s Red Coat.” So on my fifty-six birthday, April 21st, the fates willing, Samwise and I will start our trip at Jack and Isabel Ryan’s graves in my hometown of Medway, Massachusetts. Then it’s down along the vast waters of the Atlantic. The rest of the trip will mirror the original plans, except for two additions. We’ll drive through the place where Atticus was born, and where Samwise was born. 

Actually, there may be more than those two additions. I talked to Cassie and told her we’d be open to having our publicity team at William Morrow set up a handful of stops for us along the way if some bookstores wanted us to come in for an event.

We will still be basing our trip on a select few objectives: hitting national forests more than national parks, because dogs are more welcomed at national forests; stopping by various Whole Food Markets to ensure I can eat vegan during those two months no the road; and most importantly, making time for quietude and breathtaking beauty as whim moves us. 

I look forward to sharing this trip with you all from our blog, Facebook page, and Twitter account. And who knows, if some book events are set up along the way, perhaps we’ll even meet some of you. 

Onward, by all means.  

Monday, August 08, 2016

A Trip of Remembrance to Cherry Pond and Neighboring Little Cherry Pond

On the rail trail to the two Cherry Ponds. It's 1.5 miles to the larger of the two.
And it's all easy walking for this portion. We got an early start and had it to ourselves,
but on the way out we saw several people either walking or mountain biking in.
It was a charming early morning trip, forty miles from Jackson. The temperature was just right. It was even a bit chilly in the shade. The only drawback was the constant buzzing of the aggressive Deer Flies. But swinging my hat helped to keep them off of me. At one point, about a mile into our five-mile hike, I was weighing what was more troublesome - their actual bite, or the nuisance of their furious dive-bombing. 

But even these little buggers didn’t take too much enjoyment away from our trek. 

At five miles, it was the longest walk I’ve been on since getting out of the hospital in May. It was also the longest hike Samwise has been on. Going forward, we won’t do a hike more than five miles until next summer, when Samwise’s body is more mature and ready for the arduous hikes. But from here on we’ll also start adding elevation gain. I’ve noticed from the little bit I’ve encountered lately, that this is my biggest challenge. The distance of yesterday's hike didn’t wear me out at all, but the elevation we’ll be facing this week surely will. 

This place is special to me. For when Atticus and I became less intense in our hiking, we started hiking to places that offered beauty more than accomplishment. I imagine we walked out to Cherry Pond at least twenty times. We’d laze by the water eating together and taking in the scenery. Sometimes we’d sit for hours at a time. 

So it made sense that this was the first of many places I will be leaving some of his ashes. A pinch of ashes, and some of his favorite peanut butter crackers. Next week Samwise and I will hike to another of Atti’s favorite places with another pinch of his stardust and some more crackers. 

As for Samwise, he’s developing into a fine hiking partner. He keeps his eyes on me, even though he walks ahead. He never gets too far off and if I stop, he also stops, just as Atticus used to do. I was even more pleased that he didn’t leave the trail yesterday though surely tempted by all kinds of squeaks and chattering in the brush. He’d look back at me and I’d say to him, “Please don’t, Samwise.”

Although the water view along Big Cherry Pond is one of the unheralded treats in the mountains, what I find to be most special is the trail leading to Little Cherry Pond. The forest has enchantment in it. Old Man’s Beard dangles from trees. Dead trees lie sprawled across the mossy floor. Tiny saplings spring to life among their decaying ancestors. And the ferns! They are lush and thick and if you have half an imagination, you can almost sense the stirring of wood nymphs and little people as they make their way around the greenery and the mushrooms. 

In my opinion, this stretch of woodland ranks as one of the top ten in the White Mountains and it is reason enough to return again and again. 
Typically, the area around Big Cherry Pond offers a great view of the
Presidential Range, which looks dramatic in the right kind of daylight.
But yesterday, the higher peaks were shrouded in clouds. But we still
had this beautiful view of Cherry Mountain and Owl's Head. (No, not
the Owl's Head that's a 4,000-footer.)

Beyond the first pond, there is a side trail 0.6 miles long that leads to this spot,
on observation platform for Little Cherry Pond.






This location along Big Cherry Pond offers to me a
perfect representation of summer. We sat here for a while
to nibble an apple and drink some water. 

Samwise is getting bigger. He arrived weighing 31 pounds
two months ago. He's now up to 45 pounds, with 6 of them
added in the last two weeks. 

One of the highlights from Big Cherry Pond is the view north to Mount Starr
King (the point to the left) and Mount Waumbek (the high point), an underrated 4,000-footer. 

Yes, Samwise, we'll be climbing it soon enough. Owl's Head and Mount Martha
offers the rare glimpse of the entire Presidential Range and great photo opportunities.

For now, this is a rare sighting. But it is a harbinger of things to come. 

On the trail words are not as important to me
as is eye contact. Samwise is already proving
to be a fine hiking partner.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Favorite Photos of the Week That Was

The first time he saw a river, he barked at it. Now he's made friends with water.

Sunset over Thorne Pond.

Late day view along the Saco River.


In the waiting room at North Country Animal Hospital.
The banks of the Saco have become a place of escape and tranquility for us.

With Dr. Rachael Kleidon after a good check up.

Samwise in Will's Wildflower garden.

The colors of August in the Thorne Pond meadow.

We like this quiet place.

Summer.

Gentle clouds above Mount Pickering.

At Sawyer Pond.

Play of light and shadow at Sawyer Pond.

A new chew toy. He goes through a lot of them.

Will's Reach

It’s easy to remember the quiet times we shared together. How he went from a troubled soul who would strike out in fear to a gentle fellow who longed to belong. Sometimes, though, I forget Will’s reach. He touched hundreds of thousands of people. 

Last night, on the Following Atticus Facebook page, an old Willaby was posted. One of the responses grabbed hold of me and didn’t let go. 

Ann Marie Buttaro: One of the Willabys - Close your Eyes by Michael Buble touched me so much - I used it as our wedding dance song. Will's motto - which we see every day - I purchased 2 of the mugs 😊. Reminds me of how and why we met. I was ready to give up on love- had been married - divorced - children now grown. I had had a few relationships but for one reason or another they didn't work out. I thought I was content to stay single for the rest of my life- but then I read Will's Motto- 'It's never too late to trust again, to love or be loved again; and it's never too late to live again.' 
So I decided to try again. We met on an online dating sight- I liked his photo by accident - I think God had something to do with that! 
Here we are almost three years later- married for a year and so happy! Thank you Will ( and Tom) for showing me it's never too late! 

Ann Marie got me thinking, and I woke up this morning wanting to know more. So if you were moved or changed or inspired by Will in some way, here’s your chance to express it. You can respond to this on Facebook, in the comments on the blog, or if you wish, you can email atticusmfinch@gmail.com. 

Thank you. I look forward to hearing from you.

Friday, July 29, 2016

There's Something Different About the Following Atticus Facebook Page

The Long-Backed Seussian Terrier upon first arriving in the White Mountains.
As the years go on, I realize that I’m more of an introvert than an extrovert. I’d never have thought of myself in this way in the past. No, years ago I used to love to jump into the middle of life and live out loud. But coming to the mountains has changed me. Letting Nature wrap her arms around me has simplified things. My days are now quieter, and I’m more cautious about who I let into my life. Those I am close with, I’m very intimate with. But no longer do I feel the need to “collect” friends, thinking that numbers are everything. These days, it’s more about quality. 

Of all the people I’ve loved and lost to death, the one I miss the most is my Aunt Marijane. Once a nun working with the Navajo Indians in Arizona, she eventually left to further study psychology and became a Jungian analyst. Conversations with Marijane were always illuminating. We’d talk for hours, and typically several times a week. She turned out to be one of my best friends. 

MJ was one of the least judgmental people I knew, but she wasn’t blinded by dysfunction or B.S. She forgave easily, but always was aware of the human condition. She had a great saying when explaining one person’s troubled life, “She’s driving a Mack truck full of crazy.” 

But Marijane’s point was not to hold it against the person but to acknowledge what you were dealing with. “It’s okay to pray for such a person, to like them even, but be careful not to get run over by the Mack truck full of crazy.”

These days, more than ever it seems, I’m aware of the Mack trucks full of crazy driving around at high speeds. Perhaps it has to do with social media. Things that were once thought but only quietly expressed to close family and friends are blasted out into the world. Look no further than the recent Republican and Democratic conventions. I streamed both, as best I could, on my phone and laptop, and I listened and filtered things through my beliefs. What I found was what amplified angst were the comments on so many Facebook posts about either candidate. There is such anger out there now, and much of it isn’t filtered. It has gotten to the point that I avoid most comment sections no matter where I find them on-line. And it’s not just about politics. It’s about guns and religion and race. Heck, even vegans fight among themselves in comment sections about who is more "vegan."  

When I pointed this out to a friend of mine who is a vegan activist he wrote back with a twinkle in his eye, I imagine, "Oh, don't ever read the comments." But it has gotten to that point.

A little while ago I remember reading my daily dose of the “Mutts” comic strip. I forget the complete message, but it had to do with the closeness shared on a walk between human and dog. To me, it seemed charming in every way, as all of the cartoonist’s work is. And yet, in the comment section, there were some people livid that the dog in the cartoon was wearing a collar instead of a harness. There were a lot of double exclamation points, and double questions marks (!!??). Just reading a few of them changed my mood. (The double !! or ?? so intrigue me that I looked them up. What they translate to is a form of anger.) 

So I’ve now learned my lesson. I avoid comments because the vitriol is tangible and it is toxic. It’s a lot of Mack truck full of crazy. 

This may help you understand why I’m so happy with the Following Atticus Facebook page. Sure, there are still judgmental and angry comments left, but they are in the minority. Just yesterday a man wrote that I was an abuser because of the hikes I shared with Atticus. He urged me to leave Samwise alone and let him stay in the house. Fortunately, I have some dedicated administrators who help keep the page positive. 

It has gotten to the point that I write a post, and then leave the rest to them. From time to time I check back in, but mostly I use the page as an on-line journal and leave it at that. My biggest request of my moderators is, “Keep the page positive. I would appreciate it if Atticus, Will, and now Samwise are treated with respect, and if you see something that you wouldn’t want to be posted about you, feel free to get rid of it.” What my moderators do with that is up to them. This way I keep my sanity. 

But here’s the thing about the Following Atticus page I really like. It’s the way many of you have networked to get to know one another. Friendships have formed by way of our Facebook page. What a beautiful thing to see. It’s brought to my attention that when someone is going through a bad divorce, or cancer, or has lost a job, or a loved one, people reach out to them and offer solace and kindness. They embrace each other, and that makes this a special place. 

C. S. Lewis has that fabulous quote about friendship that goes like this, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too?’ . . .” 

Even someone who has become as private in “real life” as I have, embraces these get togethers, and they make my heart swell. Whenever the stories are shared with me, I can’t help but smile. Earlier this week I heard about two women who are battle-tested by cancer meeting for coffee in Bristol, Rhode Island. Meeting made their online friendship truer. From what I take, they both left each other having felt blessed by the other. 

These kind of connections are not something I expected when starting the Following Atticus page five years ago, but it’s one of the things that makes it unique. And just to show this introvert is not immune to all of this, when Samwise and I take our trip around the country, we will be making five stops along the way to meet people I’ve been drawn to through the years because of their posts, and the correspondence that followed. 

To close, I want to share this, which was sent to me by a friend three thousand miles away.

“I went grocery shopping this morning, and as I came out of the store, there was a woman standing on the walkway with a dog who bore at least a passing resemblance to Samwise. Curious, I said to her, ‘What breed is she?’ With a completely straight face, she said, ‘She’s a Long-Backed Seussical Terrier.’ Of course, I started to laugh and blurted out “Following Atticus!” She said, “Yes, You too? Isn’t that just the greatest Facebook page ever? Have you read the book?” We talked for a minute or two about you, Atti and Will and Samwise, and your upcoming book.”

I thank you for helping to create a refuge from the craziness. Running a social media site is not always easy. There are landmines to skip around, but most of you make it a pleasure keep this page going strong. 


Onward, by all means. And look out for those Mack trucks full of crazy. 

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.