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, September 23, 2016

Dear Atticus


Dear Friend,
All those years. The miles. Thousands of mountains. As I sit writing to you, they all run together, and then like a slide show on shuffle, mountaintops and memories come into focus before yielding to the next one. 
It's our favorite time of the year. The sugar maples along the Ellis and Wildcat rivers are beginning to flame red. The wildflowers in the meadows are yellowing, and death becomes hope in the form of seeds. The mountainsides fade and are a lighter shade of green. Occasionally, while Samwise and I walk the paths you and I used to walk, I'll spy a single red maple leaf on the earthen floor. I can't help but stop at each one. I stoop down as to not to disturb it, and then, with some, I feel compelled to pick them up and study them. Not as a scientist would, but as a lover. I take in the lines and the grades of colors, feel the texture of the skin, notice the stem, and when I bring it near, I smell a thousand autumns against my cheek and under my nose. I am touched by the season.
I often think of you and wish the days could have gone on and on. But that's not life, and that is why we cherish it when we can. So while I'm here, and you are there, please know many remember you. Your good deeds for others, your kindness with other animals, your enduring patience with Will, your prowess on the mountains, your summit sitting, and how we were one instead of two. 
Tomorrow, many will remember you as we walk in your memory in North Conway during the Atticus M. Finch Memorial Walk for the Animals. It benefits the Conway Area Humane Society. While I've rarely been one to put words in your mouth, I imagine you'd approve. Although you would have hated the actual walk. You see, leashes are required, and I know from the very beginning you hated them. Ironically, that's why we moved to Jackson because you could be leash free here. 
When they can catch a glimpse of me, the locals are kind in remembering you. They too have memories of a little dog who did grand things. And still, tourists pour into Jackson from all over the country, and all over the world, wanting to see Atticus's White Mountains. 
The doctors continue to be surprised by my recovery. One tells me he is always surprised because he expected me to be in a wheelchair for a very long time. So when I walk into his office and give him a bear hug, he laughs, and sometimes he wipes a tear out of the corner of his eye. Many of them have now read about you and wish they had met you. 
Down in Providence earlier this week, many of the booksellers who came to know you on tour stopped by our table to offer their condolences. They proudly told me again and again that you will always grace their bookshelves. That's one of the things that makes me smile the most. 
You came into my life, and all I wanted to do was not screw you up. I longed to let you be an individual, not defined by breed or size or species. No stereotypes. I wished to give you a good life. You took it from there, from the first time I held you as an eight week old puppy on the way home from the airport, to fourteen years to the very weekend you arrived, when I held you for the last time under the pine trees in that soft rain. 
Your legacy is that you were your own dog. You had a sense of self. 
Currently, young Samwise Atticus Passaconaway is finding his way in the world. He's very different from you. You both have me in common, along with a keen intelligence, a love of the wild, and your gentleness with other non-human animals. He sits and watches the beavers and the cormorants. He likes to spy on the otters when they play, and he is fascinated by ducklings and their incessant chatter. Once, I saw him touch noses with a chipmunk. 
While he's seen bears at the pond, not a bear has entered our yard since you've been gone. That's a first. There was always a parade of them through the years making their way up from the river, across the lawn, on their way to the restaurants and inns of Jackson Village. Butkus, Walter, Passaconaway, State of Maine, the Jackson Five, the second Jackson Five, and of course our beloved Aragorn, who used to sit in the yard with us watching the blue jays and the butterflies. 
I find it fitting that when you left, so did they. I always said you drew animals to us, and now I know for sure that you did. 
Well, friend, I must go now, and take Samwise out for a walk. Around town, he's on a leash, but in the forest he's as naked as you were, romping along the trails half puppy, half stately mountain dog. He's learning. His is a soul on fire with joy, and he carries your name with him on his way to defining himself.
NOTE: If anyone would like to contribute to any of the members of Team Atticus for tomorrow's walk, you simply have to click on the following link: https://www.firstgiving.com/team/327369.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Part of his Education

Watching the ducks, part of Samwise's education, so different than
the one he'll get in the next couple of weeks.

As the sun was setting, I looked to my left. Seated next to me was Samwise. He was alert but calm, and watching a simple scene play out in front of us. A mother duck and her four ducklings were just below us in the water, quack-quack-quacking away. He had noticed them before I did since he was walking in front of me. He stopped where he was, looked from the ducks to me, and back to the ducks. Finally, he sat, and I sat with him. 

For fifteen minutes we watched them circle in the water, never getting too far from us, always turning back to face us, their constant chatter was busy amusement. 

I repeated my mantra to Samwise, the one I always use around others if I’m not sure how he will act, “Gentle, Samwise. Always be gentle, please.” However, he didn’t need those words, for he wasn’t bothering anyone. He was sitting and watching them, curiosity percolated in his rising and falling ears.

During our fifteen minutes, the last five under the softest rain shower, he only looked at me two or three times. Mostly he kept is eyes on the young family, and listened to their incessant noise. Occasionally he lifted his gaze to Mount Pickering and Mount Stanton, whose green coats are showing the faintest of a yellow tinge. 

It’s been three months since Samwise arrived, and I couldn’t be happier for him, or us. He’s fit in nicely, is a darn good roommate who respects my things (other than a couple of instances, which we used as teaching moments), and I enjoy watching him grow toward adulthood. 

We forgo many of the terms of endearment society uses when describing non-human animals, mainly because they don’t fit us. And when people try to put the “daddy” label on me, or the “son” label on him, we sneak away as soon as possible. I like that he’s fast maturing toward equality in our relationship. One day he won’t have to be guided regarding what is acceptable and not, and what is respectful toward others, or safe for him. 

The only familial term I use, and I notice that I’ve said it a few times over the last couple of weeks as he ages, is a word I used last night. 

“What say, brother? We ready to go now?”

It’s a term I used with Atticus, and later Will. With Atticus, the mountains brought out that kinship in us. All those trails. All those peaks. All those hours through sun and snow and warmth and cold. With Will, as he let his temper evaporate and he accepted his new chapter in life, I was honored to feel a brotherhood with him, realizing that he was making a similar journey like the one I had already made. 

Brother. 

I find it is a word that bonds, and it comes naturally. I don’t want him to be above me, or below me. I don’t deify animals, and I don’t look down on them. Instead, I prefer to look them at them eye-to-eye. But that’s just my choice. Rumor has it that a noted author is writing about book about the words we use when dealing with other species. I hear her argument is that words mean something, and can help or hurt. Language can be a bridge that bonds us or one that is burned. 

As society changes and now refers to our four-legged friends and relations in terms that make me uncomfortable, I find that I adhere to a bond that is centuries old. Most of the learning and togetherness is forged through the osmosis of being with one another hour after hour, day after day. 

I’m not a fan of words that separate. Samwise doesn’t have a “forever home,” he has a home. Just like I do. And while he was a “rescue,” he isn’t now. As the world continues to change, the way society looks at non-human animals, I find comfort in being on the edge, further and further away, towards a life I find to be comfortable. It is one of those examples of how being an introvert helps. 

While it works, for us, I realize it doesn’t work for everyone, and that’s fine with me. I’m not trying to change the world, just live happily and peaceably in my corner of it.

I often find social media ironic for me. Part of me embraces it, while I also keep a leery eye on it. It is a contradiction that one who likes to spend so much time out of the public eye posts as much as I do. And soon, our lifestyles will face a dramatic temporary change. 

In less than two weeks, Samwise will make his first trip to a big city. I’m honored that the New England Independent Booksellers Association has invited us to be at their annual fall meeting. We’ll encounter many of the bookstore owners I’ve already met when touring with Atticus for “Following Atticus.” I look at some of them as warm acquaintances, and laughter will rise from our conversation. Atticus handled all those kinds of get-togethers with aplomb. Each event has been a celebration of sorts, and I love them, but after they are done, I seek out the quiet and feel the need to regenerate. I’m not the social butterfly I used to try to convince myself I was. 

I like people, but as my friend Martha says, sometimes she gets “peopled out.” I can relate. Some of us are made for crowds. Others are wallflowers. And then there're people like me, who at an event feels very much at ease and self-assured, but once it is over, I like shrinking off into solitude. 

A few days after the NEIBA function, we’ll participate in the Atticus M. Finch Memorial Walk for Animals. It is the first kind of walk I’ve ever participated in. Leashes are required, and I’ve never been a fan of them, preferring to place my four-legged friends in environments where they can be free. Unlike Atticus, Samwise has no aversion to a harness or lead. He’ll do well, I’m sure, in the big city, and then on the walk a few days later. 

But oh, I’m sure I will be touched by the nostalgia of Atticus walking through various cities by my side, or just in front of me, as naked as can be, while civilized folks on cell phones and drinking high-priced lattes stared at him as if he was a savage beast just out of the jungle. The last time we were at NEIBA, Atti and I went for a walk through the city in the early morning. When we came to a Starbucks, he sat outside by the door as I ordered our drinks. 

A crowd gathered around him. Camera phones out. Some were panicked that he was lost stray without a collar. As people approached him, he ignored them. When I came out, he left the circle that had formed around him. I didn’t have to say a word. He just fell into step with me, and we walked along the busy sidewalks without explanation. When we came to a little park, we sat next to each other on a bench, by a statue with a hundred of pigeons on it and around it. I put out his cup of water for him and drank my tea. The noise of the beginning of the workday faded away, as did the excitement of the night before when we met with all those wonderful booksellers. 

So Samwise is in for a bit of a culture shock. From watching beavers and ducks and bear and herons, he will be in a ballroom with many people who are glad to meet him. A few days later, we’ll stroll with Dr. Rachael Kleidon on a walk named after my dearly departed friend, my brother, as I came to know him. 

After the walk, it will be a quarter of a mile down the road to White Birch Books for an hour of meet and greet. It’s an unusual event for us, one where other well-behaved dogs are invited to. When I knew we were doing the walk, I called Laura Cummings at White Birch and said, “What the hell, since we’re being public that day, we may as well be public for an hour at the bookstore and sign some copies for those who want them. 

It will be fun. But by that afternoon, after we take our nap together, Samwise and I will once again find a lonesome patch of land where the only watchful eyes will be those of the trees and the wild things which live there. 

It is part of growing together, getting Samwise ready for the spring book tour and the long road trip that will follow. From the silence of the forest to the buzz of society - it’s all part of this life we live, and it’s all part of his education. Although he’ll be excitable at first, I look forward to the way he’ll eventually grow calm when we meet crowds. 

We grow together, towards a brotherhood that feels right, onward, we move, by all means. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A Common Thread

The other morning, while I was taking photographs of wildflowers by the edge of Thorne Pond, autumn’s approach could be seen, but more importantly, it could be felt. The brisk air, the stirring breeze, that primal scent even we humans can pick up that tells us to get ready for the next chapter of the year. 

When I stood, I did so cautiously, because I’ve been known to get dizzy, and sometimes even faint, since my extended sickness last spring, and perhaps because of the handful of pills I take each day aimed to ease the workload of my heart. 

When I stretched out to full length, what I saw was better than any prescription given to me by my cardiology team. Samwise was sitting on the top of the bowl that rises above the pond’s eastern edge, as calmly as can be. In front of him was a young great cormorant about twenty yards away in the water. My young friend, now nine-months-old, was sitting contentedly, silently, soaking in the scene. He wasn’t ready to spring. There was no barking. No whining. There was only a growing pup watching nature play out in front of him. 

Samwise A. Passaconaway watching a young great cormorant.
Whenever I see him do this, and he does it often, sometimes looking at ducks, beavers, or otters, I wonder where his poise comes from. Then there are the times when he’s not looking at anything but the scenery. A field of wildflowers, the reflection of a mountain in the pond, a passing river. 

I’ve learned many lessons through my friendships through the years, and that includes friendships with souls with four legs. Our lives grow and evolve because of the friends we make along the way. Like chemicals, we cannot help but be transformed when we’re joined with another. And one of the things I’ve learned through Max and Atticus and Will through the years is that individuals exist in all species, in all breeds. But as I note this, and take inventory of Samwise’s growth as a young dog on his way to finding out who he is, I can’t help but think of Atticus, who used to do the same thing while out in nature. He’d sit and ponder. Flora, fauna, clouds, it didn’t matter. I used to think of my late friend as a philosopher. 

But here is Samwise, young and energetic and full of puppy happiness, displaying the same trait. That, and how he behaves on the trails when we hike together reminds me very much of Atticus, but he doesn’t have too much else in common with him. 

But what a joy that he has this sense of wonder to him. It fills me with joy to know that he and I can sit together for a long while pondering the world in front of us. The philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I think he was on to something. Heck, take a smart phone away from a person waiting for anything and more often than not they are lost without the distraction.  

I know part of the metamorphosis from my old hectic life, was that there came a time when I could finally sit still and in peace. But it wasn’t easy at first. 

What I enjoy is watching non-human animals do it. It seems to come easier to them. Atticus, Samwise, heck, in past years I’ve taken photographs of Aragorn, a growing male bear sitting fifteen feet away from us in the backyard. As Atti and I watched the butterflies, woodpeckers, and hummingbirds, so did Aragorn. Wonder permeated whatever separates three species, and we all took communion together. 

That’s what I thought of when I saw Samwise watching this morning, and every other time I witnessed his stillness, wonder captures us all. It doesn’t matter how many legs we have, or if we have wings. In the wild, in these mountains of New Hampshire, there is a common thread that binds us together and its name is Nature. And that gives us all the more reason to protect and preserve this land and see that it remains unspoiled. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

Why Not?

Sitting here considering the benefits of some fresh platelets, I am drawn back to thinking about walking the tightrope between life and death from when I was at Maine Medical Center in Portland for five weeks. 

Years ago, I adopted the idea of something called my death bed thoughts. Here’s how it works. If something is bothering me and I’m getting stressed out about it, I ask myself, “Is this something I will be thinking about when I only have hours to live?”

If the answer is “no,” I tend to let the worry evaporate into the ether. If it’s “yes," I know the importance of it. 

This had me further thinking about regrets in my life. We all have them. Well, I won’t speak for you, but I know I have some. Many of them I cannot do anything about. That ship sailed long ago. So I choose to let those go, as best I can. But there was one I had when I was hooked up to a dialysis machine for four hours. 

Years ago, asked me, “If all of the sudden, you became filthy rich, what would you buy?”

“A convertible.”

“A convertible?”

“Yes.”

“What else?”

“That’s pretty much it. I don’t need a lot.”

Three decades have gone by since that conversation, and I realize I have only owned three cars in my life. None of them were a convertible. 

Therefore, in the spirit of tackling a regret and switching it over to a wish fulfilled, I’ve decided that while I never did get rich, and it may not seem  practical, when Samwise and I hit the road for our book tour next spring, and then again for our grand 20,000-mile trip around the country, we'll be riding in a VW Beetle Convertible. 

The more I think about this, the more I like it. The idea of seeing the west for the first time since 1969 makes me want to be swallowed whole by it. That means with the top down and Samwise in Doggles with his ears flapping in the wind. 

Another goal I have is to get an Airstream trailer, but I cannot afford one yet. That will be the next rare desire for something material to own. That and a pick-up truck to pull it. For now, I’m putting that on hold until it is more realistic. For now, we are going for free and silly and fun. 

Yes, we’ll be taking a tent along to pitch in various state parks and national forests during our two months on the road from April 21st through June 21st. We’ll also be spending two or three nights a week in motels or hotels. A little convertible is not the most common sense vehicle to drive, but I don’t care. This is about fulfilling a wish. 

Some have already offered advice suggesting something different. But my friends know when I want advice, I seek it out. Otherwise, when my heart's set on something, I go ahead and do it. Heck, that’s how most of the best things that have ever happened to me came about - by ignoring advice from others telling me what I should do. Had I listened to them I wouldn’t have started a newspaper, participated in Ironman triathlons (was it really thirty years ago?), attempted to hike two rounds of New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers in winter with a little dog, and I wouldn’t have moved north to where I’ve spent the happiest years of my life. 

Life is temporary. The end can come at any moment. I understand that more than ever in this year of finally feeling my mortality. However, if it does end sooner, rather than later, I can lay on my death bed and say, “I once owned a convertible."   
This is a stock photo from the VW website. I have not picked out a color,
although that isn't really important to me. And I'm still a few months away
from buying our adventure car. But in my head, it's a done deal.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

It Was a Will Day

Yesterday, I was surprised by joy.

My last few days had been mired in a bit of this and that, stitched together around the edges by rays of wonder. However, when an email arrived late in the afternoon, a warm glow reached deep within me and started making its way to the surface until I was beaming. By the time we went to sleep, I had covered myself in a peaceful, joyous feeling and felt all was right with the world. 

It was a Will day. 
Will's red coat.

Let me explain. 

I learned that Christina, one of our moderators, had posted a video taken on the day before I said goodbye to Will. Tears? Yes, there were. But more than anything, there was happiness. What Will and I experienced together through two and a half years of hard work, was a dance between friends, ending in a crescendo of grace. 

Looking back on that day, seeing the way he was moving with difficulty, I remember something Dr. Rachael Kleidon told me the next day when we brought Will to the mountainside to say our farewells. I’ll always remember it. 

“Tom, this is a perfect time. Yours is a kind decision. Will can barely hold himself up. When he lays down, he flops over on his side. There’s no more strength. You don’t want him to suffer.”

I knew I was making the right decision, but it also felt good to have Rachael by my side reaffirming it. 

So as I returned home and saw that old video clip, I cried, and I laughed, and I smiled. Yes, Will, I fucking love you! I said it then, I feel it still. And I’m so proud of you. 

Just before he died, I made Will a promise that I would share his remarkable story with the world. I often think about that when I sometimes struggle in writing and re-writing it, trying to do it and him justice. I want it just right. There are days I take good writing and throw it away because it’s still not good enough for my friend. Perhaps I’m trying to be too perfect. 

Sitting at my desk, watching that video, that’s when the email came in. It was from my editor. She was forwarding the image of a two-sided postcard that will be used for marketing purposes at events I’ll be attending throughout the autumn. 

It’s brilliant. 


The only fault I could find with it was that I couldn’t hold it in my hand yet. Goodness knows I returned to the images several times yesterday, gazing at it, smiling at it, feeling proud for sweet Will. 

Eventually, you will learn about a promotion we’ll be running with Four Your Paws Only, in North Conway. I bought Will’s red coat from them. A coat that turned into his talisman, which became mine after he left. It hangs lovingly on a hook above my desk.

It’s handmade, by a New Hampshire woman. The quality is what you might expect from a  labor of love. 

Soon enough we’ll be making the official announcement as to how people will be able to buy their version of Will’s red coat from Four Your Paws Only. 

As for my profits from the sales, I don’t pretend to know what Will thought when he was alive, most of the time, and I won’t claim to know where his spirit resides now, other than in my love for him. But I don’t think he’d mind in the least bit that the money I would have made from selling a version of his coat will be going to the Conway Area Humane Society. Every cent of it, in hopes that other dogs and cats who are down on their luck and may just need someone to believe in them one last chance at a loving home. 

The story of Will is one of redemption, choice, and how things can turn around no matter how challenging life is. Yesterday, my struggles with the mundane were washed away and the night ended on an up note. 

(You can pre-order "Will's Red Coat: The Story of One Old Dog Who Chose to Live Again at all on-line retailers. It can also be pre-ordered through your local independent booksellers. Personalized autographed and 'pawtographed' copies can be called into White Birch Books at 603-356-3200.)

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.