Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Merry Christmas To Our Friends At Angell

To our Angell Family this Holiday Season,

The course of my life was determined by a cigarette. Forty years ago tomorrow, my family fell into a spiral it never recovered from when my mother, long-suffering from MS, died in a hospital bed after dropping a lit cigarette. I was eight years old, the youngest of nine children. The hub of our universe was gone and all the spokes splintered and went their own ways like survivors of a ship wreck – man and children doing their best to somehow survive each on their own.

My father never recovered from this loss and when he died this year it was a relief to him to finally go and join the woman he loved. Some my siblings never recovered either. God bless them, I still root for them. But being the youngest and with a grand view of all of them, I wanted something more. I loved them but didn't want to be anything like them. And so the past four decades became a quest to seek a path where there was none to follow. Sometimes awkwardly, often blind, I wandered and tried to find my way to the top of a mountain I had dreamed of. Step by step, piece by piece, I put together the life I had dreamed of through the best and the worst of times.

Because of what you all do for a living (and obviously for love) you will appreciate that the last steps could only be taken after being touched by two wonderful dogs, my dear Max, whose ashes now grace the top of each of the 48 4,000-footers and, of course, dearest Atticus, who helped me spread those ashes. I did all I could do to reach the mountaintop I had dreamed of in the darkest hours of loneliness but there are some things a man needs help with, some things he cannot do on his own. I learned what I could on my own, but I needed these two souls to teach me what I could not learn on my own - love.

This journey to the mountaintop is a walk from a parking lot (society); into the woods with faith there is something more even though you cannot see it; blood, sweat and tears in climbing over rock, root and other obstructions; challenges of cliffs, ice, snow, high rivers, wild winds; and then when things seem bleakest, when there seems to be no end to the fight for survival, the never-ending journey does end with a brilliant view from a mountain peak.

Atticus brought me to that mountaintop, then when he was sick last year I feared I would lose it all.

That's where you came in. What hit me most about Angell was not that I thought you all could solve anything, but that you brought us hope and hope is a very bright star on the darkest of journeys. It is what is needed most, especially when it seems so far away. There are thousands who have received much more from Angell than Atticus and I have, but I wanted you all to know if you touched us as deeply as you did then, and in knowing that you will always be there for us, there are so many others out there who feel just as deeply and appreciative for what you do as we do.

Richard Bach, in his wonderful little book "Illusions", wrote: "The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other's life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof." First Max, and then Atticus, proved this to me. And you, our Angell Family, have proven it more than you will ever know.

We both thank you for being perfect at what you do. If I could afford it I'd buy each of you anything you would have this Christmas, but since that is not possible, I offer you the only thing I can afford to give – our love and thanks for all you do. I'm sure you hear such things quite often but as far as I am concerned, you all can never hear it enough.

This Christmas Eve, when Atticus and I climb a mountain for our now annual dinner (complete with Christmas lights), we'll give thanks for the gifts you have given us and thank you for touching our lives again and again.

Onward, by all means,
Tom Ryan & Atticus M. Finch

PS: For our other readers, as you know, Atticus and I are not going to be fundraising for Angell this winter while I work on our book, however, giving to Angell and the great work they do is always worthwhile. When our book is published, we’ll be offering a portion of each book sale to the Angell Animal Medical Center. If you are looking for the right gift to give to the animal lover in your life you can always make a donation in their name to Angell. Our contact, and oh, what a contact she is, is Kathleen Santry. If you would like to make a donation so that other animals can have the same care Atticus received, you can email Kathleen for information on how to give at

Friday, December 12, 2008

Hall of Fame Dinner Program

For whatever the reason I continue to stumble when it comes to scanning in the photo page from the program of the MSPCA-Angell's Hall of Fame Dinner at the JFK Presidential Library when Atticus and I were honored with the Human Hero Award. It's nearly two months coming, but here it is...finally.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Our Latest Column for the Northcountry News

Ah, the annual holiday issue. With that in mind, here’s a little something different from Tom & Atticus – some ideas for the winter hiker on your holiday list.

Two or Three Headlamps: In winter, it gets light later and gets dark earlier. Spend enough time on the trails and you will hike sooner or later with a headlamp on. One will fail sooner or later, so bring extras. And always bring extra batteries. A headlamp serves the additional purpose of head protection. Yes, head protection – for when your spouse wants to slap you upside the head because you have the bedroom light on at 4:00 a.m. while getting ready for your hike.

Balaclava: You’d be warm, but also considered the biggest dork in your neighborhood if you wore a balaclava to walk the dog. Fear not, there’s nothing dorky about face protection on a frozen, windy day above treeline in the mountains. As a matter of fact, it is essential. A balaclava protects much of your face from frost bite and serves the additional purpose of making all photos look that much more dramatic. Stand on a mountaintop with a balaclava on and those back home looking at photos of you will understand immediately how dangerously cold it was that day on the mountain – even if it wasn’t. (A little drama never hurt any story.) And of course, if you are like me, balaclavas have a slimming effect when they cover up that double chin.

MSR Snowshoes: More often than not I see city folks in the mountains post-holing through deep snow with crampons on and I’m thinking, “What the hell?” Yes, snowshoes are far more commonly needed than crampons but folks don’t see them as sexy. They watch television shows on climbing Everest and they have an image of what they want to look like when they hike to the top of any of the White Mountains. That image consists of something more manly than snowshoes. They even look so much more dangerous than snowshoes with their big jagged spikes. (And believe me when I tell you they are, as many novice winter hikers will tell you when they gash one of their legs with their own crampons.) The beauty about MSR brand snowshoes is that they are far more aggressive than regular snowshoes when it comes to climbing. To attest to this, I’ve climbed each of the mountains in the Presidential Range at one time or other in snowshoes. Sure there will be times when you need crampons, just not as much as the egotist hiker will tell you. You want to look sexy? Hike in a thong.

Carbon Graphite Trekking Poles: Most hikers will tell you they use trekking poles to ease the impact on their knees while coming down a mountain or for balance while crossing icy rocks in a stream or traversing a snow field high above treeline. That may be so, but the real use I get out of them is that they give me something to hold onto when I can’t go any further and I’m cursing my body for being out of shape while my head hangs in defeat between my slumping shoulders while my arms are extended outward holding onto the pole handles. Usually the phrase that accompanies such a position is “I will never hike another #@@$$%$%! mountain for as long as I live! What was I thinking?” If the poles weren’t there, I’d fall face-first into the snow and look even more pathetic. (The carbon graphite versions are extra light weight and extra strong, if you happen to be like me – extra large.)

Microspikes: These things are fantastic. No they are not as sexy as crampons because they are ‘micro’ and not big manly spikes, but there are times when neither snowshoes nor crampons are needed but you need some traction for good footing. They slip on over your winter boots with ease and come off just as easily, even while you are wearing gloves. They can also be used as a marriage aid. No, not talking about you folks into S & M here, but they will give you a good grip on the ice on your walkway and driveway back home so you have no excuse not to take out the trash even in the iciest of conditions, which will help keep your home life ice free.

Wool Socks & Ziploc Bags: I know you are thinking this is just downright silly but trust me, they are needed. Sure you need one or two pairs of wool socks on your feet in a winter boot, that’s easy to understand. Socks serve other purposes besides just keeping your feet warm. They can work as extra mittens if – God forbid – and emergency arises. They can be used to keep your water or Gatorade from freezing up in your pack. Slide the full bottle in upside down and tuck the stuffed sock into the middle of all your other gear. If that doesn’t keep it from freezing, at least having the water bottle upside down will ensure the freezing takes place at the bottom of the bottle. As for Ziploc Bags, they are the most important of all pieces of winter equipment for they carry those wondrous miniature Snickers bars. Unwrap them before going and put them into the Ziploc Bags so you won’t have to take off your gloves to eat; then stick the little bags where they are easily accessible.

Dog Gear: The best protection you can give to your dog in winter is to not put him or her into a dangerous position. However, when you’ve determined it is okay to bring your own Atticus out in the winter there are two pieces of gear I’ve found to be of great help. The first is his set of Muttluk boots ( I put them on my little hiking partner when the snow is loose or the ground extra cold. When on ice, I take them off him so he can use his claws for traction. Muttluks are also great for summer use above treeline. All too often dogs leave a trail of bloody paw prints behind because their owners haven’t put much thought into their care. The other piece of equipment Atticus uses is a body suit that comes from K9 Top Coat ( Sure he looks like a perverted Aqua Man with his paws and privates revealed for all to see, but everything else is covered with fleece on the inside and neoprene on the outside. I use it on extra cold days, or when he has to trudge through deeper snow. In all fairness, I should point out that Atticus hates to put these things on, but once they are on he does very well with them. He is, after all, a nudist by nature, but I have no doubt he still appreciates this gear.

These are only a few things you need when hiking in the winter. When shopping for them, remember the independent retailers closest to you. Stand by the little guy who gives back to your community whenever you can. But no matter where you get your gear, be safe out there. The mountains can be dangerous.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A High-Flying Dog and his Curiosity of Cats

Atticus and I have moved our operations to North Conway for two weeks. We're house/dog/cat sitting for a friend. While here we are exploring the woods around North Conway and hope to get some good hikes in. You can see how happy Atticus is to be here by his high-flying photo above. You'll also note his curiosity of cats. (He's not sure what to make of them.) Hopefully while here I'll get an opportunity for some good writing. I've also included a photo of the view of the back deck here. Mt. Washington is in the clouds but you can see Adams' pointy top.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A November Walk In The Woods

There is never a time when I'm alone in the woods, thanks to my four-legged talisman. He leads, I follow, until, that is, we come to a trail junction and he wants to know which path we will take next. Then he looks at me expectantly, waiting for me to point either right or left. As great as it is to have Atticus for company, I’m even more blessed because my hiking partner is the best kind of company – silent; and he takes as much joy in the woods as I do. Ralph Waldo Emerson liked the church best when it was empty. I am the same way with the woods: reverence through solitude.

On Sunday morning, it was bitterly cold and we were early enough to have the woods to ourselves. The only sounds were the crunch of frozen leaves underfoot, an occasional melancholy birdsong, the rhythm of my breathing and the wind hissing through the trees. The plan was for a quick hike along the Morgan-Percival loop in Holderness overlooking Squam Lake before heading over to Newfound Lake to join two of my brothers for lunch. However, after the mild meanderings of the lower portion of the trail and the short steeper section in the last portion of the Mt. Morgan Trail, I changed my mind.

Atticus sat by a trail junction sign: Straight ahead (and up) to Mt. Morgan (0.4 miles and eventually over to Mt. Percival); or left to Mt. Webster (1.4 miles) along the Crawford Ridgepole Trail. Because we were now higher and more exposed and the wind was strong enough to make me pull my balaclava over my head and cover everything other than my eyes and we were in a hurry, the logical thing would have been to climb Mt. Morgan and then hop over to Mt. Percival and finish the loop with plenty of time to get to my brother's. But a funny thing happens to me in the woods – even when they are naked and so cold it's uncomfortable to stand still for more than a minute. I become a child again.

I'd never been to Mt. Webster (nor even heard of it) and decided it would be a fine time to go. And so Atticus and I followed our hearts instead of our plans and headed to points unknown.

The trail rolled pleasantly along through the November woods and we walked quickly in the cold, dark shadows of the ridge to the south with little protection from the bitter wind coming from the north. Soon, ice crystals formed on my eyebrows and eyelashes. If there had been snow on the ground it would have passed for the heart of winter instead of the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

While alone with Atticus in the frozen woods with gusts bearing down on us something wild was awakened in me. It had to do with making the choice to leave a warm bed and the Sunday paper behind to be out in elements most would never venture out in and until three years ago I wouldn't have either. We were suddenly as feral as our surroundings, out in untamed world, and perversely I found comfort in my discomfort. It came from within…and without. For the woods were frozen and harsh but still seemed to pulse with unseen life; just as my body did under several layers of clothing.

A friend of mine recently described a feeling she had deep within when she was moved to tears by something warm and beautiful and unexpected. It wasn't a pang in her heart but lower, but not in her gut either; perhaps, I surmise, it was in her soul. That's what it was like for me on Sunday morning. I felt a pang in my soul standing on the mountainside and thought of something the painter Andrew Wyeth said: "I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape – the loneliness of it – the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it – the whole story doesn't show."

There's something about there being more to the story, to the mystery of nature and what happens when we become part of the story simply by participating in it.

I could write on and on, I suppose, about how we eventually found the spur path to the summit of Mt. Webster and then two-tenths of a mile later found a nice outlook with a view down on the lake and over towards Whiteface's snowy white face and the pointed peak of Chocorua. Or I could tell you how when we turned back and made it to the summit of Morgan that there was a river of ice along the trail and we had to rock and root hop our way to the top and when we reached it we sat shielded from the wind in a warm sun overlooking a brilliant Squam Lake rippled by the wind. However, to me the day was defined by a whimsical decision to stray from the route and we found ourselves enjoying this most unlikely weather on a lesser-used portion of trail. It is special indeed when you find yourself graced to become part of what you love, as wild as the wind and as primitive as the mountainside itself. And we were there not because we went with friends or because I was checking it off this or that list but simply because something within stirred me out of bed and urged me on. It is the story of why we go to the woods in the first place, even as children. It is the feeling of being part of something not available to us anywhere else but in the forest.

Some of our best journeys outside take me inside. Such is the simple and uncomplicated joy of being in the woods.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

My November Guest

I’m not sure if you are familiar with Robert Frost’s poem, “My November Guest” or not. It’s beautiful for the starkness it evokes and suited my purpose this morning while wending along a path next to the Saco River this morning in North Conway. When we lost the path we stumbled upon a rustic threadbare road, no more than tire ruts through short wet grass, bare of trees but carpeted with slick brown leaves. It was while walking along this road and following Atticus between the gray trees under gray clouds lingering after the rain (perhaps wondering if their job was done), that I thought of a few lines from the poem:

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow…

Frost, I’m told, was writing about the beauty of melancholy or loneliness. Perhaps so. But I was feeling anything but melancholy – I never do in the woods – and find those three lines to be very beautiful. They strike at my throat like a lover’s glance from across the room.

And, of course, how could I be lonely? Not while following this trotting little hobbit and his swaying fanny, his flopping ears. He is excited by the forest. Not like other dogs I’ve had or known. He does not take off in hyperactive wild loops weaving madly through trees, chasing scents and the slightest movement. Instead he stays on the trail. He’ll stop to sniff a bare branch of some forgotten shrub but then before I am on him he moves on, intent on leading the way.

We moved silently this way for a while, enjoying the morning. From time to time Atticus stopped and looked through the woods as if he saw something, but after a moment or two he’d be on his way again until one time he didn’t move. He stopped and looked to the left through a thicket. Eventually he sat and watched. It took me a little while to see the doe, not 20 feet away, as still as a statue. Ever so slowly I sat on the ground next to Atticus and we watched that deer for fifteen minutes. Our eyes never wavered from her graceful form when she began to relax. Then, as if remembering an appointment she was late for, she bound through the forest in the opposite direction, her white tale rising high with each kick.

My God, talk of how stunning nature is!

It’s hunting season here. To think that a hunter could see that doe as we did and still pull the trigger is beyond comprehension. I will never understand how propelling a bullet into such a elegant creature enriches a person more than being able to share the woods with her.

Atticus sat and watched her departure, then looked at me. We met in a glance halfway between our two species in a world we’ve grown comfortable with. I think we were thinking the same thoughts, feeling the same things, both in love with the ‘bare November days before the coming of the snow’.

My November Guest
By Robert Frost

My Sorrow, when she's here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She's glad the birds are gone away,
She's glad her simple worsted grey
Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Our Winter Plans

This morning when Atticus and I walked, it finally felt like November: bare, steel-gray trees; brown lifeless leaves; the lazy drift of snowflakes that will amount to nothing; a chill in the air and my bones. I’m hoping we can get two such long walks in each day while I get myself into winter hiking shape.

During the previous three winters we’ve had very busy schedules. In the first – our first winter of hiking – we attempted to do all 48 in the 90 days of the season but fell short by two hikes with 41 peaks. The second winter we raised money for the Jimmy Fund and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute by trying to hike all 48 twice in the 90 days. We fell short by four hikes with 81 peaks. Last winter we attempted the two rounds again, raising money for Angell Animal Medical Center, but, well, winter decided to be winter. Record snow totals held us to 66 peaks gathered. Funny, three winters in a row we have fallen short of the goal I set. And yet the experiences have been rich and tangible and many will be with me for as long as my memory works.

This winter? I’ve given it some thought and know that we’ll be hiking. However, I’ve decided we won’t go for a full round. It will be strange not to have that obsession to sink myself into but also a bit of a relief. That doesn’t mean I don’t have goals to reach for. This winter I intend of concentrating on my career by working diligently on the book. My goal is to write every day, surrendering to that great adventure.

Physically, I have a different goal. It has been announced that the road to the Cog Railroad at the base of Mount Washington will not be open this year. For the last three years it has been, and this has made ascents of Mt. Washington and Monroe and Eisenhower much easier. This makes reaching the summit of Washington and Monroe much more difficult. Therefore, I think the goal this winter will be to do something I’ve given thought to the last two winters but things never worked out: we may just attempt a one-day Presidential Traverse. It would take us over Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, Pierce and Jackson. (Okay, maybe not Jackson. I’ve yet to make up my mind on that one.)

Is a winter Presidential Traverse feasible? Two winters ago, when we hit the 81 peaks, I think we could have done it then. Last winter we never got into a rhythm and therefore didn’t get into good enough shape. Winter is only about six weeks away so I need to do some work between now and then: diet and endurance work. The endurance work I don’t mind. The diet, well, it will have to take place if I want to reach this goal. Part of our training will be to hike the 4,000-footers that were sponsored but never reached last winter.

From what I know, a dog has never done a Winter Presidential Traverse before. I don’t doubt that Atticus can do one, if we get the proper weather. The question is, can I do one?

While on the subject of our last three winters, I’ve a confession to make: in attempting to do either one or two rounds in 90 days, I found myself putting a lot of pressure on myself, especially when using the quests as a fundraiser. By the time each winter ended I needed a break from the mountains. My mind was spent. Then again, that was part of the endurance event. This winter I’m hoping that by hiking only what I want to hike that won’t happen. I love hiking too much for it to turn into a commitment I have to do and I don’t want to resent it. If we set out to do two rounds again, mentally I wouldn’t have what it takes this time around. Perhaps you can understand why I felt burned out on peak-bagging when you consider that during the last three winters Atticus and I have hiked 188 peaks. That’s 188 more than I ever imagine we’d hike in the winter only four years ago.

As for fundraising for Angell, that’s not done. When the book is sold to a publisher part of the agreement will be that a portion of each sale will go to Angell Animal Medical Center. And besides, there will be other fundraising adventures coming our way in the future – just not this winter. Here’s a few possibilities: Tom & Atticus Hike… the Adirondacks; the Appalachian Trail; all NH 48 in one month.

That’s it for now from a very chilly Tamworth.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Our Most Recent Column for the Northcountry News: A Return to the Trails

It has been said that the great poet philosophers of past centuries debated over the number of angels that could fit on the head of a pin. For us, the more fitting question is how many angels can fit on a hike without tripping over each other.

Draped in prayers carried forth by a legion of angels from good-hearted people around New England and various corners of the United States, a little dog entered the woods as he always has – with a sprite-like bounce any self-respecting wood faerie would envy. Carefree, irrepressibly joyous, with ears bouncing up and down (his sign of happiness in movement), the scars of his psyche have faded as much as those on his throat. It is as if the attack never occurred and a hole was never ripped in his throat.

Our objective for our return hike was Potash Mountain, the fair sister of Hedgehog Mountain. Yes, I know Potash is not a 4,000-footer, and therefore not a sexy climb to some, but I’ve gotten over my prejudices in such matters, and much to his credit, Atticus never had them. The woods are the woods and the White Mountains are the White Mountains. Besides, while the elevation gain is only 1,400 feet in 1.9 miles, much of that comes in rather steep sections of ledge. My body tells me it is as tough a climb as Hale, Tecumseh or Jackson, and the views to be had on top are far more beautiful than what can be seen on two of the three aforementioned peaks.

We moved easily through the first section of woods and counted it as good luck that everyone else in the full parking lot apparently took a left at the fork in the trail and headed to Hedgehog instead. The stream was high after recent rains so halfway across I picked up Atticus and carried him like a loaf of bread over ten or so feet of rushing water. Once across he shook of the indignity of his portage and once again led on. In that section the trail climbs up through the woods before flattening out again, and so did we. Then we crossed the old logging road (we would take this out to the Kancamagus Highway on the return trip to avoid the stream crossing) and were on our way again, up again.

These are the magical woods of moose and other invisible woodland creatures but in the meditative ebb and flow of my breathing it may as well have been Tolkien’s Mirkwood Forest. I wouldn’t have been shocked to see a wayward dwarf or a fast-fading elf feast just ten trees away. As I wrote before, the woods are the woods. No matter where they are located I find myself transported to my most innocent states when in them. Moreover, since I have this gentle little hobbit of a creature serving as my guide, who can blame me for these little fantastical side trips?

We scrambled up tree-roots and rock ledges kept slick in the shadowy forest and towards a tunnel of light that led us to a ledge with a great view out to Passaconaway. There we sat in the brisk breeze and bright sun, Atticus eating peanut butter crackers out of my hand and then sipping his water; me checking him for any ill-effects and finding none.

From that ledge, the trail twisted and turned along the southern side of the mountain and seemed to go on forever with the last pitch always just around the next corner. After rocky undulations along a thickly wooded area we came to that ankle-testing angled ledge walk. Then came the final steep push up and to the right.

Atticus is always just ahead of me, 10, maybe 20 yards, ahead at most – until we get to the summit. That’s when he hurries forward like a child on Christmas morning, rushing to see what Santa has left under the tree. When I caught up to him he was on the northern ledge catching the breeze with his floppy ears, looking out the Hancocks and Carrigain. When I sat him in the crook of my arm, he could see over the trees and turned his gaze towards white Mount Washington and the clouds sailing rapidly over it like specters on a haunt.

After a spell, we moved out of the wind and took in the view on the leeward side – Passaconaway, the Sleepers, the Tripyramids, the Fool Killer, and the two Osceolas. We made the hike with our friends Ken and Ann Stampfer and their son, Mark, and we sat together eating our lunches. Atticus ate his London broil – you don’t get to celebrate a return to the trails every day – and when he finished he sat and then stretched out above us in the sun.

Perhaps our conversation bored him or maybe he wanted to see what else the mountaintop had to offer, but after a bit he wandered off. When I interrupted him several minutes later he was off on his own on the other side of a small wall of trees and shrubs looking towards Chocorua.

Our return trip was a pleasant walk in the woods in the fading light of the aging afternoon. None of us had a care in the world. We had passed the test in our return to the trails and there was much to be thankful for.

There is a gift in these mountains and I receive it each time I tread a forest path or stand looking at sights I never imagined existed. But a greater gift comes to me in sharing it in silent communion with an a little dog who knows both the light and the dark life has to offer and yet continues to evolve in ways I can only dream of.

Dr. Nick Trout, a veterinarian at Angell Animal Medical Center and author of the NY Times bestseller “Tell Me Where It Hurts” recently wrote something to me. In it was this sentence: “Animals come into our lives prepared to teach, if only those of us on the human side of the bond would be humble enough to learn.”

In my journeys, I am forever humbled by the mountains of New Hampshire and even more so by life lessons learned from a curious little dog who teaches me a great deal about being a better human.

The Mountain Ear Updates Atticus' Condition

In the most recent issue of The Mountain Ear (November 6, 2008; Volume 33, Number 25, Page 24), Steve Smith’s “Nooks & Crannies” hiking column has an update on Atticus. It reads as follows:

Nice to hear from Tom Ryan of Tam- worth that Atticus M. Finch, his re- nowned peakbagging miniature schnauzer (who in the last two years has made nearly 150 winter ascents of 4000-foot peaks for fundraising efforts), is rapidly recovering from a nearly fatal attack by a larger dog that occurred during a walk on a trail in early October. Last weekend they were back out in the woods climbing Potash Mountain off the Kanc. Atticus is one tough pooch. Ryan offers high praise for Dr. Christine O’Connell at North Country Animal Hospital in North Conway, who treated Atticus after the attack. You can follow the adventures of Tom and Atticus at

Thank you, Steve.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Thanks For Voting YES on Question 3

Massachusetts residents: Just a quick thank you from one little dog who hated to see other dogs abused as they have been in the Greyhound racing industry. Thank goodness that's over. Now, if other states will only follow suit. (By the way, the photo is from our hike this past weekend to Potash.)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Great Thanks to the Flying Fifties for their Support of Atticus

That energetic group of ski enthusiasts in Lincoln, the Flying Fifties, have get well wishes for Atticus on their website: If you scroll down their website [which is interesting in its own right] you will see Atticus and their good wishes towards a full recovery under the title: "Our Prayers For The Complete Recovery Of Atticus". In the short post they write:

Tom and Atticus climb the White Mountains as an inseparable team and publish their exploits in the Northcountry News. But Atticus recently met with some very unfortunate bad luck that resulted in severe injuries to a little guy we have all grown to love in the North Country. We're all praying for a complete recovery.

A Return to the Trails

Yesterday, three weeks after the attack on Atticus, we returned to the trails without a hint that it ever occurred. We climbed Mt. Potash with Ken, Ann and Mark Stampfer. It was a brisk but beautiful day in the woods, as Ken's photos (above) attest to. Potash is a great 'little' mountain that offers wonderful views close up of some of the Sandwich Range and as far away as Washington.

What a pleasure to see little Atticus back in his favorite setting, walking peacefully and purposefully through the woods, then summit sitting, enjoying the views. I hope to get back on the trail quite often this November as we gear up for a different kind of winter challenge and I need to get back into shape. As of Wednesday this week, Atticus and I will be shifting over to North Conway for six days and plan to get on some of the trails in that area.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Newburyport Current Runs Piece About Tom & Atticus

Atticus and I moved out of Newburyport a little more than a year ago, but as one friend emailed us this morning “you may be gone but you are not forgotten.”

The Newburyport Current ran a small piece on our being honored by the MSPCA at the JFK Library a couple of weeks ago. (How’s that for a lot of initials?) They also noted that six days before the award presentation Atticus was viciously attacked.

I had no idea they were running piece but it’s good to know we are still remembered.

Another friend points out that certain people who didn’t like the coverage they received in The Undertoad during its 11-year run might be panicking a bit this morning when they read The Current and noted that the caption under the photo mistakenly referring to me as a “Newburyport resident”.

My friend, who will remain nameless, noted, “I think I heard the collective screams of one drunken ex-city councilor and some former mayors all the way across town after they read that caption!”

Newburyport is a charming place and the politics, for those of you who don’t know it, could be called lively…if piranhas are considered lively. Or at least the politics used to be ‘lively’. While running The Undertoad, I literally sat in the middle of the tempest in a teapot provincial political world of Newburyport when it raged at its worst. Live in a small town and print an opinion and you are bound to get enemies, as well as some friends.

How grotesque can politics in Newburyport get? Now that Licorice & Sloe Tea Company is out of business, I can tell this story. When last winter started, L & S held a fundraiser to raise money for Angell Animal Medical Center in Atticus and my name. When it was announced in a couple of papers, the people at Licorice & Sloe received a couple of threats of boycott from two self-proclaimed progressive movers and shakers around town. (One of them, I believe, ironically referred to me as an animal). It didn’t matter that the tea house was raising money for the wonderful non-profit animal hospital, the way these two people saw it (one of them being active in the Newburyport Democratic City Committee) they were doing something nice that was associated with me.

Kind of reminds me of the few who went around town telling businesses they would boycott them if they continued to advertise in The Undertoad (one of these fellows once asked if he could have a lifetime subscription of my paper delivered to his High Street manse) only to have a coupe of business owners ask, “How do you know we advertise in The Undertoad.”

Ah, because they all read it.

But that is now ancient history. It’s now the soft life of living in and writing about mountains and the courage and wondrous capabilities of a little dog.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Our Latest Column for the Northcountry News

"It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure." ~ Joseph Campbell

On a perfect autumn day when the sun was warm but not hot, when the breeze was cool but not cold, when the foliage flamed orange and red against a cerulean sky, Atticus and I went for a walk. We came to a house where a dog quickly made her way towards us and always-innocent and always-trusting Atticus bounced forward to say, "Hello, friend." In a split second the other dog had Atticus by the throat, ripping and tearing at him, shaking his little body like a rag doll. By the time I reached Atticus his body was hanging limply. I feared him dead. When she dropped him he crumbled to the ground.

In a matter of seconds we fell from Heaven into Hell.

In the hours that followed I watched over Atticus after Dr. Christine O'Connell from the North Country Animal Hospital in North Conway sewed up the hole in his throat and inserted gruesome tubes to drain the area beneath his flesh that had been poisoned by the dog trying to kill him.

That night, while on a sleepless vigil over my little friend, I posted a message on our website telling friends of the horror that had transpired earlier in the day and of how I had to watch Atticus that night and check his breathing, hoping a lung was not collapsed and hoping he did not go into shock.

Emails started coming in. The first was from Bryan Flagg, the editor and publisher of the North Country News. Bryan wasted no time in posting the news on this paper's website. News also spread like wild fire in the hiking websites that little Atticus had been attacked and was not doing well. Within a day and a half, more than 200 emails came in, all offering prayers for Atticus; all wanting updates. Within a couple of more days the total was well over 400 emails. People offered money to help pay for his medical bills. One man offered his company helicopter to airlift Atticus down to Boston's Angell Animal Medical Center, one of the best hospitals in the world, if he needed to get there in a hurry. Representatives from Angell informed me that if we needed them they would be there for us and we would not have to wait longer than 10 seconds before coming in the door to be seen.

A year ago Atticus and I move north from Newburyport, Massachusetts. We had fallen head over heels for the mountains and decided this was the only place we wanted to live. I threw caution to the wind, dropped out of Newburyport's mayor's race, sold my newspaper and we came north. It proved to be a difficult move. We'd come from a small, tightly-packed city where nearly everyone knew our name and we ventured to the mountains where hikers knew us but no one else did. I was concerned about leaving behind the sense of community we had enjoyed.

I learned many lessons in the days following the attack on Atticus:

  • Most dogs Atticus' size would not have survived the attack. Hiking hundreds of mountains has made his neck strong, not to mention his will.
  • There are good vets up here in the mountains. During our emergency we literally stumbled upon Dr. Christine O'Connell and now we know we have a vet up here that is as good as any I've ever met.
  • This little dog I live and hike with is made of stronger stuff than I am. In the days that followed, I watched his healing progress beyond anything anyone could imagine.
  • Thanks to Bryan and Suzanne Flagg, we have found a new community and it is called the Northcountry News. It's made up of the great couple who run it and those of you who read it. In the week following the attack, Bryan circled the wagons and made sure all knew about Atticus and how he was doing, whether it was in the newspaper, the website or on the radio. I received countless emails from strangers who were there for us because of Bryan.

Six nights after nearly dying, Atticus walked the red carpet into the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston to be honored as the co-recipient of one of the four Hero Awards the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals gives out annually. The big star for the night was supposed to be the country singer, Emmylou Harris. However, in the end, it was clear that a little dog deserved equal billing, if not sole billing.

Atticus sauntered into the place, weaving through the crowd of the wealthy donors, many of whom brought their dogs with them – at least for the cocktail reception leading up to the dinner – but he was the only one off leash, the only one to walk through that crowd as if he owned the place. You can only imagine the joy I took in watching him climb out of what had befallen him less than a week earlier and seeing him mingle with other dogs, without fear, just as trusting and innocent as he had been before – as only an advanced soul can do.

Much of the way Atticus handled everything had to do with how I handled it and for that I have all of you who reached out with kind thoughts and prayers and warm words for through them I found the strength to lead

In the days following the event at the JFK Library I closed a long passage about the week that was and the night it ended with with the following:

"How lucky we are, this man and dog, to have the experiences we share. How many lifetime moments we've already had together in the 6 ½ years we've known each other. I cannot imagine a world without Atticus in it, not now, not while the adventures come at us one after another.

"Some day, if I live long enough so that I last longer than my family and friends and most of my good senses and I end up in a nursing home where I am all alone, those who take care of me will surely think me mad when I tell them of one little dog, the adventures we shared together, 188 mountains climbed in three winters together, a night on the stage of the JFK Library.

"I'm a sentimental fool; it's in my Irish blood. It's for this reason that I think it is so cruel that dogs lives are shorter than the people who love them. No wonder when thinking of Atticus and our adventures together, I'm so moved whenever I read that wonderful last line from A.A. Milne's House at Pooh Corner: "So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be

A writer needs readers. Without Bryan and Suzanne and without all of you, these words would mean nothing. I thank you for your good thoughts and wishes; I thank you for your prayers; I thank you for this sense of community; and I thank you for reading. Here in the mountains, neighbors may not be right next door like they were in Newburyport, but I take heart in knowing the distance does nothing to lessen the warmth that comes with community.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Heartwarming Feedback

See, I even have proof that this writer didn’t trip over his words and make too much of a fool of himself on stage the other night at the JFK Presidential Library. A woman named Teresa is my witness. Her comment can be found on a post two below this one but I’ll reprint it here too.

Tom,I was at the JFK last night and had a chance to get a quick pet with Atticus while he was making the rounds.

I have to tell you how much I enjoyed hearing you speak - you did a great job with having the crowd laugh, cry and cheer for the two of you.

I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to meet you, but at least I got a pet from Atticus(which by chance is my neighbor's dogs name, and the dog across the street is Scout -notice a theme?)

Good luck,

Monday, October 13, 2008

Atticus Update

Atticus saw Dr. O’Connell today. (I guess I could write it the other way around, too.) He was hesitant about going into the examination room but I think his opinion of that room has now changed since she took out the drainage tubes and scrubbed his neck for him – it’s been itching like crazy and he’s done his best not to scratch it, instead coming over to me to let me scratch it for him instead. He’s a good patient.

The doctor, who by the way has only been a vet since June (she was a vet tech before that), thinks he looks good and the wounds are healing. We’ll see her at the beginning of next week when she’ll take out the stitches.

Atticus and I are off to Newburyport tomorrow for a few mental health days. It will be good for him to see some warm and welcoming faces. In the last 48 hours we’ve received more than 200 emails from people wishing him well. Many of those emails live in Nbpt and will get to see him first hand.

Thanks for all the love and support, everyone!

Thank You Cards

Various readers have asked for the address of Dr. Christine O'Connell, the veterinarian who took care of Atticus after Friday's attack, so they can send her a thank you note or card. Here it is:

Christine O'Connell, DVM
North Country Animal Hospital
2237 West Side Road
North Conway, NH 03860

People continue to ask what they can do to help out right now. Feel free to drop a note of thanks to the veterinarian who helped a little dog in need. Angell will always be our place for major problems but I was so impressed by North Country Animal Hospital that it's clear they are our new local vet.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Healing Process Begins

We didn't do much but we did get out and about today. Atticus, understandably didn't feel like walking very far, but I really wanted him to get back into the woods so I spent about 20 minutes stretching his legs and then I took him out on the Brook Path and we just sat there in the woods.

Yesterday and Today; And Atticus On Emmylou Harris' Website

Yesterday, my friend Ann wanted to know if I was getting nervous or excited about this coming Thursday night when Atticus and I will be at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston at the 21st Annual MSPCA-Angell Animal Hall of Fame Dinner. For those who don’t know, Atticus and I are sharing the organizations “Human Hero of the Year Award” for our efforts in raising money for Angell Animal Medical Center by climbing 66 4,000-footers this past winter.

She was incredulous when I stated simply, “No.”

I told her, for everything that went with running The Undertoad in Newburyport; I couldn’t imagine anything that didn’t get me ready for in life. We’ll be getting attention on Thursday night – big deal. As the editor of The ‘Toad I received a lifetime of attention in 11 years and nothing could be as intense as that was. And while I know I’m a writer and not a public speaker, I figured I’d do just fine when it came to the 5-minute speech I’m expected to give.

That was yesterday. That was before I came close to losing Atticus when a dog attacked him by ripping into his throat. That was before I spent the night watching over his innocent body with a goddamn drainage tube sticking out of his neck.

The way I figured it was that while the JFK Library will be packed with a lot of bigwigs, Atticus and I share something most of them will never know. We truly have a unique bond. With all that we’ve gone through in our six and a half years together I figured it would be easy facing that crowd and sharing my relationship with Atticus with them. Standing up there with him would make it easy.

This morning I’m not so sure of that any longer. I am a sentimental fool; a romantic. In lieu of what happened yesterday – in almost losing Atticus, well, right about now I’m not quite sure how I will do on stage. The idea of almost not being able to stand up there with him is a nightmare. My biggest goal is not to turn into the blubbering mess I am right now.

It would have been easy. Get introduced. Start with a joke – “What’s the difference between a miniature schnauzer and a hockey mom?” Then talk calmly for four or five minutes. But that was yesterday.

In the span of a few seconds, this beautiful, bucolic corner of the world became ugly. With the grotesque sounds of an aggressive dog ripping into Atticus’ throat, and his helpless yelps, our world up here changed. At least for a little while. I’m not sure how the better half of Tom & Atticus will handle it, probably much better than I will, but from now on I will be on my guard far more in the future.

Our plan was to go south on Thursday for the dinner and spend the rest of the time in Newburyport, returning here Saturday morning. Now, considering what’s happened to Atti, we are going to Newburyport on Tuesday because the little bug has a lot of friends down there and it always lifts his spirits to see them. I’m sure he’ll appreciate that. Then, when we come back up north, hopefully he’ll be able to climb again and we’ll go find a mountain to sit on.

Get well emails have already started to flow in – and I thank you for them. It means the world to know that the little dog who has moved me has also moved others to the point where they care.

Meanwhile, a friend has forwarded the following to me. She was looking at Emmylou Harris’ website and found it.

21st Annual MSPCA-Angell Animal Hall of Fame Dinner to Honor Emmylou Harris Additional Honorees Include BPD K9s, Teenage Advocate and Canine/Human Mountain Climbers

BOSTON – The MPSCA-Angell will honor world renowned vocalist Emmylou Harris at the non-profit’s 21st Annual Animal Hall of Fame Dinner on October 16 at the JFK Library & Museum. Additional honorees will include the Boston Police Department’s K9 Unit (Animal Hero Award), Amanda MacDonald (Young Hero Award) and Tom Ryan and Atticus M. Finch (Human Hero Award).

“The heroes of 2008 represent all of the animal advocates, champions, and defenders who further the cause of kindness every day, all around us,” said MSPCA president carter Luke. “We pay tribute to them on this special night.”

Since 1987, the MSPCA-Angell has gathered its supporters to promote compassion for animals by honoring those people and animals who uplift us through their extraordinary efforts and encourage us to follow their example. This year the MSPCA-Angell will be presenting its highest honor, the George T. Angell Humanitarian Award to Country Music singer Emmylou Harris for her tireless work in the field of animal welfare. Harris is a longtime supporter of animal welfare. She founded and assists at Bonaparte’s Retreat, a shelter in Nashville dedicated to finding permanent, loving homes for the hardest-to-place animals.

The Animal Hero Award is presented to an animal who has saved the life of one or more humans or animals, or demonstrated remarkable bravery or loyalty. The Boston Police K9 Unit accomplishes all of these requirements daily and is dedicated to keeping Bostonians and visitors to the city safe.

The Human Hero Award is given every year for exceptional devotion, compassion, and bravery on behalf of people and animals. Tom Ryan and his dog, Atticus M. Finch chronicled their adventures hiking 66 of New Hampshire’s 4,000 foot peaks on their blog ( Through their online journal, Ryan recounted each hike and reflected on the unique relationship between humans and the animals in their lives.

The Young Hero Award is presented to a person under 18 who either through volunteer activities or an act of genuine kindness and compassion made a significant difference in the life of one or more animals. Amanda MacDonald collected hundreds of signatures to help the Greyhound Protection Act (, to phase out dog racing in Massachusetts, become a ballot question in 2008.

The evening’s program includes a cocktail reception, seated dinner and awards ceremony including the presentation of the MSPCA-Angell's Hero Awards.

For more information, visit

Atticus' Attack In The Northcountry News

Bryan Flagg at the Northcountry News has posted the following on the paper’s website:

We have just received an email from Tom (Friday Evening, October 10th at 11pm) with some unfortunate News. It seems while walking today in the Wonalancet area, Atticus was severely attacked by another dog.

Atticus is severely hurt, with wounds to his neck and a very large wound at his throat. Rushed to a vet in North Conway, NH, Atticus is heavily sedated and on medications at this time. He is at home with Tom, but he must be checked on every 90 minutes. The next 12-24 Hours are crucial in finding out whether Atticus has a collapsed lung or even further damage.

We will keep you posted as we hear information regarding this very sad news.

Be thinking of Atticus & you may email thoughts and well wishes to Tom & Atticus at:

Monday, October 06, 2008

Hedgehog Mountain: October 5, 2008

“Have you ever wandered lonely through the woods?
And everything there feels just as it should
You're part of the life there
You're part of something good
If you've ever wandered lonely through the woods”
~ Brandi Carlisle

I can think of nothing I do in my life now that gives me the same feeling it did as when I was a child – other than entering a forest. I know of nothing more comforting than those first steps. The contrivances of a civilized life are left at the doorstep of the natural world. In the forest I can be as naked as I want to be, relieved of my self and my sins and I can be the man I dreamed of becoming when I was a child. Money, work, responsibilities, relationships…they mean nothing.

A gentle trill murmurs in my adrenals when the woods swallow me whole and I follow Atticus into a darkness that becomes light. Such is the joy of hiking alone on a gray October day with him. But try as I might, I cannot completely express the sensation. In my struggle to come up with my own words, I lean on those from Robert Louis Stevenson: “It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men's hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”

He’s right, it is that mysterious ‘subtle something’ that makes me excited and calm at the same time. From the moment I step on the path that ‘subtle something’ is always around, and yet just out of sight, as if traveling with us but hiding behind each tree and moving just quick enough that I can only glimpse it out of the corner of my eye but never face on to see what it is. It plays with my senses and seduces me enough so that even the decay of death is sweet and comforting in the forest. That in itself tells me what we find here in the mountains is more worthwhile than what awaits us when we leave them. A world where death is not only not feared; but gives off a fragrant scent and then feeds what continues to grow.

Yesterday, under sullen clouds, Atticus and I made our way into the dark mythic world that awaits us at the start of each hike. It’s this experience that makes the forest as special as the summit. I felt it yesterday on the way to Allen’s Ledge, the summit of Hedgehog and the highlight of our hike: the wondrous East Ledge. I’ve done this hike before but never in October; never when the colors from the ledges are far below us, the way some clouds are seen from above when inside an airplane. I wanted to see the ripe forest spread out beneath us and let it permeate me…in silence.

For silent contemplation in the forest, it helps to get a late start when most are just finishing their day. It also helps to hike with a silent partner. Many of our hikes are this way: there are no need for words between Atticus and me. It’s like what Thomas Merton said in the days leading up to his death: “The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. We are already one. But we imagine that we are not. What we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”

That’s exactly what the two of us share. We often communicate equally with wordless gestures. A knowing look and taking a seat means we’re going to be here for a while. A toss of the head means it’s time to move on, and this can come from either of us. Seriously. When I first saw Atticus do this – toss his head – after a winter of mostly wordless communication on the trail, I realized what we share in the mountains is common ground.

Even with our late start we encountered a few people on their way down while we were on our way up, and one group that was ahead of us, but mostly we were by ourselves. Each time we came upon others I caught snippets of conversations: jobs; politics; sports. I’ve done the same thing on trails when in the company of others and find joy in doing it but nothing compares to the silence we find in the wild.

Hedgehog is a small mountain, but it is still a mountain and up means up. For me this translates into sweating and praying and confessing my Ben & Jerry sins and leaning against trees on my oft-required breaks while cursing my body. I’m told by those who know better that we are not climbing but hiking. The definition doesn’t really matter to me; either way it’s work. Besides, if I climb stairs, I climb a mountain.

It’s in this work in going up that I am broken down and everything that is not needed within is stripped away. Once brought to my base self – deep breaths, a fast beating heart, muscles warm and supple, sweat on my brow and down my spine – I feel the forest pulsing around me, then in me; feel myself much more in tune with Atticus, who moves more effortlessly than I do. (Okay, so while the woods make us equal when it comes to communication, we are not equals when it comes to hiking.) Here he is more at home and by watching him I learn from him. The natural world is his turf and he navigates it the way I lead us down a busy city street.

We have lived in the mountains for a year now. Some business brought me back to Newburyport this past week and I enjoyed a few days with friends and the familiar faces and places of a town that was my home for a dozen years. There was a time when I thought it was a place I’d never leave. But that was before I remembered the mountains of my childhood and was re-introduced to them. People change; so do cities. I left when I changed and the city was changing into something I didn’t like; escaping the khaki wave of new Newburyporters. Still, whenever we return we are embraced. And as much as it has already changed, it seems like we know nearly half of everyone we see in that little city where the Merrimac meets the Atlantic.

I thought about that world we used to know and compared it to the one we presently know while sitting alone on the East Ledge of Hedgehog yesterday, sipping a grape soda and looking at the carpet of trees beneath my dangling feet. I from Passaconaway over to Chocorua and all the undulations between the two and compared them to the trials and tribulations of this past year. And yet there is no doubt: trading that very public life for this very private one shared with forests, streams, mountains and that ‘subtle something’, along with this curious but comfortable little dog was well worth it. There is, after all, something to be said for living the life I dreamed of living.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Rainy Days

Autumn's colors are already near peak here in the Whites. It's stunning, even on a rainy weekend. Since there was no hiking there was work done on my book...good work. And to get through the gloom of the weather and not being out on a mountain, now that my leg is healed, at least we have more Ken Stampfer photos from our hike earlier in the week to South Moat. (The other dog with us in the photos is Dawa, a Burmese Mountain Dog we were watching last week.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Ophthalmologist Using His Eyes... capture the more photogenic half of T & A.

Doug Cray's Good Doctor

An interesting note about our friends Ken and Ann Stampfer, who we hiked with yesterday: Ken is a well-respected ophthalmologist in the big city and who we got to know through hiking up here. However, it also turned out he was my the ophthalmologist of my dearly-departed Newburyport friend, Doug Cray (the former NT Times reporter who covered Kennedy and Johnson in the White House). It's a small world. Ken's a terrific doctor, but also a great photographer and one of the joys of hiking with he and Ann is seeing what he does with his camera. Between the both of us, we took more than 270 photos yesterday. Hre are two of Ken's shots from the summit of South Moat.

Escaping to South Moat: A Slide Show

Pity the poor list chasers who climb a peak simply because it is over 4,000 feet high. Those who constrict their journeys in this way never get to experience the pleasure of the Moats, a range that casts its afternoon shadow over the towns of Conway and North Conway. Today, Atticus and I had company: Ken and Ann Stampfer; and Daiwa, the dog we're watching this week. Each of us, in our own way, needed to escape today, so we did, to the beautiful summit of South Moat. It was one of those rare days where we spent as much time on the summit as we did climbing the mountain. As you will see from the photos, it is a beautiful place to be. You can check out the slide show here and make your own mini-escape. By the way, that's a hint as to the name of this music. If you figure it out, you win absolutely nothing other than a pat on the back for knowing your movie soundtracks.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A New Slide Show Is Up

What’s this, a new slide show? It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Sorry, things like injuries (to me and my camera), trying to write for a living, moving and existing like a gypsy have thrown some kinks into the works.

This slide show is a marriage of two shorter late afternoon hikes: a hike along the White Ledge Loop Trail and a climb up Potash. On both instances, me and my shadow (hint) got out late enough to enjoy the growing shadows (another hint) and to see the sinking sun turn everything a dusty golden color.

Without further adieu, here’s the latest production from Tom & Atticus. You can
reach the slide show by clicking here.

Good Morning Agiocochook

For the past few days we’ve been dog/cat/house sitting in North Conway. From the street, the house, which is just a quarter of a mile off the main mayhem of the shopping strip, looks like an ordinary ranch in a quiet neighborhood. However, step to the back and every room has a view out towards the Presidential Range and the Wildcats and Carters, not to mention Cathedral Ledge and Mt. Kearsage. The view from the open deck is magnificent!

Looking out from the deck your eyes drop down to a vast cornfield with a snake of river bend trees wending their way through the middle of it. Then come the hills, then the mountains; and in main focus is the great Agiocochook herself – Mt. Washington. All of it sits under a sky so beautiful it couldn’t be painted to look any better.

On our first morning here, I woke up to see Agiocochook with a pink blush, as if I wasn’t supposed to see her that early in the day, with a scarf of clouds winding through the foothills. A half an hour later the sun came up and turned the cornfields to gold with its Midas touch! Oh, to be a painter at such a time as this.

I’ve included four photos from the morning.

Black Cap: September 21, 2008

Original plans called for a hike up to South Moat, and maybe Middle Moat, too. However, with a thick haze in the air, the weather was not the best for viewing, which is a must on the Moats, so we postponed the hike for a day or two and instead did Black Cap.

Black Cap is a small peak quite popular with those in North Conway. It looks down on the town and across to the Moats and other peaks. At 2,369 feet, it’s not the tallest mountain but the views are great, even on a day like today. The trail is just over a mile long and gains 700 feet of elevation in the time it takes to go up the Black Cap Trail.

Today we had the company of Dawa, a Burmese Mountain Dog we’re taking care of for a few days. As Atticus led the way, Dawa and I followed along, alternating the second and third position between ourselves in our little parade to the top.

Just over 700 feet is not a killer workout, but up is up and so I felt it, but it still felt good to be out and about and to be back at the car an hour and fifteen minutes after we left it, even after a leisurely summit stay.

By the end of the week, now that my leg is better, I fully expect we’ll be back to doing 4,000-footers, mostly on “this side” (the eastern side) of the Whites.

In the top photo, that’s Kearsage North behind Atticus.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mt. Potash: September 17, 2008

Here in the land of dial-up Internet I can't post as many photos as I would like. That's unfortunate because today I took several photos I would love to share with you all. I spent the day writing while Atticus spent the day sighing and then at 4:00 pm we were on the trail to climb Mt. Potash off the Kancamagus Highway. I brought a headlamp but got back down before darkness completely set in. What a great little mountain this is. I've hiked it before but it was perfect for me today since I'm working my way back up after getting over a leg injury.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Great Dame

I keep raving about this area we're holed up in for the autumn. Here's but one more example. On the way home from our hike on the White Ledge Loop Trail this afternoon, we took the shortcut, which goes across a little bridge at the southern end of Chocorua Lake and looks up at the mountain of the same name. Is it any wonder the White Mountain Painters of the 1800s took such a shine to Chocorua. Of course it helped that it stood not far from their route to North Conway.

Monday, September 15, 2008

An Afternoon Walk On The White Ledge Loop

My leg has finally healed and Atticus and I took a walk along the White Ledge Trail Loop late this afternoon. It’s only 4.4 miles but it has enough elevation to count as a workout. It was good to sweat and swear and pray my way to the top of something more significant than a hill again. I’ve missed the mountains; as I’m sure Atticus has, too.

When we stepped onto the trail we immediately dissolved into Mother Nature’s embrace with a wonderful snap of anticipation. How wonderful to have that old feeling back. It is the best part of our little sojourns into nature. We leave civilization behind as soon as we enter the wild and, in a way, become more civilized. There is something about the woods that urges me to revert to the innocence of childhood, to a more base self. As Robert Frost once said about the woods, they are “lovely, dark and deep”. It’s the “lovely” part that seduces us to return time and time again. It’s the “dark and deep” where the soul work is done. There was a reason Jung compared dreams of walking in the forest to a journey into the subconscious. They are one in the same.

Away from the busy world there are no distractions. But that’s the main reason why most people don’t like to hike alone. It can be unsettling to be alone with your own thoughts. But for me, each hike becomes a prayer and a meditation. In my prayer I talk to God; in meditation God talks to me. (I daresay God’s language is far more respectable than mine. A friend, a heavy-hitting Baptist, was shocked when I admitted there are times I swear while talking to God. “I would never!” he said. “I guess I just have a more intimate relationship with God than you do,” I said with a taunting smile.)

As a writer, hiking with Atticus is perfect for me. How comforting to have my little friend along, but how nice it is that he doesn’t prattle on about the inanities of life and simply walks silently forward. There are no growls, no barks; nothing he does is a disruption. A friend who is not fond of hiking with dogs once told me the best part about a hike with Atticus was that she didn’t even know he was there for the entire eight hours we were on a trail. “If all dogs were like Atticus, I’d get one,” she told me.

On the trail, the only noise I hear, other than occasional bird song or the sigh of the wind, is that of my own breath and beating heart. Think about that, when was the last time that’s the only thing you heard? How delightful to fall so deeply into myself and get to the middle of everything simply by taking a walk in the woods.

There is another thing about walking in the wilderness with Atticus that adds to our life together. In the woods we become equals. I get to feel as primal as he does. We walk and experience things the same way. We get to the top the same way. Because of these shared experiences, there is nothing more simple or pleasurable in my life than sharing these mountains with him. But it wasn't always that way. He had to train me, first.

The entire first summer we hiked I started my stopwatch with each hike and ended it when we reached the car. I was obsessed with time. There was no leisurely summit sitting, no time for taking advantage of viewpoints. It took me a while to catch on, but by watching Atticus stop and sit and take it all in that it finally dawned on me that I was missing the best part of getting to the top. I eventually ditched the stopwatch and sat with my dog. Since then an entirely new world has been revealed to me. The Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote: “Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring – it was peace.”


This is why Atticus’ blindness a year and a half ago was so devastating. His lovely eyes had become useless to him. His favorite thing in this world is too find some dramatic ledge with a view and sit there and ponder. Thanks to modern science, surgery fixed both of Atticus’ eyes and now he seems to have a deeper appreciation for a gift that had been taken from him.

The White Ledge Loop does not have the most dramatic views but we came upon one nice ledge today where we sat and relaxed the afternoon away. We sat there until the sun eased behind the lovely Chocorua. As we made our way down from the ledges, the lowering sun took its heat with it and the woods were filled with a pleasant chill and a hint of the season to come while we walked down the path of earth, stones, pine needles and old leaves. In the shade an entirely new set of scents emerged. A breeze found its way through the forest and I could have sworn I heard Autumn giggling just out of sight, behind a nearby tree who was daring enough to wear red leaves already.

This Past Winter's Tragedy On Franconia Ridge Relived By The Lone Survivor

For those of you who followed our winter adventure, you know the measures I went to to keep my little hiking partner safe. And by keeping Atticus safe, I also kept myself safe. There were certain days we just wouldn't hike, or at least not go above treeline. On February 10th, two men either ignored the well-reported forecast or were ignorant to it. The result? One of them died - frozen solid on top of Franconia Ridge near Little Haystack. It's a place we hiked over twice this winter, both times on warmer days with no wind. The hiker who survived lost various body parts and in this weekend's Nashua Telegraph he told his story. The full article can be accessed by clicking here. But I warn you, it's a horrific story. I'm including a snippet below:

About halfway between to Little Haystack Mountain, Fredrickson's eyes had closed up from frostbite. Osborne then took the lead, with Fredrickson's hand on his houlder. They stumbled along, falling a couple of times from the wind, blinding snow and exhaustion. Fredrickson started to fall behind by the time they had reached Little Haystack Mountain. "At one point, I looked back, and he was curled up in a fetal position on his right side. I walked back to him." Osborne told him, "Fred, you got to get up. You got to get up." He had lost his gloves again. His hands were indescribable, his fingers curled grotesquely." He kind of rolled over and said, 'Oh my God, they're going to take my hands.' I said, 'Fred, you've got to get up now. We're almost to tree line. Once we get down below tree line we'll warm up and everything will be OK.' " He just wouldn't move. He became unresponsive. Looking back, it was pretty clear that full hypothermia had set in for both of us." Hard as it was to leave his friend, Osborne knew he had to keep going." As I walked away, I had this conscious thought, 'I'm 36 years old, and this is how I die.' Strangely enough, I was at peace with myself." He made his peace with the people he knew. In his mind, he expressed his regrets for the mistakes he made in life, and for the mistakes he made on this hike." My last thought from there was looking back over my shoulder and seeing Fred and being sad about that." Osborne climbed onto the top of a ledge. "From there, I don't remember anything until I woke up in the hospital."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hello from Writer's Heaven

Good morning,

There was nearly frost on the pumpkin here in the country this morning. I knew it was cold when I woke up in the middle of the night and had to grab another blanket and when I pulled it up over us, Atticus didn’t bother to climb out from beneath it. He was still undercover when I woke up this morning.

I love the fall. Yes, I know it’s not really fall yet but I swear I heard Autumn giggling behind a tree when I took Atti outside for a tour of the yard. I look forward to the fall season here in our temporary home. I cannot imagine a more bucolic and perfect place for haystacks and cornfields and pumpkins on the porch. The farms here meld into the mountains and the mountains, other than Chocorua, who loves the attention, are gentle but beautiful green arcs. They may not be as dramatic as the jutting peaks of Franconia Ridge, but they are striking nonetheless. What makes the Wonalancet region even more beautiful than the area near Franconia Notch is the land below the mountains is bucolic and at ease with itself. Here there are no tourist attractions, natural or otherwise. There is no long five-fingered paved parking lot at the entrance to the Flume, nor are there the skeletal remains of a garish water park (that runs only three months of the year) fronting the ridge.

Here tourists are outnumbered by the small number of headstones sprinkled throughout the area in nook and cranny graveyards and farms set a scene both nostalgic and poetic. The White Mountain artists of the 1800s discovered Chocorua but I’ve seen no evidence that they moved inland along the rest of the Sandwich Range. United States President Grover Cleveland made his summer home here and John Greenleaf Whittier wrote his love letters to the mountains just down the road. But the beauty of this place is such that I can imagine Frost in a farmhouse whittling his words; Yeats, sauntering along the mushrooms and ferns of the woodland streams composing ballads to the little people, or Melville looking up at one of these mountains instead of Greylock to write of his great white whale. Here you can see Washington Irving penning the “Tales of Sleepy Hollow” or picture E. B. White looking up at a spider in the doorway of his barn and spinning a tale about Charlotte. This is a writer’s idea of heaven.

The people here are hearty but much friendlier than in other isolated places in the mountains. They welcome you to town with earnest smiles on their face and are genuinely glad to see you. At the general store they ask about your particulars with a laid back grace that makes you want to stay for a while and put your feet up. On three different occasions people have come up to me at trailheads to introduce themselves. The conversation usually goes like this: “This must be Atticus! Hello Tom, I heard you two were moving into the area.” They are friendly but not so much so as to break the spell of the place.

When I was walking along rustic Ferncroft Road the other day, I saw a woman building tiny stone cairns on the wooden footbridge connecting her home to the dirt road. I told her I liked her row of cairns. “Oh,” she said, a gentle smile easing across her lips, “these are my rock people. It’s good to have them around.” Then, while standing down next to the stream bed and leaning on the bridge had a comfortable face-to-face conversation with Atticus as if she’s known him her entire life. As she spoke he sat and watched her animated face and the soft movement of her hands.

Atticus loves the area because there are so many footpaths to discover I don’t think we’d get to all of them even if we lived here for 20 years. So far our favorite is the Brook Path. It runs for two miles and there is never a place where you can look up at the mountains. The view is of the woods and of the Wonalancet River it traces. In my three years in these mountains I’ve yet to find a more beautiful trail.

The graceful path up to Mt. Katherine is an easy walk but it’s still three miles of exercise to the ledge overlooking a farm that stretches towards the skyward peak of Chocorua. Seated on the summit rock there are also wonderful views toward the tops of Passaconaway, Wonalancet and Whiteface.

Within a quarter of a mile from where I’m sitting, Hemenway State Forest sits on either side of us. We often enter on a snowmobile path and walk through a forest dotted with mushrooms and ferns and the murmur of the river. We constantly find signs of bear and moose here and the trail ascends until it meets up with another trail for another short climb that ends at a fire tower. The stairs are thin and steep and I have to carry Atticus to the top but once on the top of Great Hill there are views in every direction and the view of the Sandwich Range, from Sandwich Dome in the west, all the way over to Chocorua in the east, are unbeatable.

Perhaps what I love most about this place is that it feels like a secret, like a soft whisper from one lover into the ear of another at a crowded gathering. Here the world softens, it lingers, you can feel yourself breathe, you can hear your heart beat. The mountains are startling, but not just because of their size and shape and their green grandeur. They literally startle you because you don’t know when you will see them. You can be walking along the road or a trail or through a cornfield or by a cemetery and out of nowhere you will sense you are being watched. You look up and see nothing but the clean blue sky or dense trees and you walk on. Take a few more steps and literally out of nowhere a peak has come out from its hiding place and is watching you with the curiosity of a child.

When my friend Paul came up for a hike I asked him if he wanted to get some ice cream. We drove by mountains, through open fields and by the occasional house and cemetery but no stores. I turned down a rutted dirt road, then an even ruttier dirt road and ten miles after leaving the house we arrived at a small dairy open 24 hours. You take your pick from of ice cream and cheeses at the Sandwich Creamery and they trust you will put the right amount of cash for your purchase through a mail slot in the wall. If you don’t have change, not to worry, there’s a vat of loose change in which you can find the correct amount.

Recently a friend wrote to note that Atticus and I were now in the boonies. She added, “You probably don’t even have streetlights where you are.” She is right, about the boonies and the streetlights. But we can see the stars here as I’ve never seen them and the moon climbs the sky like a ghost on a haunt. At night I half expect to stumble upon a scene like the one in Will Moses’ “Girls Night Out” where witches gather around a cauldron in back of a farmhouse, kept company by black cats, ghosts and pumpkins.

Now you can see why I’m so excited about autumn here where the landscape plays like a Danny Elfman tune, both spooky and pastoral.