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, October 21, 2011

A Letter from South Doublehead

"There are two ways to live your life - one is as though nothing is a
miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle." ~ Einstein
Dearest friend,

When we sat atop the ledges on South Doublehead the other day, I thought of you. You came to me when all the work of climbing was done and we were still. The air was chill and a hint of December blew in on us. It was late and dark clouds filled the sky and hung heavily over the mountaintops. Washington had snow on its cap and the rest of the peaks of the Presidential Range, and those of the Wildcats and Carters, sat in shadow as if they were deep in sleep and had no desire to get up.

To keep warm I put on my jacket and gloves and Atticus pulled himself off the cold stone and sat on my lap.

Not quite winter…not quite…

And yet there was a winter song in the air. It was carried in the wind that stirred the nearby trees, not enough to move them but instead to play music in them. It wove through branches twisted and time-tested and produced a mournful melody. With the waning light of day it could have been heartbreaking if it were not for the fact that I love the colder seasons up here, especially when we are high above the rest of the world and others are tucked home safe and comfortable and getting ready for supper. There’s something about being out where no one else is – just Atticus and me. Alone together in silence and away from everyone else, it’s like my beloved Emerson wrote, “Conversation enriches the understanding; but solitude is the school of genius.”

I think of such moments often when I take center stage on our book tour. I’m not a natural at public speaking and those who have sat in on one of my talks will tell you I’m definitely not polished nor am I practiced. Those who have been to more than one know I rarely say the same thing twice.

A friend recently asked, “If each night is different, how do you know what you’ll say to each audience?”

The truth is, I don’t know. I stand up in front of those gathered, whether it be a few or two hundred, with a lump in my throat I wonder what I could possibly have to say that will interest them. After what seems like minutes to me – it’s only a second or two to everyone else though – I leap. It helps that Atticus is with me just as he always been over the last nine years. It helps that I start out holding him, just as I hold him on top of each mountain. It helps that I know that we’ve seen things together that few will ever see, and have been tested as few have been tested.

I don’t always know where to start; I just know that when I’m in front of a room it’s not unlike being on a mountaintop when it’s cold and dark and we are alone and those in front of us are safe and comfortable in their seats. I think of the miles he and I have walked, the stars we’ve walked under, and I think of each of us being caked in ice and snow. I think about how we’ve both sank at the end of the day in exhaustion, how at times we used to get back to the cabin and how Atticus would hop lazily up onto the bed and of how I was literally so tired I fell asleep getting undressed. Or those time when I was so empty after more than 20 miles of hiking in below zero temperatures when the Lyme disease wore me down to nothing and my legs were heavy and my feet sore that I had to actually crawl to the bed to join him.

When I think of those times, when I think of always following him and where he’s taken me – well, standing up in front of people that’s when I realize that talking is nothing. Not after I take that leap of faith, it’s not. And not when I feel him in my arms cradled safely as he’s always been or feel his body rise and fall or hear his breathing or the way he will at times tuck his head under my chin. Those who see him do this surely think he’s looking for me to comfort him. What they probably don’t see is that it comforts me just as much. He’s a humble little being with a soul that was made to sing out loud, even if he never barks and sits as still as a stone.

What buoys me in the end though, what allows me to talk on and on to a room full of strangers is a simple little thing. Down deep I realize I’m doing something most others only dream about. I’m telling the story of the mountains we love, a father I loved, a little city we know so well, an unusually selfless breeder, and more than anything I think about how fortunate I am to be telling the story of a special little friend who has led me home again.

The first time I ever spoke with Atticus in my arms it was at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and the crowd was filled with Beacon Hill money. Millionaires and billionaires filled the biggest fundraiser of the year for the MSPCA. And there Atticus and I stood, blinded by lights, in a room full of the wealthy, composed, and polished. I wore an ill-fitting sport coat, new shirt, pants, belt, socks, and shoes and when we started I thought about how we didn’t fit in with that crowd at all. And yet the strangest thing happened. Thinking of our experiences together and telling the story of my little friend Atticus – well, by the time that was all done I had the distinct impression that we were the only ones who did fit in. We had brought the mountaintop with us to Boston and we shared it with those who had never been.

So when we were sitting on top of the ledges on South Doublehead the other day and winter was so close to being there and the sky was dark and foreboding and others might have felt loneliness I knew we were where we belonged. It was then that I looked over towards the shadowy outline of the Montalbon Range and just above that long snake of mountains the clouds parted and those wonderful crespular rays reached down and illuminated the valley below like the hand of God.
And there you were.

The journey means everything. Getting away from the comfortable, the typical, and the routine, being tested, having to endure unimaginable experiences that threaten to take everything away – and then somehow, someway finding our way back home again. That’s where the meaning lies. And if we are fortunate we not only find ourselves at journey’s end just as we’d always once dreamed we could be – we often also find those who mean the most of us.

A hike for me has never been simply to a mountaintop and back again. It’s always been more about where it leads you . . . and who it leads you to.

Your friends,
Tom (& Atticus)


Our Life In A Caravan said...

Tom, not many of us are lucky enough to be able to spend everyday with our dog. My dog "China" is my constant companion, everywhere I go she goes, even to work! It's a special relationship we have, she knows things that no one else knows. A special friend indeed.
I'm looking forward to getting hold of a copy of your book here in the UK!

1HappyHiker said...

Inspirational! Potent! Genuine! Just a few of the words that immediately leapt to mind while reading this.


vvo said...

Thank you for sharing this awesome experience. You are an excellent writer, and therefore an interesting speaker! Enjoy the Fall weather and beauty!

Librarylady said...

Sigh....lovely, lyrical...

My dogs complete me too. The love, the loyalty, the nuzzles..without them my days would be incomplete.

Anonymous said...

I've been sitting in front of two computers on a chilly dark day eating lunch, looking at a chilly forecast for the higher peaks this weekend. Out of this mundane routine I get a few minutes of something special, reading your blog. I don't have time to savor it really, butit warms the soul and makes the rest of the day better. Thanks Tom.


Unknown said...

I think sometimes people forget the beauty in life because their everyday lives are so busy and filled with getting by.

You on the other hand have made an intense connection with an animal and are able to share so much together.

That's one thing I miss about having my puppy. She was the world to me and we did everything together.

Your words are beautiful. I look forward to reading more.

Bia Botana said...

Thank You, Tom and Atticus! You give me inspiration, please visit the newest blog of my doggy Freeway! We come from São Paulo, Brazil! The blog is write in English and Portuguese. I am a writer and Freeway is my best friend.
Bia Botana has sent you a link to a blog:

Freeway Blogger


Tina L said...

....This is why I love reading your blogs, especially your book, when you write you do not candy coat anything, you tell it like it is, whether it be good, bad or indifferent......and that is what makes you such a facinating writer. I look forward to catching a blog you wrote after a very long day of work, it's relaxing, heartwarming and always makes me smile.. I often go and watch your trailer for the book because it is calming and peaceful, you and Atticus illuminate such serenity that it can be truly felt. You keep doing what you're doing just the way your doing it, it is appreciated and respected. Staying true to oneself is one of the most important things we can do for ourselves.
The best to you both,,
Take care,


Anonymous said...

I share your excitement of the coming of winter in the Whites - time to hunt the frozen waterfalls! I'm often delightfully surprised of how often one has the woods to themselves in the winter. Getting about time to breakout the MICROspikes :)

I was fortunate to be among those to see the two of you early in the tour in a small venue. What struck me most about both of you was your genuiness, it explains much.

Tobyzwebsite said...

What a great story, Thanks

Glenn Laveson said...

Tom I am currently reading your book. I enjoy the story and adventures you share through your writing. I had a Schnauzer mix for 16 yrs. Miss him a great deal. We were like a father-son team. Take care of each other.

Glenn L.

Peter McClelland said...

"The day is yours also the night;
you established the sun and moon.

It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth;
you made both summer and winter."

Psalm 74:16-17

The Walking Photographer said...

Stumbled upon your blog through the blogs of note. I'm so happy I did. What you have written about is inspiring and the photos are amazing.
Thanks for making my day :)

Check out

The Walking Photographer :)

R We Numb? said...

Very neat looking adventure!

Sonny Davis said...

Great words, my friend. Your adventures remind me of the relationship I have with my miniature Dachshund, Spencer. After watching the video preview, I ordered the book and am anxiously awaiting its arrival. In the meantime, I am thankful for having found your site...and I hugged my dog!

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