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, April 04, 2013

Another Great Adventure for Will

Will has decided to stick around for a while...and become a television star.
As of late we’ve been enjoying the bridge between winter and spring by taking several adventurous hikes.  There were trips up Cabot, Moosilauke, three of the southern Presidential peaks, the Moat Range, and even the simple but scenic Boulder Loop Trail.  However, as I as sit here writing this I’m thinking instead of a hike that’s yet to come.

A year ago, in a state without any mountains, an elderly dog – deaf, mostly blind, and arthritic – was dropped off at a kill shelter by the only family he’d ever known.  (They had reportedly grown too old to take care of themselves, never mind the old dog.)  Imagine what that had to feel like for him: to be fifteen with hindered senses and left in a strange, cold, and unfamiliar place far away from home.  Imagine the shock to his system, the fear, the sense of betrayal.  Even worse, imagine the utter hopelessness.  Understandably the little dog was angry and flashed out with his teeth whenever he could.  Sometimes he did it, I’m sure, not out of anger, but because he was in so much physical pain.    

To add insult to injury he was hungry, had been crated for so long he paced in circles and didn’t understand freedom, thought little of stepping in his own feces and often his hips were so weak he’d fall in his urine and didn’t have the strength to get up.  He just lay there suffering in his own waste.

Who would want such a dog?

His prospects for another chance were grim.  When all was darkest, all hope had to seem lost, someone at the shelter with a big heart reached out to the New Jersey Schnauzer Rescue and let them know of this old dog and impending death sentence.  The good people at NJSR swooped in and saved “William”.  But saved him for what, you might ask.  Sure, he would no longer be put to sleep, but what kind of life would he have and who would want to adopt him? 

That’s about the time we were asked to help find him a home.  And we did – ours.  We understood it was only a temporary arrangement.  We were simply giving him a place for the last month or two of his life (if he made it that long), and were affording him the opportunity to die with dignity. 

Before we met him and I realized how bad off he was, I had hopes of getting him up a smaller mountain in hopes that he would get something out of it.  Then I met the poor little wretch and knew that wasn’t going to happen.  He couldn’t walk very far and he was in such pain and had so little trust that whenever I picked him up he tried to bite me.  That very first day I wondered why anyone had bothered to keep him alive. I felt the humane thing would have been to put him out of his misery and I wondered how long it would be before I did that.   

Well, May became June and June turned to July and by this time Will was a bit stronger.  He ate well, slept plenty, and learned to trust my touch.  There were still flashes of rage and I had to be careful how I handled him so he wouldn’t turn on me.  When September rolled around Will surprised us by making it to the autumn and he even appeared to be getting younger. 

When October arrived we reached my original goal, which had seemed absurd that first day.  Will made it to the top of Pine Mountain with the help of a wheeled cart, not unlike a child’s stroller.  We pushed him up the dirt road, up part of the rocky and root-crossed trail, and even carried it in places.  It was a grueling day and you could ask why we did it if this little dog was so far gone, even with the advances he’d made?

The answer is an easy one for me.  I believe in the magic we find here in the White Mountains.  I believe this is a special place and that the mountains are here for anyone…even a little deaf, arthritic, and mostly blind dog with trust issues. 

After I had announced our plans to get him to the top of the mountain there were “dog experts” who questioned my sanity and felt what we were doing was cruel but we did our best to ignore them.  And because we followed our hearts instead of their advice a funny thing happened that day.  When I held Will in my arms as Atticus sat by my side on that flat summit, that once-angry little dog who couldn’t see much of the view reached out and did something he’d never done to me.  He licked my cheek.  A simple kiss.  He then lowered his head against mine and looked out with his cloudy eyes.  And there we stood sharing the view together, just as Atticus and I have stood thousands of times before.

I won’t pretend to know how much he could see and I don’t imagine he could hear any of the bird song or the way the wind sighed in the autumn leaves.  But it was clear that something changed that day.  Will, who had been mending a bit, became even younger.  He grew closer to us and more appreciative.  For the first time he started following us around our apartment and wanted to be included in what we were doing. 

Now I’m sure there could be many reasons for this but my romantic heart likes to think it had something to do with the same magic Atticus and I have felt in the mountains since the first day we climbed Mount Garfield in 2004.  And why not?  You don’t have to see or hear to feel love or magic or the presence of God, no matter which god you worship.  The Abenaki Indians knew this was a special place.  So did the White Mountain Artists who flocked here in the 1800s along with writers like Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Emerson. 

If Will’s story had ended that day it would have been a fitting conclusion to his life and while we would have missed him, we’d have been quite happy for him and for ourselves to have witnessed his redemption.  But it didn't end there.  The unexpected happened.  He lasted through the winter months and now while the snow melts he’s bouncing around, not like the sixteen year old who has several special needs, but like one who understands he’s been given a new lease on life. 

Will can walk, but not very far, and his ears still don’t work, and his eyes can still only see shapes and shadows, but he now loves being held, and I’d like to think he loves this life we’ve given him.  He greets each day with a dance the first thing in the morning – an enthusiastic, twisted, drunken, half-pirouette which often ends with him tumbling over and sprawled out on the floor like baby Bambi on ice.  And yet he gets up, dances again, falls again, and does it all with joy. 

His body may be broken but his heart has grown strong at the broken places.  The little guy is straight out of a Frank Capra movie and is as joyous as George Bailey was at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

s become every happy ending we could hope to see.  Except there's one catch.  There doesn’t appear to be an ending in sight.
Instead Will is busy writing the next chapter of his life.

Last September, Atticus and I were invited to hike with Willem Lange and the “Windows to the Wild” film crew.  We took them for a five mile hike up Hedgehog and told them a bit about Will and his redemption, which back then was nothing compared to what it is now.  The show aired last week on New Hampshire Public Television and ratings went through the roof while on-line hits were astronomical.  The show’s producer emailed us and asked if we’d like to do it again.  And we are.  But this time we’ll be joined by one more.  This time we’ll be taking Will to another mountaintop by pushing him up in his Will Wagon and they will capture this trek on camera for all time! 

You cannot imagine how much this truly thrills me.  Not only does it prove that no matter how bleak our prospects may seem, no matter how dire and dark and hopeless, there’s always a reason to go on – just as Will has.  It’s a perfect lesson in faith.  To believe in what we can’t see. 

It also pleases me in another way.  Too often there are some who think these great mountains we live in belong only to those with great physical abilities: to the endurance athletes, the fitness fanatics, and the peakbaggers.  But I prefer to see the White Mountains as more universal, just as the Abenaki did, as did the White Mountain Artists and Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Emerson did.  To me they are beyond words and comprehension because of how they make us feel. 

Here in the White Mountains anyone can be inspired and renewed.  It is our own Eden where each woodland trail, sparkling stream, and mountaintop offers us a glimpse into vast but simple mystery of what it means to feel the miraculous and to feel alive again.  And we’re all invited to experience the magic of it all.  Even a sixteen year old mostly blind, completely deaf, once hopeless dog.  If you doubt me, just tune in next autumn when the show airs and see for yourself.


Shannon Zapf said...

I love it...Believe in what we can't see. Perfect!! Thank you to Tom, Atticus, and Will. Always making me see something I had missed.

Nancy said...

What a perfect way to celebrate Will's overcoming his limitations and the gift of love you gave him.

TheBookFetish said...

This is just fantastic news. So happy Will found his second chance and that you have all had the chance to know him.

Ginny said...

Oh my GOSH how I LOVE this little dog and his beautiful story of redemption. Peace and love to you all. Thank you as always for sharing your lives with us!

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written. Will is so lucky and fortunate to have this family and the mountains. I especially liked where he licked your touching and his way of letting you know he loves and trusts you. I look forward to seeing Will on tv this Fall and to a new book in the future. You are correct.....those mountains seem almost magical.. thank you for the blog, your posts amd tje book.

GratefulSusan said...

"Believe in what we can't see."

Tom, your beautiful blog has brought tears and heartbeats of love and compassion just now! I have such a soft spot for your/our Sweet Will; to read the recap of his journey and to learn of the thrilling trip ahead that will delight and inspire so very many others, well, my heart is just doing the Happy Dance for you all!

Thank you for opening your heart and home to Will and for helping him discover the gentle and loving old fella inside. Thanks, too, for including Atti's Army in this blossoming journey.

Onward, by all means!

jspillane said...

I cant wait to see it!!!!

Pam said...

Wow! This is so awesome....Onward, By All Means Will!

Laura said...

This story about Will and talking about believing in what we can't see, brings to mind Hebrews 11:1 -

"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

I have faith that you, Tom, and your friend, Atticus, have given not only Will but countless others a new faith and new "leash" - or lack of one - on life. Thank you.

God Bless,

Laureen Pickering said...

Tom, what a touching blog. Will's story of growing trust and faith is a lesson for all of us! How fortunate and blessed we all are that you chose to add Will to your family! Thanks for bringing us along on the journey!

Candi said...

By Autumn I'm sure your audience will have grown exponentially! Each of us finds our own appreciation in your photos, videos, and daily updates, something I have come to look forward to each morning~and Will's lullaby each night. Thank you for sharing your adventures and insight!

Kivinen said...

What a gift you. Tom, Will and Atticus are to all of us. In some ways we are all like Will, we are broken, we lose hope, we give up, and yet something burns inside to be better. Sometimes, someone or something comes along to give us just the little boost we need to go to the next level in our lives. Thank you for sharing Will's story. May we all climb our mountain, however we get there.

Anonymous said...

You have shared so much with so many. Will's story is truly amazing and renews faith to all who read it. Atticus' adventures have been awe-inspiring and Will's are miraculous.

Thank you, Tom, for being the kind, gentle person you are.

JA Meunier said...


Whenever I hear your story about Will and all that he's been through, I get teary eyed! I am so glad that you each found one and other! I have seen several stickers for dog rescues on cars where I live. There's a paw print on it, and the text reads as follows: "Who rescued who?" Thank you for sharing your life with us, and thank you for saving Will, and giving him the life he deserves!

ccrown14 said...

we do too have mountains in New Jersey - they may not be much - but they are part of the Appalachians. :)

Unknown said...

I so wish I lived near you when it was close to the end for my Jack (The Wonderdog) who was 18 1/2 when I had to have him put down as his little legs just wouldn't take him his last 2 days. He was a Tenterfield Terrier (like a mini foxy) and gave me so many happy years memories of having a best friend. Keep climbing. And keep healing ...

Sue said...

I'll be looking forward to the show. Go Will! :)

Michele Ivy Davis said...

What a wonderful story! Thank you for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

Tom, what a wonderful thing tou have done with your book and dogs. The show was great and I look forward to the next one. I have followed you and Atticus and Will daily and so hope to continue. Thank you for sharing!

stoltzfusj said...

Oh, I do wish it could air on New Jersey PBS stations!

Anonymous said...

I'm so happy that you took the opportunity to make Will happy! EVERY dog deserves to be loved! I enjoy reading about your adventures with Atticus and Will. Keep up the good work!

Mémère and Papa said...

Can't wait to see Will on Willem Lang's show in the fall. Saw the one with you and Atticus and enjoyed that one very much. Glad to hear Will is doing much better. Such a sweetheart.

Anonymous said...

How wonderful to read your blogs and "live vicariously". I'm physically challenged and can't hike, but love to read about thrilled for Will and his renewed vitality,

anna said...

Sometimes, with all the going-ons in the world, I forget how much good there is around us. Thank you for your words, thank you for caring.