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.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Atticus and the Cold

Atticus on the summit of Mount Jackson with Washington in the background.
We are fortunate that we have a very active social media following, especially on our Following Atticus Facebook page. It’s humbling to see so many become invested in our story. I’m a huge fan of genuine interaction and I’m often inspired by some of the stories people post about their own journeys. It’s incredible how much I’ve learned about some lives and it is an honor to have things that matter shared with me.

Of course, my favorites are those who have read our book and know much of our story. They have a better understanding about us, as you might imagine. They realize more about the relationship I share with Atticus and what we have experienced throughout each of the four seasons on the mountain trails. 

Each year about this time, and I noticed it this weekend when a scant sprinkling of confectioner’s snow dusted our backyard, some worry about Atticus being cold. Some even get angry about it.

Again, reading the book helps, because much of it has to do with our winter hiking. 

I remember the first day Atticus arrived in my life. He was eight weeks old and after we returned home from the airport we headed straight out to Plum Island to spread some of Maxwell Garrison Gillis’s ashes. It was mid-May and unseasonably cold. A wind rode the waves onto shore and brooding clouds settled overhead spitting snow down on us. At only five pounds, and from the south, Atticus wasn’t ready for the cold and he shivered in my arms. I quickly tucked him in my coat and all he was instantly cozy. 

We started hiking when he was about two and a half years old. By the time he was three and a half we entered into the world of winter hiking, hitting forty-one of New Hampshire’s forty-eight four thousand foot peaks our first winter. He weighed twenty-one pounds then. In each of the next three seasons we hiked each of the forty-eight again and when winter returned, we set out to do two rounds of the forty-eight for the season. Ninety-six peaks in ninety days. It was a crazy way to raise money for the Jimmy Fund and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in the name of our friend Vicki Pearson, who was taken from us by cancer.

By the time our second winter in the White Mountains came to a close, Atticus weighed in at twenty-seven pounds. Even with all that exercise he’d gained weight.

I switched him over to a raw diet and he quickly lost three pounds before leveling out. Then, inexplicably, he gained it right back even while continuing to eat healthy, and hiking at a frenetic pace.

The only way to explain it was that after two years in the winter Whites, Atticus’s body knew what it needed and it insulated itself.  It was evolution of a body right before our very eyes.  

Now let me be the first to say that I’m not an expert when it comes to dogs. Nor am I a scientist or a nutritionist. I can only speak to what I know. Mostly, we go about everything in our lives with common sense. If something seems right, we do it. If it doesn’t, we don’t. If something goes wrong or isn’t working, we change directions. 

So when it comes to the cold it’s as simple as this: Atticus has become a winter dog. He’s far more comfortable November through April than he is from June through August. He abhors the heat.

Two years ago, when Atticus went through chemotherapy, his weight hit thirty-two pounds. Now he’s back to twenty-seven, and while he has a body suit and numerous sets of Muttluk boots, he rarely needs them. But when he does, I put them on him.

I can assure those of you who worry about him getting cold, when the temperature drops or it is snowing, he’s most likely not like most of the dogs you’ve met. He thrives in cold temperatures.  Whereas Will was just the opposite toward the end of his life. He wore his fleece-line coat if the temperature dipped below sixty degrees. It just goes to prove what we already know, we are all different.

And here’s when the common sense part comes in. When Atticus is cold, he lets me know, and I have him in his fleece-lined body suit and boots within seconds.

So when you see Atticus in the months to come wearing only his birthday suit, please understand he’s not you. 

If there is something I’m proudest of with Atticus. He always has a choice. His opinions are taken into account. If you’ll remember from the book, he’s pulled the plug on a handful of hikes he didn’t feel up to and that was more than okay, it was respected.  His comfort is always important to me, as is the comfort of all friends.

This reminds me of a story from about seven years ago. It was toward the end of winter and a television magazine show wanted to feature the two of us. The time we set up to meet, Atticus and I were coming off a hike and the television crew would be waiting for us at the trailhead. While setting it up in advance, the host of the show, a very attractive woman, suggested that it would be best if Atticus had his body suit and boots on when we came off the trail because it would get more people's attention on television. I told her that would be fine if it was cold, but if it was a bit warm (relatively speaking for the season), he wouldn't be wearing them. She pushed the point and kept talking about how it would look great on tv. I told her that didn't matter to me. What did was Atti's comfort, and if it was above a certain temperature he would roast in his suit and boots. That didn't matter to her.

"Come on, Tom, it will be great television!"

"If you want great television, how about meeting us at the trailhead while wearing nothing but lingerie and four-once heels?"

For some odd reason, I never heard back from her and the show was never filmed.

This winter, as Atticus moves through his fourteenth year, he’ll let me know when he’s cold.  

Thank you for understanding and appreciating the differences in all of us. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Finest October

     Today is one of those days. Those immaculate days made for memories of an October too special to ever forget. A patchwork sky of blue and white; leaves brilliant shades of red, orange, and yellow; and a breeze that sends some of them swirling down in gentle loops. It is the autumn day of our childhood, the blustery day of A.A. Milne’s Pooh and Piglet and Owl and Rabbit. Nostalgia is a powerful softener to our hard hearts. It forces its way into our busy lives and makes us stop for at various moments to remember. And maybe it finds a way to help us simplify the complicated in a busy electronic world.
     What grand lessons we’ve had in natural beauty over these past few weeks. It has been as raw as Photoshop and the Kardashians are processed. 
     In past years, foliage season seemed to wing by within two weeks. Colors would begin to change, and a mighty wind would blow and before you knew it, it was over. But this year has been different. We had that long, full summer of warmth right up until the end. It pushed the colors back ten days, and when they finally came on, they didn’t stop. I am writing this on the fourteenth of October, and you could say it’s still peak foliage viewing. 
     I’m happy for the businesses who make money at this time of year. I’m thrilled for the tourists, especially those from out of state, who get to see the area at its absolute best. But I’m also happy for us, who are all reminded once again why we are fortunate to live here. 
    This morning, Atticus and I were walking at Thorne Pond in Bartlett.  I had my camera with me, and I felt as though I was a child in Chutters Candy Store. Each scene seemed more delicious than the last; each photograph outdid the previous one.  It was impossible to choose my favorite.  
    At one point, I thought of the loves of my youth and how from day to day they seemed to get prettier beyond belief. That’s been the autumn of 2015. With each passing day, I find myself asking, “How many times can I fall in love all over again?”
    While circling the pond, and then dipping into the woods to walk along the Saco River, I felt the cool on my face and stopped to inhale the rich aroma of autumn.  I took my baseball cap off so that I could see all the trees, even those above me, without limitation. And slowly, ever so slowly, I was Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music turning circles in place as the leaves joined us on their descent.  
    In this temperate weather, Atticus acts five years younger. He has a bounce in his step and his ears flop happily as he strides along. And we moved as we always have in the past, with me just behind him. Along the riverside trail, I asked him to stop, so I could drink in the colors on the far side of the water, where the land quickly rises to the mountains beyond. Halfway across, we stopped at a small beach we often stop at when no one is around. He drank from the water, and I sat on the log that’s always been there for as long as we’ve been coming to that spot. 
     I uttered a two-word prayer, as genuine as any I’ve ever said before, “Thank you.”
    A few days ago I was sitting in the same spot as the sun set behind the hills. Atticus was there before me, just a foot away, and watching the waning sun reflected in the placid water.  I noticed a movement out of the corner of my eye and to our right a good-sized bear emerged from the woods.  He had no idea we were there as he dipped his head to drink from the Saco.  We watched him silently as his massive body took a healthy draught, and then he raised his head, just as I do, just as Atticus always has, to look across the way at all those trees and the rising land. It was only when he scanned to the left that he saw us not a dozen feet away, and just behind him. He quickly turned and bound into the woods.
    We’ve seen this fellow a few times this year. I call him the Thorne Pond Bear, and he’s a bit skittish, as you might expect. But whenever I see him I’m floored by his size and how beautiful he is. 
    I like that he’s there patrolling the forest, because it adds mystery to our walks. Sometimes I think he’s there watching us without us even knowing it. And that reminds me of a suggestion made by an old Sufi friend who suggested I practice becoming part of the forest by imagining myself as a tree watching Atticus and I pass.
    It says something about the universality of life on this planet, I think. How we all mostly want the same things: to be safe, happy, healthy, respected, and to live out our lives appreciating the gifts of this world.
    When we emerged from those same woods and completed the circle around the pond, there was a group of elderly people from a local facility. They were stretched out along the edge of the pond looking up at the colorful scene leading up to the mountains and the reflection of the vibrant trees. Their faces were priceless. I dare say they were enchanted by the scene as we were and the years in their tired bodies seemed to evaporate. There childlike in what they were taking in and I wondered if nostalgia had grabbed hold of me, what must it be like for them so late in life.
    As Atticus has aged, our favorite thing in the world has been taken from us now that we aren’t climbing mountains any longer. But today was a fine reminder that there is always something to be grateful for here in these wondrous hills of New Hampshire.