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, July 29, 2016

There's Something Different About the Following Atticus Facebook Page

The Long-Backed Seussian Terrier upon first arriving in the White Mountains.
As the years go on, I realize that I’m more of an introvert than an extrovert. I’d never have thought of myself in this way in the past. No, years ago I used to love to jump into the middle of life and live out loud. But coming to the mountains has changed me. Letting Nature wrap her arms around me has simplified things. My days are now quieter, and I’m more cautious about who I let into my life. Those I am close with, I’m very intimate with. But no longer do I feel the need to “collect” friends, thinking that numbers are everything. These days, it’s more about quality. 

Of all the people I’ve loved and lost to death, the one I miss the most is my Aunt Marijane. Once a nun working with the Navajo Indians in Arizona, she eventually left to further study psychology and became a Jungian analyst. Conversations with Marijane were always illuminating. We’d talk for hours, and typically several times a week. She turned out to be one of my best friends. 

MJ was one of the least judgmental people I knew, but she wasn’t blinded by dysfunction or B.S. She forgave easily, but always was aware of the human condition. She had a great saying when explaining one person’s troubled life, “She’s driving a Mack truck full of crazy.” 

But Marijane’s point was not to hold it against the person but to acknowledge what you were dealing with. “It’s okay to pray for such a person, to like them even, but be careful not to get run over by the Mack truck full of crazy.”

These days, more than ever it seems, I’m aware of the Mack trucks full of crazy driving around at high speeds. Perhaps it has to do with social media. Things that were once thought but only quietly expressed to close family and friends are blasted out into the world. Look no further than the recent Republican and Democratic conventions. I streamed both, as best I could, on my phone and laptop, and I listened and filtered things through my beliefs. What I found was what amplified angst were the comments on so many Facebook posts about either candidate. There is such anger out there now, and much of it isn’t filtered. It has gotten to the point that I avoid most comment sections no matter where I find them on-line. And it’s not just about politics. It’s about guns and religion and race. Heck, even vegans fight among themselves in comment sections about who is more "vegan."  

When I pointed this out to a friend of mine who is a vegan activist he wrote back with a twinkle in his eye, I imagine, "Oh, don't ever read the comments." But it has gotten to that point.

A little while ago I remember reading my daily dose of the “Mutts” comic strip. I forget the complete message, but it had to do with the closeness shared on a walk between human and dog. To me, it seemed charming in every way, as all of the cartoonist’s work is. And yet, in the comment section, there were some people livid that the dog in the cartoon was wearing a collar instead of a harness. There were a lot of double exclamation points, and double questions marks (!!??). Just reading a few of them changed my mood. (The double !! or ?? so intrigue me that I looked them up. What they translate to is a form of anger.) 

So I’ve now learned my lesson. I avoid comments because the vitriol is tangible and it is toxic. It’s a lot of Mack truck full of crazy. 

This may help you understand why I’m so happy with the Following Atticus Facebook page. Sure, there are still judgmental and angry comments left, but they are in the minority. Just yesterday a man wrote that I was an abuser because of the hikes I shared with Atticus. He urged me to leave Samwise alone and let him stay in the house. Fortunately, I have some dedicated administrators who help keep the page positive. 

It has gotten to the point that I write a post, and then leave the rest to them. From time to time I check back in, but mostly I use the page as an on-line journal and leave it at that. My biggest request of my moderators is, “Keep the page positive. I would appreciate it if Atticus, Will, and now Samwise are treated with respect, and if you see something that you wouldn’t want to be posted about you, feel free to get rid of it.” What my moderators do with that is up to them. This way I keep my sanity. 

But here’s the thing about the Following Atticus page I really like. It’s the way many of you have networked to get to know one another. Friendships have formed by way of our Facebook page. What a beautiful thing to see. It’s brought to my attention that when someone is going through a bad divorce, or cancer, or has lost a job, or a loved one, people reach out to them and offer solace and kindness. They embrace each other, and that makes this a special place. 

C. S. Lewis has that fabulous quote about friendship that goes like this, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too?’ . . .” 

Even someone who has become as private in “real life” as I have, embraces these get togethers, and they make my heart swell. Whenever the stories are shared with me, I can’t help but smile. Earlier this week I heard about two women who are battle-tested by cancer meeting for coffee in Bristol, Rhode Island. Meeting made their online friendship truer. From what I take, they both left each other having felt blessed by the other. 

These kind of connections are not something I expected when starting the Following Atticus page five years ago, but it’s one of the things that makes it unique. And just to show this introvert is not immune to all of this, when Samwise and I take our trip around the country, we will be making five stops along the way to meet people I’ve been drawn to through the years because of their posts, and the correspondence that followed. 

To close, I want to share this, which was sent to me by a friend three thousand miles away.

“I went grocery shopping this morning, and as I came out of the store, there was a woman standing on the walkway with a dog who bore at least a passing resemblance to Samwise. Curious, I said to her, ‘What breed is she?’ With a completely straight face, she said, ‘She’s a Long-Backed Seussical Terrier.’ Of course, I started to laugh and blurted out “Following Atticus!” She said, “Yes, You too? Isn’t that just the greatest Facebook page ever? Have you read the book?” We talked for a minute or two about you, Atti and Will and Samwise, and your upcoming book.”

I thank you for helping to create a refuge from the craziness. Running a social media site is not always easy. There are landmines to skip around, but most of you make it a pleasure keep this page going strong. 

Onward, by all means. And look out for those Mack trucks full of crazy. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A Tom and Samwise Update

In describing my current state of being to a friend this morning, I suggested that I'm feeling “like a jigsaw puzzle with three missing pieces.” So much has happened in the past eight or nine months. It’s easy to feel that the comings and goings of life are enough to make one dizzy.

My health continues to improve. Each morning I put on my blood pressure cuff and check my levels. Each morning I smile at what I see. I try not to think about the past too much with so much happening in the present, but some days it’s more difficult than others just to skip to the “now.” But still, that is where my life is. I’ve never been a fan of living too much in the past. Instead, I try to take things that inspired me and incorporate them into who I am.

I posted that portion of Mary Oliver’s poem today because this is how I live my life. At a time when so many proclaim absolutes, I prefer the flexibility of mystery. So, you’ll have to excuse me if I’d rather cling to her words:

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment,
And bow their heads.

One of the pleasures of being with Samwise these days is that I cannot wallow in the past. He demands the present. He demands I pay attention. He is right, of course. He deserves that. So I pay tribute to Atticus by incorporating what I learned with him along the way in trying to help Samwise grow into a healthy soul who fits well in society, and in the wilderness.

When I think of my late friend, sometimes I sigh. But mostly I smile and wonder where the years went. When people tell me absolutes about where Atticus is or what he’s thinking or if he appeared in the form of a rainbow or a butterfly or a cardinal, I pretty much ignore them. All I need to know is that he’s alive within me. That is nourishment enough.

As for Samwise, well, he’s a very different fellow. He’s young and finding out who he is, while letting me know who he is. He’s good company. Physically, he mostly stopped growing a few weeks ago. When he first arrived, he weighed thirty-one pounds. A few weeks after that, he weighed thirty-eight pounds. And a few weeks after that, he weighed thirty-nine pounds. He’s a good size. He’s strong and healthy. He runs like the wind and stretches out like a yogi. Mentally, he’s still very much a puppy, but he’s getting there.

When I saw him stop on a walk recently and sit to watch geese in a pond, I smiled at how centered and calm he was. He’s taken to understanding the word “gentle.” Now he’s gentle mostly on his own.

He still likes to chase things, including chipmunks and squirrels, but I see glimpses of his calm even around them. The other morning, a chipmunk was sitting on top of a stonewall. I reminded Samwise to “be gentle, please.” They came within an inch of touching noses before the chipmunk scurried away leaving behind a trail of squeaks.

My friends understand that we are happy staying off on our own. Occasionally we visit, but mostly we walk, I write, he naps, we sit outside, often by Will’s wildflower garden. Although Samwise enjoys chewing on things, he’s very respectful of my possessions and leaves them be. But he has his collection of chew toys he likes. We don’t buy many things, but this morning I had to replace his moose with a new one. The last one served him well. It had stopped making noise long ago, but he still enjoyed playing with it. But in the nearly two months he’s been here, Bullwinkle has become rather tattered.

This morning it was off to Four Your Paws Only. I grabbed a new moose, and he grabbed a chewy to his liking. Now we are home again, I’m back on Facebook again (having appreciated the break), and while I write, he plays. 

Life is simple, but always changing in our little patch of earth as we learn from the past and turn it into the present.   

"Mysteries, Yes"
by Mary Oliver
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds
will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
"Look!" and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Samwise Atticus Passaconaway Climbs His First Mountain

Samwise A. Passaconaway on the summit of Mount
Katherine. The great Chocorua is in the background.

Two months after getting out of the hospital, and one month after Samwise’s arrival, I had the pleasure of escorting my young friend to his first mountaintop.

As far as mountaintops up here go, it was more like a hilltop. But that doesn’t really matter. This morning, we stood atop Mount Katherine in Wonalancet and had it to ourselves. To celebrate, I ate cherries and Samwise had some of his favorite treats. Then he sat next to me on one of the flat summit stones, and together we gazed out at the prominence of Mount Chocorua set against blue skies and white clouds.

Eventually, he lay down and rested his head and paws on my thigh. While the breeze gently tickled the leaves, Samwise’s snores rose up to my face and turned a thoughtful look into a smiling one. Together we sat, with me gently rubbing his upward ear.

It was a good start for him. He’s too young to be doing the bigger mountains and the tougher trails. That can wait until he’s a year and a half old and his tendons and bones are ready for the rigors of our trails. Until then, we’ll still walk and hike, up to five miles, but I want to limit the impact on his joints.

This respectfully slow increase in intensity also works for me. I’ve got the distance down these days. You’d never know I went into kidney failure or that my heart was only thirty percent of capacity or that my legs were swollen to three times what they are now, or the endless hours I endured in dialysis.

This morning, without my shirt on, I looked at my chest and neck at the scars from my five-week stay in the hospital. They are not huge or unsightly, but there they sit on my body, a constant reminder of what I went through. I’ve come a long way between needing help to get out of bed.

Today, we kept it just under five miles with a walk along the trails in picturesque Wonalancet. We parked at Ferncroft and trekked along the Gordon Path. It’s a broad and gentle way, with but one hill. But that one hill had me stopping twice on my way up it. It’s pretty steep. Or at least that’s what my heart was telling me.

I kept to the doctor’s orders: “As long as you can talk when you are exercising, you’re doing fine.” And I was doing fine, but it was work nonetheless.  I could feel it in my chest (wonder if I’ll always pay as close attention to it as I do now), and in my hips, which are tight and rebel against me when I force them to climb anything at all.

Samwise was in his element. He stayed close to me, and when I stopped, he did too. He’d sit in the middle of the trail and wait for me. When I caught up to him, he’d start out again. He did some off-trail exploring, but not much of it, and was mostly respectful of the woodland creatures.

I noticed something different about him today, on our hikes, he checks in with me more often. His eyes search out mine. He remains close by. There’s a thoughtfulness to his actions. I like that. Once, when I sat down on a log, he returned to me, and I gave him a few treats and another draught of water. After that, he lay down on my feet and watched the forest as it stretched out before us. He was a calm as if he’d been born under that green canopy.

I put him back on the leash when we started a short road walk. He’s wonderful in nature, but he has a long way to go when it comes to co-existing with traffic. And it didn’t matter that we were so far out in the middle of heaven touched land, that we didn’t see a car. We did encounter a couple of hikers and the dog. They came from the opposite direction and while the people chatted, the dogs played. I like how he is with others of the four-legged persuasion. He is gentle and begs to play with them. Typically they comply, and he is thrilled by the dance.

Once the Red Path left the dirt road, we walked through a cathedral of ferns. They were everywhere. It was fresh and green and lush. Even as the sun lit up the leaves above, Samwise took on a shade just as verdant as the undergrowth.

When the trail angled up, I slowed. Then I stopped a few times. Whenever I did, he sat and watched me from ahead, never taking his eyes off of mine.

In past years, this was an easy enough walk for Atticus and me on days we weren’t hiking. But times have changed. It was an excellent introduction to going up for Samwise, and a way for me to ease back into it. 

At the intersection of the Pasture Path, we turned left and slowly made our way to the summit. Other than my reminiscing of the many times I’d been there before, it was no big deal, but it was pleasurable. The first of many.

On the way down, the trail’s rocks and roots reminded me of the importance of watching every step. This is where the White Mountains differ from many other places hikers gravitate to. Even a shorter, less steep trail like the Pasture Path requires balance and awareness.

At one point, Samwise jammed his paw and came over to me, holding it up for my inspection. I sat and held it. He watched my hands encircle his paw. I rubbed it gently. When I returned it to him, it was as good as new.

After one point one miles down along the trail, all we had left was a dirt road walk back to our waiting car. We stopped to soak our feet in a stream and to sit and watch the wonders around us. 

Once back in the car, Samwise fell asleep quickly. I was also tired. 

I’ve a long way to go to recapture the strength of walking uphill, but I have no doubt it will return.

Now we are home, and both of us are tired. As soon as I post this, we’ll climb into bed for a short nap.

Gosh, it feels good to be back out there again. For the past two years, I’ve missed the trails dearly. I wouldn’t hike without Atticus. He wouldn’t have understood me leaving him behind. Besides, the most important thing my late friend and I shared was not the mountains; it was the space we moved through together, bound in friendship. Our center was wherever we were.

I couldn’t be more pleased for Samwise. Just over a month ago, he was a day away from euthanasia. In his stay with me, he has proven time and again his joy for life. He’s a happy fellow. He never misbehaves. He also seems to understand already how to move on the trails and how the center lies somewhere between us.

Before long, he will cease to be a puppy and a pupil who needs to learn so much. Soon, he will be my hiking partner. My equal in many ways. That will come with time. As I said about Atticus when he was young, I never actually trained him. Instead, we just hung out together. It was learning by osmosis.

Samwise and I both had death sentences. Now you could say we share a life sentence, and nature is where we feel it most.

Mount Katherine by way of the Gordon Path, Red Path, and Pasture Path. (Map is from
 Mountain Adventures. The best map of the White Mountains.)