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 28, 2017

Ten Years On: "Following Atticus" Debuts in Japan

The Japanese version of "Following Atticus."

Today, in subzero temperatures, I was drawn back to ten years ago. It was the year when Atticus and I set out to summit each of the 48 4,000-foot-peaks in the White Mountains twice in a single calendar winter. It had been accomplished before, but only once. The storied Cath Goodwin, longtime White Mountain legend had succeeded. But that was it. As far anyone knows, no one else had even attempted it. 

What made me think little Atticus and I could accomplish such a feat?

Truthfully, I had no idea whether we could or not. The previous winter, we fell short of my goal of hiking each of the 48 in winter. At the time, I believe only 14 known people had ever accomplished a single round in winter. We fell short by two hikes.

But there we were on the night of the winter solstice entering the unknown and preparing to push beyond what either one of us had ever been. 

It’s almost comical when I look back at it now. I was fighting Lyme disease, weighing 260 lbs., obviously not in shape, and Atticus weighed only about 25 lbs. He was not your typical winter hiking dog.

Recently, while driving across the Kancamagus highway, I took note of the new snow piled up along the side of the road, the various trailheads Atticus and I parked at that winter a decade ago, and at my young passengers in the car. There was little Emily, with me for only a month and aged seven months, and Samwise, aged two years. 

The juxtaposition of fragrant memories; my current life where heart, kidney, and other ailments keep me from hiking up; and the company of young Samwise and Emily washed over me. Suddenly, I could not see, and I had to pull into the parking lot of the Oliverian Brook trailhead. As I let Samwise and Emily scamper out into the snow and the first yards of the trail, I could have sworn I’d seen a little black and white dog there with me again.

In December of 2007, when we’d only been hiking for a year and a half, there was hardly a trek we started in winter when I was not draped in fear. It didn’t help that many of those longer hikes over several peaks at a time began in the bone-chilling pre-dawn hours. We often ended our longer hikes after the sun went down as well. 


It gnawed at me. The cold and darkness were forbidding. I felt isolated and alone. The idea of hiking 14 or 18 or 27 miles through deep snow and across the dangerous ice, through winds biting and cruel, far away from anyone else, rattled me.

So why did we do it? 

Robert Frost wrote in a letter, “A poem…begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is a reaching-out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion finds the thought and the thought finds the words.”

Not a lot made sense that winter. Our audacity was nourished by our friendship, and the idea that we would be safe was connected to the understanding that I would keep Atticus safe. There was a wordless communication between us and a sacred trust. Sure, we’d face uncomfortable situations and endure the unimaginable, but we were in it together.

As for that fear each time I entered the woods? It was indeed a lump in my throat.

For ninety days we pushed ourselves beyond the limits sets for us by others, and those I also put on myself. That winter adventure was itself a poem for us, a dance between souls connected by all that mattered in life.

It’s funny, while Atticus knew his limitations, he never showed the fear I felt. No matter how frigid it became. No matter how unrelenting the wind. Not even in blizzard conditions when we were surprised on a trek across the Pemigewasset Wilderness. Not when we were so tired we could have fallen asleep wherever we sat down and never woken up again in the cold.

There were many nights we were out on the trails alone, the only light coming from the heavens above and the beam from my headlamp. In my unease, I’d ask myself, Why are we doing this? Goodness knows I longed for home and friends and hot tea and a good book so often it ached. And yet we continued. 

This all returns to me today because the Japanese version of Following Atticus showed up in my mailbox. 

I last held my friend in my arms a year and a half ago as he took his final breaths in a rain so gentle it felt like the surrounding pine trees were weeping. Still, Atticus visits me without warning and I know that winter will be one of the highlights of my life.

It lies at the heart of Following Atticus, and that little dog with the big soul, that little Buddha, is still touching people with his authentic and unfettered life. Our story has now been published here in the U.S., of course, and in Canada, the U.K., Italy, Germany, Hungary, and Japan. 

As I type this, it is currently -3 degrees. Samwise is in the bedroom, his head on the pillow where dreams and memories come to me. Emily is under my desk, resting innocently on top of my slipper. It is a comfort to listen to Mozart while the wind rattles the windows of our warm home as I tap-tap-tap on the keyboard.

The other day a person who does not know me, other than through my writing, sent me a Christmas card. She wrote: “I know how much you must miss Atticus?”

When I get comments like this, I understand that my acceptance of death is a bit different than most other folks. Talking about one I loved can bring up emotions that spill out of my heart, but otherwise, I’m okay with death. I made friends with her long ago and find kinship in something attributed to Marcus Aurelius long ago: “Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back.”

This week I had some clenching chest pain. It is something I never worried about in the past, but in my new reality, I have to pay attention to it. After it passed, I talked to a friend about it, and she asked if I was afraid.

“No. I’m ready. Whenever she’s ready to dance, I’ll go.”

Of course, I have no desire to die right yet, but when that moment comes, I’ll smile warmly and take her hand as we enter another unknown path for a new adventure. 

But until then there is so much to do that I don’t have time to miss Atticus. Life is a verb. Each day I open my eyes. Each day life and lessons come at me. Samwise and Emily keep me on my toes. We live in the now. (Yes, occasionally there are those visits to yesterdays I had cherished, but I wouldn’t wish away what I now have for anything.)

I’m moved by Atticus. Moved by Will and by Max and inspired to continue growing. I cherish what we shared and what we taught each other. But how can I miss Atticus when he is a part of me?

On days like this, when faced with a version of our story that is now being read in a different part of the world, I feel it all the more.  

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Fifth Week

It feels good to end our third walk of the day just after dusk, wrapped in a heavy sweater against the cold as the sun sinks behind the mountains and all fades from silver and black to black and gray, and ultimately to inevitable night. As the shadows grew, winds whipped across the meadow and swayed the treetops.  Occasionally an aged trunk groaned when asked to bend in ways it can no longer go.

“Go with it, my old friend,” I wish. For we had lost too many trees in these woods from the flood a month ago. “Bend,” I whisper, “and live in your bending.”

Between the sideways flying snow and the raucous chorus from the wind through the trees, Emily cocks her head in an almost mechanical curiosity. She is mesmerized by the snowflakes coming at her and their harmless kisses, and the way her ears catch the flow of air moving across the barren November land. She looks to me as if for explanation and I speak in a language she can understand by tilting my face into those flying bits of white. I laugh and sometimes sing aloud, which she takes for a good sign.  Then she spins and dances and takes off after Samwise, who is busy making his inspection of the land he knows like a close friend.

Eventually, this evening, I had to turn my headlamp on to make my way across sheets of ice covered by a thin white coating. I moved to the grass next to the path, but in this cold corner of the eleventh month, even the earth is hard. Above, the wind continues to sing, and I look up at the clouds flying across the waxing gibbous moon and imagine them to be witches on brooms. Enchantment abounds, even in the cold tip of my nose.

It’s dark early this time of year. All the better for time spent in the kitchen when we get home. I made a shepherd’s pie earlier using lentils instead of beef and sweet potatoes instead of white. The comforting smells are familiar and reminiscent of my childhood.

Once again, Emily, who is getting used to all her senses, stopped just inside the door and lifted her nose.

“Not for you, little one.”

Samwise is already sitting by their bowls waiting for their dinner. When she sees this, Emily joins him. Excitement bubbles up like carbonation, but she’s learning patience. This is one of her most difficult tasks to undertake. She wolfs down her food when I tell her it’s okay to eat and when finished she looks to Samwise’s dish. Before she lived here, he’d sometimes leave some food for later, but he knows not to do this now since it won’t be there when he returns for it. I’m sure the slow and methodical way in which he eats infuriates her.

In the first week, I had to sit with them so that she didn’t try to steal his food. He’s so polite; he let her.  In her fifth week, she’s better, and so is he. Reluctantly, he set up his boundaries. He’s taken to heart all his lessons about “being gentle, ” and it shows when it comes to sharing attention and food with her.

Emily is a fast learner and watches both of us to figure out what is expected. I’m happy to report that she already understands the words “Be gentle, please.” I notice it most after their last trip out into the night before we go to bed. Samwise sit’s proudly on top of the bed and delicately takes his treat from between my fingers. She watches from the floor and follows suit.

I fancy this effort on her part. One so young trying so hard to fit in, to do right, to be gentle as she’s asked.

Five weeks. Is that all?

Time spills together. Weeks and months and years. I look at the photos and drawings of Will and Atticus hanging on the walls to the red coat above my desk, and I see this two-year-old and this puppy who is only seven-months-old.

Different ages, different lives, and yet all of it stitched together with golden thread like a quilt with each patch a different scene.

We’ve been enjoying our time away from the online world. We’ve visited a few friends, one who is dying; gone for long walks; read poetry and prose; written letters and holiday cards; stocked the kitchen shelves for winter, and I’ve even decorated a little this Christmas season.

Carols fill our home. The notes and melodies nudge me until memories come and go. I think back to my mother I cannot remember but all the decorations she left behind for us, and to my early Christmases when I was just as filled with wonderment as Emily is now. Sometimes I see myself in her eyes, and this fifty-six-year-old man becomes a boy again.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

From Our Time on the Trails this Morning

I don’t spend much time in the past. I don’t wallow in sadness, spend prolonged periods mourning or wishing things were different. On occasion, though, I find myself thinking of those who have left this life. It’s only natural. Memories float to me like the fragrances of wild flowers or the smell of late afternoon shade on a hot summer day. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my Aunt Marijane, who I wrote about in “Will’s Red Coat.” 

She comes to mind when I’m ruminating on something, not so much trying to figure things out, but merely digesting a turn of events, a new horizon, or a moving experience. 

We both had the gift of gab and could talk for hours several times a week, but we also knew the importance of listening to each other. It's is one of the reasons our love and friendship flourished as it did during the time we had together. 

What I miss about her is the way she listened. 

Just listened. 

She didn’t feel the need to offer an answer. She didn’t make suggestions. She was present, offering herself completely to me. 

That measure of selflessness is equal parts wisdom and heart. People who want to know what you are feeling and thinking, instead of telling you what you are feeling or thinking, or should be.

Too many listen merely to respond. Like conversation is a tennis match and you’ve served, and they must return volley. But what a gift it is to just acknowledge someone, to offer yourself without judgment, without ego, without the need to be clever.

As we walk in the woods each morning, and then again each evening, my feet move thoughtfully, like the prayers I’m uttering. That’s where my answers lay in wait. In silence, through walking meditation.

One of the attributes about having a quiet partner to share nature with is an animal's ability to be quiet. There is communion between us as we share a trail but still space for our independent thoughts. In the forest, reflections come and go, and before long we’re merely out there together striding in the natural world while filling our souls. 

Lately, I’ve noticed how Samwise has matured over the past year. This morning it was evident as we were striding along an earthen path and came around a bend only to stand face-to-face with a doe and her fawn. They tensed and readied to leap and bound off. Before they did, however, I crouched down slowly next to Samwise, who was fully alert, and I whispered, “Let them be, please. Let’s just watch, okay?”

No leash. No collar. No need for a hand or a firm voice to restrain him. 

He sat next to me; his body was as ready to spring as theirs were. Yet he stayed still, as did they. When he relaxed, so did they. Instead of bolting, they lingered before peacefully meandering on. The fawn, trailing behind her mother, looked back at us curiously as they moved through the undergrowth. The mother seemed to know we were not a threat.

These moments of growth serve as graduation days for Samwise, notches on the wall where I can see how far he’s come.

Were Marijane still alive and I told her about this she would offer no explanations or reasons or answers as to why things occurred as they did in the woods by the stream early in this morning. She would have taken it in, and we’d talk about it. What’s there to say, after all? An experience was offered and she received it.

When people ask me what changes I’ve noted about myself since returning from our trip, I tell them I’m quieter, more peaceful than I already was. Delving deeper, “I don’t feel the need for answers as much. I was already feeling that way before the trip but that sense of experiencing life without having to define it is more prevalent now.”

After Thoreau had died, Emerson memorialized him. In an essay he wrote: “He resumed his endless walks and miscellaneous studies, making every day some new acquaintance with Nature, though as yet never speaking of zoology or botany, since, though very studious of natural facts, he was incurious of technical and textual science.”

I can relate to Henry in that way. The science of being isn’t that important to me. I’d rather just be. 

In the forest, along paths that wind through communities of trees in all stages of life, death, and rebirth I feel the same way. Science is necessary, but I leave the need to know such things to others for that’s not why I come to the woods. 

Marijane hiked right up until the last decade of her life. She was fond of sharing trails with those she loved, but mostly she went into the desert with only a four-legged companion. Sometimes I see her walking that way. Sometimes I talk to her, and I know what she’d say in response to my observations. Her voice rings clear. When we sign off, she joyously offers the same closing she did in life, “Walk in beauty, Tommy.”

I do my best. 

A loving friend often asks me the best part of my day. I fear I bore her because my answers rarely change. It’s typically about our time in the forest, away from the busy world where we are embraced by the natural world.

Last week I climbed my first mountain in quite a while. It was clear that I am still rehabbing, still gaining strength because it wiped me out. It’s the up and down that messes with my blood pressure and my heart. The dizziness stirs, and I pay attention to it. After a break, it relaxes its spell and Samwise and I continue. 

Still, even knowing that climbing up is still difficult for me, I am enthralled with the forests and the streams that nourish them. Slowly I gather strength. A few months ago I couldn’t walk three miles. Now we log between six and seven a day. At the beginning of spring, I could not have crouched down as I did this morning near the doe and her fawn without getting dizzy. 

Just as Samwise matures, my balance and my cardiovascular system improve. Parts of me died last year, and as in the trees that keep us company, there is regeneration within as there is without. 

I don’t enjoy every step, as a well-wisher suggested the other day. Hiking is hard. But I do appreciate the earned ache in my hips, the way my heart beats at a healthy cadence, and how good it feels when I lay down each night with a book on my chest and a cool late summer breeze caressing me from the window above our bed.

The other day, for this first time in years, I bought some new hiking equipment – a backpack. That is a victory itself. 

As I told Marijane the other day, “I’m in the game again.”

In this contented monk-like existence, I feel abundantly alive. In spite of all I survived, I often think of Tennyson’s words at the end of Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”