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.
It’s as if I’ve had a tune-up. I have a set of goals staring at me from the corner of my old desk. They each feel like invitations to go another adventure.
For now, I won’t go into them. Suffice it to say that I'm overjoyed to beback on the trails we love, swimming and wading in the rivers and streams, and putting in more mileage than we have in the past year.
Our kitchen has welcomed us home, as has my writing desk. Oh, to sit here is a joy itself. There wasn’t much writing done these last three months save for a few letters and cards to friends. But the written word beckons me.
There are two projects I’m currently working on. Both are in the beginning stages. My first novel, and another memoir, a bit different than the last two.
An excitement greets me that is fresh and tantalizing when I pick up a pen or sit down at the keyboard to let the words flow. It’s different than it used to be. Writing “Following Atticus” showed me I was a storyteller. “Will’s Red Coat,” helped along by maturity, experience, and my health issues, showed me I was an author.
In “W.R.C.” I took more chances, felt freer, and bolder because…
Because . . . Let’s face it, when you dance with death, it loosens things up. It didn’t change me as much as it reminded me of what I wanted to accomplish.
“Will’s Red Coat” prepared me for what comes next in my writing career. It let me know I can handle a novel, that the books will come more freely now. Although I will always love “Following Atticus,” Will’s book may never be replaced as my favorite no matter how many books I author. It’s not so much the story, it’s the writing and where it came from. It’s a new level.
As my friend, Paula pointed out, “There’s more of you in there. I really got to know you.”
Thinking about what comes next now has the butterflies in my gut swirling about. After “Will’s Red Coat” I fully believe there are no limitations to my writing. While I grew through my various sicknesses last spring, I’ve grown even more since then. That adds to the tools I can call on.
As for Samwise, he’s also grown a great deal. The book tour and the road trip were intense lessons for him. (One day I may tell you about the time he and a bison touched noses.) To see him extend himself into the world, to know his limitations and what to take chances on is a joy to behold.
The other day, when a friend asked me if we would ever go out west again, I was honest in saying that I’m not sure. Doctors tell me I’m doing well, considering all that has happened, but the odds are against me living a long life.
As one doctor put it, “The best way to describe it to you, Tom, is that there was a dumpster fire inside of you.”
Some things cannot be replaced.
I have no plans on dying anytime soon, but it’s a reality I need to confront that I may not live into old age. All the more reason to write as much as I can, while I can.
Before closing to go for an evening walk, I would like to tell those of you who came out to the book events just how much that meant to me. Seeing you face-to-face, hearing your stories, telling me how Will and Atticus touched your lives was a gift beyond any I have ever received. To hear you talk of your struggles with cancer, heart attacks, domestic violence, career changes, divorce, confronting your fears, and overcoming mental and physical challenges is the best medicine for me. That along with your comments about “Will’s Red Coat.”
Facebook tells me we have more than 245,000 followers on our page. As of tonight, there are only 112 reviews on Amazon and 253 on Goodreads.com. But gosh, they are magnificent!
Thank you. Thank you! Thank you to everyone who has given a bit of themselves through their words in leaving a note about the story.
To see how “Will’s Red Coat” has moved those of you who have written reviews blows both my editor and me away.
By reading Will’s story, you’ve helped to keep his legacy alive. As I’ve said more than once, what was special about Will, what was relatable about him, is that he is every one of us who has ever been broken and had to choose a new direction. Like the subtitle says, he “chose to live again,” just as many of us have done.
I don’t own a television any longer. A few years back I knew of a single mother whose kids wanted a large flat screen TV but couldn’t afford one, so I gave her mine.
I have not missed having one.
We have been on the road for the eleven of the past twelve weeks, mostly staying in hotel rooms. I’ve yet to turn a television on. Tonight, though, will be a rare treat. The Red Sox and Yankees are on ESPN. It’s a fitting way to get us ready for the last three days of driving back to New England.
I’ve changed the route we were going to take. We’ll still walk into our home on Wednesday, feeling comfortable in a place that has been whistling to us since we’ve left the bison behind.
Today, I told a dear friend that heading home feels a bit like getting ready for the first day of school. I always loved that feeling: the blank notebook pages and the buzz of the promise of what was to be.
Back in Jackson, we’ll get back into our routine, but things will also be a little different. I look forward to sitting at my desk, writing as I digest recent experiences. I crave spending time in my kitchen and cooking meals from scratch once again. And yes, I look forward to the familiar trails that await our happy feet. But home is now different for us, just as we are different.
I have some ideas of changes to make, pictures to hang, items to dispose of. The desire to become more of a minimalist (although not a full one) tugs at me these days.
“Do I need all these coffee mugs?”
“What are all these pots and pans for?
“How many shirts does a guy need?”
I have no doubt we’ll be ditching about a third of what I own.
This afternoon, we put an end to our time in Kentucky in a manner befitting our trek. We made our way through the fields and quiet roads of the hotels and restaurants that clutter these acres right off the freeway. Then we discovered a vacant lot, which led to a field of high grass. There was a faint path through it, and we could not help but follow along. Eventually, it took us to a stream shaded by overhanging trees and perfect for wading in on a hot and humid Kentucky day.
Samwise brought me a stick, and I tossed it upstream. He waded after it, snared it in his teeth, and returned it to me. Again and again, we played out the cycle. It was delicious wading in that fresh, clean water.
After a spell, I sat on a stone, my legs still in the water, while Samwise dried himself on the nearby grass, coming over from time to time to take a drink.
How perfect is this, I thought. These simplest of pockets are what has defined our travels. Always in search of the quiet trail or path, sometimes the one that could barely be followed. Often finding our way through the back of highway rest areas through a hole in the fence, or a forgotten opening that led to a field or a neglected road or, in some cases if we were lucky, a forest path.
These past two months have never been about many destinations. They've been about making up our minds as we drove down the road. Following wind and whim. I see it as a metaphor for the world, for life itself. I rarely care for the answers. What excites me is curiosity and discovery. The mysterious is what lifts my heart and tells me to take note.
My favorite people are the ones who are never afraid to say “I don’t know.” Sometimes they say nothing at all. Or they understand I want to figure things out as I go. I’ve never been into the folks with all the answers and suggestions. After all, I want a life that works for me, and what works for me is not following the crowd.
I remember an evening at Jackson Hole a couple of weeks back. I posted where we were, and I was flooded with suggestions on what to do, where to eat, what to see, where to go. One snag of advice echoed by several was a certain point along the road where the river bends and reflects the Tetons in the background at sunrise.
I already knew we were not going to stop there because it wouldn’t have been much fun for Samwise to sit right along the road waiting for the sun to show up. But as we approached the area, there were at least fifty people there, cameras and tripods set up to capture the way the rising sun hit the jagged peaks.
We drove by.
Then another turn off that we were told about was upon us. We drove by that one as well.
Finally, I found a place where people don’t travel very often. I could tell by the conditions and the lack of signs. Bill got us to where we needed to be, and then we left him behind and walked along the river’s edge, not always seeing a path and therefore having to create our own. I sang out loud to give the grizzlies and moose some warning we were in the area. (If my voice didn’t scare them away, nothing would.)
Onward we walked, hopping logs, finding a path, seeing no one. Ultimately, though, we ended up in a crowded field, but what I loved about it was that everyone there was a wildflower. Among the yellows, purples, and pinks we played and luxuriated in this quiet and remote place. A sprinkling of bison was off in the distance. In another direction, a lone moose waded. Birds sang as the sun rose. And there was Samwise and I so far away from Jackson but feeling right at home.
Today’s late afternoon walk to the stream was a lot like that glorious morning in the Tetons. Simple gifts, solitude, quiet for giving thanks and saying prayers, and a place to play in with Samwise.
Our trip has been about seeing much of the country outside of New Hampshire, but not always the most popular ones. I've sought out places of freedom where we could both enjoy ourselves. It has been a ball. But all roads lead back home because home is wherever we are.
For nearly three months we have been away from our little hobbit hole and yet there was not a stitch of loneliness the entire time. I like that. It bodes well for the future, and it defines our current state.
I know we are both ready for whatever comes because all that is guaranteed is the unknown. I figure we’ve learned to embrace that.