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.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Fat Man Gets Ready To Roll

You've no doubt heard of the Old Man of the Mountains. Well, meet Dave Olson, self-proclaimed "Fat Man of the Mountains."

This weekend, Dave, the editor of the Salem (MA) Evening News, starts his quest to hike all 48 of the 4,000-footers in the 90 days of summer. He’s using it as a fundraiser for Kestrel Educational Adventures.* He'll be joined on many of his hikes by his teenage son, Luke, a budding photographer.

Atticus and I first ran into Dave and Luke last summer on the Champney Falls Trail on the way up Mount Chocorua. They were a pleasure to talk with and the father and son bond between them was enjoyable to see. (Actually they appeared more like friends than family.) I enjoyed the brief interaction we had with them on the trail, and then later again on the summit.

When I discovered Dave’s blog this
spring, I had no trouble remembering them. Soon after seeing it we ran into them again on South Moat.

Knowing what I went through four years ago when first hiking the 48 in 11 weeks, I can relate to the quest Dave is about to embark on. I’m hoping it is as rewarding for him as it was for me. It’s one thing to hike 48 peaks; it’s something entirely different to force them all into a short time period like the 90 days of summer. The intensity of the schedule makes it all the more intoxicating and it is hard not to become obsessed.

I have an idea of what Dave is about to go through. I was the editor of my own paper when I did it and working in the news business has a tendency to give you a bird’s eye view of the shortcomings of the human race. Throughout my quest that dissolved. I began thinking less about man’s shortcomings and more about the promise of Nature. I thought less about what was wrong with the world and more about what was right with it. It wasn’t eye-opening, it was soul awakening.

One of my favorite books is Sam Keen’s Hymns to an Unknown God. In it Sam talks about how as a minister and as a therapist he realized the people he was counseling were all looking for the same thing. They wanted something greater than themselves to surrender to and be part of. I found it four years ago when I came north and surrendered to the mountains. You see, we don’t conquer a mountain when we climb it. It’s the other way around. It conquers us. Once you’ve experienced a peak, it never leaves you. Surrender to the intensity of a summer of peakbagging and it becomes life altering.

I look forward to following Dave’s quest and perhaps Atticus and I will even get to join him on a hike or two this summer. We shall see. If you wish to follow along check out his website and get ready to root on the
Fat Man of the Mountains.

*Through its classroom, outdoors and after-school work, Kestrel Educational Adventures connects hundreds of kids across the North Shore to the natural world around them, encourages thinking about nature as a part of normal life rather than an exotic destination, and nurtures the next generation of outdoors stewards.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Auguries of Innocence on the Kancamagus Highway

You never know when you’ll have a wildlife sighting on the Kancamagus Highway. Often you will see cars pulled over to the side of the road and there’s a good chance they are moose-watching, or maybe they’ve seen a bear.

On Saturday, having climbed Chocorua, we were headed home late in the morning. We were following a line of bikers playing ‘follow the leader’. The lead biker swerved left, the others swerved left. He’d stand up on his bike, the others would stand. He’d weave back and forth as if following the twists and turns of a rope and the others would follow suit. I then saw each of them take aim at small lump in the road and swerve towards it – the game, I imagined - was to get as close to it as possible without hitting it. One after another these weekend warriors dive-bombed the little lump and just missed it.

I also missed it and when I passed I realized the ‘lump’ was a very large toad sitting about a quarter of the way across the road. A funny thing happens when you spend so many quiet miles alone in the woods, sweating, swearing and praying your way up mountains, the only company being a little dog and your own hoary breath – you start to see things differently. These moments are the best of my life. I’m never closer to my own true self than in those moments. Loving words as I do, familiar and often-read phrases or lines from great minds often visit me in these walking meditations.

I tell you that so you will understand why at that moment, fresh off a mountain, still sweating and a little bit sore, after passing that toad in the road my mind turned to those words that begin William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”. (Don’t you just love that title?)

“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.”

Yes, I know a warty old toad is not exactly a wild flower, but nevertheless, a quarter of a mile down the road I made a sharp u-turn and returned to see how he was doing. He hadn’t budged. The close calls had either frozen him in place or else they weren’t about to deter him from resting where and when he wanted to, even if it meant he was about to be as flat as a mitten and left for the crows.

I pulled off the side of the road. When I got out of the car, Atticus wanted to follow so I let him sit on the side of the road.

I’ll be the first to tell you I have no idea what goes through the mind of a toad. I’m not so arrogant as to think very little does, and when I came eye to eye with this particular old fellow I could have sworn there was plenty going through his mind. He looked at me suspiciously – so much so that I did my best to look gentle and benevolent and not to give him the wrong idea. He did have his pride after all, and he had already made it a quarter of the way across the road. Who was I to think he wouldn’t make it the rest of the way just fine?

Long ago, I sometimes made a practice, after having been freshly cashed up on pay day, of stopping at an Army surplus store and buying as many wool blankets as I could afford. The next morning I’d get up early and make a pile of ham and cheese sandwiches. Then I’d head into Boston Common, or Washington Park when I lived in Albany, where I knew some of the homeless by name, and I’d deliver them lunch and a blanket in the colder weather. However, there were some folks who, just like that old toad, had plenty pride even if they weren’t in the best place in their lives. They figured they’d gotten by just fine so far without me around and took the threat of my charity as an affront. After seeing me pass out blankets and sandwiches to others they would sneer at me when I approached. I respected their pride. Instead of offering them help, I’d take a folded blanket and lay it on the ground near the closest trash can. I’d then place the wrapped sandwich on top of it and leave it there.

I was careful not to look back but when I’d return some 10 minutes later, they’d have the blanket and the sandwich, having ‘found’ it on their own.

That’s what it was like when I approached that toad in the road. He didn’t want my help. However, it was clear he needed it. And this was a little different than dealing with a homeless man in Boston Common. After all we really didn’t have that much time. I gave some thought to picking him up (he was so big he would have filled the palm of my hand) but that look in his eye said, “Back off, pal!” Meanwhile Atticus was cocking his head on the far side of the road, watching us intently.

I got behind Grandpa Toad and reached down to nudge his bottom but just before I touched him he hopped and flopped down in a new spot a few inches further across the road. I reached again, he hopped again. Each time I’d get close to touching him this old fellow would flop down heavily a few inches further along the pavement and look a bit bothered by my encroachment on his space.

We were about halfway across the road when a car came around the bend and was heading for us while another couple of cars were coming in the other direction. I made like the police officer in Make Way for Ducklings and stood up and put out both of my hands telling the cars to stop. Imagine if you will what must have been going through these folks' heads: in front of them a prideful fat toad was being urged across the Kancamagus Highway by a fellow who was doing his best to allow Grandpa to move at somewhat of his own pace, all the while a little floppy-eared black and white dog was sitting on the side of the road studying both man and the toad.

Once the cars stopped I resumed reaching gently behind the toad and he resumed moving just before I made contact with him. Eventually, with more cars now stopped watching this spectacle, we made it to the other side. But even when we made it off the pavement and were on the shoulder of the road none of those cars moved. They sat and watched as if they were watching a moose. One car pulled over and a fellow got out.

“That’s the biggest toad I’ve ever seen!”

Then a mini van pulled off the side of the road and a family of four got out and took a look at Grandpa Toad. All the while I urged the old guy further off the road and towards the deep grass. The shade of the trees was maybe 10 yards ahead and another 10 yards beyond that was the river.

None of the cars on the road had moved yet, they were all watching. More cars pulled over.

The grass was high and the going was slow until a couple of kids got the idea of helping him by ‘breaking trail’. They were gentle in approaching and standing in front of Grandpa and then stepping on the high grass to mat it down. Their parents then helped. The first fellow who pulled over joined in, too. And the next thing you know there were seven or eight people stepping on the grass trying to make a path for this toad to the shade of the trees while others were watching as if this was the most important thing in their lives.

I continued to urge the old fellow along from behind and before too long we reached the soft, shaded ground and this group of strangers who pulled off the road to help a fat toad gave out a little cheer and congratulated one another as if they had done something majestic. Although none of us exchanged names, I will long remember their faces: the genuine pleasure, the living in the moment of this simplest of little things.

It just goes to show you how powerful Nature is. Sure she can threaten us with hurricanes and tornadoes; bake us in her high heat; freeze us on mountaintops with wind chills far below zero; and drown us in her floods. She can also get us to take a moment to stop what we're doing and actually care if a toad makes it safely to where he’s going. It can even make friends out of strangers, if even only for a few minutes on the side of a road in the middle of the mountains.

(If you are interested, William Blakes entire "Auguries of Innocence" can be found here.)

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Beating the Crowds and the Bugs to the Summit of Chocorua on a Saturday Morning

This morning Atticus and I were on the trail at 7:00 a.m. and on the summit of Chocorua by 9:00 a.m. There were only two other people up on top. However, on the way down, we passed a conga-line of hikers (probably 40 to 50)...and that was just one of the approaches. I imagine right around now (2:30 in the afternoon) that summit is packed tighter than a subway coming from Fenway just after a Sox game lets out.

Chocorua is a beautiful mountain, with stunning 360 degree views. I don't begrudge people for wanting to be up there, but give me a quiet summit any day.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

This Morning's Conway Daily Sun Welcomes Us To Jackson

A warm welcome to Jackson newcomers, Tom Ryan and ‘Atticus’

By Salley-Anne Partoon

Having recently been signed by Brian DeFiore, the head of DeFiore and Company — the literary agents that handled “Marley and Me” —writer Tom Ryan has moved to Jackson to work on his new book entitled “Following Atticus”, which chronicles Tom’s adventures in the White Mountains for the past four years with his remarkable little dog, Atticus, a 25 pound Miniature Schnauzer.

In the fall of 2004 Atticus and Tom hiked 4,000-foot Mount Garfield, the following summer they hiked all 48 of the 4,000-footers in 11 weeks. They have also gone on to climb 193 winter 4,000-footers in four years, raising money for the Jimmy Fund and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

During this time, little Atticus has overcome blindness, thyroid cancer and being attacked by a large dog 6 days before he and Tom were to be honored at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library as winners of the MSPCA’s annual Human Hero Award. Despite having to undergo emergency surgery, Atticus surprised one and all by proudly marching into the JFK Library as if nothing had happened. Throughout the evening he made his way around the festivities and by night’s end he captured the hearts of everyone.

Tom can often be seen walking the Jackson Loop with Atticus in the mornings; his hiking column, Adventures with Tom and Atticus, is a popular read in the Northcountry News and can be viewed at .

(The Conway Daily Sun's Jackson column can be found on their

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Dogs Never Lie About Love by Jeffrey Moussaieff Mason

This was just sent to me and I think it’s wonderful. The following is from Jeffrey Moussaieff Mason’s book Dogs Never Lie About Love:

"I am not a religious man, and I pause before using the word soul. But my experiences with the dogs in my life, and now with Sash, Sima, and Rani, convince me that there is some profound essence, something about being a dog, which corresponds to our notion of an inner soul, the core of our being that makes us most human. In human animals, this core, I am convinced, has to do with our ability to reach out and help a member of another species, to devote our energy to the welfare of that species, even when we do not stand to benefit from the other - in short, to love the other for its own sake. If any species on earth shares this miraculous ability with us is the dog, for the dog truly loves us sometimes beyond expectation, beyond measure, beyond what we deserve, more, indeed than we love ourselves."

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

My Favorite 4,000-Foot Summits

I’m often asked, “Which is your favorite 4,000-footer?”

There’s no easy answer for me. I find charm in every single one of them, even those others loath. Look at Mount Waumbek, for instance. It is by far one of the least favorites of those who chase after peaks. The reasons being two-fold: lack of views (you get a view a mile before the summit, while on top of Mount Starr King, and another limited one 30 yards beyond the summit, through the trees towards the Presidential Range), and the fact that there’s no quick way to get there. However, I’m always enchanted by the woods, especially the wind ravaged col between Starr King and Waumbek.

Others hate Owl’s Head – because of the lack of a view and the 18 mile round trip. But there’s something to be said for getting lost in your head in the woods for so many hours and wading through those rivers on a summer day.

Just for the heck of it I’ve decided to rank my top 10 summits out of the 48, starting with number 10 and finishing with my favorite.

10. Eisenhower: Last summer, while sitting on the wide, grassy expanse on the summit with Ken and Ann Stampfer and Atticus under an azure sky with an armada of the most impressive white billowy clouds I’ve ever seen floating over Franklin, Monroe, Washington, Clay and Jefferson, I thought, “This is as good as it gets.” (Pictured above.)
9. Liberty: Natural stone recliners over the cliffs make this a comfortable place to take a nap and wake up to the view across Franconia Notch towards Cannon, which seems bigger than it actually is from this angle. In the photo to the right Atticus watches an undercast just after sunrise on Liberty.
8. Lincoln: Some would say neighbor, Lafayette, but I prefer Lincoln because you get to see Lafayette rising up in the North and you get to see everything else you get to see from Lafayette. Besides, looking south along Franconia Ridge the trail towards Liberty often reminds me of the Great Wall of China. One day Atti and I started out at 1:00 a.m. from Lincoln Woods in our attempt to do a 33.5 mile Pemi Loop. Lyme Disease stopped me on Lafayette but we started early enough that we had Flume, Liberty and Lincoln to ourselves at daybreak.
7. Monroe: It’s not just the summit perch and the close-up view of Washington; it’s also the walk south along the ridge towards Little Monroe and Franklin. The wind plays with the mountain grass on either side of the trail making it look like gentle waves. Meanwhile in the distance, there is a never-ending view of mountains. There’s something precious about a view that gives the illusion that the mountains never end.
6. Isolation: Saint-Exupery wrote: “It is such a secret place, the land of tears.” One winter day, Atticus and I stood alone on the summit of Isolation in 30 below zero wind chills. The unique view of the Southern Presidentials capped in snow and clouds flying over them like ghosts so moved me, the tears rolling down my cheeks froze – and yet I could not move. I didn’t want to leave. In some ways I never have.
5. Madison: Others would say Jefferson or Adams. I can't argue with them. I choose Madison simply for the feel of it. Sitting atop the last of the Presidential peaks makes me feel like I’m sitting on the end of the world. And just like the view from Adams or Jefferson, the view of Washington is better than being on Washington itself, which is nearly always crowded in the summer. (Picking up on a trend here? That’s right, any mountain we can have to ourselves is a pretty special place.)
4. Bondcliff: The first time I stood atop Bondcliff and held Atticus in my arms, a passing hiker took my photo. The next day I shared it with my dad. Looking at the cliff and its incredible drop into Hellgate Ravine below he said, “Oh, it makes my feet ache!” That’s when I learned who I inherited my fear of heights from. Nevertheless, to stand there, especially when emerging from the scrub of Bondcliff Trail to the south, to see those first glimpses of incredible mountains in every direction, is breath taking!
3. South Twin: Sometimes I’m surprised by the view from South Twin. From its lofty rocks I see many mountains from a different perspective and it makes me think of them in different ways. That’s quite a gift: to look at familiar things and see them in new ways.
2. Garfield: My first 4,000-foot summit is still one of my favorites. I feel like I’m sitting on Nature’s front porch the way the ledges fall away precipitously at my feet and Owl’s Head and the Pemi Wilderness spreads out before me like some immense rolling sea of green. It sits at the head of a bowl of mountains shaped by Franconia Ridge to the west and the Twins, Galehead and the Bonds to the east. Off in the distance there is the illusion of faded blue mountain after faded blue mountain extending towards forever. It just feels like home. (An added plus is that with all the ledges there are plenty of places to get away from the crowd on a busy day.)
1. West Bond: Steve Smith refers to this as a ‘scatter your ashes’ kind of summit. He’s right. Other than a glimpse of the ski slopes of Loon Mountain far off in the distance, it’s difficult to see any other signs of civilization. Of course it helps that it is locked in the middle of the Pemigewasset Wilderness and most of the times I’ve been there I’ve had it to myself. There was one mild winter day when Atticus and I did a Bonds Traverse over Bondcliff, Bond, West Bond, Zealand and Hale and didn’t see another soul all day. I felt like we had the world to ourselves…and I loved it.

A Letter From A New Visitor To Our Blog

Dear Tom:

God has the weirdest sense of humor, not to mention timing. Let me explain.

Had the blues last night something fierce. To put this in context, I'll have to tell you why. My fiancé died of a sudden heart attack 6 years ago. We were together 14 years. Grief has a freakish way of sneaking up on you when you least expect it. If I had turned to my work for distraction, it would have been to finish up an appeal for a fellow wrongfully convicted of child sexual abuse. Not happening, no relief there. It's a tough topic.

So I turned to my books, specifically my grandfather's writings. Upon opening one of his books, a poem fell out which had been stuck between the pages. It was Rudyard Kipling's "The Power of the Dog." Well, that didn't cheer me up either because my constant companion, a Westie named Arthur is approaching his twelfth year and showing some signs of age. (His name was to be Atticus but I was outvoted.)

But curiosity got the better of me because the last few lines were missing from the bottom of the page. (What a powerful poem...) So naturally I Googled it and your site came up first. Three hours later, I noticed my muscles were sore. I hadn't moved from the computer. Mere words cannot express how profoundly your writings of your life with Atticus affected me. Still trying to wrap my brain around it...

At the very least, in reading your posts, any concerns I had that I had become reclusive were put to rest. I, too, thoroughly enjoy - and prefer - the company and solitude of my dog, the water, my computer and my books. We live on the water (off the Chesapeake Bay) so I see no reason to leave unless I have to go to court or for basics. Never one to follow the crowd, it did however, strike me as a life increasingly very different from the busy, hectic world most choose. But the fact remains, we are very content. (Of course, we did grow up in very exciting times, did we not?)

Anyway, I would like to post an article about you and Atticus on my blog. So I am asking for your permission to post your story and a few of your wonderful pictures. I can send you the final draft for your approval also.

I commend you on finding and then following your heart. In doing so, you set the bar high - where it should be.

I am going to stop now. Check out my blog so you can gain some insight too this not so typical lawyer - Thank God, again!

P.S. Why did you pick Atticus Finch for his name?

Constance Camus

(Constance's blog can be
found here.)