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.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Little Calvin & Hobbes

I'll never cease to be amazed where following this little dog takes me. I'm told Publishers Marketplace called our book deal for 'Following Atticus' with William Morrow their 'Deal of the Day'.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Good Start to the Day

My father woke me up this morning. It was 4:00 a.m. and the world was still. He was talking to me, wanting me to get out of bed.

Typically, if I’m ever awake that early, Atticus cocks an eyebrow in my direction, realizes the sun isn’t up yet and he’s not about to get up either. He then rolls over and goes back to sleep. But not this morning. This morning he sat next to my head and looked down at me, willing me to get moving.

The ghost of my father and my dog both couldn’t have been wrong so I was up and getting dressed. I stepped outside and stars prickled the night sky, a few planets were even brighter as we walked down the road. I put on my headlamp and we walked and walked until my body warmed under my heavier clothes. We made our way up the rutted road to the base of Iron Mountain where the trail crosses a field and enters the brush.

It was still dark but the hint of predawn was making its way along the eastern horizon. But in the woods it was dark and deep and the beam from my headlamp cast shadows. When we moved, they moved; swaying at first in front of us and then falling behind until we came to the next set of shadows. We moved further into the woods, up the eroded trail and into rich scent of autumn. Occasionally I grabbed a tree branch or an exposed root to pull myself up to where Atticus was waiting patiently for me.

As is nearly always the case, the confluence of my body working, my mind clearing out everything, and the simple desire to put one foot in front of the other and climb, I hit that wonderful Zen-like rhythm and there was my father again. He was moving with us, silently, save for the same grunts I had, the same pursed breathing.

When my father was still alive and I dedicated that first summer of doing the 4,000-footers to him, he often appeared in my dreams. He never looked old or broken in body or spirit like he was in the end. Instead he was my age and we walked through the forest together sharing a like mind, heart and passion. It was the best he had to offer and I had a glimpse of what his life must have been like before all went wrong. But while he appeared in my dreams back then, he rarely was as close to me as he was this morning.

Eventually we reached our destination – a ledge with a view towards Mount Washington. Atticus sat down and looked at the silhouette of the great peak in the distance. When I sat with him I had to zip up my jacket to keep from getting chilled. And then we just sat there and waited for the sun to rise.

The darkness filtered away. Slowly the season revealed herself in the rolling quilt of early autumn colors: soft greens and yellows, an occasional red, some orange here and there. When the trees get like this, even before the peak of foliage, they pulse, and the rolling landscape before us looked like it was rising and falling as if the mountains themselves were alive and breathing.

The rock were on was cold and Atticus snugged his body next to mine. When that didn’t work he nudged me with his paw and I picked him up and sat him on my lap. He leaned back into me and we watched the birth of a new day.

The sky turned blue, the clouds were white and bobbing along, and shadows deepened the hollows of the forest spreading out below and away from us. We watched together as this living painting came to life: my dog on my lap, my father in my heart and seemingly right next to me. I turned as if Jack Ryan was actually there and I said, “Well, we did it, Dad.”

In my mind he smiled. It was warm and content and the way a man would smile in heaven even though he didn’t smile much in life.

One of my favorite memories of my father was when we were kids and he took us to the White Mountains. We’d set up camp next to a river or pull over so my brothers and I could swim or rock hop. Dad would sit at a picnic table above us and let words spill from his pen across a pad of paper. He was happy, peaceful and content. So were we. We’d do this for hours and never get restless.

The only place my father’s writing appeared was in the letters to the editor in the local daily paper or in letters to friends and family. But when he wrote in the mountains I could tell he was writing something else. None of us ever knew what my father wrote in his pad of paper on those days. He never shared it with us. But it was clear the mountains moved him to write and allowed him to touch things he hadn’t glimpsed since he was young and full of promise.

A father leaves many things to a son. Some are good, some aren’t. The best things my father left me were his love of the written word and his reverence for the mountains. As the years passed we were not always close but we always shared these things.

This morning, while the White Mountains came to life I held my father in my heart, I told him what happened this week and tears formed in his eyes. His dream had become my dream. You see, I thought of him a lot this week when William Morrow, a publishing imprint of Harper Collins, outbid three other publishers for ‘Following Atticus’.

A father found peace, magic and inspiration in these grand and wondrous mountains. He passed it onto his son. Now the father who wondered where his dreams went as he got old and eventually died will have those dreams celebrated in a book that will see to it that he and those dreams shall live forever.

And so our morning started with Atticus sitting on my lap on the side of Iron Mountain while my father sat next to us. In my head I heard that last verse from Harry Chapin’s song, “Cats in the Cradle”...

I've long since retired and my son's moved away.
I called him up just the other day.
I said, "I'd like to see you if you don't mind."
He said, "I'd love to, dad, if I could find the time.
You see, my new job's a hassle,
and the kid's got the flu,
But it's sure nice talking to you, dad.
It's been sure nice talking to you."
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me,
He'd grown up just like me.
My boy was just like me.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Beating the Crowds: Our Latest Tom & Atticus Column for the Northcountry News

Bryan and Sue Flagg, the ma and pa of this wonderful ‘mom and pop’ newspaper, have been busy lately. In a short period of time they climbed Mount Washington, Mount Monroe, North Hancock, South Hancock and took in sunset and moonrise on the Sugarloaves over in Twin Mountain. When I asked Bryan if he was hiking this weekend he responded: “No – we decided to sit this one out. Too many people in the mountains for me!”

Amen, Bryan.

My friends sometimes think me a misanthrope, but the truth is while I love mankind, I can do without people – especially in the mountains. (Besides, I put in my time. I lived in the heart of Newburyport for a dozen years, ran a paper and even took out papers to run for mayor. Is it any wonder I not only headed to the hills, but actually ran to them?)

The Abenaki Indians considered the Whites a sacred place. Imagine if they were here on a busy weekend and saw the conga line moving along any of the trails up Mount Washington or along the Lafayette-Lincoln loop.

Don't get me wrong. I believe the popularity of the White Mountains is a good thing. It’s one of the reasons people had the foresight to save them after the lumber barons had raped and pillaged them to their bank accounts content. Back then, even if people hadn’t been to the mountains, they felt like they’d been because of writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Starr King; poets Lucy Larcom and John Greenleaf Whittier; and the amazing White Mountain artists, who other than Benjamin Champney and Thomas Cole are simply too numerous to name, brought the White Mountains to the civilization. It was a shining moment in history when preservation was spurred by environmentalists and fueled so by the romantic vision of the writer, poet and artist.

But the knife cuts both ways. These mountains are stunning, soul-awakening and spirit lifting. Once you discover them, they don’t let you go. It’s one of the reasons Atticus and I found our way up here. When first I stood atop Mount Garfield I could not believe such a place existed. And it was only two hours from the hectic hustle and bustle of the upscale boutiques and the yuppie shoppers in Newburyport. So, being an outsider myself, who am I to complain about the crowds that flock to the mountaintops each stunning weekend, or the pizza, hot dogs and coffee served atop Washington, the most sacred of all the Abenakis mountains? They Abenakis called Washington Agiocochook, the Home of the Great Spirit. Today, they’d probably call it Visa.

Just what is a person who lives in the mountains and loves them supposed to do when it comes to hiking? If possible, head out for a hike in midweek, as Bryan and Sue did, and Atticus and I typically do. Alas, Bryan and Sue didn’t beat the crowds on top of Washington that day, but at least they reached Monroe, the Hancocks and Sugarloaves and it didn’t feel like it was Grand Central Station at rush hour; or worse – North Conway on a busy weekend.

As for Atticus and me? We’ve been sticking to smaller, less crowded peaks. When Ruth gets here we’ll be doing the 4,000-footers again but for now I’m pleased with avoiding them. However, we did hike Mount Moriah, starting about an hour before sunset and by the time we reached the ledges of the Carter Moriah trail for the last mile and a half, we were joined by the delightful full moon that was so bright I didn’t need my headlamp. But my favorite hike as of late was one that went into the woods and not above them.

We parked at the end of Zealand Road and took the Zealand Trail through the mostly flat woods, across the spider web of tree roots along the trail and the wood bridges spanning the moose and beaver ponds. When we arrived at the place we’d normally turn right to head towards Zealand Hut, Zeacliff and the Bonds beyond, we went straight. This took us into the heart of Zealand Notch where we walked along the tumble down remains of Whitewall Mountain and looked up at the giants around us that we have often stood on top of. Eventually, this gentle meander took us to Thoreau Falls. After a while at the falls we continued to Shoal Pond. There are few more isolated places in the Whites than where we were sitting on the floor of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. All-in-all, it was a perfect day to be out in the woods. Better yet, we didn’t see another person all day.

A fellow hiker who made the same hike a few weeks ago warned, “Beware, there’s no cell phone coverage out there.” All the more reason to make the 12 mile out and back journey, which is very easy, but does wonders for whatever it is that ails you.

Our next hike? You don't actually think I'm going to tell you, do you?

(On a personal note, Bryan and Sue, if you want to see Washington at her best, we’ll take you up there in winter. I can assure you the crowds will be gone and the museum, gift shop and cafeteria will be closed. And for a second personal note, I’m told Animal Planet will be airing their footage of Atticus on their second Dogs 101 show of the new season on October 10th.)

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Want To Know More About Atticus?

We've only been in Jackson for four months but I can’t imagine ever wanting to leave. Atticus and I continue to get to know the nooks and crannies of this remarkable place and the more we see, the more attached we become to it. And yet as special as the mountains, rivers and pastoral settings are, the people of Jackson are pretty special themselves. I’ve never been to a friendlier community. On our thrice daily walks we are greeted as if we’ve lived here our entire lives.

In Jackson, nature will always get top billing and from what I’ve seen most of those who live here understand that and appreciate it and hope to keep Jackson the way it is. There is sense of reverence in putting the community first, whether from the newcomer or the native. I like that.

Many we meet here want to know more about Atticus, so I’ve made it a bit easier. In the right hand margin of this blog you will see a section that reads: “Get to Know Us through Some of Our More Popular Posts”. This will help you navigate around these pages and find the meat between the bones. Simply click on any of these and you will be linked immediately to that story. Of course there are many other posts I think you'll like, too, but these will give you a shortcut in getting to know this little dog I am lucky enough to call my friend.

The bottom two posts show a list of the mountains hiked during our two winters of fundraising, first for the Jimmy Fund and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, then for Angell Animal Medical Center. Click on those and you will see a the people and animals those peaks were hiked for. Above that are highlighted trip reports from our hikes and other stories.
You will see why we set out to hike the 48 4,000-footers twice in the 90 days of winter in the fight against cancer and then again for MSPCA Angell. You will read about how Atticus lost his eye sight, and then had it returned through the goodness of friends. How he was savagely attacked by another dog and we feared he'd lose his life, only to be honored at the JFK Presidential Library six nights later as one of the MSPCA's heroes of the year. But more than anything you will read about the relationship he and I share and the part the White Mountains have played in that.