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, April 30, 2010

Always Listen To Your Dog

The end of May is only a month away. Why does that matter, you ask? It matters because it's my deadline to have the manuscript for "Following Atticus" into the capable hands of my editor at William Morrow, Cassie Jones.

Now some would think this could be a time of great pressure...and I suppose it is. However, I'm a former newspaperman, and while I only published every two weeks, I still dealt with 24 deadlines a year. There's something in them that makes the blood move a little faster, the brain a bit sharper, the natural talent come flushing forward. There's no more time to over think a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter.

The way I look at it, life is really very simple right now. There's nothing else to do but take walks with Atticus and write. How great is that? And when I've been sitting too long in front of the computer and my back aches and my eyes are a bit out of focus I'm reminded it's time to take a break when I feel Atti's nose pushing up against my leg as if to say, "Hey big buy, let's take a break."

Always listen to your dog. He knows best.

He certainly did this afternoon when his nose touched my leg. So we took a drive down to Lucy Hardware to pick up some more suet and birdseed. Then we took a walk through the woods over to Carter Notch Road. It was too early for the beavers to be out so we just sat by the pond for about 20 minutes. Then we walked down over to Jackson Falls and sat there for a while. That's where these shots were taken.

The falls will always hold a sentimental place in my heart for this is where I did my telephone interviews with Cassie and Seale Ballenger, a V.P. in charge of publicity for William Morrow, before they offered us a contract. (I also interviewed with other folks there too, thanks to the wonders of cell phones.) It was where I was sitting a few days after that when Brian DeFiore, my agent, called to discuss our options when three publishers offered preempts. And it was where I sat listening to him on a Monday evening read off the results of the one day, one bid, blind auction for "Following Atticus".

Those are nice memories to have associated with such a beautiful place. But even if I didn't have those memories I'd still appreciate Jackson Falls. And so today when Atticus and I sat there watching the water rush by I couldn't help but think how lucky we are to live in this town and to be surrounded by the natural resources we have here.

Over the next month, I imagine Atticus and I will be taking plenty of head-clearing walks to the falls for a little relaxation.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Jackson Beavers

Compared to our life back in Newburyport, we lead a rather simple, but blissful existence these days. One of our simple pleasures here in Jackson is walking to the top of the falls, then taking a right onto Valley Cross Road to the beaver pond. We've seen moose and a bear there in the past, but the beavers are always there. Typically we visit with them during the last two hours of daylight, as we did yesterday. Last year I counted five. So far this year I've only seen three.

They are cute and bold and industrious. They don't mind Atticus and, as in the case of the bear the other day or the bat a little while ago, Atticus is respectful of them. He sits and watches them and they'll swim to within a few feet of the shore. Perhaps that's because from time to time we bring them apples and feed them.

People staying in one of the local inns often come looking for moose and when they don't see one many aren't all that impressed with the beavers and they leave disappointed. I always amazed by this. How often does one get to see beavers up close like this?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Our Morning Visitor: The Bear

Last week, while on a walk in the some local woods, we had a remarkable encounter with a bear. It was one of those fleeting moments that will be with me for the rest of my life.

This morning we had a visitor. I believe it was the same bear - but what do I know? He was right up at our back door with his sharp claws and big snout. At first he sniffed at the bird feeder and then grabbed the suet feeder. He then ambled down off of the raised stone patio as leisurely as if he had just been through the drive thru at McDonald's, his big black behind swaying lazily as he walked. At one point he stopped and looked over his shoulder at us as Atticus and I were now outside and standing on the patio.

Eventually he settled down at the far reaches of our lawn where it meets the woods just above the river. He was relaxed, at ease, and happily munching on the suet after he opened the container. Of course none of this will sit well with Amelia, our wayward woodpecker who is a regular at the suet feeder. (Not to worry, Amelia, we went to Lucy Hardware and picked up another feeder this afternoon.)

Atticus is always Atticus and will always be Atticus. He was excited about saying hello but when I whispered, "Gentle..." to him he settled down and watched. Bear, dog, man. All three of us once again close to each other and yet quite comfortable. No stress. No worries. Nothing but just the thread that connects all of us.

For the second time in two weeks the bear gave us the gift of his company. And once again I looked on Atticus with amazement as he sat and watched the bear. It's in his nature to sit and watch. Not sure many other dogs would do that. But I never doubt that this is exactly what Atticus will always do.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Atticus M. Isn't The Only Finch Here

Jack Ryan was a curious man. He could flirt with the best of them and charm a smile onto the face of the grouchiest cashier in one of Medway's stores, but he wasn't all that friendly to his kids. As my father got older and all of us had moved out of the house he enjoyed our visits, but he was happiest when we didn't stay very long. Like many elderly in New England, in the spring, summer and fall he had the Red Sox and their 162 game season to keep him company. Never underestimate the importance of all those games to people who live on their own. It's like they have friends coming over for a visit and you can count on those very familiar faces always being there. The other visitors my father loved were the birds outside his kitchen window. He'd sit at the table, smoke slowly swirling up in a vine from his cigarette, cup of tea in front of him, and gaze out at the birds that would come to his feeder. He'd done this for years, even when some of us were still living with him. And he always kept a birding book on the window sill.

I turn 49 in two days and I realize more and more just how many of my father's habits I've picked up. He loved to write and to read. He loved the White Mountains and he loved his birds. Out in the world he was quite social, but behind closed doors he was private. Well here I am, sitting her this morning with Atticus, as we look out at the birds at our feeder. Finches. Lots of finches! And there are two regular woodpeckers that feed at the suet hanging from the door.

I call the female woodpecker Amelia, because there are times when I have the door open that she comes to feed on the suet but gets lost in leaving and ends up trapped inside the house and not outside. We've become quite good, Amelia and I, at getting her out of the house. I approach her as she sits on the widow sill looking out to where she wants to get to and I gently place a wastepaper basket over her and tight on the window. Then I slide a piece of cardboard between the glass and the basket and take her outside. The first time I did this she panicked. However, in the subsequent times she's been much calmer. It's as if she knows I'm not going to hurt her. The last time I did it I took the cardboard away from the top so she could fly back to the dead tree she lives in (who said Jackson doesn't have affordable living?), but she just sat there looking up at me. Amelia, as I wrote a friend the other day, either has a horrible sense of direction or she's coming on to me. Not sure which.

On Saturday we had a fresh snowfall that had the birds flocking to our bird feeder outside the kitchen window. Oh, and what a crowd it was! Mostly all of them were different colored finches.

I've yet to perfect the art of catching their wings in flight with my camera but as I sat there taking picture after picture the other day I decided I'd put together a slide show. It's something my father would have loved.
Here it is.

Friday, April 16, 2010

April Is Such A Tease.

Lots of blue skies and sunshine lately...and now snow this morning. At least someone is happy about it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Slide Show: Blue Skies & Sunshine

While telling a friend about the beauty of Jackson, in an email I described the walk we do on the "Jackson Loop" which takes us out Carter Notch Road to Moody Farm Road to Black Mountain Road then back to our house. I thought I'd add a little visual to what I wrote so I brought a camera with me and took some shots highlighting some of the loop. You can see it here.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Walk in the Woods

"Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you've imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler."
~ Henry David Thoreau

This morning it was only 38 degrees when we started our walk but the sun was already warming the earth. The sky was bright blue and optimistic, without hardly a cloud to be seen, and I longed for something a little different in our morning walk. Instead of taking the little loop, which cuts through the Wentworth Golf Club course, and then loops through the village, or the big loop, which goes all the way up to Black Mountain and takes us two hours, we cut through a cross country ski trail accessible from Mirror Lake Road.

From time to time I think about my friends back in Newburyport and how surprised they were when I gave up my paper, politics and Newburyport herself, to lead this most unusual life. And when I typically think of them is when I enter a forest and leave the light of day behind. For that’s what I did. I chose the enchantment of the forest, the murmuring streams, the clean air, the magic of the mountains, over a more predictable life. And that’s what I felt like this morning, wondering how many friends were stuck in traffic on their way to work back down in Massachusetts while Atticus and I entered the woods.

The forest is just waking up these days, with ambitious green plants poking up through earthen floor and birdsong filling falling like autumn leaves from the branches above. I brought my iPod with me but decided nothing could be more beautiful than the sound of those birds in their springtime chorus. Soon my own breath joined the forest noises as I labored up a steep hill and began to sweat. I stopped to catch my breath and just looked around. The trees were dark and thick but she sky could be seen through the dense branches above and the sun, which by now had risen above the small mountains on the eastern side of Jackson, sent fingers of gold into the darkness.

At that moment I didn’t want to go on. Not for a little while at least. There are such few times that life reminds you how peaceful it can be. How rare and priceless those moments are. There are times in childhood when we are drunk with wonder at the mysteries of a primeval forest, but in adulthood? I know by own experience that I’d lost track of such experiences for decades. I was too busy fitting in with society to remember the magic of my childhood. Luckily, because of this little dog I live with, I regained that period in my life and once I did I didn’t want to let it go again.

There Atticus and I stood, on the side of a hill, on an earthen path, with the song of spring all around us. There was nothing to want or need. We had it all – pure peace.

G. K. Chesterton, an English writer who died 75 years ago, was alive and well this morning. It was Chesterton who wrote: “The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in fairy books, ‘charm’, ‘spell’, ‘enchantment’. They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery.”

Well put, G.K., for we were in fairy tale mode. This is exactly what you expect in a forest when you first learn of the fairy tales of old. It’s alive with possibilities and mysteries. Enchantment is the best possible word. And you just never know what will pop out of the woods: a wood elf; hobbit; sprite, or something else.

This morning it was “something else”.

My reverie stopped for a moment at the sound of a snapping twig and with Atticus spinning around on the trail to look up the shoulder of the hill we were on. Eventually it came into view – the biggest bear I’ve ever seen in the mountains. Because it was by itself I figured it was a male.

I stood still and made a gesture to Atticus to be gentle and he sat down next to me and we watched this incredible beast making its way towards us. It ambled slowly down the hill, its huge mass weaving through the trees. Just 10 yards away and slightly above us, it climbed on top of a boulder as if it was posing for us. He didn’t care that we were there. He didn’t even seem to notice us, although I’m positive he did. And we stood transfixed by the sight of him, by the sheer size of him.

Time gets hazy during such moments. Seconds seem to last for minutes; minutes for hours. But no matter how short a time the three of us shared the forest together in close proximity of each other, it is something I knew at that moment that I could never forget.

Lately I’m practicing my gratitude. I start each day with five minutes of meditation about things I’m grateful for in my life. That’s what where my mind went at that moment.

After having been captivated by the by grandeur of the White Mountains but still living in Newburyport and writing The Undertoad, I dreamed of finding a way to sell my paper and make money as a writer while living in the mountains with Atticus. The poet Robert Frost, and his little house in Franconia, often came to mind. He’d write, walk the woods, do some hiking and not worry about money. I considered it a perfect life but it also seemed nothing more than a dream.

The bear looked at us directly and then swung his huge rump around and moved slowly through the trees and out of sight. That’s when it hit me: the life I am leading is the life I dreamed of living. There we were, in the darkest of forests, sharing it with a gigantic bear, feeling the tingle of childhood, the wonder of childhood everywhere around me and when we were done with our walk I was going to head home and work on my book…just as Robert Frost had done all those years ago.

There are moments when you realize that these are indeed the times of your life. This morning was one of them.

Friday, April 09, 2010


The other day I woke up to Atticus curled up next to me, his head snuggled between my arm and chest. He was still asleep and I watched the slow rise and fall of his body. Sweet contentment. I treasure such moments for whenever I see him like that it draws me back to an innocence I must have known at one time before I grew up and lost the ability to have the same kind of carefree, blissful moments. But just like that, just by watching him, they begin to come back. For Atticus, in so many ways, is my mirror. I see myself reflected in his eyes and his actions – at least I see the way I used to be. In him I see virtue, purity, wholesomeness. And in that moment, as soon as those visions appear I feel them again and once again they are real.

Some think it strange that I use Atticus as my barometer, but as I recently told a friend, so long as I take care of him and make sure he has the life he wants, I find myself leading the same kind of wonderful life. In his innocence, in his carefree manner, I find my own.

We lay there, him sleeping, me watching him sleep. It was warm and a lazy haze hung around the mountains making it feel more like August than April. A breeze stirred the air and cooled us and sent a butterfly looping happily through the air. Mozart played on my iPod and I was filled with tranquility.

When Atticus finally awakened he sat up and stretched out his neck as a coyote does when he points his snout to heaven and howls at the moon. He then got to all fours, dropped down into the yoga position known as the “downward dog” with his fanny up in the air and his front paws stretched out far in front of him, his chest nearly touching the ground. Eventually he sat up again while leaning against me. He didn’t look at me, but off into the distance. Sleeping time had become sitting time. The Presidential Range looked like a dream in this August/April haze. As is his custom Atticus then sighed and just sat and looked – the perfect little Buddha – and he didn’t move for the longest time.

You see, we weren’t in a bed, but napping on top of the bald ledges of South Moat. That’s the kind of day last Saturday was. There was little snow to be found on the trail and the summit was mostly free of people. After reaching the top we drank and ate and then sat against a rock. Eventually I turned on my music and the two of us drifted off.

It was a remarkable day atop one of the most astonishing summits in the White Mountains. There are few views that are better than those you receive as a gift for climbing the Moats. And yet I know many friends who have never climbed them and perhaps never will even though they’ve climbed hundreds of mountains. In the all too common predilection of many hikers in the Whites, the Moats just don’t cut it. Not when it comes to splendor, because the views from on top are stunning. And not when it comes to their own beauty, for some of the best artists in the world came to New Hampshire to paint them in the 1800s. Unfortunately, to many modern day peakbaggers the Moats just don’t cut it. But the three Moats shouldn’t take it personally because neither do such treasured places as Chocorua, Welch-Dickey, Pemigewasset, the Doubleheads or the Baldfaces - to name a few. None of them is a 4,000-footer and therefore many don’t bother with them. I feel sorry for those who forsake these beautiful peaks as they do their best to keep up with each other, playing a game of follow the leader.

Several years ago Gene Daniels, once the co-editor of the Appalachian Mountain Guide and an AMC trip leader, had been hiking for so long that eventually he became the first known person to hike each of the 48 4,000-footers in each of the 12 months. After Gene did it, another fellow did it. Then another. Then a couple of woman. Now there’s a herd of hikers playing follow the leader. They call it the “grid” and it consists of 576 peaks, or just doing the same 48 12 times – once in each month.

I knew a fellow who on a picture perfect day crossed the Pemigewasset Wilderness while climbing Zealand and the three Bonds, a hike known as perhaps the most breathtaking in the Whites. He explained that he only did it because he “needed it for this month”.

“I’d done them last month, too, so it was kind of boring but at least I get to check them off the list for this month.”

I asked the same fellow why he came to the mountains to hike every weekend. He said, “It’s my way to get away from the rat race. Here I can feel free.”

Not to knock him, but I pointed out that he had simply left one rat race to join another. In his own way he was still trying to keep up with the Joneses. He was simply doing something because so many others have done it and by the time he finished his ‘grid’ even more will have finished in front of him.

The ‘grid’ is a curious affliction. Its symptoms are monotony, a lack of imagination, and a desire to do what everyone else is doing. But then who am I to poke fun of these people who follow each other over the same peaks again and again, typically in the company of others to fend off the boredom or the sound of silence?

I’m no better. I’m a follower myself. The only difference is that I follow this floppy-eared little mountain dog up and down various peaks. But at least we don’t see a parade of people on those peaks since many of them aren’t 4,000-foot peaks.

As is often the case when Atticus and I sit on top of a mountain, Ralph Waldo Emerson comes to mind: "Whose would be a man must be a nonconformist.” He obviously wasn’t working on the ‘grid’.

[*What would Ralph Waldo Emerson do?]

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Love This Shot By Ken Stampfer

Atticus knows that one of the advantages to being friends with White Mountain photographer Ken Stampfer is getting great shots taken of him every now and again. This amazing shot was taken on South Moat by Ken the other day. It's the first black and white of this little black and white dog that I can remember...and oh-so-dramatic.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Our Favorite White Mountain Photographer

I love this shot of Ken Stampfer with Atticus. It was taken on the ledges below South Moat yesterday. Ken's one of the area's best photographers and his photos are used a great deal in some of Steve Smith's books. You can also buy Ken's cards and some of his at Steve's store, the Mountain Wanderer, located in Lincoln, New Hampshire and now on-line at

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Slide Show: An August Day In April On South Moat

It was hot and it was hazy and it was quite beautiful as well. The Moats never, ever disappoint. And when the heat got to be a bit much Atticus found some patches of snow perfect for lying in. Once on the summit we were cooled by a refreshing breeze. The haze took away from some of the dramatics of the view but I think you'll like the slide show nevertheless. Click here to see it.

He Sits...And He Sits...And He Sits

It felt like July on South Moat today. It was hot and hazy and on only the third day of April we weren't really prepared for it and our tongues were hanging out from time to time. But not enough that we couldn't hang out on the summit enjoying the gentle breeze and the views. As you can see, Little Buddha was at it again. I swear he's happiest on a mountaintop. (Our slide show will be up soon.)

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Slide Show: Today We Went Up Country...

...okay, well I know Peaked Mountain is not all that up compared to the higher peaks, but it was a snow-free, shorts-wearing kind of day and we loved it. And, you know you've been waiting for another one, we've even got a slide show. Turn up the volume and click here.

Two Shots From The Peak Of Peaked Mountain Today

We had a beautiful afternoon to climb Peaked Mountain and we had it all to ourselves. Lovely! I took a lot of photos but these are two of my favorite shots. The top photo is of Atticus sitting under this great tree that's on the summit. I've always admired the way it sits off on its own from the other trees, which cluster together. And of course Atticus found just the right spot to sit and look out at the view as I was still making my way to the top.

In the bottom shot Atticus looks like he's smoking a cigar. We got to the top, took some photos, drank some water, and I gave him some treats. Then he settled down for a relaxing 'smoke'.

I'll have a slide show up soon.

Order Up: A Beautiful Day, Please

If April, the beginning of mud season, is indeed the ugliest month in the mountains, we had a pretty spectacular start to it today. After the never-ending rains finally ended we awoke to birdsong, blue skies and spectacularly mild weather. It’s already in the 60s and promises to stay there (and maybe even hit the 70s) over the next few days.

Atticus has been bit by spring fever and he refuses to relax as I try to write. He has instead gone on sit down strike and is not near my desk as he typically is, but by either the front or back door hoping that the power of suggestion will force me to take him outside.

I promise him, “Later. We’ll go later.”

But after all that rain and dreariness and he wants to go out now. Can’t say as I blame him. Were I not on deadline and under the gun I would be opening that door. (Something tells me I’ll be doing that anyway, and a lot sooner than I planned.)

We did start out the day with a walk around the village and to check the mail. We stopped by JTown Deli for a whole wheat sesame seed bagel with veggie cream cheese to go. And, as you can see above, Atticus placed an order for one of his special treats with Nancy behind the counter. We took our breakfast to one of the gazebos and sat by the Wildcat River.

As for later, I think we’ll probably head over to North Conway and check out Peaked Mountain. It’s a nice little climb with a good workout. It’s located at the Green Hills Preserve.

This really is a pretty wonderful place to be. Even on the first day of the ugliest month of the year.