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, June 28, 2012

Atticus Is Simply . . . Atticus

Atticus has not been well lately. It’s not been anything earth-shattering and I don’t think anyone else would even notice it. Heck, on Tuesday of last week we hiked Pierce and Eisenhower, two scenic four-thousand footers. Then on the weekend we climbed South and Middle Moat. The original plan was to continue over to North Moat as well and then double back along the trail to our car. But a most unusual thing happened. After we left Middle and were headed for North we were sitting in the woods in the growing warmth and sharing a drink. I fed Atticus a snack and as has always been our custom I asked him, “You want to keep going?”

The question is merely a formality because he always gets up and leads the way, but I ask it because it seems like the right thing to do. As Atticus has always seen it, we go up until there is no more up. 

This time, however, he hesitated – which is unusual in itself, gave me a searching look, got to his feet, and then turned back down the trail the way we’d come. I was surprised by his choice, but pleased nevertheless. You see, from the very beginning I was determined he would not be my dog, I wouldn’t be his owner or his master, and he definitely wouldn’t be my fur baby – my least favorite term of all. In my mind all of those terms take away from who he is and they diminish him (and in my eyes any dog).
I rarely even refer to him as a miniature schnauzer for I’m turned off by the limitations of breed differentiations. It’s just too much classification for my liking and had I thought of him as one we probably wouldn’t have attempted many of the things we have. Besides, as Paige Foster, his breeder, said ten years ago (as well as nearly every other schnauzer expert – real and supposed –has said upon meeting him through the subsequent years), “He doesn’t act like any schnauzer I know.”

There are a few similarities between Atticus and Maxwell Garrison Gillis, his predecessor, also a miniature schnauzer, but he shares even more atypical characteristics with other breeds I’ve lived with as well, most specifically Seamus, a black lab, and Ollie, a Westie.

So if Atticus is not any of those things what is he?

From the first time I held him as an eight week old I was determined that Atticus would simply be Atticus. I wanted him to grow up to be his own dog and I wanted him to be able to make up his own mind as to what he would be and what he would do with his life.

(All of this works with my thought on people as well. I’ve yet to meet an ordinary or typical person. I prefer to think in terms of individuality. Perhaps it’s my love of Emerson who wrote, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” Or maybe it’s just respect for life and the ability of all of us to shine in our own way.)

While Atticus’s decision to turn back surprised me, I respected it. It is an admittedly rare occurrence but he has chosen to turn back on hikes before, just never this far into one, and never while on a ridge walk where the views are plentiful and there’s so much to be seen. I chalked it up to what had been a hot week even though it was sunny but comfortable with a cooling breeze when he made his decision. Since we started winter hiking years ago he, like me, is less of a fan of warm weather hikes. Once the temperature reaches 80 we both begin to melt. Heck, he doesn’t even enjoy going for a walk around the village when it gets to be 80 degrees.

There had been other signs something was off as well. Lately, at the end of a couple of our early evening walks he sat on the couch panting a bit more than he has in the past. He’s also been spending more time walking next to me on the trail instead of just in front of me. I made the mistake of listening to too many other people and their experiences when they said, “He is ten, after all,” as if age is a disease.

But I really became concerned when we were on Middle Moat and that’s as far as he wanted to go. That just wasn’t Atticus. At least not the Atticus of old. That night I emailed Christine O’Connell, our vet at North Country Animal Hospital, and told her what had transpired.

Christine ran some tests, one of which was for Lyme disease. The Lyme test was negative but he did test positive for another tick-borne disease called anaplasmosis. It’s symptoms are not unlike Lyme and it would certainly explain what’s been happening with him lately.

Christine started him on a course of medicine as well as a probiotic. He’ll be on both for a month and we’re hoping he will feel better. If not, then we’ll head to the specialists at Angell Animal Medical Center. But so far the blood work results look normal in every other way and we are taking that as a good sign.

I am an unabashed sentimentalist who wears my heart on my sleeve and I’m not foolish enough to think that Atticus will live forever. Those of us who love animals know all too well the pain that comes from their shorter life spans. Confronted with everything that has taken place as of late, however, I can’t but help fear the very thought of that day. But something tells me that it is something we won't have to be concerned with for quite some time. It's way beyond the horizon and we have years to go and mountains to climb.

Meanwhile, I hold Atticus more than I typically would. We sit outside by the Ellis River as it runs by our yard, we watch the chipmunks scurrying around the stone wall near our patio, and feed the geese down the road. Right now he’s just plain tired. As one of the vet tech’s said the other day, “What he’s going through is quite similar to one of us having mono.”

Even now as I write this I think about those words and what it would be like if I had mono. I wouldn’t even want to get out of bed. But here is Atticus, supposedly a senior dog (more limiting classification), suffering from something akin to mono and yet he hiked two four thousand-footers on Tuesday and two more strenuous peaks just a few days later. Such is his love of the mountains.

He is on my writing desk sleeping next to my laptop at this moment and as I look at him I smile and feel his place in my heart and know that Atticus has turned out just as he was supposed to. 

Atticus has turned out to simply be Atticus.

Atticus being Atticus on Mount Garfield, our first 4,000-footer.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Kicking Off Our Paperback Tour in a Good Way

We’re kicking off the paperback book tour of Following Atticus in a way that’s near and dear to our hearts.

When we were given an opportunity to decide how to launch the paperback we wanted to do something special to help a worthwhile organization.  Therefore we are teaming up with Laura Lucy of White Birch Books and Virginia Moore of the Conway Area Animal Shelter on a fundraising dinner for the shelter.  It takes place on August 7 and starts at 6 pm and will take place at the Red Jacket Mountain View Resort in North Conway. 

Laura, Barb, Jane, and Karyl, the lovely ladies of White Birch Books, will be on hand to sell Following Atticus and we will be on hand to sign them.  Better yet, White Birch Books is going out of its way to one again help the shelter by seeing to it that the animals will receive a portion of any book that is pre-ordered through them.  They had a similar arrangement for the hardcover launch last September and they raised quite a bit. 

The following was taken from the Animal Rescue League of NH – North press release:

Tom and Atticus have been very supportive of the Animal Rescue League of NH – North, most recently helping the Conway shelter raise money to help Scruffy, a little Shih Tzu found abandoned in a box on a hiking trail in the White Mountains. Tom recently rescued William Lloyd Garrison, an older Schnauzer, from the New Jersey Schnauzer Rescue Network. “In thinking of how neglected Will was when we adopted him, and about how Scruffy was heartlessly left behind, I’m reminded how fortunate we are as a society to have organizations that save and rescue animals from dire situations,” Tom commented.

Tickets are $50 per person, and for a special price a limited number of VIP seats are being offered to sit with Tom, Atticus, and Will at their table on a first-come first-served basis. There will be a raffle that evening for two framed and matted, limited edition prints of the poster of all 48 of the 4000-footers that the duo climbed. The prints are signed by Tom, Atticus, and map artist Kathy Speight Kraynak.

We’re thrilled to have Will helping to kick off our tour this time around.  It will be the first opportunity many have to meet the newest member of our family. 

For more information on this event and to order tickets please call (603) 447-5605 or e-mail To pre-order books please contact White Birch Books at (603) 356-3200. 
We’ve also been told that the Red Jacket Mountainview Resort is offering a special price for those who want to stay overnight.  I know they are going out of their way to help the animals at the shelter as well. 

In the coming days we’ll be announcing where else we’ll be appearing on tour.  But first I have to say that when the economy went down the drain a few years back, author tours were one of the quickest things to be cut in cost-saving attempts.  We were honored to have a tour last fall, but to have a second tour for the same book is beyond exciting.  We are looking forward to getting out on the road again and visiting with many of you at your local independent booksellers.
I know there are a lot of people who will tell us they want us to come to Chicago or North Carolina or Miami, but it’s not that simple.  Our publicists at HarperCollins hear from bookstores that really want to host us and who will go to lengths to make sure we have a well-attended event. So keep in mind that when you see the list in the coming days, it’s been carefully thought out by our team.  Second, because I won’t fly Atticus on a tour and we drive everywhere, there are certain limitations to where we will go.  More on this in the near future.

But fear not, even if we are not coming anywhere near you, you can still pre-order a personalized autographed and pawtographed paperback copy of Following Atticus through White Birch Books at (603) 356-3200 – and a portion of each sale will help animals in need.
Following Atticus and Scruffy bookmark to be given out at dinner.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

We Like Ike...and "Appalachia" Likes Following Atticus

Tom & Atticus on top of Mount Eisenhower.
This morning we hiked Pierce and Eisenhower, two of the 4,000-footers in the Southern Presidentials.  We got an early start but even then  we couldn't help but notice that the air is getting hot, humid, and hazy and we didn't have views anything like you see above on the summit of Eisenhower from last summer.  Nevertheless it was good to get out and on top of a couple of great peaks - especially since we'll be hibernating in the air conditioning for the next two days when the temperatures reach the nineties. 

These are our first peaks since I started my juice fast nine days ago and I was curious as to how I'd feel.  Nothing to fear.  All went well.  I drank a great breakfast before heading out and I brought an additional forty ounces of green juice with me for the hike.  Of course it helps to be hiking with thirty-nine less pounds than I was ten weeks ago.  As always, neither Atticus nor I enjoyed it all that much when the sun climbed higher and brought the temperature with us but that was the only thing that slowed us down in the end. 

We returned to Jackson to find Will happily asleep right where we left him, and the latest issue of Appalachia: America's Longest-Running Journal of Mountaineering & Conservation waiting in our post office box.  The impressive journal has been around since 1876, comes out twice a year, and today's copy is the Summer/Fall 2012 issue.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that book review editor Steve Fagin wrote up a short piece on Following Atticus.  And what's not to like when you are compared to Bill Bryson and John Steinbeck?

"In FOLLOWING ATTICUS, author Tom Ryan focuses not just one chapter but an entire book on his travels and travails with a lovable miniature schnauzer named after the heroic lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird. Ryan and Atticus set out to climb the 4,000-footers, as the subtitle promises: "Forty-eight high peaks, one little dog, and an extraordinary friendship." Ryan, founder and former editor of an alternative paper in Newburyport, Massachusetts, called The Undertoad, is an engaging storyteller whose humorous, self-deprecating descriptions evoke Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering American on the Appalachian Trail and John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley: In Search of America.

"Determined to undertake his long-range hiking goal as a tribute to a friend who died of cancer, Ryan resists sentimentality.  Based on his easy-going, good-natured style, he seems like the sort of hiker you'd welcome into your campsite - and who could resist the adorable, calm Atticus?  I hope to encounter them one day, either on the trail, or on the bookshelves again. "

Sunday, June 17, 2012

"The best way to change the world, is to change yourself."

It's Father's Day, and though he's been gone for a few years now, Jack Ryan continues to live in my life.  I think about him often and how he would have loved this life I'm leading.  He'd be downright envious of being in the mountains, the idea of writing for a living, the books I'm reading, and mostly he would love the quiet, peaceful, and genuine existence I now have.

As Jack aged, his years of neglect took their toll on his body. I often wonder how he lived as long as he did for he became like an old car that falls apart more each year.  The smoking, the diet, the stress he created for himself - it all added up to disease after disease. 

As I've aged - I'm now fifty-one - I find myself considering his choices and it has helped me make better choices for myself.  His failing health was only one of the reasons I decided nearly ten weeks ago to change to a vegan, plant-based diet.  My main reason is my love of animals and my desire to stop eating them.  The switch was easier than I thought it would be and I found a new love of cooking lay in the details of this change in direction.  Once I started giving more thought to what I was eating I lost 27 pounds in that short time. It is interesting to note that I was never hungry after giving up meat, dairy, and processed foods.

Then I saw something that would change my life even more.  I watched the movie Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead, a documentary made by Joe Cross, an Australian who comes to the U.S. on a quest to reclaim his own life. 

Inspired by Cross, six days ago I started my own juice fast and the change has been incredible.  I now have a spring in my step I haven't had in years.  I feel healthier from the inside out.  And even though I'm ingesting 1,500 to 1,800 calories of fruits and vegetables a day, I've lost an additional 9.8 pounds.

Jack wouldn't have liked either decision. His manhood would have been threatened by the idea of going vegan.  "Men just don't eat that way.  You need red meat!" (Strangely, some friends in my life - both men and women - have been threatened by my switch - some have even seemed angry about it. Even stranger is that none of these same people really cared when my main diet consisted of McDonald's, Burger King, Coke, pizza, and Ben and Jerry's.)  The idea of a juice fast would have made no sense to him whatsoever and he would have had more negative things to say about that.  But in the end he would have noted the results, and more importantly, my resolve, and he would have respected what he saw. 

Of course, he wouldn't have said that.  But that's okay, some things don't need to be said to be understood in the dance between father and son. 

Anyway, here I am, inspired by my love of animals, my father's lessons of fading health, and my own determination to make the most of my life that I've started on a new journey of healthier living.  It's a grand adventure and I find the juice fast no different than climbing a mountain.  It's not easy, but most worthwhile changes in my life haven't been.  It's a marathon and I will be tested along the way. I'm only on day seven of sixty so the bulk of the quest lays ahead of me. 

I like the idea that the fast will take me right up to the week the paperback version of Following Atticus is released.  After all, much of following Atticus has led me to the same conclusion that Joe Cross came to in his movie, "And I learned that the best way to change the world, is to change yourself."

Thursday, June 07, 2012

"Carry him with you wherever you go...and don't let anyone else hold him..."

Trust brought Atticus to the top of New England in subzero wind chill.
That was the advice of Paige Foster, Atticus's breeder, way back in the beginning.  She followed it up with "Y'all will bond that way."  She was right, of course.  Because of the lessons in life and love from Paige, Atticus has led a most unusual life.  The seeds for that life are touch and trust. 

When Will came into our home a month ago people wanted to know why it was important for me to be able to pick him up - especially when he didn't want anything to do with being picked up.  It's because of Paige and her advice. 

Touch leads to trust and when there's trust, there's nothing that can't be accomplished between friends. 

I know Will is never going to be able to climb a mountain but I'm proud of the obstacles he's faced to this point.  He came to us hurt, abandoned, neglected, and in pain.  He was angry and, as I've pointed out in the past, he lashed out with the only thing he had - his teeth.  But those days are long gone.  Will now wants to be picked up.  He nudges me constantly with his nose when I'm on the couch.  It's his way of letting me know he wants to sit with me.  Since it isn't possible for him to get up on the furniture, I lift him and instead of being angry about it, like he was in the beginning, he pushes to get closer.

Tomorrow, Will has a grooming appointment.  A month ago he had his first and I was faced with a decision.  He'd been abandoned, then shuffled from rescuer to rescuer until he finally landed with us.  And while I knew he was home, I wanted him to know he wouldn't have to ever go anywhere else, and would never be abandoned again.  I gave some thought of staying at the grooming appointment but decided I would leave him in Tracy's good hands at her
Ultimutt Cut Pet Salon. She had blocked off time for Will, knowing he had special needs, and made certain no other dogs would be there.  This allowed Atticus and I to go for a walk and share some needed alone time, and while Will became agitated after we left him with Tracy, I felt it was important for him to learn the lesson that we would come back for him.  We will always come back. 

It was the right decision. 

Will needs a lot of attention - when he's awake, which is not very often.  When he sleeps, it gives Atticus and I a chance to get out for our walks or go on hikes.  When we return, Will is often right where we left him, curled up like a sleeping chipmunk on one of his beds. 

What a joy it is for him to see us when he opens his eyes and lets the shadows and light adjust to know we are here.  This is especially true on the times when we've returned to see him in a different location and when he awakens he gets the message clearly - they came back!

I'm often asked what the secret is to building trust with a dog.  I'm no expert - I simply treated first Max, then Atticus, and now Will as I wished I would be treated if I was in their respective situations.  I know I'd want to be loved and reassured.  Because of the world we live in, dogs rely on us to set the tone of the relationship.  Society's rules are made for people so I figure, as I wrote in our book, there are very few rules: keep them safe, shared respect, and respect for other people, animals, and places. I think one of the greater gifts we can lead our animal friends to in the world is a strong sense of self. 

At the basis of this is something we all understand - a loving touch - which leads to trust. 

A month ago Will didn't want to be touched all that much.  If you look at my left hand in the photo below you can see some of the scars from his bites back then.  Now, he longs for it.  Now we connect through it. 

So while Will never will climb Mount Washington, as Atticus has numerous times in each of the seasons, he's reaching new heights every time he lets down his walls and lets love in again.
Trust brought Will home.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Strange Turn of Events in One Dogs's Life

Today we met Scruffy, the abandoned dog who was named by the good folks at the Conway Area Humane Society because of the way he looked when he showed up at their doorstep.

Well, he didn't actually show up on their doorstep.  Instead he was brought in by some hikers who found him in a box on the Davis Path, a lengthy hiking trail that runs from just south of Crawford Notch to Mount Washington.  As one woman at the shelter said, Scruffy would have been a meal for a bear had the hikers not stumbled upon him. 

And for those thinking he might have run away from people he was with, it seems unlikely.  The Davis Path can be a quiet place.  You don't see tons of hikers there, especially in the rain, and you hardly ever see portly, but cute, senior dogs like Scruffy.  You definitely don't see boxes along this trail so it's evident that little Scruffy was left in a box on a trail by someone who didn't want him anymore. 

We learned of his plight yesterday on the Conway Area Humane Society Facebook page and discovered they needed funds to help with his medical bills...not to mention funds to help them with their general operation.  Money's tight lately for everyone, and animal shelters everywhere are hurting. 

I was touched by the generous and compassionate response by many of our Following Atticus Facebook friends who offered to help foot the bill.  But that's one of the pleasant surprises of writing a book and having people read it.  We now have more than 6,000 Facebook friends of Atticus who keep our page lively and interesting.  Many were drawn to us because of their love of animals. Therefore, when I shared Scruffy's story, they rose to the occasion.
This morning, after a walk at Pudding Pond, Atticus and I drove over to the shelter to visit Virginia Moore and drop off a donation for Scruffy and the shelter.  We were fortunate enough to meet the little fellow and while he was abandoned by someone, it's clear he won't be alone for long.  He's cute and friendly.  He has remarkable coloring and a warm personality.  You can tell that there's a lot of love inside of him that is just dying for a new home.  (I'm told there's already some interest in adopting him after the seven day waiting period at the shelter is up.)

I was drawn to him immediately, especially since he was found on a hiking trail, but having just adopted Will, the timing and circumstances are not right for us.  But it's clear he'll be happy in somebody's home.

I don't think I could work, or volunteer, at a shelter. My heart would constantly be broken and I'd want to adopt all of the unwanted animals I saw.  (Well, maybe not snakes.  Not a fan of snakes.)  And while I understand that there are circumstances that lead to a person giving up an animal, some people who do things that are cruel and reprehensible.  I can't imagine why someone would want to give up on Scruffy, especially after meeting him.  But to make matters worse, it appears to have been a clearly thought out abandonment.  The Davis Path is not an easy trail to hike and one doesn't typically bring along a dog like Scruffy and a box.

Since we don't have room for Scruffy, we're doing what we can to help out with his medical bills and whatever the Conway Area Humane Society needs.  We made our own donation this morning and we are autographing a copy of Following Atticus and everyone who donates to help Scruffy and the shelter at this time will be entered into a drawing. 

Donating is easy.  You can mail a check made out to ARL-North and send it to ARL-North, PO Box 260, Conway, NH 03818. Attention: Scruffy.  Or, for a faster and more convenient way to donate, you can click here and use their on-line option.

In thinking of how neglected Will was when we adopted him a month ago, and about how Scruffy was heartlessly left behind, I'm reminded how fortunate we are as a society to have organizations that save and rescue animals from dire situations and cases of abandonment. 

There's a wonderful passage in Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince that goes like this:
“People have forgotten this truth," the fox said. "But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed."

Animals who are in need are nearly always in need because of what people have done to them.  Thankfully, there are people who understand the words spoken by the fox.

Yesterday, Virginia sent us a thank you note for helping out, but I was quick to point out that she and her staff do great things and every now and again we get to help them do them. 

For those of you who are donating, thank you.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Will's Victory

"The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places." ~ Ernest Hemingway

I don't agree with Hemingway.  I used to, and I'd like to be able to agree with him, but after fifty-one years I've seen too many who were broken and stayed broken. I've seen too many who stayed down on the mat after getting knocked down because they didn't want it to happen again.  I've seen others stop living and barely get by hoping the hurt would stop and the world would leave them alone.  I've seen them climb inside a bottle, swallow pills, or build walls to keep out the pain and in the process forget the gift of life - and more importantly - the understanding that it's a journey and if you're going to get anywhere you have to keep on moving.

Thankfully, animals are not people.  I believe we're as resilient as they are, we may just not be as innocent and our faith can be far more tattered.

Over the past four weeks I've witnessed the resilience of one little dog.  When he arrived in our lives Will was lost, abandoned, angry, frustrated, mostly blind and deaf, with hips so sore he had a difficult time doing much of anything.  He'd strike out in frustration with his flashing teeth.  He didn't want to be touched all that much and he hated being picked up. 

The world had broken Will.  He was left in pieces. Then he was left on his own.

I've had it easy with Atticus.  We are like a happily married old couple who know each other so well there's little we have to think about.  We go through life together moving as effortlessly as two graceful dancers. But Will is a different story.  He takes a great deal of thought, things I never have had to consider with Atticus. He's a puzzle that's been taken apart and it's been our job to put him back together again.  Actually, it's been his job, we just give him the support to do so.  If you asked me how we do this I would be hard pressed to give you a short, concise answer.  It's a hundred different things that, I suppose, add up to one main thing.  We've allowed Will to live again.  We've allowed him dignity and the ability to grow and continue on his journey.

I will not pretend to know the life that Will led for fifteen years before he met us, I just know what I have seen in him. I see the damage. I see the fragments.  The neglect.  But now I've also seen him grasp at a new chance to live again - to love again.  He's found a home just when he'd been thrown out of his own.

I'm under no illusion that Will can be transformed into something he's not.  He will not climb mountains.  Not real ones anyway.  Instead we'll simply allow the latest member of our family to be what he wants to be. 

On Friday Atticus and I went for a two mile walk, later took a five mile hike over Hedgehog, and finished the day with a three mile walk.  That same day Will got outside into our yard numerous times.  When there, he often just stands and stares off into the distance.  With those cloudy eyes of his I have no idea what he sees or if he's just contemplating something.  Maybe it's just the pleasure of being outside.  I don't know.  Occasionally when we are outside he wants to play and like a newborn colt just finding his legs he bounds awkwardly towards me.  Unlike most colts, he topples over because of his damaged rear hips when he bounds too much. 

So when it comes to Will, his mountains are the figurative kind.  Yesterday he reached the top of one.  For nearly everyone else it wouldn't even be thought of as much of an achievement, but to me Will was sitting on a mountaintop as happily as Atticus ever has.  The key word is sitting.

For four weeks I've seen Will stumble about and stand awkwardly.  Whenever it was time to relax he let his body crumple underneath him.  There were audible groans from him as tried to lower himself to the floor gently.  Those old hips of his just didn't have enough strength in them to help him out and I'm sure the pain was excruciating at times.  Never once did I see him sit.  Oh, he's tried to, but then he feels the pain and the weakness undercuts his intention and he gets halfway down and then flops on the floor.

But yesterday we celebrated a victory.  And you saw it when you first clicked on this post and looked at the photo on top.  Will sitting.  He sat on three different occasions yesterday.  Not for very long, but it's a start. 

Atticus and I have taken Will into our home, but he's allowing us to come along on his journey.

I consider myself fortunate to watch Will reclaim his life and to play whatever small role I have.  I'm overjoyed by the little victories, embrace the mountains he climbs, and through it all I embrace him.

In Will's case, Hemingway was right. He's growing strong at the broken places.