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, July 26, 2012

A Shared Joy

Tom & Atticus: a shared joy.
Black Cap is our fall back mountain. It’s the place we go when we don’t have time for a longer hike but want to experience a summit and soak in spectacular views.  It’s also the mountain we seek out when we are returning to the trails after a physical ailment. 

A couple of summers ago I nearly died of septic shock and was in North Conway’s Memorial Hospital for eleven days after my gall bladder blew up.  My doctors, in turn, nearly died when they discovered four weeks to the day of cutting me open Atticus and I had climbed Black Cap, even though I still had tubes sticking out of my torso and a large drainage bag.  But hey, sometimes you just need to go where you get your strength. 

Last Sunday Atticus and I returned to Black Cap, this time it was because he’s been suffering as of late.  A month ago he was detected with a tick-borne disease and was put on a serious dose of medication that appeared to take as much out of him as it did the disease.  Our vet described it in simple terms so that I could relate, “It’s like we would feel if we had mono.” 

But over the past week he’s been regaining his energy with his health and I know my friend well enough to understand he missed sitting on top of a mountain and it would be good for his health and his spirit…just as it was for mine in the summer of 2010.    

At 2,356 feet, Black Cap has a substantial height without being overpowering.  And because most of the elevation is gained in the drive in our car along Hurricane Mountain Road, it’s a perfect mountain for rehabbing on.  The trail is easy enough and the elevation gain is only about 500 feet in just over three miles, round trip.  But for the ease of the hike, the bang for the buck is incredible when you see the views.

On the way up, Atticus did what he’s been doing for the past month – and is so out of character for him – he got behind me and let me lead.  But as we reached the familiar fork in the trail and went off the right to avoid any potential crowds, at least for a little bit, the slightest bounce returned to his legs.  We kept curling around the back side of the mountain, slowly gaining elevation on this, the more gentle route to the top, and when we were within a quarter of a mile of the top he sensed it and picked up the pace even more. 

There have been times on an unfamiliar peak when we are close to the summit where I’ll say, “Do you want to go say hello to the summit?”  His response is a quicker pace, occasionally even a bouncy trot with ears happily flopping around as he runs forward with enthusiasm I haven’t seen known since I was a child.  But he’s been to Black Cap enough to know when he’s close and he took the lead and led us up over the stone ledges to the top.

And there, once we poked out of the trees as it always is, was that spectacular visage waiting for us.  North stands Kearsage looking noble and massive.  Off of Kearsage’s right shoulder stands Evans Notch and several of the Maine mountains.  Off of its left shoulder and in the background is Washington, and the rest of the Presidential Range looking stately.

When I picked up and sat him on my shoulder he was quite at home as we looked to the west towards the Moats, Cathedral and White Horse ledges, and the Pemigewasset Wilderness beyond.  And to the southwest, almost looking like a faded painting from one of the White Mountain artists of the 1800s, stood the rocky ridge of Chocorua.  Behind it was much of the Sandwich Range from Passaconaway through Whiteface, the Sleepers, and the Tripyramids.  We know all these peaks.  We’ve climbed them more than once and they are like looking into the faces of old friends for us. 

Atticus sat on my shoulder and together we gazed out at the view until I heard him sigh and felt that comforting moment when he released his weight and completely relaxed into me.  After drinking our fill of the views we turned to the camera and this is the sight you see here.  It wasn’t until we got home and I saw the photo that I noticed that great, giddy grin of his. 

Atticus is now ten years of age.  Any person who has ever lived with a dog will tell you how such a simple sentence will snake its way deep into your heart and touch a place of sadness.  And when I look at that photo I drink it in now as we drank in those views this past weekend: with hunger, appreciation, and gratitude.

When A. A. Milne penned Winnie the Pooh I cannot imagine he ever completely understood how much wisdom would last for generations from the pages of his little children’s book.  Just consider this single bittersweet sentence: “I used to believe in forever, but forever’s too good to be true.” 

Love a dog and you find yourself connected perpetually with childhood.  You feel the happiness, the carefree nature, the innocence of it – all through a link with a four-legged friend who can’t speak English.  It’s such a gift. 

Here I sit now, writing this, knowing that we are on the backside of the mountain we started climbing so many years ago, and even if Atticus lives for another nine or ten years it will simply not be enough for me.  Just as it’s not long enough for anyone who has ever known such friendship. 

When Atticus first arrived in my life I had no idea where that little puppy and I would go together.  Not even my imagination could give me the slightest hint of the endless mountains we’d climb, or that we would end up living in them, embracing a simple but joyous existence.  But this photo says so much.  It’s the love we share and the love of the mountains we both share. 

It’s for this reason that I love this photo.  The connection between us is evident; the smiles are just as connected as our bodies are.  We are two unique souls who found our way to one another.

Yes, I am haunted by the thought that "forever's too good to be true," but I’m also old enough to understand that all we really have is today…and the wagonloads of memories we’ve collected together.

Thank goodness for all those experiences. . . . and for photographs like this one.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Laura Lucy of White Birch Books Writes About Following Atticus, the Paperback

Laura and Barb of White Birch Books with Atticus and the cake sent to them
by HarperCollins for selling 1,000 copies of Following Atticus.  They have now
sold over 1,700 copies of the hardcover!
Laura Lucy of White Birch Books pens a regular column for the MountainEar in North Conway. In the latest issue she wrote about the paperback launch for Following Atticus.  I'll let her take it from here...

Although it is over a month away, we are frantically getting ready for the publication of “Following Atticus” in paperback. The Animal Rescue League- North is putting on a great evening at the Red Jacket, complete with dinner, a raffle and a discussion with author Tom Ryan. The event is on Tuesday, August 7, and starts at 6 p.m. with a little social time. Tickets are $50 and all proceeds benefit the shelter. It’s going to be a wonderful evening and we’re very happy to be a part of it.

Having an event of this magnitude to celebrate the paperback release of a book is fairly unprecedented, but let me give you a little history. When we realized this book was first coming out, we knew it was going to be big. And for those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, “Following Atticus” is the remarkable true story of a man and a dog embarking on the challenge of a lifetime. That’s the broad story. To be more specific, Tom and Atticus, a miniature schnauzer, attempted to climb all of the 4000 footers, TWICE, in one winter. Quite a feat, to be sure. The fact that they didn’t quite make it is overshadowed by the story of the bond between Tom and Atticus and their life-changing attempt.

Last September, we celebrated the release of the book with a kick off event up at the Theater in the Wood. We had a great turnout and through pre-sales of the books, we were able to donate $400 to the shelter. From there, the book was chosen as the Valley-wide read for One Book One Valley 2011. The Lutheran Church was packed to the rafters for the final presentation. And constantly, since day one, we have been getting calls from all over the country for signed and “pawtographed” copies of “Following Atticus.” These people are dog people, many of them miniature schnauzer owners. They are hikers. They are pet lovers. They were inspired by the story and want to get multiple copies to share with friends and family. It has been a wonder to us in the bookstore and not a week has gone by when we haven’t sold a copy of this book.

With the paperback release coming up, we all knew we had to do something special. Although I see Tom and Atticus on a regular basis, I know there are people still finding his story. He’s had a fairly aggressive tour schedule – and will be touring again for the paperback, but he hasn’t spoken up here since last November. We wanted an opportunity for people to hear Tom in person and to get his story first hand. He’ll also be talking about what a difference a year makes and the addition of Will, a schnauzer rescue, to his household. And best of all – the evening benefits the local shelter.

At White Birch Books, we meet a lot of authors and read a lot of books, but we don’t often get to be involved to this extent. We have enjoyed our wild ride with Tom and Atticus and are very much looking forward to celebrating this next chapter (ha!) with them.Tickets for the event need to be purchased in advance and are available at White Birch Books or at the Conway Shelter, or online at

(And remember, a portion of all pre-ordered copies of the paperback of Following Atticus goes to the Animal Rescue League North.  So give her a call to get your autographed and pawtographed copies of the paperback at 603-356-3200.)

Here's To the Power of Possibilities

The economy continues to disappoint; our country is still at war with outsiders while Democrats and Republicans go to war with each other, and the fact that it's an election year only makes it worse; and every time we turn on the television there's more bad news.  Even the Red Sox have fallen into an uninspired early season tailspin rendering a large percentage of New England utterly hopeless.  So every now and again it's great to stumble upon a story with a happy ending.

About a month ago some hikers were making their way down the Davis Path, a rugged trail that runs from just south of Crawford Notch up to Mount Washington.  There are some beautiful peaks along the way, including Crawford, which is a steep climb but just over two miles from Route 302, then comes Resolution and Giant Stairs.  Eventually, as you continue along the Montalbon Ridge, you reach Davis and Isolation before the final climb up towards Mount Washington.  It's a great place to hike but the initial climb makes it tough and since there is only one 4,000-foot peak on the trail (Isolation) it's left to hiking purists and not as many peakbaggers clutter the trail.  Hence, it’s not at all crowded. As for regular foot traffic from the public?  Forget about it.  It just doesn't happen. 

You can imagine how surprised these hikers were when they came upon a box literally in the middle of nowhere.  And the box, which was pretty big, was moving!  They carefully peered inside and what they saw astounded them - a small but fat, unkempt dog with a flat face and watery eyes.  It was clear that someone had gone to great efforts to abandon this rather scruffy looking old fellow.

The hikers saved the little dog's life.  Had they left him there - as someone else had - he would have been nothing more than bear bait.  They ended up bringing him to the Conway Area Humane Society and after taking one look at this anonymous and unwanted dog, the shelter staff dubbed him "Scruffy".

It always saddens me that some people are capable of such thoughtless and even cruel actions toward animals.  And it seems that most of the problems animals suffer from are brought about by people, and not themselves.  So it's only right that every now and again people do something to right these wrongs.  And that's exactly what happened. 

When I learned of "Scruffy" on the Conway Area Humane Society's Facebook page and realized he needed some financial help to get the necessary medical tests an older, abandoned dog needs, and understood how much money most of our shelters don't have, I took a chance and posted Scruffy's picture and his tale on the Following Atticus Facebook page used to promote our book.  A most astounding thing took place.  After reading Scruffy's story, people from various parts of the country sent in donations.  Those who are Following Atticus and have been nicknamed Atticus's Army because of their unbound enthusiasm, sent in various amounts understanding that the money would go to Scruffy's medical bills and if anything was left over it would go to the shelter.  Within a week more than $2,500 came in! 

You can just imagine the smiles on the faces of those people who are involved with the shelter.  Such things don’t typically happen but there was obviously something about Scruffy’s plight that touched a chord in many of us. 

And better than that, White Mountain photographer Corey Engfer, and his wife Carrie, learned of Scruffy and decided to adopt him. But that's not where the story ends.  What happened next was a cruel twist to what should have been a very happy ending. 

Scruffy was facing numerous medical problems and before too long he had a laundry list of issues and he ended up in Portsmouth down in an intensive care hospital.  Poor Scruffy.  And poor Corey and Carrie, too.  Here they had opened their home to this little guy with nothing but high hopes and warm hearts and within a week he was in trouble and the medical bills were mounting.  Many other folks would have surrendered Scruffy back to the shelter and left it at that.  But Corey and Carrie couldn't imagine doing such a thing.  Unfortunately, they had no idea how they could possibly afford the bills.  They were heartbroken in more ways than one.

This is when the story takes another positive turn.  Once again we posted about Scruffy's needs and "Atticus's Army" rose to the cause and within 36 hours more than $2,000 came in.  Had it not been for this money Carey and Carrie...and more importantly Scruffy would have been in a quandary. 

And the story gets even better, when the animal hospital ended up charging about a $1,000 less than what was expected and the bills are no longer insurmountable.

It wouldn't be a happy ending, however, unless Scruffy got to go home with his new family and that's exactly what happened on Monday evening.  Medically cleared, he's now home where he belongs, in a quaint house by the water in picturesque Tamworth, New Hampshire so far from where he was found a month ago in many ways. 

The late mythologist Joseph Campbell pointed out many times in his writing that we often find our treasure when things are darkest.  We get gold out of the cave we are most afraid to go into and only end up there because of what seems like a wrong turn.  So it's clear to me that one little dog who was left to die in a box on a less than crowded hiking trail has not only survived – he has brought out the best in people, nearly all of whom have never met him and never will. 

So yes, it is an election year, and yes, there are wars going on, and yes, the economy still sucks, and plenty of people have their share of reasons not to believe in happy endings.  But in Tamworth there is a little four legged fellow who doesn't look quite so scruffy anymore, who now has a reason to smile with his tongue dangling out of his mouth, and he sits at the center of a story that proves good things do happen in this world. 

Here's to the power of possibilities.  Here's to a little dog who wouldn't give up and his new family that didn't give up on him.  And here's to the generosity of strangers. 

Here's to happy endings.