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, August 30, 2016

A Common Thread

The other morning, while I was taking photographs of wildflowers by the edge of Thorne Pond, autumn’s approach could be seen, but more importantly, it could be felt. The brisk air, the stirring breeze, that primal scent even we humans can pick up that tells us to get ready for the next chapter of the year. 

When I stood, I did so cautiously, because I’ve been known to get dizzy, and sometimes even faint, since my extended sickness last spring, and perhaps because of the handful of pills I take each day aimed to ease the workload of my heart. 

When I stretched out to full length, what I saw was better than any prescription given to me by my cardiology team. Samwise was sitting on the top of the bowl that rises above the pond’s eastern edge, as calmly as can be. In front of him was a young great cormorant about twenty yards away in the water. My young friend, now nine-months-old, was sitting contentedly, silently, soaking in the scene. He wasn’t ready to spring. There was no barking. No whining. There was only a growing pup watching nature play out in front of him. 

Samwise A. Passaconaway watching a young great cormorant.
Whenever I see him do this, and he does it often, sometimes looking at ducks, beavers, or otters, I wonder where his poise comes from. Then there are the times when he’s not looking at anything but the scenery. A field of wildflowers, the reflection of a mountain in the pond, a passing river. 

I’ve learned many lessons through my friendships through the years, and that includes friendships with souls with four legs. Our lives grow and evolve because of the friends we make along the way. Like chemicals, we cannot help but be transformed when we’re joined with another. And one of the things I’ve learned through Max and Atticus and Will through the years is that individuals exist in all species, in all breeds. But as I note this, and take inventory of Samwise’s growth as a young dog on his way to finding out who he is, I can’t help but think of Atticus, who used to do the same thing while out in nature. He’d sit and ponder. Flora, fauna, clouds, it didn’t matter. I used to think of my late friend as a philosopher. 

But here is Samwise, young and energetic and full of puppy happiness, displaying the same trait. That, and how he behaves on the trails when we hike together reminds me very much of Atticus, but he doesn’t have too much else in common with him. 

But what a joy that he has this sense of wonder to him. It fills me with joy to know that he and I can sit together for a long while pondering the world in front of us. The philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I think he was on to something. Heck, take a smart phone away from a person waiting for anything and more often than not they are lost without the distraction.  

I know part of the metamorphosis from my old hectic life, was that there came a time when I could finally sit still and in peace. But it wasn’t easy at first. 

What I enjoy is watching non-human animals do it. It seems to come easier to them. Atticus, Samwise, heck, in past years I’ve taken photographs of Aragorn, a growing male bear sitting fifteen feet away from us in the backyard. As Atti and I watched the butterflies, woodpeckers, and hummingbirds, so did Aragorn. Wonder permeated whatever separates three species, and we all took communion together. 

That’s what I thought of when I saw Samwise watching this morning, and every other time I witnessed his stillness, wonder captures us all. It doesn’t matter how many legs we have, or if we have wings. In the wild, in these mountains of New Hampshire, there is a common thread that binds us together and its name is Nature. And that gives us all the more reason to protect and preserve this land and see that it remains unspoiled. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

Why Not?

Sitting here considering the benefits of some fresh platelets, I am drawn back to thinking about walking the tightrope between life and death from when I was at Maine Medical Center in Portland for five weeks. 

Years ago, I adopted the idea of something called my death bed thoughts. Here’s how it works. If something is bothering me and I’m getting stressed out about it, I ask myself, “Is this something I will be thinking about when I only have hours to live?”

If the answer is “no,” I tend to let the worry evaporate into the ether. If it’s “yes," I know the importance of it. 

This had me further thinking about regrets in my life. We all have them. Well, I won’t speak for you, but I know I have some. Many of them I cannot do anything about. That ship sailed long ago. So I choose to let those go, as best I can. But there was one I had when I was hooked up to a dialysis machine for four hours. 

Years ago, asked me, “If all of the sudden, you became filthy rich, what would you buy?”

“A convertible.”

“A convertible?”


“What else?”

“That’s pretty much it. I don’t need a lot.”

Three decades have gone by since that conversation, and I realize I have only owned three cars in my life. None of them were a convertible. 

Therefore, in the spirit of tackling a regret and switching it over to a wish fulfilled, I’ve decided that while I never did get rich, and it may not seem  practical, when Samwise and I hit the road for our book tour next spring, and then again for our grand 20,000-mile trip around the country, we'll be riding in a VW Beetle Convertible. 

The more I think about this, the more I like it. The idea of seeing the west for the first time since 1969 makes me want to be swallowed whole by it. That means with the top down and Samwise in Doggles with his ears flapping in the wind. 

Another goal I have is to get an Airstream trailer, but I cannot afford one yet. That will be the next rare desire for something material to own. That and a pick-up truck to pull it. For now, I’m putting that on hold until it is more realistic. For now, we are going for free and silly and fun. 

Yes, we’ll be taking a tent along to pitch in various state parks and national forests during our two months on the road from April 21st through June 21st. We’ll also be spending two or three nights a week in motels or hotels. A little convertible is not the most common sense vehicle to drive, but I don’t care. This is about fulfilling a wish. 

Some have already offered advice suggesting something different. But my friends know when I want advice, I seek it out. Otherwise, when my heart's set on something, I go ahead and do it. Heck, that’s how most of the best things that have ever happened to me came about - by ignoring advice from others telling me what I should do. Had I listened to them I wouldn’t have started a newspaper, participated in Ironman triathlons (was it really thirty years ago?), attempted to hike two rounds of New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers in winter with a little dog, and I wouldn’t have moved north to where I’ve spent the happiest years of my life. 

Life is temporary. The end can come at any moment. I understand that more than ever in this year of finally feeling my mortality. However, if it does end sooner, rather than later, I can lay on my death bed and say, “I once owned a convertible."   
This is a stock photo from the VW website. I have not picked out a color,
although that isn't really important to me. And I'm still a few months away
from buying our adventure car. But in my head, it's a done deal.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

It Was a Will Day

Yesterday, I was surprised by joy.

My last few days had been mired in a bit of this and that, stitched together around the edges by rays of wonder. However, when an email arrived late in the afternoon, a warm glow reached deep within me and started making its way to the surface until I was beaming. By the time we went to sleep, I had covered myself in a peaceful, joyous feeling and felt all was right with the world. 

It was a Will day. 
Will's red coat.

Let me explain. 

I learned that Christina, one of our moderators, had posted a video taken on the day before I said goodbye to Will. Tears? Yes, there were. But more than anything, there was happiness. What Will and I experienced together through two and a half years of hard work, was a dance between friends, ending in a crescendo of grace. 

Looking back on that day, seeing the way he was moving with difficulty, I remember something Dr. Rachael Kleidon told me the next day when we brought Will to the mountainside to say our farewells. I’ll always remember it. 

“Tom, this is a perfect time. Yours is a kind decision. Will can barely hold himself up. When he lays down, he flops over on his side. There’s no more strength. You don’t want him to suffer.”

I knew I was making the right decision, but it also felt good to have Rachael by my side reaffirming it. 

So as I returned home and saw that old video clip, I cried, and I laughed, and I smiled. Yes, Will, I fucking love you! I said it then, I feel it still. And I’m so proud of you. 

Just before he died, I made Will a promise that I would share his remarkable story with the world. I often think about that when I sometimes struggle in writing and re-writing it, trying to do it and him justice. I want it just right. There are days I take good writing and throw it away because it’s still not good enough for my friend. Perhaps I’m trying to be too perfect. 

Sitting at my desk, watching that video, that’s when the email came in. It was from my editor. She was forwarding the image of a two-sided postcard that will be used for marketing purposes at events I’ll be attending throughout the autumn. 

It’s brilliant. 

The only fault I could find with it was that I couldn’t hold it in my hand yet. Goodness knows I returned to the images several times yesterday, gazing at it, smiling at it, feeling proud for sweet Will. 

Eventually, you will learn about a promotion we’ll be running with Four Your Paws Only, in North Conway. I bought Will’s red coat from them. A coat that turned into his talisman, which became mine after he left. It hangs lovingly on a hook above my desk.

It’s handmade, by a New Hampshire woman. The quality is what you might expect from a  labor of love. 

Soon enough we’ll be making the official announcement as to how people will be able to buy their version of Will’s red coat from Four Your Paws Only. 

As for my profits from the sales, I don’t pretend to know what Will thought when he was alive, most of the time, and I won’t claim to know where his spirit resides now, other than in my love for him. But I don’t think he’d mind in the least bit that the money I would have made from selling a version of his coat will be going to the Conway Area Humane Society. Every cent of it, in hopes that other dogs and cats who are down on their luck and may just need someone to believe in them one last chance at a loving home. 

The story of Will is one of redemption, choice, and how things can turn around no matter how challenging life is. Yesterday, my struggles with the mundane were washed away and the night ended on an up note. 

(You can pre-order "Will's Red Coat: The Story of One Old Dog Who Chose to Live Again at all on-line retailers. It can also be pre-ordered through your local independent booksellers. Personalized autographed and 'pawtographed' copies can be called into White Birch Books at 603-356-3200.)

Friday, August 19, 2016

A Dream Reconfigured

Last winter, before Atticus and I both became ill, I had planned one last grand adventure for us. Because Atticus couldn’t hike very far, I was determined to let him see some of the astounding natural phenomena across the country. If we couldn’t walk to such sights in our beloved White Mountains any longer, we would set out by car and drive to see them. 

The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Devil’s Tower, White Sands, and an almanac of other such places.

The trip was to be completely selfish. Two friends doing something plucked from dreams on last time. We’d head down the East Coast, down to Key West and then along the Gulf Coast. The idea of seeing all that glistening blue-green water after a long White Mountain winter excited me. But the portion of the trip I was looking forward to the most started at Big Bend National Park in Texas. That was to be our gateway to where I most wanted to be - the West. New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas. On the way home, we'd hit Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. 

Sprinkled throughout the approximate 20,000 miles, and two months on the road, the plan was to stop in on half a dozen friends and my brother John and his wife Yvette in Minnesota. But mostly it was going to be just about us. Lots of solitude to mix with those incredible landscapes. A time to become anonymous and get lost in our friendship again. 

Alas, we both became sick. I almost died. Twelve days after I returned home from a five-week stay in the hospital, Atticus did die. He lay in my arms under a gentle rain at the foot of some pine trees. 

As fate would have it, another four-legged friend came into my life. It was much sooner than I expected. Within three weeks six-month-old Samwise Atticus Passaconaway came to Jackson. 

That first night, it was overwhelming. So much change. 

But that first night gave birth to a more optimistic first day. In the light, we set out in the car. I wanted Samwise to see the mountains that would become part of his life. There was a stop in Woodstock to visit with Ken and Ann Stampfer, and in Lincoln to visit Steve Smith at the Mountain Wanderer. It was a good day. It led to another. And another. During those first times together, Samwise showed how tied to me he was and when we went to the forest, off came his leash. Freely he cavorted with me along the trails, staying close but drinking in the wonder. 

I knew from those first few times off-leash that he would be a good partner. He was smarter than any puppy I’d ever met, and it was important to him that we stick together. That’s when it hit me. 

The trip was back on. We’d deliver some of Atticus’s ashes to the Pacific Ocean he never had the chance to see. One of Samwise and my first chapter's would take the place of what I was planning for perhaps the last chapter in the story of Atticus and me. 

We were going to go in December, returning home in February, before the release of “Will’s Red Coat” in March. But that meant leaving out a lot of the states I was excited to visit. We would drive to the west coast, as I had originally planned, head as far north as Oregon, and then reverse our route. 

But recently, when talking to Cassie Jones, my editor at William Morrow, and Brian DeFiore, my agent, I let them know we’d postpone the trip until after the book tour for “Will’s Red Coat.” So on my fifty-six birthday, April 21st, the fates willing, Samwise and I will start our trip at Jack and Isabel Ryan’s graves in my hometown of Medway, Massachusetts. Then it’s down along the vast waters of the Atlantic. The rest of the trip will mirror the original plans, except for two additions. We’ll drive through the place where Atticus was born, and where Samwise was born. 

Actually, there may be more than those two additions. I talked to Cassie and told her we’d be open to having our publicity team at William Morrow set up a handful of stops for us along the way if some bookstores wanted us to come in for an event.

We will still be basing our trip on a select few objectives: hitting national forests more than national parks, because dogs are more welcomed at national forests; stopping by various Whole Food Markets to ensure I can eat vegan during those two months no the road; and most importantly, making time for quietude and breathtaking beauty as whim moves us. 

I look forward to sharing this trip with you all from our blog, Facebook page, and Twitter account. And who knows, if some book events are set up along the way, perhaps we’ll even meet some of you. 

Onward, by all means.  

Monday, August 08, 2016

A Trip of Remembrance to Cherry Pond and Neighboring Little Cherry Pond

On the rail trail to the two Cherry Ponds. It's 1.5 miles to the larger of the two.
And it's all easy walking for this portion. We got an early start and had it to ourselves,
but on the way out we saw several people either walking or mountain biking in.
It was a charming early morning trip, forty miles from Jackson. The temperature was just right. It was even a bit chilly in the shade. The only drawback was the constant buzzing of the aggressive Deer Flies. But swinging my hat helped to keep them off of me. At one point, about a mile into our five-mile hike, I was weighing what was more troublesome - their actual bite, or the nuisance of their furious dive-bombing. 

But even these little buggers didn’t take too much enjoyment away from our trek. 

At five miles, it was the longest walk I’ve been on since getting out of the hospital in May. It was also the longest hike Samwise has been on. Going forward, we won’t do a hike more than five miles until next summer, when Samwise’s body is more mature and ready for the arduous hikes. But from here on we’ll also start adding elevation gain. I’ve noticed from the little bit I’ve encountered lately, that this is my biggest challenge. The distance of yesterday's hike didn’t wear me out at all, but the elevation we’ll be facing this week surely will. 

This place is special to me. For when Atticus and I became less intense in our hiking, we started hiking to places that offered beauty more than accomplishment. I imagine we walked out to Cherry Pond at least twenty times. We’d laze by the water eating together and taking in the scenery. Sometimes we’d sit for hours at a time. 

So it made sense that this was the first of many places I will be leaving some of his ashes. A pinch of ashes, and some of his favorite peanut butter crackers. Next week Samwise and I will hike to another of Atti’s favorite places with another pinch of his stardust and some more crackers. 

As for Samwise, he’s developing into a fine hiking partner. He keeps his eyes on me, even though he walks ahead. He never gets too far off and if I stop, he also stops, just as Atticus used to do. I was even more pleased that he didn’t leave the trail yesterday though surely tempted by all kinds of squeaks and chattering in the brush. He’d look back at me and I’d say to him, “Please don’t, Samwise.”

Although the water view along Big Cherry Pond is one of the unheralded treats in the mountains, what I find to be most special is the trail leading to Little Cherry Pond. The forest has enchantment in it. Old Man’s Beard dangles from trees. Dead trees lie sprawled across the mossy floor. Tiny saplings spring to life among their decaying ancestors. And the ferns! They are lush and thick and if you have half an imagination, you can almost sense the stirring of wood nymphs and little people as they make their way around the greenery and the mushrooms. 

In my opinion, this stretch of woodland ranks as one of the top ten in the White Mountains and it is reason enough to return again and again. 
Typically, the area around Big Cherry Pond offers a great view of the
Presidential Range, which looks dramatic in the right kind of daylight.
But yesterday, the higher peaks were shrouded in clouds. But we still
had this beautiful view of Cherry Mountain and Owl's Head. (No, not
the Owl's Head that's a 4,000-footer.)

Beyond the first pond, there is a side trail 0.6 miles long that leads to this spot,
on observation platform for Little Cherry Pond.

This location along Big Cherry Pond offers to me a
perfect representation of summer. We sat here for a while
to nibble an apple and drink some water. 

Samwise is getting bigger. He arrived weighing 31 pounds
two months ago. He's now up to 45 pounds, with 6 of them
added in the last two weeks. 

One of the highlights from Big Cherry Pond is the view north to Mount Starr
King (the point to the left) and Mount Waumbek (the high point), an underrated 4,000-footer. 

Yes, Samwise, we'll be climbing it soon enough. Owl's Head and Mount Martha
offers the rare glimpse of the entire Presidential Range and great photo opportunities.

For now, this is a rare sighting. But it is a harbinger of things to come. 

On the trail words are not as important to me
as is eye contact. Samwise is already proving
to be a fine hiking partner.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Favorite Photos of the Week That Was

The first time he saw a river, he barked at it. Now he's made friends with water.

Sunset over Thorne Pond.

Late day view along the Saco River.

In the waiting room at North Country Animal Hospital.
The banks of the Saco have become a place of escape and tranquility for us.

With Dr. Rachael Kleidon after a good check up.

Samwise in Will's Wildflower garden.

The colors of August in the Thorne Pond meadow.

We like this quiet place.


Gentle clouds above Mount Pickering.

At Sawyer Pond.

Play of light and shadow at Sawyer Pond.

A new chew toy. He goes through a lot of them.

Will's Reach

It’s easy to remember the quiet times we shared together. How he went from a troubled soul who would strike out in fear to a gentle fellow who longed to belong. Sometimes, though, I forget Will’s reach. He touched hundreds of thousands of people. 

Last night, on the Following Atticus Facebook page, an old Willaby was posted. One of the responses grabbed hold of me and didn’t let go. 

Ann Marie Buttaro: One of the Willabys - Close your Eyes by Michael Buble touched me so much - I used it as our wedding dance song. Will's motto - which we see every day - I purchased 2 of the mugs 😊. Reminds me of how and why we met. I was ready to give up on love- had been married - divorced - children now grown. I had had a few relationships but for one reason or another they didn't work out. I thought I was content to stay single for the rest of my life- but then I read Will's Motto- 'It's never too late to trust again, to love or be loved again; and it's never too late to live again.' 
So I decided to try again. We met on an online dating sight- I liked his photo by accident - I think God had something to do with that! 
Here we are almost three years later- married for a year and so happy! Thank you Will ( and Tom) for showing me it's never too late! 

Ann Marie got me thinking, and I woke up this morning wanting to know more. So if you were moved or changed or inspired by Will in some way, here’s your chance to express it. You can respond to this on Facebook, in the comments on the blog, or if you wish, you can email 

Thank you. I look forward to hearing from you.