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, January 22, 2016

April Is Getting Closer

The last of our gear has arrived. Camp stove, pots and pans, water filter, sumptuous six-inch memory foam mattress, tent, lanterns, back up batteries for all our electronic needs, coolers, and on and on and on.

We have everything we’ll need to set out on the third week of April. From there, if we need anything else, we’ll pick it up on the road. 

The plan is to spend four or five nights a week camping and two to three nights a week in affordable motels. Much of that will depend upon the weather.

One of the advantages of setting out in spring is that not only will we see wildlife emerging from their winter torpor, we’ll also have a good chance of seeing their young. Oh, how exciting that will be!

This will be so different from the trip my father took us one in the summer of 1969. We won’t be going to the regular tourist hang outs and we’ll skip most of the National Parks to give Atticus more freedom. Still, it will be nice to pass through some of the National Park Service land during its hundredth anniversary.

I’ve only set up connections with a few friends along the way. The plan was always about traveling and seeing the land and not so much visiting with folks. Of course, there will be many interactions along the way of the unplanned variety. There are interesting people in the world and I look forward to meeting some of them as their fate intersects with ours. 

The night before we set out, we’ll take a hotel room three hours to the south, right in the Medway vicinity. My old hometown doesn’t hold any special allure to me, other than it being where I used to come from, and that it is the place where my parents, Jack and Isabel are buried.

On that first day, we’ll visit their grave at sunrise. Then it will be down the street, around the corner, and about a mile away to the house I grew up in. I don’t think anyone lives in it any more, although I’m told they are fixing it up. But we’ll stop there and park on the little dead end street it sits on. 

On the day we left on our own one-month long trip across the country, seven of us sat in the car waiting for the final checks before my father hopped into the station wagon. My two eldest siblings weren’t making the trip with us, because they had “grown-up” things to do. But here we were, all sitting together, packed in tension and nervousness and excitement. It was Jack Ryan’s idea to take his children away from the home where our hearts were heavy due to my mother’s death six days before the previous Christmas Day. We were off to see America, in the hopes of trading heavy hearts for winged ones. 

My memories are not so strong of my childhood. But I do think the closest we ever were again was on that morning, sitting and waiting for the adventure to begin.

So that’s where Atticus and I will sit for a few moments of silence. I’ll try to remember the innocence of years gone by and I’ll say a prayer for my father and my mother and for good luck on our journey. Then, I’ll start up the car, leave that dead end road, turn left, as we did forty-seven years ago, to the west to everything that is waiting for us.

That first night we’ll stay with friends Tammi and Marybeth in Pennsylvania. The next night will be our first in a campground, most likely on the Outer Banks. After that, there isn’t much planning. Just a couple of feathers born by the wind and tied together by a lifetime of friendship.  

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Chipmunks and Squirrels and Hope in a Dark Season

My father used to sit at his kitchen window, a cup of tea in front of him, the smoke of a cigarette spiraling into the air, and cuss at the squirrels raiding his birdfeeders  They drove him crazy. He’d bang on the window, or open it up and yell at them.

It didn’t matter. They always came back.

He’d think he’d come up with some new contraption to fend them off, to keep them away from the seeds he put out for his beloved birds, but it never worked. Not for long, anyway. Such is the ability of squirrels to solve puzzles.

You could say that in those last years, when he lived alone, he was cursed by squirrels for they became the bane of his existence. 

When Atticus and I first moved to Jackson, it was in the spring. Soon after, we met a sweet old lady who was very active. When she found out that I fed the squirrels and the chipmunks, she visibly shuddered.

“Why on earth would you do that?” She demanded. I couldn’t help but think of dear old dad, especially when she went on to tell me how she coped with them during gardening season.

“I take a big metal pail and fill it up halfway with water. Then I take a narrow piece of wood and lay it across the top. After that, I lined that wood with sunflower seeds.”

“I’m not sure I follow,” I said.

She smiled. Not a kind smile. It was a cunning one. “The chipmunks loved the sunflower seeds and would go up on that piece of wood to retrieve them, but the wood was so narrow they’d fall in the water and drown.”

That’s when it was my turn to shudder. That’s also when I decided I’d always feed our chipmunks and squirrels.

I don’t feed our local bears and don’t put out anything when the bears are active.  But the rest of the year I take comfort in having a kinship of kindness with all other wild things. I put out seeds and fruits for the various souls that visit our yard. It’s become a regular thing, one that is quite popular with our winged and four legged neighbors.

Nearly every morning, soon after the sun is up, three crows balance on the lone tree that floats in the middle of our backyard. It’s not well and every year there is some talk about removing that old black ash. But I don’t dare, for while it’s the last tree to dress herself in leaves in the spring and the first to drop them in September (and even then they are not very pretty), the local wildlife take comfort in that tree.

One night, when I was taking Atticus out one last time before we went to bed, I saw two sets of eyes about five feet off the ground in the black ash. I walked over next to the tree, those four eyes transfixed by my beaming headlamp, and came face to face with two curious baby raccoons. They sat in that tree looking at me from just two feet away, and they were just as interested in me.

Through the past six years I’ve seen all kinds of life in that tree from the regular visiting birds to hawks and owls. I’ve also seen bears who were comical in the way they seemed to think they could hind behind narrow branches as if they were invisible.

Here it is, the middle of winter again. There are a couple of feeders on the tree, both loaded with a variety of seeds. On our second floor deck, I have a suet feeder and a sunflower seed feeder. The way they are set up and designed, they are marketed as “squirrel-proof.” This would please my dearly-departed father. But then he’d howl at me for the way I take a small bucket of seeds out nearly every morning, and spread them across the top of the snow. These, as you might have guessed, are for the squirrels.

Each morning, just before I refill the feeders, I find myself reading either poetry or essays. Today, I read an essay bemoaning what was going on in the world today from the hatred of terrorists, to the hatred of presidential candidates, to the hatred of militiamen, and I was reminded to hold onto hope.

Today’s essay, written by Omid Safi on the On Being website, contained the following: “A few days ago I was reminded when a friend posted a note on social media about an old tradition in Ottoman societies (today’s Turkey, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Bosnia, Greece, etc.). Whenever it snows, people go to the top of a mountain and scatter seeds for birds. The reason is as simple as it is immediate: birds are creatures of God. And as the Prophet said, if you want the All-Merciful God to show you mercy, show mercy to the creation of the All-Merciful.”

And there I had it. In a world where terror and hate often take over center stage and the front page of the newspaper and the first story on the evening news, there are millions of us in the world doing something so simple as feeding birds (and squirrels) in the bleak midwinter.

I’m not sure about you, but I believe in a world were millions perform these random acts of kindness.  Something as simple as filling a birdfeeder is reason for hope, there is reason to believe in kindness, and there is proof that our hearts can be as active as our heads and our egos.

Such is the light of day in the darkest and the coldest of the four seasons. Hope exists, sometimes anonymously. 

Monday, January 04, 2016

We Stalk What Could Be Our Last Adventure

April is approaching rapidly. Soon we'll be in our old but reliable Honda Fit, its fender held together with a few patches of duct tape, and headed south, then west, then north, and finally east. I figure it will take us two months and up to twenty-thousand miles.

I also have come to figure that it may very well be our last adventure. 

Atticus is aging quickly. He's better than Will ever was when he was with us, but things are changing. He's now completely deaf, his eyes can't always see me unless I move and he is helpless with shiny floors and the depth perception in going down the stairs. Yesterday, his hips gave out on him three different times. That was a first. But as always, we'll make do and figure things out. Or as Paige, Atti's breeder, used to say way back then with her southern twang, "Y'all will work it out."  And she was right, we always have.

Instead of concentrating on what he's lost though, I'm throwing myself into what we still have. That's this friendship and this upcoming adventure. 

If I miss the mountaintops, I would imagine he does too. But from April 21 through June 21 we'll drive to all the natural wonders possible, concentrating on ones where there aren't crowds. And for places like the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, we'll try to get to the popular places in off hours, typically first thing in the morning for a few pictures.

As some of you know, we'll be targeting National Forests instead of National Parks because N.F. are more dog-friendly. And while some allow dogs off leash, Atticus will need his in most places we go just so we don't get separated. Being off-leash for all these years was so successful while we climbed mountains because he could hear my every whisper and respond. Now he cannot hear my loudest bellow. 

So like Tennyson's Ulysses, when the spring flowers start to appear in the mountains, we'll be on our way facing Atti's old age and whatever the world and time has waiting for us.

While looking forward, I cannot help but pay tribute to the past and all those mountains and all those miles and the things most with two or four legs wouldn't even dream about. From the first day, I've taken out as much as I can of what divides us, especially the words people use as labels, and put my energy into what we would make together in a unique manner.  And that's what this trip is about. It's one more time into the breach of a limitless life while we have it to share. Only mystery awaits us going forward, even this grand adventure is a mystery, and I have no idea what time will bring to us, but for now we have Tennyson's Ulysses to look toward, and his words at the end of the famous poem. 

"Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

To strive, to seek to find, and not to yield...yes, two friends who have been through much will do it at least one more time, while he can still enjoy it. Best of all, we'll do it our way. 

Onward, by all means.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

The Coming of Light

A Jackson summer day with a trundling Will.

I don't mind the early dark of the season. It gives me a greater appreciation for the nests of light around our home provided by various lamps as if each is a separate island in a sea of shadow. It offers me the opportunity to become dazzled by the dancing flicker of a candle flame as its tiny warmth and circle of illumination reaches to me. It reminds me of the comforts of books and soups and tea; of the charm of finding coziness. We are two and a half weeks away from our darkest day of the year, right before the days slowly stretch themselves out and the night starts to shrink. 

All of that being said, today this photograph called to me. It's of a summer day in Jackson. Will is trundling along near the high grass and the hidden bears and all that we don't see in abandon of summer growth while Mount Washington overlooks everything from far behind. I was drawn to the light, to the green, to the vibrancy of both flora and fauna, and one little life sending ripples of reclamation out into the universe.

In a way, this photograph doesn't belong here today, for these are troubled times in the world and dark nights and short days in nature. But in other ways, this photo of Will means even more. It is, after all, the season of Advent, which brings with it the light of anticipation. Advent, in part, means "coming." When something is coming, there's something to look forward to. That's something to celebrate, for no matter how dark the world may seem because of how people act, or by the location of the sun and the earth and the rotation of the seasons, there is something to behold when we realize we can still celebrate the coming of a new day.   

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Considering the Following Atticus Facebook Page, Coming Up On Five Years

Our Following Atticus Facebook page will turn five years old in January. It started out at a slow crawl, and as a suggestion of our publisher the year our book was published. A few hundred became a few thousand. By the time Will appeared, sixteen months later, there were six thousand followers. 

The page continued at that slow pace until Atticus was diagnosed with cancer fourteen months later. By then there were twelve thousand followers. But writing about cancer, the amputation, and the chemotherapy brought about a huge boon. 
Today we’re just shy of 240,000. 

I’m not sure how that happened exactly, especially to a fellow with mixed feelings about Facebook. I’ll admit that I only have my personal page so that I can have the professional Following Atticus Book page, and I limit my number of “friends” to about fifteen. I do follow about twenty “business” or “official” pages, mostly having to do with nature, veganism, poetry, and theology. I don’t often comment on those pages, but I read them regularly. It’s what I like best about social media – the idea of finding something you enjoy, and following along.  

I have my moderators to thank for keeping the page a positive place to visit. Without them, none of it would be possible. I have very few rules I ask them to enforce. Otherwise, I trust them to take care of the page the way they want and typically all goes smoothly. 

I author most of the posts, but if one of the moderators does, I request they attach their name to it. Also, I tell them not to debate or argue with people. It’s not worth it, not that it happens all too often. It’s not what our page is about. I treat it mostly as a journal and forget it is a business page most of the time.

Lastly, I ask them to see that Atticus and Will are treated the way I’ve always treated them – as individuals and by the Golden Rule. “It’s simple,” I tell them, “if something posts something about Atticus or Will you wouldn’t want posted about you, delete it.” 

We avoid breed talk since I think all dogs unique, just as I see all animals as and people the same way. 

I like that they’ve also picked up on the notion that Will, when he was with us, and Atticus now, both are older than most of us who write or read about them. Therefore, they treat them as I do, as an elder. 

On the off chance that a post disappears, and it happens probably once every two weeks, or so, it’s because for some reason it’s gone bad, whether it’s angry comments or a heaping helping of unsolicited advice. I know offering advice is a thing on Facebook, but I always feel awkward about it and try not to offer it to anyone, even in real life, unless they ask me for it.  (If it gets out of hand, like the post about how I had decided on a Winnebago Minnie for a travel trailer and received more than two hundred comments about why I was wrong, well, as I say, life’s too short so it’s better to delete the post and move on. Although it was an incredibly popular post, it turned into a headache, and that’s the last thing social media should be.  

Last week, long time follower Pamela Bingham-Hall left a good-natured comment that brought smiles to our faces. It was in response to a few of the moderators having the opportunity to read three chapters of the new manuscript. Pamela wrote of envy in a sweet way, and classified our Facebook followers, including herself, as “the followers, the cheerleaders, the sometimes over-the-line commentators, the totally inappropriate outspoken, the innocent but well-meaning ignorant.”

Bravo, Pamela! 

Running a Facebook page like ours is usually very rewarding, and when it’s not, it can seem like a Mack truck full of crazy bearing down on you. As for the readers being “innocent but well-meaning ignorant,” the same can be said of the author. 

One never can be certain how a post will be taken. We try to keep things positive and simple, occasionally, though, a person wants to be angry about something. The old Undertoad part of me knew exactly what to do with those kind of people. The changing, growing, lighter me would rather not get entangled in drama, so we just part ways with the angry or the belittling in hopes they find a site that suits their liking better. I’m grateful it hardly ever has to happen.  

Considering how crazy the world can be, and how extra crazy Internet comment sections can be, we’re extremely fortunate to have so many positive and kind people joining us for this trip.

All-in-all, I strive to keep a Facebook page up and running that's as fun to write and administer as it is to read. 

Thank you, and, onward, by all means,

Monday, October 19, 2015

Atticus and the Cold

Atticus on the summit of Mount Jackson with Washington in the background.
We are fortunate that we have a very active social media following, especially on our Following Atticus Facebook page. It’s humbling to see so many become invested in our story. I’m a huge fan of genuine interaction and I’m often inspired by some of the stories people post about their own journeys. It’s incredible how much I’ve learned about some lives and it is an honor to have things that matter shared with me.

Of course, my favorites are those who have read our book and know much of our story. They have a better understanding about us, as you might imagine. They realize more about the relationship I share with Atticus and what we have experienced throughout each of the four seasons on the mountain trails. 

Each year about this time, and I noticed it this weekend when a scant sprinkling of confectioner’s snow dusted our backyard, some worry about Atticus being cold. Some even get angry about it.

Again, reading the book helps, because much of it has to do with our winter hiking. 

I remember the first day Atticus arrived in my life. He was eight weeks old and after we returned home from the airport we headed straight out to Plum Island to spread some of Maxwell Garrison Gillis’s ashes. It was mid-May and unseasonably cold. A wind rode the waves onto shore and brooding clouds settled overhead spitting snow down on us. At only five pounds, and from the south, Atticus wasn’t ready for the cold and he shivered in my arms. I quickly tucked him in my coat and all he was instantly cozy. 

We started hiking when he was about two and a half years old. By the time he was three and a half we entered into the world of winter hiking, hitting forty-one of New Hampshire’s forty-eight four thousand foot peaks our first winter. He weighed twenty-one pounds then. In each of the next three seasons we hiked each of the forty-eight again and when winter returned, we set out to do two rounds of the forty-eight for the season. Ninety-six peaks in ninety days. It was a crazy way to raise money for the Jimmy Fund and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in the name of our friend Vicki Pearson, who was taken from us by cancer.

By the time our second winter in the White Mountains came to a close, Atticus weighed in at twenty-seven pounds. Even with all that exercise he’d gained weight.

I switched him over to a raw diet and he quickly lost three pounds before leveling out. Then, inexplicably, he gained it right back even while continuing to eat healthy, and hiking at a frenetic pace.

The only way to explain it was that after two years in the winter Whites, Atticus’s body knew what it needed and it insulated itself.  It was evolution of a body right before our very eyes.  

Now let me be the first to say that I’m not an expert when it comes to dogs. Nor am I a scientist or a nutritionist. I can only speak to what I know. Mostly, we go about everything in our lives with common sense. If something seems right, we do it. If it doesn’t, we don’t. If something goes wrong or isn’t working, we change directions. 

So when it comes to the cold it’s as simple as this: Atticus has become a winter dog. He’s far more comfortable November through April than he is from June through August. He abhors the heat.

Two years ago, when Atticus went through chemotherapy, his weight hit thirty-two pounds. Now he’s back to twenty-seven, and while he has a body suit and numerous sets of Muttluk boots, he rarely needs them. But when he does, I put them on him.

I can assure those of you who worry about him getting cold, when the temperature drops or it is snowing, he’s most likely not like most of the dogs you’ve met. He thrives in cold temperatures.  Whereas Will was just the opposite toward the end of his life. He wore his fleece-line coat if the temperature dipped below sixty degrees. It just goes to prove what we already know, we are all different.

And here’s when the common sense part comes in. When Atticus is cold, he lets me know, and I have him in his fleece-lined body suit and boots within seconds.

So when you see Atticus in the months to come wearing only his birthday suit, please understand he’s not you. 

If there is something I’m proudest of with Atticus. He always has a choice. His opinions are taken into account. If you’ll remember from the book, he’s pulled the plug on a handful of hikes he didn’t feel up to and that was more than okay, it was respected.  His comfort is always important to me, as is the comfort of all friends.

This reminds me of a story from about seven years ago. It was toward the end of winter and a television magazine show wanted to feature the two of us. The time we set up to meet, Atticus and I were coming off a hike and the television crew would be waiting for us at the trailhead. While setting it up in advance, the host of the show, a very attractive woman, suggested that it would be best if Atticus had his body suit and boots on when we came off the trail because it would get more people's attention on television. I told her that would be fine if it was cold, but if it was a bit warm (relatively speaking for the season), he wouldn't be wearing them. She pushed the point and kept talking about how it would look great on tv. I told her that didn't matter to me. What did was Atti's comfort, and if it was above a certain temperature he would roast in his suit and boots. That didn't matter to her.

"Come on, Tom, it will be great television!"

"If you want great television, how about meeting us at the trailhead while wearing nothing but lingerie and four-once heels?"

For some odd reason, I never heard back from her and the show was never filmed.

This winter, as Atticus moves through his fourteenth year, he’ll let me know when he’s cold.  

Thank you for understanding and appreciating the differences in all of us.