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, 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. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Finest October

     Today is one of those days. Those immaculate days made for memories of an October too special to ever forget. A patchwork sky of blue and white; leaves brilliant shades of red, orange, and yellow; and a breeze that sends some of them swirling down in gentle loops. It is the autumn day of our childhood, the blustery day of A.A. Milne’s Pooh and Piglet and Owl and Rabbit. Nostalgia is a powerful softener to our hard hearts. It forces its way into our busy lives and makes us stop for at various moments to remember. And maybe it finds a way to help us simplify the complicated in a busy electronic world.
     What grand lessons we’ve had in natural beauty over these past few weeks. It has been as raw as Photoshop and the Kardashians are processed. 
     In past years, foliage season seemed to wing by within two weeks. Colors would begin to change, and a mighty wind would blow and before you knew it, it was over. But this year has been different. We had that long, full summer of warmth right up until the end. It pushed the colors back ten days, and when they finally came on, they didn’t stop. I am writing this on the fourteenth of October, and you could say it’s still peak foliage viewing. 
     I’m happy for the businesses who make money at this time of year. I’m thrilled for the tourists, especially those from out of state, who get to see the area at its absolute best. But I’m also happy for us, who are all reminded once again why we are fortunate to live here. 
    This morning, Atticus and I were walking at Thorne Pond in Bartlett.  I had my camera with me, and I felt as though I was a child in Chutters Candy Store. Each scene seemed more delicious than the last; each photograph outdid the previous one.  It was impossible to choose my favorite.  
    At one point, I thought of the loves of my youth and how from day to day they seemed to get prettier beyond belief. That’s been the autumn of 2015. With each passing day, I find myself asking, “How many times can I fall in love all over again?”
    While circling the pond, and then dipping into the woods to walk along the Saco River, I felt the cool on my face and stopped to inhale the rich aroma of autumn.  I took my baseball cap off so that I could see all the trees, even those above me, without limitation. And slowly, ever so slowly, I was Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music turning circles in place as the leaves joined us on their descent.  
    In this temperate weather, Atticus acts five years younger. He has a bounce in his step and his ears flop happily as he strides along. And we moved as we always have in the past, with me just behind him. Along the riverside trail, I asked him to stop, so I could drink in the colors on the far side of the water, where the land quickly rises to the mountains beyond. Halfway across, we stopped at a small beach we often stop at when no one is around. He drank from the water, and I sat on the log that’s always been there for as long as we’ve been coming to that spot. 
     I uttered a two-word prayer, as genuine as any I’ve ever said before, “Thank you.”
    A few days ago I was sitting in the same spot as the sun set behind the hills. Atticus was there before me, just a foot away, and watching the waning sun reflected in the placid water.  I noticed a movement out of the corner of my eye and to our right a good-sized bear emerged from the woods.  He had no idea we were there as he dipped his head to drink from the Saco.  We watched him silently as his massive body took a healthy draught, and then he raised his head, just as I do, just as Atticus always has, to look across the way at all those trees and the rising land. It was only when he scanned to the left that he saw us not a dozen feet away, and just behind him. He quickly turned and bound into the woods.
    We’ve seen this fellow a few times this year. I call him the Thorne Pond Bear, and he’s a bit skittish, as you might expect. But whenever I see him I’m floored by his size and how beautiful he is. 
    I like that he’s there patrolling the forest, because it adds mystery to our walks. Sometimes I think he’s there watching us without us even knowing it. And that reminds me of a suggestion made by an old Sufi friend who suggested I practice becoming part of the forest by imagining myself as a tree watching Atticus and I pass.
    It says something about the universality of life on this planet, I think. How we all mostly want the same things: to be safe, happy, healthy, respected, and to live out our lives appreciating the gifts of this world.
    When we emerged from those same woods and completed the circle around the pond, there was a group of elderly people from a local facility. They were stretched out along the edge of the pond looking up at the colorful scene leading up to the mountains and the reflection of the vibrant trees. Their faces were priceless. I dare say they were enchanted by the scene as we were and the years in their tired bodies seemed to evaporate. There childlike in what they were taking in and I wondered if nostalgia had grabbed hold of me, what must it be like for them so late in life.
    As Atticus has aged, our favorite thing in the world has been taken from us now that we aren’t climbing mountains any longer. But today was a fine reminder that there is always something to be grateful for here in these wondrous hills of New Hampshire. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A New Adventure

Six days before Christmas, 1968, my mother, Isabel Shea Ryan, died in her hospital room. It was due to complications from third degree burns that came from smoking in her hospital bed, which caught fire. I was eight at the time and I don’t remember much about her. Truthfully, I don’t recall much about my childhood at all. But one thing that I do remember was something my father did in the summer of 1969.  It was about as courageous as anything a widowed father of nine could possibly do.
In August, he piled the seven youngest of his children (John and Joanne were already out of the house by then) into a station wagon, bought a tent trailer and we took a month to discover America. We didn’t go everywhere, but it sure seemed that way.

There were stops at the Grand Canyon and the Redwood Forest, Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore. Of course we did Disney and Sea World, too, while out in California. I remember some of the trip, but more than anything I remember the utter grandeur of the experience and the views and, most of all, I think of Jack Ryan’s courage.
I have often thought of taking a similar trek on the fiftieth anniversary of the “Big Trip.” I think most of my brothers and sisters who experienced it have given some thought to re-living it on their own.
However, now that Atticus is thirteen, pretty healthy, still sharp, but also a too old for the intensity of our past mountain explorations, I think we’ve both grown restless waiting for a new journey to share. Therefore, I have decided that once Will’s Red Coat is nearly completely done and in the hands of our publisher, but not quite ready to make it to the stores, Atticus and I are going to set out next spring on a two month quest to see as much of our country as we can while he can still enjoy it.
There are many details to be ironed out.  There are no definite plans of where we are headed, although you could say we’ll be chasing the colors of spring.  We’ll follow the coast down to Key West, then the Gulf Coast until Louisiana and then after that, who knows? The bulk of our exploration will take place west of the Rockies and once there we will where the wind takes us. We’ll avoid major cities, and concentrate on National Forests more than National Parks since Atticus will be allowed more freedom in the former. There are many particulars to figure out – and that is part of the fun of it all, but the one certainty is that we are going and I imagine it will be an expedition of a lifetime. I know we'll be flooded with suggestions but we mostly are going to wing it.  That's part of the fun of it all. I find my daydreams taking us to magnificent open country, along twenty thousand miles of road, to mountains and rivers and mesas and coastline, and perhaps some wildlife too.

I’ll be taking photos every day and keeping everyone up-to-date on Facebook, Twitter, and our blog. Other than meeting up with a few friends during the trip, we’ll be off on our own doing what we do best. I expect there will places in the backcountry we’ll love so much we may stay for a few days.  It will be a life without a schedule, built around wanderlust and nature.
Soon after coming home the finishing touches to Will’s Red Coat will be taking place and we expect it to be out soon after, in the autumn of 2016. While we won’t be doing book appearances during our two months of living like gypsies, we will most likely be on a tour for the book after that, depending on what our publisher sets up for us.
We hope you’ll enjoy reading about our experiences as they come our way as we head south, west, north, and finally east.
Throughout it all, I’ll be thinking of dear old Jack and what he did for our family back in the summer of 1969 when he took grieving hearts and introduced them to wonder.

You’ll have to excuse me now as I go back to studying the Road Atlas to figure out the best way to catch every western state.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Every Rock, Every Stream . . .

In the first half of the nineteenth century some of the world’s greatest landscape painters came to the White Mountains. Some of them would be the nucleus of the Hudson River School of painters and none was more significant than New York-based Thomas Cole. He was one of the first who saw these great peaks as a place to retreat to where an ever-changing world couldn’t reach as easily and saw the need to protect it. 

One of my favorite Cole quotes states “Many a mountain stream and rock has its legend, worthy of the poet’s pen or the painter’s pencil.”  

During the first few years of our hiking up here, starting a decade ago, I wouldn’t have appreciated Cole’s words as much. I was more intent on getting to the top of each peak to celebrate the view, but also our accomplishment. You could say my appreciation for this region was tarnished by my ego that wanted to go faster, farther, and do more, more, more.

But then something happened and things changed. I somehow came to the conclusion during all my hurry to collect personal achievement that I’d lost touch with how much I was missing along the way to prove how strong and fast and accomplished I was. During our first visits up here, when Atticus led me along twisting paths and across rocky streams, there was a buzz of excitement whenever we entered the woods. That’s all it took, to leave one world and enter another. There was an innocence found along the trails. Oh, how I loved leaving a busier Massachusetts’ life behind to get “lost” in the woods.  It almost felt like I was playing hooky. As the world I knew rushed ever onward back home, Atticus and I were sitting by streams, enjoying the breeze and the shade of the forest, and the way the sun glistened through the green canopy to create the illusion of diamonds and jewels in the flowing water.  

Back in Newburyport, back running my newspaper after a few days up here, I’d often mentally return to those little breaks by the streams, or those moments when I’d stop pushing through the woods and just breathe in the clean air as the trees towered around us and I felt small but also like I belonged as Mother Nature wrapped her arms around me.  

For the past seven years I’ve rejected the mania I was caught up in and decided to enjoy the mountains more for what they meant to me personally, instead of trying to keep up with others who were also into achieving something. And as soon as I let go of the ego in my hiking, I learned to appreciate each walk in the woods, whether it was twenty minutes or twenty miles.

Now, here we are several years later and Atticus is thirteen. He’s still quite active, but he’s retired from his hiking days, for the most part. There are still mornings when the air is cool and fresh and inviting when he decides he still wants to go “up,” and so we do. But I never expect it anymore. This has allowed me to fully appreciate what Thomas Cole said about “many a mountain stream or rock…”

These days I find myself marveling at what nature has provided. Now, instead of hurrying to the next checkpoint, we can sit for an hour in a woodsy valley watching red squirrels and their twitching tails, listening to the industrious woodpeckers (who pay no attention to us whatsoever), holding the tiniest toad in the palm of my hand for closer study, or simply noticing the leaves twist and dance in the wind.  

It’s funny, isn’t it? No matter how much we dream of summer in the coldest days of the winter, when it arrives there is never a disappointment. It’s always as good as we imagined it. The seasons don’t disappoint. Nature never fails to live up to its promise. Unlike the world we are creating, things are come better than advertised in the natural world. That’s the way it was with my Newburyport daydreams, too. No matter how perfect I saw things to be up here, the reality exceeded the fantasy.  

This morning a young bear was busying himself with something under a tree. He had no idea we were within twenty feet of him watching his rump twist and turn while he head was down below at the trunk. When he finally sensed us, he turned around with a look of shock and started to run off. Perhaps it was because Atticus and I were sitting, and not chasing him, or something else altogether, but after five quick steps, the bear looked over his shoulder and stopped as well. He watched us, always ready to run, but he never did. And we sat taking him in, taking in everything around him.  He would eventually move on, but at no hurry and as he lingered, we couldn’t get enough of him.

These are the things I never did see before. I think we’d be moving so quickly forward that the animals stayed hidden because of all of our noise and rambunctiousness.  

The other day I heard from a woman who was new to hiking. She wanted to know if I had any advice for a novice. I told her to do her own thing and not get caught up in lists or what everyone else is doing. “Do what makes you happy. Take the gifts the mountains are offering you specifically and appreciate them.” Then I shared the Thomas Cole quote with her.

The mountaintops are very grand, but the rocks and streams along the way, they are pretty special too.  

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Surprised By Joy

There are moments I am surprised by joy, even on days when I am already happy. It seems to me that these periodic bursts of bliss are tied into nature. Such was the case this morning as we walked the woods below White Horse Ledge along a spider web of trails crisscrossing the Bryce Path. 
Although early, a hint of the warmth to come later in the day could be found in the sultry scent of the forest. It’s a musky delight that comes from the earth and trees and the slightest (almost imperceptible) bit of haze in the air.  It’s like leaning into a lover and finding the hint of perfume on the nape of her neck. The woods still felt cool, but I could tell it wouldn’t be that way for long.
A gentle breeze stirred loose pine needles and sent them tumbling down to earth around us. Atticus stopped as if to inhale the scent of a wild animal every now and then.  The dirt underfoot wasn’t damp, but it wasn’t dry either. The best way I can describe the coming of the day’s heat is the same way I’d describe the coming of a storm in late afternoon. The subtle shift in electrons, the receptors in our skin that allow us to feel atmospheric changes, and, of course, the smell of it all. 
To be afoot in a forest to witness this change has a primitive appeal to it. It had me reflecting on Thoreau’s, “The savage in man is never quite eradicated.” And this had me thinking how grateful I was to have some of that savage still within me. 
As has been his style lately, Atticus tailed behind, unlike the first ten years of our hiking together. It’s his age. He still enjoys the trails but the pace is different. He rarely takes the lead, and that only happens when it’s cool or else he wants to make sure we take a certain trail.
When we came upon the Bryce Path a second time, he surprised me by taking a left turn and heading up toward the saddle that sits humbly between Cathedral and Whitehorse ledges. It’s a short section of trail, but steep enough to make you stop, grab hold of a tree on occasion, and gulp for air, and then gulp down some water as well.
In that saddle, which has a feel of the medieval to it, with its pockmarked sign slightly leaning to the right, one almost feels transported to the days of old when knights were horseback would come trotting by, the air was thicker, but still refreshing enough to be pleasant.  We made for the top of Whitehorse Ledge, the taller of the two, and the one that is private because you cannot drive to the top of it. I was pleasantly surprised to see Atticus bounce along the climb, looking back over his shoulder for me, stopping every so often to wait for me whenever I rested.
Halfway from the saddle to the summit, we came to a ledge where we have sat many times in the past, often watching a full moon rise above the eastern horizon. Below us was the emerald green of Echo Lake and across the busying valley sat the mountains of the Green Hill Preserve. The air was denser, the temperature rising. But gosh, how it felt grand to be out there in the aging day, following my aging friend.
Once on top we shared the view and some water. Then I paused and thought of my friend Annie who is in Sloan Kettering today, hoping she remains cancer free after seven months off treatment. A few prayers were sprinkled over the valley and sent high above. Then, without any longer delay, Atticus was on his way again, curling round the backside of the ledge, on to the southern boundary, and eventually reaching the forest floor after a rumble through the boulder field. 
When we reached the car, we were both happy to have been out there, but also happy to be done. The drive home with windows wide open was a blissful reward.  Now to be home writing about it, with the air conditioner going, is another. That’s savage within me is taking a backseat to the civilized man now as I sit at my old writing desk and Atticus snores contentedly nearby. 
We stopped peak-bagging several years ago, about the time I decided to count experiences instead of mountaintops. That’s when we set about hiking for the beauty of it, letting our desires take us instead of following the strict orders of one list or another. Now in this summer of no expectations – due to Atti’s age I often say he’s retired – I am surprised by joy more often than ever. Each walk in the woods, whether it is half mile or five miles, comes as a gift. Nothing is taken for granted. We enjoy it all, and luxuriate whenever possible – especially when we come to streams where we wade and Atticus drinks and it feels a bit like heaven after a good walk through a forest which is now greener than I could have imagined it being back in the naked cold of winter.
On days such as this I realize we’ve come to what may be the most appreciated hiking chapter of our time together. It’s the one where so little is expected and so much is appreciated. It’s a time for us, and not others. To walk in the woods because of the love of it, and the passion our feet feel as we walk slowly and deliberately, at times surprised by joy.