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, May 09, 2008

Our Car Is In The Garage and That Got Me Thinking

It’s Friday morning and the Honda Fit is over at Jarrett’s across the street getting inspected, the oil's being changed, and the snow tires are coming off.

Jarrett Ham is what some would call a rarity: a trustworthy and goodhearted auto mechanic. In my numerous travels to the White Mountains over the last three years, I got to know Jarrett because my Ford Focus lasted longer than it should have. It was due to Jarrett’s efforts up here, and Phil & Sons efforts down in Newburyport, that it continued to run as long as it did. For the first 60,000 it was a fine car. The last 66,000 miles, well, it’s fair to say it had its issues.

When I sold my paper I put half down on a Honda Fit, a similar sized car with better mileage and being a Honda, an assurance it will run a lot longer and with fewer repair bills than the Focus had. However, I cannot complain too much about the Focus, it was my first new car and only the second car I ever owned. I bought it with money made running my paper, The Undertoad, and it took us to the mountains in all four seasons over the last two and a half years of its existence.

John Kelley, who owns a gas station on High Street in Newburyport, said something that stuck with me. When I was bemoaning the number of repairs the Focus needed at the end of its run he said, “That car doesn’t owe you anything.”


“You got your money’s worth out of it. It no longer owes you anything.”

He was right, of course. I got my money out of it…and more.

That Ford Focus took me to see my father almost every weekend I wasn’t hiking. It took me and Atticus back and forth to Vermont several times before I rediscovered the White Mountains. Every other Thursday night/Friday morning and day it carried Atticus (and Max before him) and me about 120 miles while delivering The Undertoad throughout Newburyport and Newbury.

It was the car I drove out to Plum Island and then to Maudslay, then onto Turkey Hill Road, and back up High Street in a long loop when I would canvas the community before elections, asking people how they were voting.  (Now you know the secret of how I could predict political races so easily in the city.) It was the car I made the same drive around town with on the night Lisa Mead lost to Al Lavender before calling my father to tell him the news.

“You did it!” he said.

“No, Lisa did it to herself.”

“But you were the one who pointed it all out to people, and you were the one who told her to change or lose.”

It was a dark night. From behind the wheel of the Focus I saw a former friend tumble out of power after she lost touch with Newburyport, and for the first time I understood the influence of The Undertoad.

It was the car I drove Atticus and me to and from my family reunion seven years ago, the last two days all ten of us would all be together again.

It was the car I fell in love in, then the car I fell out of love in. Twice.   (At least I thought it was love back then.)

It was the car I picked Maxwell G. Gillis up in on the day I adopted an elderly dog. And it was the car I drove Max around town in during his last ride before finally driving up State Street toward Dr. Grillo’s office when Kenny Loggins’ “Whenever I Call You Friend” came on the radio and I broke down in tears. It was the car I drove home alone in that same day.

It was the car I drove when I took a five-pound puppy Atticus to the beach on Plum Island on our first day together. It was the car that carried Max’s ashes along for that same ride before I spread some of them on Atti’s paws, over his heart, his spine, and his forehead before flinging a handful into the churning Atlantic.

It was the car I drove from Lincoln, NH to Medway, MA the day after Atticus and I finished the forty-eight four thousand footers in during our first eleven weeks of hiking and delivered a shirt with the names of all those mountains to my Dad. I had dedicated those first forty-eight to him and it was one of the few times I saw him happy to receive a gift. And it was the car I drove on all our mountain trips, including the winter we did eight-one peaks, until I traded it in last August.

It was the car that had eight tires slashed and an exhaust pipe filled with insulating foam by critics of my journal back in Newburyport.  It was the car informants would leave information on (under the windshield wipers) and the car I received death threats on in the same manner. And it was the car the police set up a stake out for on the day my registration lapsed because I hadn’t paid my car insurance in time. It was the car I received a ticket for worn tire tread depth by a cross-eyed police officer going in the other direction on High Street during those days when I was pointing out unethical behavior of various officers.

It was the car I used to drive Atticus to North Andover for his cataract surgery and the car that drove him home again that night after the surgery and back to the hospital the next morning because they wouldn’t let me stay with him overnight while he recovered (so we recovered on our own). And it was the car I drove to Dr. Grillo’s office on the day they shaved Atticus’ chest, belly and throat while looking for tumors. And the car I drove to Angell the day they gave him the blood tests that would confirm all the horrible things we’d been told he probably had only to have the tests come back reporting he had none of it.

It was the car I drove to the bank with a check in hand and tears in my eyes the day I sold The Undertoad.

It was the car I laughed in, was tailed in, and dreamed in. It took me places and it set me free. It was the car of a dying dog, the car of a new dog; it was the car that, like John Kelley said, owed me nothing in the end.

On the day I traded in my Focus I was so excited about getting a new car I completely forgot about my old one. It sat outside with a hole in the driver’s side floorboard, its tired body, and stained interior; while I spent hours getting my new car. When the sale went through and my Honda Fit was pulled around to the front so I could transfer items from the old to the new, that's when it hit me.

I’m a sentimental fool. We’d been through a lot together, that car and I. It felt strange to just leave it there while it awaited a trip to a place where they would strip it for parts. I know it was not an animate object but it was alive with my memories. I was saying goodbye to an old friend and eight years together.

Driving away that day in my new car with Atticus, I looked back in the rearview mirror and the Ford Focus looked lonely sitting by itself. When I pulled onto the highway and headed home I wondered just where our new car would take Atticus and me.

So far it’s doing well.


Anonymous said...

Only you could get my eyes to water reading about an old car! - Sierra

Anonymous said...

Tom I think after the reading of your posts that the word smithing abilities are mixed with an uncanny ability to place the reader in the driver's seat (pun intended !) I think that is why I feel as if I am a young boy again and the understanding goes right from the page to the heart!!! I was even feeling empathy for your old friend the Focus that saw you though the rear view mirror and many important events flooded your mind at that moment. Truly a treat to read these wonderful blogs.. I think we would have been friends in the "old neighborhood" ;-) Over to Tommy's house??? Thanks again Tom, Atticus and William L. from our pack to yours ...;-) Blessing as always .. Maybe even a little harmless mischief too?? Carter & Stacy

argolouse said...

Thanks for making my day with this post. Many important things happen along the way in life, with the help of a car!

Anonymous said...

Tom, thanks for reposting this blog! I did not join face book until fall of 2011 when the hard cover of Following Atticus came out. Very heartwarming & I can relate!

Melanie01 said...

I'm pretty certain I understand how you felt about a car - yes- just a car, but so much more. I once had a 1967 Volvo that was broken down (blown engine) when I bought it. At the time the love of my life was a foreign car mechanic, a talented musucian, black belt in the martial arts, and a vegetarian like me, and he completely rebuilt the Volvo's engine, including boring it out so that eventually it had a racing engine under its sedate hood.
I continued to fix up the car, redoing the interior and painting it a deep forrest green until it was a beauty, inside and out. I loved it. No I adored it! I changed the oil, brake pads and struts myself. Sigh. It was fast and sure-footed, and carried me safely up and down the Colorado mountains in blizzard conditions, from NY to CA more than once. Many people asked me if it was for sale, and eventually, after many years, many "no's", and many thousands of miles, I agreed to sell it. But I could not witness the final transaction, or the last time it backed down my driveway. I was too sad. I've had a number of good, even very good vehicles since then, but never, ever have I had a car with which I had such an affinity. I still miss it.

Anonymous said...

Tears to my eyes again. Sometimes we all need a few tears.