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, October 31, 2008

Newburyport Current Runs Piece About Tom & Atticus

Atticus and I moved out of Newburyport a little more than a year ago, but as one friend emailed us this morning “you may be gone but you are not forgotten.”

The Newburyport Current ran a small piece on our being honored by the MSPCA at the JFK Library a couple of weeks ago. (How’s that for a lot of initials?) They also noted that six days before the award presentation Atticus was viciously attacked.

I had no idea they were running piece but it’s good to know we are still remembered.

Another friend points out that certain people who didn’t like the coverage they received in The Undertoad during its 11-year run might be panicking a bit this morning when they read The Current and noted that the caption under the photo mistakenly referring to me as a “Newburyport resident”.

My friend, who will remain nameless, noted, “I think I heard the collective screams of one drunken ex-city councilor and some former mayors all the way across town after they read that caption!”

Newburyport is a charming place and the politics, for those of you who don’t know it, could be called lively…if piranhas are considered lively. Or at least the politics used to be ‘lively’. While running The Undertoad, I literally sat in the middle of the tempest in a teapot provincial political world of Newburyport when it raged at its worst. Live in a small town and print an opinion and you are bound to get enemies, as well as some friends.

How grotesque can politics in Newburyport get? Now that Licorice & Sloe Tea Company is out of business, I can tell this story. When last winter started, L & S held a fundraiser to raise money for Angell Animal Medical Center in Atticus and my name. When it was announced in a couple of papers, the people at Licorice & Sloe received a couple of threats of boycott from two self-proclaimed progressive movers and shakers around town. (One of them, I believe, ironically referred to me as an animal). It didn’t matter that the tea house was raising money for the wonderful non-profit animal hospital, the way these two people saw it (one of them being active in the Newburyport Democratic City Committee) they were doing something nice that was associated with me.

Kind of reminds me of the few who went around town telling businesses they would boycott them if they continued to advertise in The Undertoad (one of these fellows once asked if he could have a lifetime subscription of my paper delivered to his High Street manse) only to have a coupe of business owners ask, “How do you know we advertise in The Undertoad.”

Ah, because they all read it.

But that is now ancient history. It’s now the soft life of living in and writing about mountains and the courage and wondrous capabilities of a little dog.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Our Latest Column for the Northcountry News

"It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure." ~ Joseph Campbell

On a perfect autumn day when the sun was warm but not hot, when the breeze was cool but not cold, when the foliage flamed orange and red against a cerulean sky, Atticus and I went for a walk. We came to a house where a dog quickly made her way towards us and always-innocent and always-trusting Atticus bounced forward to say, "Hello, friend." In a split second the other dog had Atticus by the throat, ripping and tearing at him, shaking his little body like a rag doll. By the time I reached Atticus his body was hanging limply. I feared him dead. When she dropped him he crumbled to the ground.

In a matter of seconds we fell from Heaven into Hell.

In the hours that followed I watched over Atticus after Dr. Christine O'Connell from the North Country Animal Hospital in North Conway sewed up the hole in his throat and inserted gruesome tubes to drain the area beneath his flesh that had been poisoned by the dog trying to kill him.

That night, while on a sleepless vigil over my little friend, I posted a message on our website telling friends of the horror that had transpired earlier in the day and of how I had to watch Atticus that night and check his breathing, hoping a lung was not collapsed and hoping he did not go into shock.

Emails started coming in. The first was from Bryan Flagg, the editor and publisher of the North Country News. Bryan wasted no time in posting the news on this paper's website. News also spread like wild fire in the hiking websites that little Atticus had been attacked and was not doing well. Within a day and a half, more than 200 emails came in, all offering prayers for Atticus; all wanting updates. Within a couple of more days the total was well over 400 emails. People offered money to help pay for his medical bills. One man offered his company helicopter to airlift Atticus down to Boston's Angell Animal Medical Center, one of the best hospitals in the world, if he needed to get there in a hurry. Representatives from Angell informed me that if we needed them they would be there for us and we would not have to wait longer than 10 seconds before coming in the door to be seen.

A year ago Atticus and I move north from Newburyport, Massachusetts. We had fallen head over heels for the mountains and decided this was the only place we wanted to live. I threw caution to the wind, dropped out of Newburyport's mayor's race, sold my newspaper and we came north. It proved to be a difficult move. We'd come from a small, tightly-packed city where nearly everyone knew our name and we ventured to the mountains where hikers knew us but no one else did. I was concerned about leaving behind the sense of community we had enjoyed.

I learned many lessons in the days following the attack on Atticus:

  • Most dogs Atticus' size would not have survived the attack. Hiking hundreds of mountains has made his neck strong, not to mention his will.
  • There are good vets up here in the mountains. During our emergency we literally stumbled upon Dr. Christine O'Connell and now we know we have a vet up here that is as good as any I've ever met.
  • This little dog I live and hike with is made of stronger stuff than I am. In the days that followed, I watched his healing progress beyond anything anyone could imagine.
  • Thanks to Bryan and Suzanne Flagg, we have found a new community and it is called the Northcountry News. It's made up of the great couple who run it and those of you who read it. In the week following the attack, Bryan circled the wagons and made sure all knew about Atticus and how he was doing, whether it was in the newspaper, the website or on the radio. I received countless emails from strangers who were there for us because of Bryan.

Six nights after nearly dying, Atticus walked the red carpet into the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston to be honored as the co-recipient of one of the four Hero Awards the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals gives out annually. The big star for the night was supposed to be the country singer, Emmylou Harris. However, in the end, it was clear that a little dog deserved equal billing, if not sole billing.

Atticus sauntered into the place, weaving through the crowd of the wealthy donors, many of whom brought their dogs with them – at least for the cocktail reception leading up to the dinner – but he was the only one off leash, the only one to walk through that crowd as if he owned the place. You can only imagine the joy I took in watching him climb out of what had befallen him less than a week earlier and seeing him mingle with other dogs, without fear, just as trusting and innocent as he had been before – as only an advanced soul can do.

Much of the way Atticus handled everything had to do with how I handled it and for that I have all of you who reached out with kind thoughts and prayers and warm words for through them I found the strength to lead

In the days following the event at the JFK Library I closed a long passage about the week that was and the night it ended with with the following:

"How lucky we are, this man and dog, to have the experiences we share. How many lifetime moments we've already had together in the 6 ½ years we've known each other. I cannot imagine a world without Atticus in it, not now, not while the adventures come at us one after another.

"Some day, if I live long enough so that I last longer than my family and friends and most of my good senses and I end up in a nursing home where I am all alone, those who take care of me will surely think me mad when I tell them of one little dog, the adventures we shared together, 188 mountains climbed in three winters together, a night on the stage of the JFK Library.

"I'm a sentimental fool; it's in my Irish blood. It's for this reason that I think it is so cruel that dogs lives are shorter than the people who love them. No wonder when thinking of Atticus and our adventures together, I'm so moved whenever I read that wonderful last line from A.A. Milne's House at Pooh Corner: "So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be

A writer needs readers. Without Bryan and Suzanne and without all of you, these words would mean nothing. I thank you for your good thoughts and wishes; I thank you for your prayers; I thank you for this sense of community; and I thank you for reading. Here in the mountains, neighbors may not be right next door like they were in Newburyport, but I take heart in knowing the distance does nothing to lessen the warmth that comes with community.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Heartwarming Feedback

See, I even have proof that this writer didn’t trip over his words and make too much of a fool of himself on stage the other night at the JFK Presidential Library. A woman named Teresa is my witness. Her comment can be found on a post two below this one but I’ll reprint it here too.

Tom,I was at the JFK last night and had a chance to get a quick pet with Atticus while he was making the rounds.

I have to tell you how much I enjoyed hearing you speak - you did a great job with having the crowd laugh, cry and cheer for the two of you.

I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to meet you, but at least I got a pet from Atticus(which by chance is my neighbor's dogs name, and the dog across the street is Scout -notice a theme?)

Good luck,

Monday, October 13, 2008

Atticus Update

Atticus saw Dr. O’Connell today. (I guess I could write it the other way around, too.) He was hesitant about going into the examination room but I think his opinion of that room has now changed since she took out the drainage tubes and scrubbed his neck for him – it’s been itching like crazy and he’s done his best not to scratch it, instead coming over to me to let me scratch it for him instead. He’s a good patient.

The doctor, who by the way has only been a vet since June (she was a vet tech before that), thinks he looks good and the wounds are healing. We’ll see her at the beginning of next week when she’ll take out the stitches.

Atticus and I are off to Newburyport tomorrow for a few mental health days. It will be good for him to see some warm and welcoming faces. In the last 48 hours we’ve received more than 200 emails from people wishing him well. Many of those emails live in Nbpt and will get to see him first hand.

Thanks for all the love and support, everyone!

Thank You Cards

Various readers have asked for the address of Dr. Christine O'Connell, the veterinarian who took care of Atticus after Friday's attack, so they can send her a thank you note or card. Here it is:

Christine O'Connell, DVM
North Country Animal Hospital
2237 West Side Road
North Conway, NH 03860

People continue to ask what they can do to help out right now. Feel free to drop a note of thanks to the veterinarian who helped a little dog in need. Angell will always be our place for major problems but I was so impressed by North Country Animal Hospital that it's clear they are our new local vet.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Healing Process Begins

We didn't do much but we did get out and about today. Atticus, understandably didn't feel like walking very far, but I really wanted him to get back into the woods so I spent about 20 minutes stretching his legs and then I took him out on the Brook Path and we just sat there in the woods.

Yesterday and Today; And Atticus On Emmylou Harris' Website

Yesterday, my friend Ann wanted to know if I was getting nervous or excited about this coming Thursday night when Atticus and I will be at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston at the 21st Annual MSPCA-Angell Animal Hall of Fame Dinner. For those who don’t know, Atticus and I are sharing the organizations “Human Hero of the Year Award” for our efforts in raising money for Angell Animal Medical Center by climbing 66 4,000-footers this past winter.

She was incredulous when I stated simply, “No.”

I told her, for everything that went with running The Undertoad in Newburyport; I couldn’t imagine anything that didn’t get me ready for in life. We’ll be getting attention on Thursday night – big deal. As the editor of The ‘Toad I received a lifetime of attention in 11 years and nothing could be as intense as that was. And while I know I’m a writer and not a public speaker, I figured I’d do just fine when it came to the 5-minute speech I’m expected to give.

That was yesterday. That was before I came close to losing Atticus when a dog attacked him by ripping into his throat. That was before I spent the night watching over his innocent body with a goddamn drainage tube sticking out of his neck.

The way I figured it was that while the JFK Library will be packed with a lot of bigwigs, Atticus and I share something most of them will never know. We truly have a unique bond. With all that we’ve gone through in our six and a half years together I figured it would be easy facing that crowd and sharing my relationship with Atticus with them. Standing up there with him would make it easy.

This morning I’m not so sure of that any longer. I am a sentimental fool; a romantic. In lieu of what happened yesterday – in almost losing Atticus, well, right about now I’m not quite sure how I will do on stage. The idea of almost not being able to stand up there with him is a nightmare. My biggest goal is not to turn into the blubbering mess I am right now.

It would have been easy. Get introduced. Start with a joke – “What’s the difference between a miniature schnauzer and a hockey mom?” Then talk calmly for four or five minutes. But that was yesterday.

In the span of a few seconds, this beautiful, bucolic corner of the world became ugly. With the grotesque sounds of an aggressive dog ripping into Atticus’ throat, and his helpless yelps, our world up here changed. At least for a little while. I’m not sure how the better half of Tom & Atticus will handle it, probably much better than I will, but from now on I will be on my guard far more in the future.

Our plan was to go south on Thursday for the dinner and spend the rest of the time in Newburyport, returning here Saturday morning. Now, considering what’s happened to Atti, we are going to Newburyport on Tuesday because the little bug has a lot of friends down there and it always lifts his spirits to see them. I’m sure he’ll appreciate that. Then, when we come back up north, hopefully he’ll be able to climb again and we’ll go find a mountain to sit on.

Get well emails have already started to flow in – and I thank you for them. It means the world to know that the little dog who has moved me has also moved others to the point where they care.

Meanwhile, a friend has forwarded the following to me. She was looking at Emmylou Harris’ website and found it.

21st Annual MSPCA-Angell Animal Hall of Fame Dinner to Honor Emmylou Harris Additional Honorees Include BPD K9s, Teenage Advocate and Canine/Human Mountain Climbers

BOSTON – The MPSCA-Angell will honor world renowned vocalist Emmylou Harris at the non-profit’s 21st Annual Animal Hall of Fame Dinner on October 16 at the JFK Library & Museum. Additional honorees will include the Boston Police Department’s K9 Unit (Animal Hero Award), Amanda MacDonald (Young Hero Award) and Tom Ryan and Atticus M. Finch (Human Hero Award).

“The heroes of 2008 represent all of the animal advocates, champions, and defenders who further the cause of kindness every day, all around us,” said MSPCA president carter Luke. “We pay tribute to them on this special night.”

Since 1987, the MSPCA-Angell has gathered its supporters to promote compassion for animals by honoring those people and animals who uplift us through their extraordinary efforts and encourage us to follow their example. This year the MSPCA-Angell will be presenting its highest honor, the George T. Angell Humanitarian Award to Country Music singer Emmylou Harris for her tireless work in the field of animal welfare. Harris is a longtime supporter of animal welfare. She founded and assists at Bonaparte’s Retreat, a shelter in Nashville dedicated to finding permanent, loving homes for the hardest-to-place animals.

The Animal Hero Award is presented to an animal who has saved the life of one or more humans or animals, or demonstrated remarkable bravery or loyalty. The Boston Police K9 Unit accomplishes all of these requirements daily and is dedicated to keeping Bostonians and visitors to the city safe.

The Human Hero Award is given every year for exceptional devotion, compassion, and bravery on behalf of people and animals. Tom Ryan and his dog, Atticus M. Finch chronicled their adventures hiking 66 of New Hampshire’s 4,000 foot peaks on their blog ( Through their online journal, Ryan recounted each hike and reflected on the unique relationship between humans and the animals in their lives.

The Young Hero Award is presented to a person under 18 who either through volunteer activities or an act of genuine kindness and compassion made a significant difference in the life of one or more animals. Amanda MacDonald collected hundreds of signatures to help the Greyhound Protection Act (, to phase out dog racing in Massachusetts, become a ballot question in 2008.

The evening’s program includes a cocktail reception, seated dinner and awards ceremony including the presentation of the MSPCA-Angell's Hero Awards.

For more information, visit

Atticus' Attack In The Northcountry News

Bryan Flagg at the Northcountry News has posted the following on the paper’s website:

We have just received an email from Tom (Friday Evening, October 10th at 11pm) with some unfortunate News. It seems while walking today in the Wonalancet area, Atticus was severely attacked by another dog.

Atticus is severely hurt, with wounds to his neck and a very large wound at his throat. Rushed to a vet in North Conway, NH, Atticus is heavily sedated and on medications at this time. He is at home with Tom, but he must be checked on every 90 minutes. The next 12-24 Hours are crucial in finding out whether Atticus has a collapsed lung or even further damage.

We will keep you posted as we hear information regarding this very sad news.

Be thinking of Atticus & you may email thoughts and well wishes to Tom & Atticus at:

Monday, October 06, 2008

Hedgehog Mountain: October 5, 2008

“Have you ever wandered lonely through the woods?
And everything there feels just as it should
You're part of the life there
You're part of something good
If you've ever wandered lonely through the woods”
~ Brandi Carlisle

I can think of nothing I do in my life now that gives me the same feeling it did as when I was a child – other than entering a forest. I know of nothing more comforting than those first steps. The contrivances of a civilized life are left at the doorstep of the natural world. In the forest I can be as naked as I want to be, relieved of my self and my sins and I can be the man I dreamed of becoming when I was a child. Money, work, responsibilities, relationships…they mean nothing.

A gentle trill murmurs in my adrenals when the woods swallow me whole and I follow Atticus into a darkness that becomes light. Such is the joy of hiking alone on a gray October day with him. But try as I might, I cannot completely express the sensation. In my struggle to come up with my own words, I lean on those from Robert Louis Stevenson: “It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men's hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”

He’s right, it is that mysterious ‘subtle something’ that makes me excited and calm at the same time. From the moment I step on the path that ‘subtle something’ is always around, and yet just out of sight, as if traveling with us but hiding behind each tree and moving just quick enough that I can only glimpse it out of the corner of my eye but never face on to see what it is. It plays with my senses and seduces me enough so that even the decay of death is sweet and comforting in the forest. That in itself tells me what we find here in the mountains is more worthwhile than what awaits us when we leave them. A world where death is not only not feared; but gives off a fragrant scent and then feeds what continues to grow.

Yesterday, under sullen clouds, Atticus and I made our way into the dark mythic world that awaits us at the start of each hike. It’s this experience that makes the forest as special as the summit. I felt it yesterday on the way to Allen’s Ledge, the summit of Hedgehog and the highlight of our hike: the wondrous East Ledge. I’ve done this hike before but never in October; never when the colors from the ledges are far below us, the way some clouds are seen from above when inside an airplane. I wanted to see the ripe forest spread out beneath us and let it permeate me…in silence.

For silent contemplation in the forest, it helps to get a late start when most are just finishing their day. It also helps to hike with a silent partner. Many of our hikes are this way: there are no need for words between Atticus and me. It’s like what Thomas Merton said in the days leading up to his death: “The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. We are already one. But we imagine that we are not. What we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”

That’s exactly what the two of us share. We often communicate equally with wordless gestures. A knowing look and taking a seat means we’re going to be here for a while. A toss of the head means it’s time to move on, and this can come from either of us. Seriously. When I first saw Atticus do this – toss his head – after a winter of mostly wordless communication on the trail, I realized what we share in the mountains is common ground.

Even with our late start we encountered a few people on their way down while we were on our way up, and one group that was ahead of us, but mostly we were by ourselves. Each time we came upon others I caught snippets of conversations: jobs; politics; sports. I’ve done the same thing on trails when in the company of others and find joy in doing it but nothing compares to the silence we find in the wild.

Hedgehog is a small mountain, but it is still a mountain and up means up. For me this translates into sweating and praying and confessing my Ben & Jerry sins and leaning against trees on my oft-required breaks while cursing my body. I’m told by those who know better that we are not climbing but hiking. The definition doesn’t really matter to me; either way it’s work. Besides, if I climb stairs, I climb a mountain.

It’s in this work in going up that I am broken down and everything that is not needed within is stripped away. Once brought to my base self – deep breaths, a fast beating heart, muscles warm and supple, sweat on my brow and down my spine – I feel the forest pulsing around me, then in me; feel myself much more in tune with Atticus, who moves more effortlessly than I do. (Okay, so while the woods make us equal when it comes to communication, we are not equals when it comes to hiking.) Here he is more at home and by watching him I learn from him. The natural world is his turf and he navigates it the way I lead us down a busy city street.

We have lived in the mountains for a year now. Some business brought me back to Newburyport this past week and I enjoyed a few days with friends and the familiar faces and places of a town that was my home for a dozen years. There was a time when I thought it was a place I’d never leave. But that was before I remembered the mountains of my childhood and was re-introduced to them. People change; so do cities. I left when I changed and the city was changing into something I didn’t like; escaping the khaki wave of new Newburyporters. Still, whenever we return we are embraced. And as much as it has already changed, it seems like we know nearly half of everyone we see in that little city where the Merrimac meets the Atlantic.

I thought about that world we used to know and compared it to the one we presently know while sitting alone on the East Ledge of Hedgehog yesterday, sipping a grape soda and looking at the carpet of trees beneath my dangling feet. I from Passaconaway over to Chocorua and all the undulations between the two and compared them to the trials and tribulations of this past year. And yet there is no doubt: trading that very public life for this very private one shared with forests, streams, mountains and that ‘subtle something’, along with this curious but comfortable little dog was well worth it. There is, after all, something to be said for living the life I dreamed of living.