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.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A November Walk In The Woods

There is never a time when I'm alone in the woods, thanks to my four-legged talisman. He leads, I follow, until, that is, we come to a trail junction and he wants to know which path we will take next. Then he looks at me expectantly, waiting for me to point either right or left. As great as it is to have Atticus for company, I’m even more blessed because my hiking partner is the best kind of company – silent; and he takes as much joy in the woods as I do. Ralph Waldo Emerson liked the church best when it was empty. I am the same way with the woods: reverence through solitude.

On Sunday morning, it was bitterly cold and we were early enough to have the woods to ourselves. The only sounds were the crunch of frozen leaves underfoot, an occasional melancholy birdsong, the rhythm of my breathing and the wind hissing through the trees. The plan was for a quick hike along the Morgan-Percival loop in Holderness overlooking Squam Lake before heading over to Newfound Lake to join two of my brothers for lunch. However, after the mild meanderings of the lower portion of the trail and the short steeper section in the last portion of the Mt. Morgan Trail, I changed my mind.

Atticus sat by a trail junction sign: Straight ahead (and up) to Mt. Morgan (0.4 miles and eventually over to Mt. Percival); or left to Mt. Webster (1.4 miles) along the Crawford Ridgepole Trail. Because we were now higher and more exposed and the wind was strong enough to make me pull my balaclava over my head and cover everything other than my eyes and we were in a hurry, the logical thing would have been to climb Mt. Morgan and then hop over to Mt. Percival and finish the loop with plenty of time to get to my brother's. But a funny thing happens to me in the woods – even when they are naked and so cold it's uncomfortable to stand still for more than a minute. I become a child again.

I'd never been to Mt. Webster (nor even heard of it) and decided it would be a fine time to go. And so Atticus and I followed our hearts instead of our plans and headed to points unknown.

The trail rolled pleasantly along through the November woods and we walked quickly in the cold, dark shadows of the ridge to the south with little protection from the bitter wind coming from the north. Soon, ice crystals formed on my eyebrows and eyelashes. If there had been snow on the ground it would have passed for the heart of winter instead of the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

While alone with Atticus in the frozen woods with gusts bearing down on us something wild was awakened in me. It had to do with making the choice to leave a warm bed and the Sunday paper behind to be out in elements most would never venture out in and until three years ago I wouldn't have either. We were suddenly as feral as our surroundings, out in untamed world, and perversely I found comfort in my discomfort. It came from within…and without. For the woods were frozen and harsh but still seemed to pulse with unseen life; just as my body did under several layers of clothing.

A friend of mine recently described a feeling she had deep within when she was moved to tears by something warm and beautiful and unexpected. It wasn't a pang in her heart but lower, but not in her gut either; perhaps, I surmise, it was in her soul. That's what it was like for me on Sunday morning. I felt a pang in my soul standing on the mountainside and thought of something the painter Andrew Wyeth said: "I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape – the loneliness of it – the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it – the whole story doesn't show."

There's something about there being more to the story, to the mystery of nature and what happens when we become part of the story simply by participating in it.

I could write on and on, I suppose, about how we eventually found the spur path to the summit of Mt. Webster and then two-tenths of a mile later found a nice outlook with a view down on the lake and over towards Whiteface's snowy white face and the pointed peak of Chocorua. Or I could tell you how when we turned back and made it to the summit of Morgan that there was a river of ice along the trail and we had to rock and root hop our way to the top and when we reached it we sat shielded from the wind in a warm sun overlooking a brilliant Squam Lake rippled by the wind. However, to me the day was defined by a whimsical decision to stray from the route and we found ourselves enjoying this most unlikely weather on a lesser-used portion of trail. It is special indeed when you find yourself graced to become part of what you love, as wild as the wind and as primitive as the mountainside itself. And we were there not because we went with friends or because I was checking it off this or that list but simply because something within stirred me out of bed and urged me on. It is the story of why we go to the woods in the first place, even as children. It is the feeling of being part of something not available to us anywhere else but in the forest.

Some of our best journeys outside take me inside. Such is the simple and uncomplicated joy of being in the woods.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

My November Guest

I’m not sure if you are familiar with Robert Frost’s poem, “My November Guest” or not. It’s beautiful for the starkness it evokes and suited my purpose this morning while wending along a path next to the Saco River this morning in North Conway. When we lost the path we stumbled upon a rustic threadbare road, no more than tire ruts through short wet grass, bare of trees but carpeted with slick brown leaves. It was while walking along this road and following Atticus between the gray trees under gray clouds lingering after the rain (perhaps wondering if their job was done), that I thought of a few lines from the poem:

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow…

Frost, I’m told, was writing about the beauty of melancholy or loneliness. Perhaps so. But I was feeling anything but melancholy – I never do in the woods – and find those three lines to be very beautiful. They strike at my throat like a lover’s glance from across the room.

And, of course, how could I be lonely? Not while following this trotting little hobbit and his swaying fanny, his flopping ears. He is excited by the forest. Not like other dogs I’ve had or known. He does not take off in hyperactive wild loops weaving madly through trees, chasing scents and the slightest movement. Instead he stays on the trail. He’ll stop to sniff a bare branch of some forgotten shrub but then before I am on him he moves on, intent on leading the way.

We moved silently this way for a while, enjoying the morning. From time to time Atticus stopped and looked through the woods as if he saw something, but after a moment or two he’d be on his way again until one time he didn’t move. He stopped and looked to the left through a thicket. Eventually he sat and watched. It took me a little while to see the doe, not 20 feet away, as still as a statue. Ever so slowly I sat on the ground next to Atticus and we watched that deer for fifteen minutes. Our eyes never wavered from her graceful form when she began to relax. Then, as if remembering an appointment she was late for, she bound through the forest in the opposite direction, her white tale rising high with each kick.

My God, talk of how stunning nature is!

It’s hunting season here. To think that a hunter could see that doe as we did and still pull the trigger is beyond comprehension. I will never understand how propelling a bullet into such a elegant creature enriches a person more than being able to share the woods with her.

Atticus sat and watched her departure, then looked at me. We met in a glance halfway between our two species in a world we’ve grown comfortable with. I think we were thinking the same thoughts, feeling the same things, both in love with the ‘bare November days before the coming of the snow’.

My November Guest
By Robert Frost

My Sorrow, when she's here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She's glad the birds are gone away,
She's glad her simple worsted grey
Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Our Winter Plans

This morning when Atticus and I walked, it finally felt like November: bare, steel-gray trees; brown lifeless leaves; the lazy drift of snowflakes that will amount to nothing; a chill in the air and my bones. I’m hoping we can get two such long walks in each day while I get myself into winter hiking shape.

During the previous three winters we’ve had very busy schedules. In the first – our first winter of hiking – we attempted to do all 48 in the 90 days of the season but fell short by two hikes with 41 peaks. The second winter we raised money for the Jimmy Fund and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute by trying to hike all 48 twice in the 90 days. We fell short by four hikes with 81 peaks. Last winter we attempted the two rounds again, raising money for Angell Animal Medical Center, but, well, winter decided to be winter. Record snow totals held us to 66 peaks gathered. Funny, three winters in a row we have fallen short of the goal I set. And yet the experiences have been rich and tangible and many will be with me for as long as my memory works.

This winter? I’ve given it some thought and know that we’ll be hiking. However, I’ve decided we won’t go for a full round. It will be strange not to have that obsession to sink myself into but also a bit of a relief. That doesn’t mean I don’t have goals to reach for. This winter I intend of concentrating on my career by working diligently on the book. My goal is to write every day, surrendering to that great adventure.

Physically, I have a different goal. It has been announced that the road to the Cog Railroad at the base of Mount Washington will not be open this year. For the last three years it has been, and this has made ascents of Mt. Washington and Monroe and Eisenhower much easier. This makes reaching the summit of Washington and Monroe much more difficult. Therefore, I think the goal this winter will be to do something I’ve given thought to the last two winters but things never worked out: we may just attempt a one-day Presidential Traverse. It would take us over Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, Pierce and Jackson. (Okay, maybe not Jackson. I’ve yet to make up my mind on that one.)

Is a winter Presidential Traverse feasible? Two winters ago, when we hit the 81 peaks, I think we could have done it then. Last winter we never got into a rhythm and therefore didn’t get into good enough shape. Winter is only about six weeks away so I need to do some work between now and then: diet and endurance work. The endurance work I don’t mind. The diet, well, it will have to take place if I want to reach this goal. Part of our training will be to hike the 4,000-footers that were sponsored but never reached last winter.

From what I know, a dog has never done a Winter Presidential Traverse before. I don’t doubt that Atticus can do one, if we get the proper weather. The question is, can I do one?

While on the subject of our last three winters, I’ve a confession to make: in attempting to do either one or two rounds in 90 days, I found myself putting a lot of pressure on myself, especially when using the quests as a fundraiser. By the time each winter ended I needed a break from the mountains. My mind was spent. Then again, that was part of the endurance event. This winter I’m hoping that by hiking only what I want to hike that won’t happen. I love hiking too much for it to turn into a commitment I have to do and I don’t want to resent it. If we set out to do two rounds again, mentally I wouldn’t have what it takes this time around. Perhaps you can understand why I felt burned out on peak-bagging when you consider that during the last three winters Atticus and I have hiked 188 peaks. That’s 188 more than I ever imagine we’d hike in the winter only four years ago.

As for fundraising for Angell, that’s not done. When the book is sold to a publisher part of the agreement will be that a portion of each sale will go to Angell Animal Medical Center. And besides, there will be other fundraising adventures coming our way in the future – just not this winter. Here’s a few possibilities: Tom & Atticus Hike… the Adirondacks; the Appalachian Trail; all NH 48 in one month.

That’s it for now from a very chilly Tamworth.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Our Most Recent Column for the Northcountry News: A Return to the Trails

It has been said that the great poet philosophers of past centuries debated over the number of angels that could fit on the head of a pin. For us, the more fitting question is how many angels can fit on a hike without tripping over each other.

Draped in prayers carried forth by a legion of angels from good-hearted people around New England and various corners of the United States, a little dog entered the woods as he always has – with a sprite-like bounce any self-respecting wood faerie would envy. Carefree, irrepressibly joyous, with ears bouncing up and down (his sign of happiness in movement), the scars of his psyche have faded as much as those on his throat. It is as if the attack never occurred and a hole was never ripped in his throat.

Our objective for our return hike was Potash Mountain, the fair sister of Hedgehog Mountain. Yes, I know Potash is not a 4,000-footer, and therefore not a sexy climb to some, but I’ve gotten over my prejudices in such matters, and much to his credit, Atticus never had them. The woods are the woods and the White Mountains are the White Mountains. Besides, while the elevation gain is only 1,400 feet in 1.9 miles, much of that comes in rather steep sections of ledge. My body tells me it is as tough a climb as Hale, Tecumseh or Jackson, and the views to be had on top are far more beautiful than what can be seen on two of the three aforementioned peaks.

We moved easily through the first section of woods and counted it as good luck that everyone else in the full parking lot apparently took a left at the fork in the trail and headed to Hedgehog instead. The stream was high after recent rains so halfway across I picked up Atticus and carried him like a loaf of bread over ten or so feet of rushing water. Once across he shook of the indignity of his portage and once again led on. In that section the trail climbs up through the woods before flattening out again, and so did we. Then we crossed the old logging road (we would take this out to the Kancamagus Highway on the return trip to avoid the stream crossing) and were on our way again, up again.

These are the magical woods of moose and other invisible woodland creatures but in the meditative ebb and flow of my breathing it may as well have been Tolkien’s Mirkwood Forest. I wouldn’t have been shocked to see a wayward dwarf or a fast-fading elf feast just ten trees away. As I wrote before, the woods are the woods. No matter where they are located I find myself transported to my most innocent states when in them. Moreover, since I have this gentle little hobbit of a creature serving as my guide, who can blame me for these little fantastical side trips?

We scrambled up tree-roots and rock ledges kept slick in the shadowy forest and towards a tunnel of light that led us to a ledge with a great view out to Passaconaway. There we sat in the brisk breeze and bright sun, Atticus eating peanut butter crackers out of my hand and then sipping his water; me checking him for any ill-effects and finding none.

From that ledge, the trail twisted and turned along the southern side of the mountain and seemed to go on forever with the last pitch always just around the next corner. After rocky undulations along a thickly wooded area we came to that ankle-testing angled ledge walk. Then came the final steep push up and to the right.

Atticus is always just ahead of me, 10, maybe 20 yards, ahead at most – until we get to the summit. That’s when he hurries forward like a child on Christmas morning, rushing to see what Santa has left under the tree. When I caught up to him he was on the northern ledge catching the breeze with his floppy ears, looking out the Hancocks and Carrigain. When I sat him in the crook of my arm, he could see over the trees and turned his gaze towards white Mount Washington and the clouds sailing rapidly over it like specters on a haunt.

After a spell, we moved out of the wind and took in the view on the leeward side – Passaconaway, the Sleepers, the Tripyramids, the Fool Killer, and the two Osceolas. We made the hike with our friends Ken and Ann Stampfer and their son, Mark, and we sat together eating our lunches. Atticus ate his London broil – you don’t get to celebrate a return to the trails every day – and when he finished he sat and then stretched out above us in the sun.

Perhaps our conversation bored him or maybe he wanted to see what else the mountaintop had to offer, but after a bit he wandered off. When I interrupted him several minutes later he was off on his own on the other side of a small wall of trees and shrubs looking towards Chocorua.

Our return trip was a pleasant walk in the woods in the fading light of the aging afternoon. None of us had a care in the world. We had passed the test in our return to the trails and there was much to be thankful for.

There is a gift in these mountains and I receive it each time I tread a forest path or stand looking at sights I never imagined existed. But a greater gift comes to me in sharing it in silent communion with an a little dog who knows both the light and the dark life has to offer and yet continues to evolve in ways I can only dream of.

Dr. Nick Trout, a veterinarian at Angell Animal Medical Center and author of the NY Times bestseller “Tell Me Where It Hurts” recently wrote something to me. In it was this sentence: “Animals come into our lives prepared to teach, if only those of us on the human side of the bond would be humble enough to learn.”

In my journeys, I am forever humbled by the mountains of New Hampshire and even more so by life lessons learned from a curious little dog who teaches me a great deal about being a better human.

The Mountain Ear Updates Atticus' Condition

In the most recent issue of The Mountain Ear (November 6, 2008; Volume 33, Number 25, Page 24), Steve Smith’s “Nooks & Crannies” hiking column has an update on Atticus. It reads as follows:

Nice to hear from Tom Ryan of Tam- worth that Atticus M. Finch, his re- nowned peakbagging miniature schnauzer (who in the last two years has made nearly 150 winter ascents of 4000-foot peaks for fundraising efforts), is rapidly recovering from a nearly fatal attack by a larger dog that occurred during a walk on a trail in early October. Last weekend they were back out in the woods climbing Potash Mountain off the Kanc. Atticus is one tough pooch. Ryan offers high praise for Dr. Christine O’Connell at North Country Animal Hospital in North Conway, who treated Atticus after the attack. You can follow the adventures of Tom and Atticus at

Thank you, Steve.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Thanks For Voting YES on Question 3

Massachusetts residents: Just a quick thank you from one little dog who hated to see other dogs abused as they have been in the Greyhound racing industry. Thank goodness that's over. Now, if other states will only follow suit. (By the way, the photo is from our hike this past weekend to Potash.)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Great Thanks to the Flying Fifties for their Support of Atticus

That energetic group of ski enthusiasts in Lincoln, the Flying Fifties, have get well wishes for Atticus on their website: If you scroll down their website [which is interesting in its own right] you will see Atticus and their good wishes towards a full recovery under the title: "Our Prayers For The Complete Recovery Of Atticus". In the short post they write:

Tom and Atticus climb the White Mountains as an inseparable team and publish their exploits in the Northcountry News. But Atticus recently met with some very unfortunate bad luck that resulted in severe injuries to a little guy we have all grown to love in the North Country. We're all praying for a complete recovery.

A Return to the Trails

Yesterday, three weeks after the attack on Atticus, we returned to the trails without a hint that it ever occurred. We climbed Mt. Potash with Ken, Ann and Mark Stampfer. It was a brisk but beautiful day in the woods, as Ken's photos (above) attest to. Potash is a great 'little' mountain that offers wonderful views close up of some of the Sandwich Range and as far away as Washington.

What a pleasure to see little Atticus back in his favorite setting, walking peacefully and purposefully through the woods, then summit sitting, enjoying the views. I hope to get back on the trail quite often this November as we gear up for a different kind of winter challenge and I need to get back into shape. As of Wednesday this week, Atticus and I will be shifting over to North Conway for six days and plan to get on some of the trails in that area.