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.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Merry Christmas To Our Friends At Angell

To our Angell Family this Holiday Season,

The course of my life was determined by a cigarette. Forty years ago tomorrow, my family fell into a spiral it never recovered from when my mother, long-suffering from MS, died in a hospital bed after dropping a lit cigarette. I was eight years old, the youngest of nine children. The hub of our universe was gone and all the spokes splintered and went their own ways like survivors of a ship wreck – man and children doing their best to somehow survive each on their own.

My father never recovered from this loss and when he died this year it was a relief to him to finally go and join the woman he loved. Some my siblings never recovered either. God bless them, I still root for them. But being the youngest and with a grand view of all of them, I wanted something more. I loved them but didn't want to be anything like them. And so the past four decades became a quest to seek a path where there was none to follow. Sometimes awkwardly, often blind, I wandered and tried to find my way to the top of a mountain I had dreamed of. Step by step, piece by piece, I put together the life I had dreamed of through the best and the worst of times.

Because of what you all do for a living (and obviously for love) you will appreciate that the last steps could only be taken after being touched by two wonderful dogs, my dear Max, whose ashes now grace the top of each of the 48 4,000-footers and, of course, dearest Atticus, who helped me spread those ashes. I did all I could do to reach the mountaintop I had dreamed of in the darkest hours of loneliness but there are some things a man needs help with, some things he cannot do on his own. I learned what I could on my own, but I needed these two souls to teach me what I could not learn on my own - love.

This journey to the mountaintop is a walk from a parking lot (society); into the woods with faith there is something more even though you cannot see it; blood, sweat and tears in climbing over rock, root and other obstructions; challenges of cliffs, ice, snow, high rivers, wild winds; and then when things seem bleakest, when there seems to be no end to the fight for survival, the never-ending journey does end with a brilliant view from a mountain peak.

Atticus brought me to that mountaintop, then when he was sick last year I feared I would lose it all.

That's where you came in. What hit me most about Angell was not that I thought you all could solve anything, but that you brought us hope and hope is a very bright star on the darkest of journeys. It is what is needed most, especially when it seems so far away. There are thousands who have received much more from Angell than Atticus and I have, but I wanted you all to know if you touched us as deeply as you did then, and in knowing that you will always be there for us, there are so many others out there who feel just as deeply and appreciative for what you do as we do.

Richard Bach, in his wonderful little book "Illusions", wrote: "The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other's life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof." First Max, and then Atticus, proved this to me. And you, our Angell Family, have proven it more than you will ever know.

We both thank you for being perfect at what you do. If I could afford it I'd buy each of you anything you would have this Christmas, but since that is not possible, I offer you the only thing I can afford to give – our love and thanks for all you do. I'm sure you hear such things quite often but as far as I am concerned, you all can never hear it enough.

This Christmas Eve, when Atticus and I climb a mountain for our now annual dinner (complete with Christmas lights), we'll give thanks for the gifts you have given us and thank you for touching our lives again and again.

Onward, by all means,
Tom Ryan & Atticus M. Finch

PS: For our other readers, as you know, Atticus and I are not going to be fundraising for Angell this winter while I work on our book, however, giving to Angell and the great work they do is always worthwhile. When our book is published, we’ll be offering a portion of each book sale to the Angell Animal Medical Center. If you are looking for the right gift to give to the animal lover in your life you can always make a donation in their name to Angell. Our contact, and oh, what a contact she is, is Kathleen Santry. If you would like to make a donation so that other animals can have the same care Atticus received, you can email Kathleen for information on how to give at

Friday, December 12, 2008

Hall of Fame Dinner Program

For whatever the reason I continue to stumble when it comes to scanning in the photo page from the program of the MSPCA-Angell's Hall of Fame Dinner at the JFK Presidential Library when Atticus and I were honored with the Human Hero Award. It's nearly two months coming, but here it is...finally.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Our Latest Column for the Northcountry News

Ah, the annual holiday issue. With that in mind, here’s a little something different from Tom & Atticus – some ideas for the winter hiker on your holiday list.

Two or Three Headlamps: In winter, it gets light later and gets dark earlier. Spend enough time on the trails and you will hike sooner or later with a headlamp on. One will fail sooner or later, so bring extras. And always bring extra batteries. A headlamp serves the additional purpose of head protection. Yes, head protection – for when your spouse wants to slap you upside the head because you have the bedroom light on at 4:00 a.m. while getting ready for your hike.

Balaclava: You’d be warm, but also considered the biggest dork in your neighborhood if you wore a balaclava to walk the dog. Fear not, there’s nothing dorky about face protection on a frozen, windy day above treeline in the mountains. As a matter of fact, it is essential. A balaclava protects much of your face from frost bite and serves the additional purpose of making all photos look that much more dramatic. Stand on a mountaintop with a balaclava on and those back home looking at photos of you will understand immediately how dangerously cold it was that day on the mountain – even if it wasn’t. (A little drama never hurt any story.) And of course, if you are like me, balaclavas have a slimming effect when they cover up that double chin.

MSR Snowshoes: More often than not I see city folks in the mountains post-holing through deep snow with crampons on and I’m thinking, “What the hell?” Yes, snowshoes are far more commonly needed than crampons but folks don’t see them as sexy. They watch television shows on climbing Everest and they have an image of what they want to look like when they hike to the top of any of the White Mountains. That image consists of something more manly than snowshoes. They even look so much more dangerous than snowshoes with their big jagged spikes. (And believe me when I tell you they are, as many novice winter hikers will tell you when they gash one of their legs with their own crampons.) The beauty about MSR brand snowshoes is that they are far more aggressive than regular snowshoes when it comes to climbing. To attest to this, I’ve climbed each of the mountains in the Presidential Range at one time or other in snowshoes. Sure there will be times when you need crampons, just not as much as the egotist hiker will tell you. You want to look sexy? Hike in a thong.

Carbon Graphite Trekking Poles: Most hikers will tell you they use trekking poles to ease the impact on their knees while coming down a mountain or for balance while crossing icy rocks in a stream or traversing a snow field high above treeline. That may be so, but the real use I get out of them is that they give me something to hold onto when I can’t go any further and I’m cursing my body for being out of shape while my head hangs in defeat between my slumping shoulders while my arms are extended outward holding onto the pole handles. Usually the phrase that accompanies such a position is “I will never hike another #@@$$%$%! mountain for as long as I live! What was I thinking?” If the poles weren’t there, I’d fall face-first into the snow and look even more pathetic. (The carbon graphite versions are extra light weight and extra strong, if you happen to be like me – extra large.)

Microspikes: These things are fantastic. No they are not as sexy as crampons because they are ‘micro’ and not big manly spikes, but there are times when neither snowshoes nor crampons are needed but you need some traction for good footing. They slip on over your winter boots with ease and come off just as easily, even while you are wearing gloves. They can also be used as a marriage aid. No, not talking about you folks into S & M here, but they will give you a good grip on the ice on your walkway and driveway back home so you have no excuse not to take out the trash even in the iciest of conditions, which will help keep your home life ice free.

Wool Socks & Ziploc Bags: I know you are thinking this is just downright silly but trust me, they are needed. Sure you need one or two pairs of wool socks on your feet in a winter boot, that’s easy to understand. Socks serve other purposes besides just keeping your feet warm. They can work as extra mittens if – God forbid – and emergency arises. They can be used to keep your water or Gatorade from freezing up in your pack. Slide the full bottle in upside down and tuck the stuffed sock into the middle of all your other gear. If that doesn’t keep it from freezing, at least having the water bottle upside down will ensure the freezing takes place at the bottom of the bottle. As for Ziploc Bags, they are the most important of all pieces of winter equipment for they carry those wondrous miniature Snickers bars. Unwrap them before going and put them into the Ziploc Bags so you won’t have to take off your gloves to eat; then stick the little bags where they are easily accessible.

Dog Gear: The best protection you can give to your dog in winter is to not put him or her into a dangerous position. However, when you’ve determined it is okay to bring your own Atticus out in the winter there are two pieces of gear I’ve found to be of great help. The first is his set of Muttluk boots ( I put them on my little hiking partner when the snow is loose or the ground extra cold. When on ice, I take them off him so he can use his claws for traction. Muttluks are also great for summer use above treeline. All too often dogs leave a trail of bloody paw prints behind because their owners haven’t put much thought into their care. The other piece of equipment Atticus uses is a body suit that comes from K9 Top Coat ( Sure he looks like a perverted Aqua Man with his paws and privates revealed for all to see, but everything else is covered with fleece on the inside and neoprene on the outside. I use it on extra cold days, or when he has to trudge through deeper snow. In all fairness, I should point out that Atticus hates to put these things on, but once they are on he does very well with them. He is, after all, a nudist by nature, but I have no doubt he still appreciates this gear.

These are only a few things you need when hiking in the winter. When shopping for them, remember the independent retailers closest to you. Stand by the little guy who gives back to your community whenever you can. But no matter where you get your gear, be safe out there. The mountains can be dangerous.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A High-Flying Dog and his Curiosity of Cats

Atticus and I have moved our operations to North Conway for two weeks. We're house/dog/cat sitting for a friend. While here we are exploring the woods around North Conway and hope to get some good hikes in. You can see how happy Atticus is to be here by his high-flying photo above. You'll also note his curiosity of cats. (He's not sure what to make of them.) Hopefully while here I'll get an opportunity for some good writing. I've also included a photo of the view of the back deck here. Mt. Washington is in the clouds but you can see Adams' pointy top.