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 01, 2011

Following Atticus Interview

Today, I had to answer questions via email for a journalist. I know not all of my answers will make it into the article being written so I'm printing the entire thing here.  I hope you enjoy it.  As for the publication, I won't mention its name as I'm sure a much briefer version will appear in its pages before too long.

Here you go...

How did Atticus come into your life?

I had rescued an elderly miniature schnauzer, Maxwell Garrison Gillis.  He was only with me for a year and a half before he died.  Soon after I attempted to rescue any other miniature schnauzer that might be in need but I didn’t have any luck.  So my friends, who knew I was grieving, gave me a thousand dollars and told me to go out and find a puppy.  Once my on-line search started a confluence of fateful emails with a breeder from down south brought Atticus into my life. 

As you’ll see when you read the book, this interaction with the breeder at the beginning and throughout the story is a main theme in our book.

What is it about Atticus that made you want to simplify your life?

It was Maxwell Garrison Gillis, not Atticus that made me aware I needed to simplify things.  When I rescued him I was leading a complicated, controversial, and exciting life running a one-person newspaper in a seething political town.  I was always “on.”  But when Max came into my life I was forced to pay attention to someone else’s needs.  I had always been on the move and he gave me a reason to stay home more often.  He gave me someone to look after.  He gave me a home.  Seeing him curl up in a small ball on my bed while I was on the phone talking about the latest lies of some small town politician made me realize I wanted to find that same kind of innocence he exhibited on a daily basis. 

How did Atticus help put small-town politics into perspective?

After Max passed on I had the responsibility of raising Atticus. His breeder, Paige Foster, had entrusted a very special puppy to me (I wouldn’t know for years just how special she thought he was) and I took my responsibility seriously.  When you raise a puppy, there is so much you have to take into account.  I was given charge of a new life and I wanted to make sure that he had the kind of life the once-neglected Max had been denied for the first decade of his life. 

When you love someone, everything else falls away.  When you care for someone - that becomes the priority.  Putting Max, and then Atticus first, humbled me and put things into perspective for me.

What makes Atticus happy?

Not long ago someone asked me if Atticus has a voice in the book.  He doesn’t.  It would be presumptuous and disingenuous of me to pretend I know what he’s thinking or what he would say if he could speak.  I won’t pretend to know everything that makes him happy.  But from what I see being free is the main thing.  He gets to be with me, which is a job he takes extremely seriously as he acts as though I’m his responsibility.  By being with me he gets treated as an equal.  I like to think that makes him happy. 

Being in nature also does it.  This I can clearly see.  If we are on a beach or in the woods there’s more of a spring to his step.  And being on a mountaintop…well, something comes over him.  The best I can describe it is that he seems to find his bliss and his center on top of a peak.  He sits and sits and sits moving nothing but his head and eyes taking in the view.  And when we first get to a mountaintop he wants me to pick him up so we can share the view together.  In my arms, with both our eyes cast out towards the horizon, I feel his body relax, I hear him sigh, and I see that this is a place he was meant to be.

Why 48 peaks, twice each, in the winter?

The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) created the 4,000-Footer Club more than fifty years ago.  Its purpose was to get people to explore the four corners of the White Mountains of New Hampshire and not just hang out on the most popular peaks.  There are 48 of them.  Finish them and you get a patch and a scroll signifying the accomplishment.  More than 8,000 people and 100 dogs have completed that ‘List’ through the years. 

Then there’s the ‘Winter List.’ It’s much difficult club to become a member of and far fewer people have accomplished this.  It’s even rarer, as you might imagine, to do all the peaks in one winter. 

At the time I was looking for a way to pay tribute to a friend who had died of cancer.  Just before her cancer was detected she’d done a three-day, sixty mile cancer walk and told me it was tough and something she’d never dreamed of doing, but it was also rewarding.  So setting out to do something just as tough and rare and rewarding was the impetus for attempting to hike 96 peaks in 90 days to raise money for the fight against cancer for the Jimmy Fund and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and then later for Angell Animal Medical Center.

What was the highlight of your trek?

There’s no one highlight.  For the rest of my life moments of our journeys in the mountains, especially in winter, will flash in my mind. It happens on a daily basis to me.  I suppose what mattered most was that throughout it all, we grew even closer than imaginable.  Not only did we have an already incredibly intimate bond shared by man and dog, but we also shared a bond between hiking partners.  There’s a rare intimacy that’s shared between two fellow adventurers that the rest of the world can never know.  People can think they know about it but until you experience it it’s something that cannot be translated for others.

In three winters Atticus and I climbed 188 winter peaks.  In that time we shared numerous adventures and lived a life most others only can dream of.  The friendship that existed before then and grew because of those mountains – that was the highlight.

Did you and/or Atticus ever want to give up?

Again, I cannot and will not speak for him.  I can say is that Atticus always had a say in every hike.  If he didn’t want to go, we didn’t go.  If we got so far into the hike and he wanted to turn back we did.  He didn’t do either of these very often, but he did it enough to know he could always have a say.

As for me, there were many times I wanted to give up.  Winter in the White Mountains can be exhilarating and beautiful.  But it can also be daunting, dangerous, and about the loneliest place in the world.  On days when the sun is bright and the skies bright blue, the snow is brilliant white and my heart soars.  But when it’s gray and misty and there are no views and the wind howls like a banshee, well, I shiver and I shudder and I question myself. 

And of course it’s incredibly difficult to get out of bed when you are aching from a twenty mile hike and you have to get up and do another hike again, especially when the temperature is below zero and everyone you know is home safe and sound.

What is different about your life with Atticus in it?

That’s what our book is about.  Read it and you’ll find the answer. 

If I had to sum it up though, I’d say that throughout all of our lives we all lose things along the way.  When we are young and innocent we dream of how special the world will be and how wonderful we can be when we grow up.  And yet along the way year by year that gets chipped away.  We get to be middle-aged and often all we can think of us is just getting by.  We forget the magic.  We forget how much of a gift life is. 

If we are lucky, fate knocks on our door and says “Wake up! I’ve got an adventure for you to go on.”  Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, refers to this as the ‘hero’s journey’.  It’s that moment we step away from the usual and enter a different realm that at first seems uncomfortable, maybe even impossible, and then yields to a more rewarding existence.  Soon you’re on your way back to everything you ever dreamed of being. . . . That is, if you have the courage of your convictions and the willingness to leave the old and the safe behind for this new life – the life you were always meant to lead.

First Maxwell Garrison Gillis and then Atticus Maxwell Finch became avatars, guides, if you will, to bring me on this journey back to myself.  As I’ve said many times over, I owe much to one dog who died and another who lived.  I owe them my eternal gratitude for giving me back my life.

What is different about Atticus’ life with you in it?


Sorry, but I won’t even pretend to know the answer to this one.  He was eight weeks old when we joined forces.

If I was to leap for an answer the only thing I’d say is that I’m proud of something Paige Foster said, “Thank you for not training the Atticus out of Atticus.”  In short, I set up guidelines so that he could be safe but the rest was up to him. I allowed him to be whatever he wanted to be.  I simply got out of his way and let him be.

If he didn’t like mountains, we never would have returned for a second hike.  But he did and that was the path we took.

All I can say to this is that raising a puppy and living with the dog as he ages is the same as loving someone: you do your best to protect them, but you let them live and grow and be themselves.  In return you receive so many gifts, especially the knowledge that you helped someone on their own personal journey.

If we weren’t together, well, I have no idea what his life would have been like.  Paige always thought he was extraordinary, so perhaps he would have been extraordinary in some other way.  Thankfully for me, it’s an answer I don’t need to have.

What’s next for you and Atticus?

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie “Hook” (it’s a modern day look at Peter Pan) or not but there’s a great last couple of lines.  Granny Wendy says, “So…your adventures are over.  And Peter Banning says, “Oh no.  To live…to live would be an awfully big adventure.”

We’ll always have our mountains but our greatest adventure continues to be sharing this life together.  I take heart in knowing there are many more adventures to come.  In the last chapter of Following Atticus you will see we set sail on a new one and that is a story unto itself.


pve design said...

sweet - i need to sketch atticus.
sptted you on blogs of note.

Tina L said...


1HappyHiker said...

Thanks Tom for publishing the complete and unabridged text! Very enjoyable and informative!


Bia Botana said...

I loved your interview! I feel like you about my darling Freeway. He changed for better my life and he gave me a chance to be a very happy person.
Freeway is sending AUAU-Hello! to Atticus!

Out Walking the Dog said...

Wonderful interview. I had a lovely mini Schnauzer when I was a kid, but your relationship with Atticus reminds me of mine with my current dog, a gray mutt who I completely adore. He is the spirit behind my own blog, which tracks urban nature (yes we have nature in NYC!). I hope you'll visit a post called "Philosopher Dog: I Found Myself Astray." I think you'd enjoy it.

I look forward to reading your book.

farm girl said...

. . .and so about your "last" chapter, is it moving forward?
Loved your love of life, love of our precious land, and most of all, your love for Atticus. So just wondering about that last chapter . . .

Nicole said...

Hi Tom,

My husband and I have a home in Intervale and are up there quite often. We were there last week and saw an article about you and Atticus in one of the local papers. We were so touched just by the article that we immediately went to White Birch Books and got one of your autographed copies. My husband called dibs on the book when we got it and now, two days later, is reading the last pages. When he's done it's mine, and I can't wait to read it.

This entry was so nice to read, and I'm glad that you are so good to Atticus and that there's so much love between the two of you. Our dog, who I got before I met my husband, has been with me for almost 10 years now...that bond is so special, and a dog that can give someone so much love and happiness deserves the same in return.

Maybe someday we'll meet on a trail somewhere. I'd know Atticus anywhere. ;)

Jaclk Gaffney said...

I just finished the book through tears and laughter and understanding of man's relationship with dogs.I have had 9dogs in my life but my last one who just recently died, a cocker spaniel of 14+ years namd Atticus for the same reason as your Atticus.My heart is missing a piece that will never be replaced.I feel your wonderful book was written for me.Thank You
Jack Gaffney
Irvington, New York