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, December 02, 2011

A Secret...

I have a secret for you.  It’s not about the mountains.  It has never been about them.  Then again, you may have already figured that out. 

As soon as we enter the woods and set forth on a trail we leave everything behind.  I mean everything.  There’s Atticus and me and what I wear and what I carry in my pack.  Of course in winter when it’s cold and there are more variables and more dangers to consider I carry far more.  But in comparison to the man who commutes to work in Boston each day, it’s very little.  I noticed that this week while spending a few days down south.  On three occasions I drove along the highways ringing Greater Boston and I saw crazy things on the road.  God, the way people drive – they just don’t care.  They don’t seem to care for others and they don’t seem to care for themselves and the looks on their faces – well, for the most part, it’s sad.  They’re somewhere else.  They are worn down, tired; they are stressed and angry and more often than not headed someplace because they have to be there, not because they want to be there. 

I watched them coming and going and our dear Thoreau was correct: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Atticus and I have it easy compared to those folks.  Our lives are nothing like that, not any more.  Oh, I know I have my own stuff – we all do – but I can’t remember the last time I felt as drawn and spent and empty as many I’d seen on the highways this week. 

The reason we were driving was because we were invited to speak about our story at the wondrous R. J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Connecticut.  It’s a beautiful seaside town that’s polished and scrubbed and feels cleaner and more orderly than most places I’ve ever been.  But it’s not so scrubbed or polished, however, that it feels sterile.  It just feels good.  And the bookstore itself is perhaps the most beautiful bookstore I’ve ever been in.  It was enchanting – the kind of place readers would love to get lost in, or those who dream of being a writer go to and walk among the books and say, “Someday….someday I’d like to see my book up on that polished wooden shelf with all the greats, and someday, if I’m fortunate enough, I’d like to come here and sign my books.” 

We were to speak at night but we showed up unannounced, as we like to do, earlier in the day, to take in the surroundings.  We walked for several minutes through the store taking it all in and for a while no one thought anything at all about us.  Then one woman behind the counter saw Atticus sitting in my arms and said, “Oh, have you seen this book we’re selling?  The dog on the cover looks just like him,” as she pointed at Atticus.  She went and got our book and held it up for me to see, “He looks just like him.  How cute!”

That’s when I finally introduced ourselves and our anonymity was gone.  The staff there was just as extraordinary as the store itself was.  Everyone was kind.  The inn they put us up in was romantic and quaint and precious.  And that night when we spoke, there was a good crowd awaiting us and they were fantastic!  They were upbeat, many having read our book and knew of the Little Buddha and they all smiled as we walked to the podium and looked at Atticus in my arm sitting up looking out at them.  And when I spoke, they listened intently.  They nodded, they smiled, they laughed, some wiped a tear here and there.  When we were done we sat and I signed books and used Atti’s paw print stamp to imprint his “pawtograph.”  People bought so many books, several people buying five, six…one woman bought even more.  The store sold so many books they sold out and had to order more. 

It was everything a writer dreams of. 

That night, after the store closed, Atticus and I walked out into the cold night and strolled the streets of Madison.  Christmas decorations adorned the downtown and lights twinkled like little stars and it seemed we had it all to ourselves.  It was not unlike the trails we seek out here in the mountains – the ones where we can mostly be alone.  The air was clean and filled with a sense of satisfaction. 

As I walked I thought of the high mountains of the Presidential Range where the rock reaches above treeline.  I thought of the times we’ve been there, especially in winter.  I thought of the winter when Atticus led me over those high peaks when he was mostly blind and the following winter when he did it again with restored sight.  I thought of the other times we’ve been up there, especially when we had it to ourselves and all we carry is our thoughts, what’s on our bodies, and what’s in my backpack.  And I thought of being there on top of New England to watch the sunrise, as we plan to do one upcoming winter morning. 

It’s funny, when we are away from home I often think of these mountains, but in the mountains I often think of other things, especially when we are climbing them. 

And that gets back to my original point.  It’s not really about the mountains.  It’s never been about them. 

Thinking about these great peaks and the places we’ve been when writing about them and the success we’ve had, I couldn’t help but think of someone who would have enjoyed every bit of our journey had he lived to see it.  Jack Ryan dreamed of climbing all these mountains and he dreamed of being a writer.  In the end what my father had to settle for one of his nine children to do them for him.  I’m hoping it meant something to him, hoping it still does if he’s somewhere looking out over us from wherever he is.

I thought about my father throughout our drive down into Connecticut and while we were there and could just imagine him calling his sister, Marijane, in Arizona and telling her all about it. You see, he would have said little of it to me, and would have exhibited little pride or excitement for me to witness.  For whatever reason he would have kept it hidden.  But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have filled him up and lifted him up.

So on our way home to Jackson, by way of Newburyport (the other home that has helped define me for as Plutarch wrote: “The city makes the man…”), we made a detour to Medway, the little town I grew up in.  There’s not much there these days other than a few strip malls, some overpriced houses, and commuters.  And there’s no reason for Atticus and me to go there other than that’s where my parents are buried. 

My mother was gone far too early for me to remember much of anything about her.  I was only seven when she died Christmas week.  So when I visit the cemetery I do it more for my father.  And there Atticus and I sat halfway between that perfect bookstore in Madison, Connecticut and the mountains we now love and call home.  I read him the prologue to the book.  It was first written as a letter to him, after all.  Then I told him of the wonders of the last few days and this entire journey.  Then we sat some more and I held Atticus on my lap and the same cool earth that now holds my father’s body held me. 

It’s funny what happens when you first take a step onto a trail and head into the woods.  You really do have no idea where it will ultimately take you.  But this much I do know, it’s not about the mountains.  It has never been about them.  It’s always been about where they take you and who they take you to.
   

Jack Ryan

37 comments:

Sue said...

Just loved your blog this morning and the thoughts you have about your home, your dad, the mountains! It makes me realize how essential it is for all of us to appreciate the smaller, finer things in life. Thanks!

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Thanks, Sue. Such a nice comment. Hope you guys have a good day and great weekend.

Cindi Dejnozka said...

Thanks for sharing.....this makes me look at life a bit differently. It means so much!

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Cindi, thank you for reading us this morning. Here's to living in the moment.

Susan said...

It is all about the journey & the destination, isn't it? Thanks so much for your inspiration and congratulations on your success. Hope to meet you and Tom someday.

Janine said...

Reading your blog this morning brought a tear to my eye. You have life figured out, most people never do. Thank you and Atticus for being such an inspiration to all of us!

Kim@Snug Harbor said...

Great post - I loved your book! It's too bad that more people can't make the time to enjoy their journey.

meyerzone said...

Tom - you captured Madison CT perfectly! Your book inspired me to start hiking more with my dog and you are right - it is not about the 'venue' you are hiking on it's that first step you take on the trail - your mind clears and you are free. And to have a dog happily along without the restriction of a leash is just heaven! Enjoy Christmas with Romie, Lisa, David and the clan! - Keep writing and hiking! - Romie's niece - Diana.

Jessica @ YouDidWhatWithYourWeiner said...

We feel the same way about hiking. Failing to connect with nature makes people hard. Hard on others, hard on themselves, bitter or oblivious. I have been doing it so long I don't even remember what my old life was like.

I love getting out into the woods with my two weiner dogs as much as I can. Through my blog I try to encourage others to do the same. It is so important.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and more of your story.

Ginny said...

Thank you, Tom, for your lovely words, the images you create, and for sharing the beauty of your friendship with Atticus and the mountains with all of us. I'm sure your Dad is looking down proudly at you both. I'm going to take special time to see the beauty and joy of life around me today, and hug my own Little Buddha (my Louis has been called this as well, you see!) with special thoughts to you and Atti. Have a great weekend.

Pam Hicks said...

Tom & Atticus....this is an absolutley lovely blog posting. I believe someone said in a recent review of your book, that reading it will change the reader. So true!! I've mentioned before that I was deeply moved by the book. I have experienced myself the power of transformation by thinking outside the box, listening to that deep inner voice, keeping things simple & just doing it, one step at a time. It has been tremendously supportive to have your experience a part of me now, just by reading your journey. You allow the reader to feel SO CLOSE ;-) Thank you.
You also offer such a beautiful description of Madison - seems like a dream town which I will now make a point of visiting. If I had been in the audience at Julia's, I would have shed more than a few tears - I feel so emotional with all that you offer. Continued safe travels.....

Lisa said...

After living in New York City for many years, I now happily live in a small town, near lovely woods and hiking trails. My dog was raised from a pup in the city, but was so much happier when we moved out and found places to walk in nature. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us; they are so uplifting!!

Diane (McSweeney) Castelo said...

Tom,

Once again you make me cry (tears of understanding and hope)with your poetry. You and Atticus inspire me.

Tim @ Appalachia and Beyond said...

Tom,

What a great post. You know there are many days where I feel like that bloke driving to work. One day, one day. It's nice to know that it's possible to make the dream a reality. It really reminds me of a song Robin likes to play for me as she feels this way for me: Old Crow Medicine Show's "Take Em Away". Of course not that she wants me to die LOL. It's more or less let me "put down the plow" so I can enjoy all my time. :D
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CFDXFY-I2bE

Give Atti good skritches behind the ears for us and we are getting close. Any day now and Dinah will be here.

Nibs said...

Reading your post gives a wonderful sense of peace, and reminded me to appreciate the good things in life today. I also felt compelled to call my mum and tell her I thought she was great. Thanks for the reminder to slow down and enjoy existence.

Cheryl Timmons said...

Tom, I loved reading your blog this morning. You are so right about how most folks go along doing what they have to do waiting for something to happen in their lives that brings them joy. Of course, they are missing the point...it is the journey itself that is the prize. As much as I loved your book, the best part for me is that you and Atticus are still living the story and sharing it with us. Hope you have a great weekend spent with those you love.

Barbara said...

My paternal grandfather was Thomas Ryan. Although I suppose there are a few hundred thousand Thomas Ryan's in the U.S. by now!

John said...

Thanks for another fine blog Tom. I think the opposite of quiet desperation is Atticus's silent, and your spoken, exhilaration.

Michelle Hinds said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
josie said...

enjoyed the book signing at RJ Julia's I was 1 of those that shed a tear or 2..I have a beautiful granddaughter that is special needs and she is climbing 1 moutain at a time to get better and we are climbing with her..So thank you for this truly inspirational book..By the way you had told me the name of a 2mile hike but cant remember the name thank you Josie

Teddy said...

No truer words were ever written. It is very easy to forget that the journey is just the "vehicle" transporting you to the varied experiences along the way. More often than not, it's the experiences along the way that carry greater impact than the final destination.

Diane Herd Smith said...

Ah,Tom we all need to be reminded of that universal truth. Thank you for so sensitively telling the story. I think I want to visit Madison CT, but it's hard to leave my beloved Mt Washington Valley! Thanks again!

1HappyHiker said...

Tom, thank you for such a wonderful Blog posting! As always, your words provide much to contemplate.

John

Charlotte Canelli said...

Tom - thank you. Of course, we live very near to Medway in Norfolk. What a special blog post this is that you've written. It reminds me of what my husband would write. I love watching your travels and hearing your thoughts on your way around New England.

Mrs A said...

that was such a beautiful post, there is nothing i love more than taking off into the alpine areas here in australia, wondering around with my thoughts and little hairy shadow by my side, Im sure your dad is with you as you do the same, now i'm off to find your book!

Anonymous said...

Tom, you and Atticus are living the life we all wish we could. Your words touch my heart and Give me hope that one day I will be able to shed all my luggage and live as free as you two do. At RJ Julias the other night, you made a joke about "Atticus talking and having a voice", and that you would never want to dishoner him by trying to speak for him; however, you do give him a beautiful voice through your love and friendship with him. With your discriptive phrases to describe your adventures, his voice resounds on the top of those mountains. Max is honored with every step you take. I am glad that you have reminded all of us that life is about the journey not the trip. Have a wonderful Holiday Season, and I hope to see you in Boston in January.

cmrue said...

I don't know if people need to face a life-changing event to discover the secret, but my life was turned upside down a year ago, with a sudden loss. Instead of dwelling on what was lost, I have made choices in this new chapter of my life. I have learned to appreciate some basic things which are making my life much fuller and richer than I ever expected... a walk in the woods; discovering a new hobby; visiting different places; making new friends; belonging to a community. I can still remember the previous chapters, but I am thoroughly enjoying the moments that make up this continuing story of my life.

Rebecca said...

I would hate to quarrel with the Sage of South Kinsman et al but surely in am important way it is about the mountains. Or at least it is about someway somehow connecting with the elemental with creation itself. One can do it at the shore,

n your mountains or under the magnificence of a perfect night sky. But I think we humans need to do it somehow to strip ourselves down to what matters. Ps Looking forward to virtual book club this week. Interest as far away as Denmark! wing interest as far away as Denmark !

Claudine said...

Great post. The quote from Thoreau is so appropriate. Loved the book. Love Atticus. He seems a lot like my daugter's mini-schnauzer. My sister gave me a plaque yesterday that says "Dogs are angels with fur." I believe that Atticus is an angel for you.

Chris said...

Thank you for your words, Tom. After reading your book, I look forward to reading more of your work. Love your blog. As a parent, I feel that having my children achieve great happiness is much better than having my own dream come true. I'm sure your dad is smiling down upon you and Atticus, feeling blessed that you have been able to carry out his dream AND that you have achieved great happiness. I'm sure he is very, very proud.

purpletrumpet said...

Just read the part in the book about yourPa in the nursing home. It made me laugh, whilst although sad, it was great to read. I'm a nurse and if you'd asked for ice cream for your Dad I would have fetched it for him myself!!
I don't want the book to end!

Ed Parsons said...

Tom, I have to chuckle. After the book came out called "It's Not about the Hike" I decided to call one of my slide shows It's About the Hike. Isn't it true that after years of returning to the present moment, you realize that it is about what is in front of you, wherever you are? In a checkout line at the store, it is about that. In the mountains, it is about the mountains. Talking with someone, it is 100% about that. The present is all we have. I hope that when you are actually in the mountains, it is about the mountains :)

Dominik said...

Thx for blogging

All the best & greetings from Vienna/Austria

yours,
Dominik

Pavel B. said...

Thoreau was very correct .... people live in quiet desperation ...

Sue Wileman and Muffin said...

Dear Atticus M Finch and Tom,
I have just completed your wonderful story and feel so moved I simply had to find your blog so that I could read more about you two and your adventures. We too are privileged to have a miniature schnauzer as part of our family. Muffin is a joy and such a character; we love her dearly. We live in the Lake Disrict in Cumbria, England, UK and so Muffin is able to enjoy the walks and relishes the views of the hills every day from our windows. I feel inspired now to do more hiking so thank you!

Leanne said...

Tom,
This is the first time I have ever felt so compelled to write anything "on-line" yet your book has me in its spell and I had to reach out. I love to read and read fairly often (as often as a single mother can) and I have never felt so understood as I have while reading your words and experiencing yours and Atticus' adventures. I felt like I was on those mountains with you both. There are so many more things I'd love to say yet feel so inadequate saying them after reading the exquisite words you wrote. Simply amazing...Please give Atticus a kiss for me (and a high-five from my best furry friend Gus Henry)

Jill said...

Tom, I just finished your Audiobook. It was my first Audiobook ever. I saw your book and was immediately captured by Atticus's photograph. I have such a long winter commute (about an hour each way) to and from work each day, and sometimes I just turn off the radio to have some peace.
Reading your book was such a cathartic journey for me. For once, I didn't mind the commute. I spent my breaks in the car to hear more about the adventures of you and Atticus. My children (age 5 & 7)learned that Mom was reading a really great book about a special dog. They would ask whether Atticus climbed the mountain or regained his sight. One day, my daughter and I ran an errand together. I played the CD and she told me that I had "already played that part". She was right. I laughed, I cried and I cheered for you and Atti; and when the story was done, I listened to many chapters again.
Then, I posted on Facebook about what an awesome, moving book I just read. Today, I just went and got the actually book, so I could relive the journey again with my own two eyes.
Thank you for sharing your journey. You have truly captured the essence of your cherished 19th Century literary artists, but maintained your own 21st century twist. I hope to keep up on your blog, so the journey won't have to end.
Congratulations on your book. You have truly inspired me to wrap up a book that I have been writing for two years, about the adoption of my daughter.
By the way, the photo of your dad is precious.
God Bless you and Atticus wherever your travels may lead you.
Jill