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, February 25, 2011

Pierce in the Clouds

We’re happy to be inside today wrapped in all the comforts of home. Outside the wind blows and snow is falling. The forecast call for perhaps ten inches in what could be one of the last storms of the winter. The season is drawing to an end. Of course here in the White Mountains spring doesn’t arrive when the calendar tells it to. It takes its own sweet time coming around again. Call it a bit of Yankee stubbornness. Nevertheless, it always gets here.

Yesterday, while climbing Mount Pierce by way of the Crawford Path, with hopes of also making it over to Mount Eisenhower, we started out under blue skies. I’d hoped that Atticus and I would get great views from both summits but that was not to be the case. The clouds preceding today’s storm came early and by the time we reached the halfway mark to Pierce a couple of bold gray jays appeared and ate some snacks out of my hand, but the sun was already gone. Cloud cover, first vaguely opaque then increasingly darker, filled the sky.

It’s been a while since we had snow and the popularity of the Crawford Path helped to make the trail as flat and firm as a city sidewalk. Surprisingly, yesterday we had it to ourselves. Whenever I pull into a parking lot to hike and see that there are no other cars there is an excited feeling – a rush, ripe with anticipation, tingling with delight, and a wee bit of nervousness as well – that courses through me. It’s always a distinct pleasure to have a mountain to ourselves. It’s exceptionally rare to be alone on the Crawford Path since it is a major thoroughfare that sits right across from the AMC’s Highland Center and is the oldest continually used hiking trail in the country. Then again the last time we were on the same trail we had it to ourselves as well, but that was a night hike.

The closer we got to treeline the darker and windier it became. Trees long frozen into grotesque forms and coated by layers of snow and ice stood as silent witnesses to our progress, and the wind howled and hissed at us just above the treetops. Even more eerie was the thick and moist fog that descended on the mountaintop. It was almost spectral, like a large snake coiled up around the upper reaches of the peak slowly tightening its grip. I could feel it moving by me – feel the damp of its underbelly, feel it creep along the skin of my face. We stopped to put on Atticus’s Muttluks and my balaclava and only my eyes were revealed but still I could feel the clouds coiling around us taking hold of the mountain. When we reached the last section of trees, a place where the views of the highest peaks in New England are first revealed, there was nothing to see but the inside of the cloud.

This is one of the things I enjoy about having a mountain to ourselves in winter. It could turn out to be the most picturesque day I’ve ever seen, so pretty it makes my heart ache with unutterable joy; or it could evolve into a lonely wasteland of frozen shapes, gray skies, and haunting mists, where the banshee cry of the wind is all there is for company.

There is a side trail off of the Crawford Path that leads to the summit of Pierce and the slant of the mountain plays tricks on your eyes. Many hikers are fooled by where they think the trail is supposed to go and they veer left. But it’s a hard turn to the right. All mountains look different in varied weather and I have also been fooled on more than one occasion, but Atticus never is. I simply have to follow his little body with his legs bowed against the wind, and his ears taking flight like little flags.

He put his head down and marched forth toward the summit. He never misses when he knows where he’s going. Once we reached it he sat by the cairn to have his picture taken – yes, this has become a routine for us on every mountaintop and he knows where he sits for the summit shot. But when we had stopped a way back I put my camera away, safe from the elements. He kept waiting for me to take the shot until I told him there was no camera. So he stopped posing and went onto the next step, which is coming over so I can pick him up and we looked off into the distance together. Of course there was no distance to see. But still, ritual is ritual. After a minute of standing up holding him he nudged me with his nose.

Spend enough time with an animal and you no longer are man and animal, instead you meet somewhere in between and communication is much easier. I knew his nose nudge meant it was time to have our lunch so I put him down and opened up the backpack while he sat peering over its open mouth with anticipation. He was not disappointed. I’m on the South Beach Diet these days and that means it’s chicken sausages and cheese on the summit. He loves both.

The original plan was to head over to the dome of Mount Eisenhower but without views there was no reason to go. Nevertheless, when we returned the way we came and reached the Crawford Path Atticus turned to walk towards Eisenhower.

“Not today, my friend. No reason to go.”

He stopped and looked at me as if to say, “We’re not done yet.”

“Let’s go home,” I said. When I turned and started walking down the trail I noticed he was protesting. He wanted to go on. “Not today. Let’s go home.”

At that he trotted over and took the lead position again working our way down the mountain.

There’s much to think of on a hike but it occurs to me that my thoughts going up and coming down are often different. Going up I think of the hike more. I think about the work of getting up a mountain and I take inventory of my body. Since this past summer’s surgery that’s even more the case as I still don’t feel quite right. However, so long as I pay attention to my body I make do. On the descent my mind is freer. We’ve reached the summit and the easy part begins. My mind flows and thoughts come and go.

Yesterday, on the way down I was thinking about horizons and what we see. On a mountaintop in beautiful weather there are other mountains to see – mountains and valleys, rivers, lakes, and ponds. Occasionally there will be a dramatic cliff, or the long black line of a distant road fading off into the distance. But there’s rarely a clean view of the horizon. However, just last week, for the second winter in a row, Atticus and I went to the Outer Cape. It’s less expensive in winter, there are no crowds, and it feels as though my soul is crying out for more light. We get it there. Most days we walk the beach at sunrise and sunset. And Provincetown is one of the few places in the world where you can see both.

There was something fitting about yesterday’s hike to a cloud-covered peak that stood in stark contrast to the wide expanse of horizon from our beach walks. It reminded me that here in New England we are blessed to have such a varied landscape with everything within driving distance. And no matter where you are – mountaintops or seaside – nature is beautiful wherever you encounter it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Following Atticus on Twitter

There's so much to say about our trip to Provincetown but that will have to wait for a day or two. But first, a little housekeeping: Tom and Atticus are now on Twitter. It will be a great way to follow us as we approach the release of our book this year and where we'll be going to promote it. Who knows? We may even end up at your local bookstore.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


Well, not really. It just feels like it today. The winds are gone, the sun is out, the temps are stretching towards fifty degrees! We took our usual walk along the Province Lands Trail and it felt so good to be out we stretched the five and a half mile loop into a ten mile walk with side trips to Herring Cove and Race Point.

I took off my gloves, then my sweater, and when we came to our favorite dune we stayed there for over an hour. We split our time there between watching the ocean and napping.

On the way back to the Beech Forest, where our car was parked, we came upon an amazing sight. Eleven squirrels were using the bare branches of nearby trees for a race track. We watched them leap from branch to branch, from tree to tree. It was obviously play time for them and I listened to their squeaks and squeals and imagined it was their song of delight and they were saying the same thing Atticus and I were, "It's spring! It's spring!"

We watched them for a while and when we started moving they all stopped, like race cars on a toy track as if someone had cut out the power, and watched us move. Then they appeared to follow along, leaping with exuberance from tree to tree to shadow us until they came upon the last tree and there they all stopped - eleven of them! I thanked them for the entertainment and then Atti and I passed out of sight leaving them to play their squirrel games.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Some Provincetown Sand Dune Sitting for the Little Buddha

We pulled into town on Friday, saw a great sunset, then slept heavily through the night. It's good to be back in Provincetown. We came here this same time last year and fell in love with the Outer Cape in winter.

In the heart of winter it's vastly different than in summer when the streets are filled with color and everyday is a festival. In February it's harsher. There's more light than there is up in the White Mountains and sunrise and sunset are both spectacular, but the wind came be strong and there's a desolate feel to the dunes. That being said, I find myself drawn to the land here at this time of year. It's starkness stirs something within me.

Like last year we'll be here through the entire week and we'll walk, write, and read. Other than that there's be plenty of napping.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Contentment in a Crazy World

Recently Amy Chua’s book about strict and demanding parenting, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has been riding high atop the bestselling charts. Her method stands in stark contrast to Claire Dederer, another recent bestselling author; whose book Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses espouses a gentler approach. In a recent New York Times Book Review Dederer was quoted: “Raising kids is the toughest temp job you’ll ever have. Maybe part of the job is teaching them the value of contentment in a disconcerted, grasping, climbing world.”

What does all this have to do with hiking? For me it has a lot to do with it.

You see, nature, and particularly hiking, offer me a connection to my late father, Jack Ryan. I may live in more complicated and faster paced times, but he lived in a harsher world. He grew up in the Depression, fought in World War II, raised nine children (some of us after my mother died), and his parenting technique fell somewhere between Chua’s and Dederer’s. In all honesty he was much more like Chua, but whenever he took us to the mountains we saw the best part of him emerge – the gentler side. We’d ride the tram up Cannon Mountain, stand on the viewing platform at the top of the mountain, look towards the Kinsmans to the southwest, Franconia Ridge to the southeast, and beyond both to a whole undulating sea of blue swells of never-ending mountains. It was there in the heart of Franconia Notch that I first noticed a rare look on his face. It was the look of contentment.

Jack Ryan never actually climbed a four thousand footer and he didn’t climb many mountains at all, but in some ways he actually has made it to the top of each one. For he has been with Atticus and me every step of the way. Sooner or later I feel his presence on each hike and it is so real I find myself saying aloud, “You would have loved this, Dad.”

Recently Atticus and I have been enjoying the simple act of tramping through the winter woods. Lately a favorite is to walk past the well-packed trail to Diana’s Baths and continue past the frozen falls along the trail towards North Moat. A mile into our walk we come to a stream that is covered tightly by the ice and all that can be heard of it are gentle murmurings. They sound almost like whispers and you only hear them when you stop and the snow is not crunching beneath your snowshoes with every step. Whenever we come to the stream crossing we pause and listen to that gentle song for a minute or more. It’s something that could easily go unnoticed when hiking with others. But when it’s just Atticus and me we not only hear the different sounds the forest makes, we seem to feel them.

Right around the stream crossing we turn onto the Red Ridge Trail. This will also take you to North Moat but in a more roundabout manner. Most people reach this point and turn back towards the falls giving themselves a nice two mile walk. But lately we’ve ventured further. It is a private piece of the forest, not so private that no one ever goes there, but it’s seldom enough that we’ve never seen anyone out there.

While walking out that way in the late afternoon the western sun slants through the woods and gives the dark bark of the winter trees more color and no matter how cold it feels things seem happier – more cheery. After a mile we come to another intersection and here we take a left onto the Red Ridge Connector. That’s where the climbing starts. It’s not horrendously steep, but it’s steep enough to make me sweat and occasionally stop to catch my breath. On this third leg of our journey there are very few snowshoe prints so we are promised even more privacy. We climb through the sun-lit forest, over crusty snow, into the waning afternoon and after a half mile or more of good work we come out on the backside of White Horse and Cathedral ledges. From there you can look down on the North Conway – both the quaint village and the bustling outlets stores.

We usually love our viewpoints, but on this regular trek it is the walk through the woods that is most special. I suppose it’s because it’s so close to the civilization we always enjoy escaping from. It’s not like when you are on the summit of Garfield or West Bond where you see nothing but everlasting nature. Here you can see Home Depot, Hannafords, and Lowe’s. And yet, it is a fine work out both for body and mind.

The return trip is easy and our strides are longer. We don’t have to stop while descending…and yet we often do. I find myself standing in the woods alone with Atticus, not another soul around, and I can feel that same thing my father introduced to me so long ago. It’s that feeling of contentment. It swells and warms me; it soothes and sings to me. It reminds of him at his best and reminds me that I’m on the journey he often dreamed of but never undertook.

I think Dederer had it right. My father was a beaten man by the time I got to know him. Life had worn him down. In spite of that he unknowingly passed onto me the value of contentment. As I near fifty I realize that it is perhaps the most valuable thing I have and the greatest gift he gave me.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011


The storm is full on now and both of us are warm inside after a snowy morning walk. Atticus has settled down with an old marrow bone I filled with peanut butter. I’m at my desk with a pot of tea. Plows regularly rumble by while the flakes continue to fall. The tree just outside our main window that looks out over the backyard is perfectly frosted. And the dainty tracks left by our neighborhood raccoon which crisscrossed the old snow in the yard only yesterday, are now filled in. I’ve refilled the bird feeder and sprinkled extra seeds on the ground for the squirrels but it appears all our little friends are sleeping in today.

Our apartment is filled with the aroma of simmering turkey, onions, carrots, and mushrooms in the crock pot and I’m glad we are inside instead of on some mountaintop. Atticus seems to agree. He was more than happy to step out of his boots and body suit. He’s always been a nudist by nature. However, he’s very content to wrap himself in his favorite blanket as he worries at his bone.

Yesterday, I received an email from my editor at William Morrow. She really is the best. I was once warned I would be warring with any editor I worked with but nothing could be farther from the truth. I actually look forward to her emails and yesterdays’ was exciting because I got a glimpse of what marketing will be sending out along with the advanced reader copies of the book this coming April. It was a little write up about Following Atticus and it closed with a small piece about the author and, of course, Atticus. But some of the information was outdated since I sent it to them when I first wrote my proposal.

I had to stop and think when it stated how many four thousand footers Atticus and I have climbed. I’ve actually stopped counting. So last night I sat down with a piece of paper and a list of the four thousand foot mountains and figured it out. In the five years Atticus and I have been hiking we’ve now climbed 460 of them. I was shocked by that number for it seems to me we haven’t been collecting that many high peaks as of late. But when you consider that during that first and second summer we did more than 48 both times. In our first three winters we climbed 188 mountains – that gives you an idea of the jump we started with.

We’ve continued to hike them, just not at the same pace. Instead we’ve concentrated our efforts over the past two years of peaks that aren’t quite as tall and because of that not as crowded – and yet every bit as magical. And most of these peaks, other than perhaps the popular Mount Chocorua, which nearly always has a crowd on it, are sparsely populated.

However, I must admit that as of late Atticus and I have returned to many of the higher peaks and have kept it quiet. It felt good to have them to ourselves by hiking them on less crowded days and at less crowded times. I’ve particularly grown fond of hiking at night. It still can be unnerving, but it also life affirming.

As for my reason on keeping quiet about most of what we’ve been climbing I’ve done it for two reasons. The first reason is that soon enough our lives will be an open book and when that takes place we’ll enjoy having little secret places to go to and bits of our lives that no one else can touch. Secondly is the mania currently sweeping the hiking community that is clearly evident on various websites where people are making note of how many peaks they climb because they are chasing after one list or another.

In our first summer we set out to do all forty eight. We did the same our first winter. In our second summer we did them again, but only because we’d raced through them so quickly the first time through and I wanted to see them all again. During our second and third winters we used the forty eight as fundraising tools in our attempts to do two rounds. After that I had no desire to keep an accurate count of what we were hiking and when.

The only reason I sat down last night to figure out how many we’ve climbed is because of what it will say in the little author’s bio about Atticus and me. What I discovered was that we have actually climbed Mount Waumbek 16 times! Jackson 15, Pierce and Tecumseh 14, and Garfield – which was our first peak and is perhaps my favorite – 13 times. Bond, Bondcliff, West Bond, Zealand, Madison, Adams, and Owl’s Head tie for peaks we’ve reached the least number of times at only 7.

The latest craze for hikers is to do the Grid. That translates into hiking the 48 in each of the 12 months of the year. Used to be only a select few had reached this milestone of 576 peaks. And while a friend points out that our latest total puts us well within reach of the Grid, I decided long ago that Atticus and I would not chase after it. While it is fine for others to shoot for, for me it seemed the only reason we would do it was to get notoriety - to receive a patch and to get listed on yet another website. But that’s not our game. I gave up the external gratification hiking thing when I realized it meant nothing, especially when compared to internal gratification.

Atticus and I may eventually climb all the mountains needed to do the Grid but we won’t officially join that club, just as we’ve never become members of the 4,000 Foot Club or received the cherished scroll and patch. And when I was asked if we wanted to be listed on the website that celebrates the select hikers who have done them all in one winter I politely declined.

Five years ago we came to the mountains because of how they made us feel, not to see how others would feel about us. We came for the personal experiences, not for patches, scrolls, or notoriety on websites. That’s not to say that such things are not right for others. The beauty of the mountains is that everybody gets to hike his or her own hike. We all have our own reasons for being up here. If people seek to chase after membership in various clubs based on achievement they are welcome to it.

While I’ve not ever asked him, I don’t think Atticus really cares that he doesn’t have a patch or a scroll nor that has his name is not listed on a website. What seems to matter most to him is that he gets to walk in the woods, catch the wind in his ears, and sit Buddha-like on the summits while taking in the views.

I figure if that’s good enough for Atticus, it’s good enough for me as well.