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, August 25, 2011

Come What May

When the tempest begins, when the winds swirl and the rains lash and I lose my footing, that’s when I hold on to what we share – what we’ve always shared. I think of the simple things, the simple pleasures, the simple joys. I think of times I will never forget and how we got to where we are today and where we are headed.

I’m told that when our story is published less than a month from now it could get crazy. All writers should be so lucky. It will get crazy if the book takes off. As it is we’ll be on the road for the better part of three weeks. What first time author wouldn’t want that? And if things go really well, we could be back on the road again for who knows how long.

A friend of asked me, “Are you ready for this?”

Part of me doesn’t know the answer. The other part has been waiting for it my entire life. And so that’s what I told my friend.

“But how will you and Atticus stay centered if it does take off? How will you see to it that you both remain happy in the craziness?” she wanted to know.

The way I see it, no matter where we go, no matter what we encounter, the Little Bug and I have an advantage no one else has. If we are overrun by fans; or no one shows up; or the critics hate the book; or love it; or we are on the road so long we forget what our own bed feels like – we have a unique advantage.

We have each other.

So when we stand in front of a strange room with faces we don’t know looking expectantly at us and Atticus is sitting in the crook of my arm, whatever nervousness is coursing through my body I’ll think of the mountains. All those wintery peaks we’ve climbed, those miles through snow and ice and into the wind. I’ll think of how a good weather day up high is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen and the loneliest on the worst weather days. I’ll think of hikes started before dawn and finished after sunset when our only company at the end was my sore feet and the moon and the stars above. I’ll think about hikes where I felt like we were the only two left on the planet because we were so isolated.

But more than anything I’ll think about hiking with a little dog who surprised me from the very beginning. I’ll think about the friendship we share and the things we’ve seen. I’ll remember how he led me, until he went blind and then needed me to lead. I’ll think of how our most hopeless days were darker than the nights. And yet we made it through.

The advantage we have is that no matter what happens, we have each other.

And I won’t just be thinking of peaks where the temperature was fifteen below zero or the clouds draped over a mountaintop and took all hope away or the horrifying moments when the wind circled overhead like a great winged beast. Those are all memorable, of course. But I’ll also think of the softer times, the quieter times, the peaceful moments.

I’ll think about Chocorua as it was when we saw her last – just a couple of weeks ago – silhouetted by a ripe, round moon and how we could see stars falling off in the distance when we put that moon behind us. I’ll think about how just after midnight we reached the small table of her summit and sat side by side leaning against each other on a night cool enough to feel as if we were swimming through the air but not so chilly as to need anything more than a light fleece top. I’ll think of how we sat watching the miracles of the night and photographic negatives of the peaks fading into the distance and listened to classical music on a tiny, portable wooden speaker while everyone we knew was home asleep in their beds.

We were literally in a world of our own.

As we’ve always been.

Goethe wrote, “A talent is formed in stillness, a character in the world’s torrent.” I’ve come to believe the truest friendships are formed the same way: in both quiet and in wildness.

I’ll think about how after we sat on Chocorua’s summit until our eyes were so full we couldn’t drink another drop of the nighttime scenery that we carefully climbed off the highest and steepest reaches of the peak and then made our way like children through the night along the rock ledges looking out into the vast darkness on either side of us. And how when we reached Middle Sister, one of the sub-peaks, and readied to duck down into the trees and away from the views how Atticus stayed behind and sat down. He didn’t want to leave. So I joined him and we sat some more. This time without the music playing on my iPhone. This time with only the sound of his sweet sigh as I sat down next and he leaned his tiny body into mine.

There are some things you see and know you will never forget. And yet these pale in comparison to the things you feel and know immediately they are forever etched in your heart.

When we hit the road, two strangers rolling into distant towns with welcoming bookstores, Atticus and I will be traveling as no other first time author and friend has. Oh, I’m sure others have had their own secrets of success and comfort, but we have each other. And more than that there’s that sliver of magic that has always lived in the space between us in a world of our own making.

Let the storm come. Let the next adventure begin.

(*Photograph by Ken Stampfer.)

The Countdown Continues

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

New Hampshire Magazine Reviews Following Atticus in the September Issue

The Little Giant
An inspiring tale of a man, his dog and their quest

He might be small, but Atticus has a mighty spirit – one that helped him climb nearly 200 of New Hampshire’s tallest mountains in the winter (!), survive a brutal attack by another dog and endure a period of total blindness.

Oh, and his owner and companion on his ventures, Tom Ryan, is pretty amazing, too. Ryan wouldn’t mind that Atticus gets the high praise – he’s used to it. Ever since he adopted the dog he calls “The Little Giant” – and sometimes, when they are contemplating life together on the summit of a mountain, “The Little Buddha” – Atticus was the center of attention. And deservedly so.

In his book, “Following Atticus” [William Morrow] , Ryan skillfully tells the tale of the duo’s quest to climb all of the state’s 4,000 footers twice in just one winter, for charity and themselves. It’s a wonderful story of courage, endurance, discovery, deepening, anguish and joy.

I highly recommend it, and hope that some movie producer will see its potential for the big screen. The story would appeal to kids as a great adventure and to adults as a demonstration of how to live life to the fullest. –Barbara Coles

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

For a Personalized Autograph Copy of Following Atticus

If you would like a personalized inscription and autograph of Following Atticus when it comes out in September but can't make it to one of our signings, the good ladies at White Birch Books can hook you up. Simply contact them and they'll take care of the rest. Their website is or you can simply call them at 603.356.3200.

White Birch Books is our local bookshop and Atticus and I stop in several times a week. Simply give them a call, tell them what you want written, I'll write it and sign it, and they will send it off to you. They are well-versed in this exercise since they already do it for our neighbor, New York Times bestselling author, Lisa Gardner on an annual basis.

We love supporting independent bookstores and hope you support your local shop as well!

Following Atticus Comes Out Four Weeks From Today

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Letter Home from Mount Garfield (June 5, 2006)

I recently found a letter I wrote to my father back in June of 2006.

I wrote him many letters and often they'd appear in my paper, the Undertoad. It got to the point that even though Jack Ryan had never been to Newburyport, barely a day went by when someone didn't ask how he if they knew him. And when he was injured in a car accident it was announced on the Newburyport radio station as if he was one of them. Gosh, I think he loved this bit of celebrity in a foreign land. My "Letters Home" turned out to be my most popular column and when I was back in Newburyport in April speaking about the book, one former subscriber asked, "How does your dad feel about the book?" When I informed the woman he had died a couple of years ago she looked sad, as if she'd lost a friend. And she wasn't the only one who looked that way for many who read the 'Toad felt they knew him - at least a little, because of my letters.

Because Jack plays a role in our book (Kirkus Reviews refer to him as "a haunting presence") I thought I'd introduce you to him.

* * * * * *

Dear Dad,

You would like it here.

You would like the way the rock abruptly ends and yields to a precipitous drop that leads to a vast expanse of green that stretches on for miles and looks so comfortable you’d think you could sleep on it. Garfield is one of my favorite summits for this very reason. It’s the contrast of gray stone above and green tree below and the various shades of forest that come together like a quilt in the Pemigewasset Wilderness and goes on that way until it reaches the hazy blue-gray of distant mountains.

From here the wilderness looks like anything but that. It appears peaceful, much the way the ocean looks from high above: no waves, no undercurrent, no danger, just a gentle rolling sea; peaceful, soothing. To the eye there are no trees, just a blanket of what looks like moss so lush you could feel its softness if only you could reach it to run your fingertips over it.

About now you’re sitting down to watch the Sox, but they will end up being rained out. Here in the White Mountains, there was until recently, a resplendent blue sky dotted with cotton ball clouds. Now the clouds have gone gray and stretched over the Pemi but they are not threatening. From time to time the sun pokes holes in the gray fabric to light the forest in a changing pattern of bright and dark greens.

If it weren’t for the black flies it would be a perfect day. It’s the first we’ve had in quite some time. Two weeks ago we walked through the pouring rain up to Starr King and Waumbek. The next day it was up the Osseo Trail to Flume and over to Liberty and down to Liberty Springs through mist and heavy clouds with no views. The following Saturday was bright, but hot and humid as we stood upon North and South Twin and then made our way to Galehead. The following day was the hike from hell. I melted in the high temperature and equally high humidity when we climbed Monroe, over Boott Spur and out to Isolation. On that final hike I broke down physically and the heat made the rocks on Boott Spur feel like a furnace, as if we were stranded on some strange wasteland. We stumbled out to the car at ten that night, tired, hungry, and thirsty. Yesterday on the way up Hale I was suffering again but by the time we reached the second stream crossing the humidity broke and I was reborn.

Today? Today is beautiful. Atticus, his dark hair a magnet for the hot sun, is happy the sun has decided to play hide and seek behind the clouds. Because of this his pink tongue is staying hidden.

As we sit here on this remarkably quiet summit we are surrounded by great mountains. To our left are the Twins and “little” Galehead. On the right is Franconia Ridge. Before us is Owl’s Head. (Oh, Owl’s Head, how I differ with most hikers when it comes to this mountain. I find it to be magnificent and self-assured and comfortable with what it is. Its large hump takes center stage from here. No need for a pointy summit. No need for rock above tree line or some dramatic peak. It is simply what it is and offers no apology for itself.) And off in the distance are the Osceola’s and Tecumseh and mountain after blue mountain.

I think of Garfield as the perfect front porch. It’s a front row seat to the world that stretches on from this point. Just sit back, put my feet up and I’m at home watching the world go by. It is a great pondering spot.

On this day, I could sit for hours and watch the sun and shade dance over the green below. It is mesmerizing. I am not the only one who thinks so. After a drink of water, some almonds and cashews, Atticus is taking in the scenes. I often wonder just what goes through his mind when he sits on top of a mountain and looks off in the distance like this. I’ve come to believe he enjoys these views from the top. Perhaps even more than I do.

If you could be here the only complaint you might have with this summit are the ledges. Your fear of heights would shake you if you got too close to the edge.

Recently I talked with another hiker about a shared fear of heights. We talked of ledges and slides and how when I’m atop them my legs quake and I feel gravity take hold of me, like a giant hand that’s about to reach up and pluck me over the edge. The other hiker told me of a different feeling, the worry is not so much about falling, but about coming face to face with the edge and taking a willing leap towards death.

I shuddered at such a thought and was reminded of that John Irving line that recurs as it is exchanged from one member of the Berry family to the next throughout the Hotel New Hampshire, “Keep passing the open windows.”

On those few occasions in life when life seemed unbearable I sometimes joked with myself to “keep passing the open windows.” But in all honesty, I don’t think I would ever have the courage to even consider suicide. Besides, the experience of life is just to interesting for me to pass up, at least at my age.

I find it interesting that you loved these mountains as much as you did and many of your children inherited that love from you, but the only 4,000-footers you have ever stood on top of are Cannon, Wildcat and Washington, where a tram, gondola, train, or an auto road reached. Because of that you have never been able to see some of the wonders I have seen this past year. Because of your age, your diabetes, heart, emphysema and everything else, the only way you will see some of these mountains are through my eyes, my photos, and my words. I try to remember that when I hike, try to be mindful of things you would find interesting, or be awed by. Unfortunately I fear neither photo nor word will ever do these mountains justice.

Today, while I climbed, I thought of you often. How could I not? Just a few days ago I discovered what you had been trying to keep from us: That 86 years is long enough and that you stopped taking your large inventory of medications and have decided to let nature run its course.

There’s something to be said for that. And it’s not like you’ve decided to stop passing the open windows. I understand there’s nothing left for you. You’ve grown old and tired. You feel broken and have missed mom for nearly 40 years.

Neither you nor I know how long it will be before your planned departure comes, but I want you to know that I am proud of you. It’s your life; it’s your choice. You are going out on your own terms.

Selfishly, I feel a little different about your decision. I will miss you. I feel foolish to have wasted as many years as we did in that awkward Irish dance father and son do. Too much time was wasted, time that can never be regained.

Knowing now more than ever that you will not always be there awaiting my phone call or my letters, I really wish you were up here with me today. Garfield was my first 4,000-footer and it is a love-at-first-sight kind of summit. I climbed it in September of 2004 and throughout the entire winter I returned many times in my thoughts. When the time comes years down the road, this will also be my last mountain. For when my ashes are spread, I think this is the place they will be launched from, so that I can be scattered over the thick, lush green wilderness below, surrounded by these mountains I love. These mountains you have loved, even if only from the valleys or from your recliner at home through fading memories and what I bring back to you.

You would like it here.

You would love it here.

Much love from your youngest son,
Tom (& Atticus)

Sunday, August 07, 2011

His Heart

I couldn't help sending this series of photographs off to Rebecca Malakoff, Atticus's cardiologist at Angell Animal Medical Center. We had an appointment with her a couple of weeks ago to check out his heart murmur and Rebecca gave him a thorough going over, including an echo- cardiogram and an electrocardiogram.

His heart murmur was first detected by Maureen Carroll at Angell while he was in for a check up of his thyroid four and a half years ago. She sent us down the hall to cardiologist Gregg Rapoport. It wasn't much to worry about, he said, after giving Atticus an exam. But he also told me to have him come back for regular check-ups. Gregg has since left Angell, headed for a teaching position down at the University of Georgia - Athens. That's how we came to see Rebecca Malakoff. She's a wonderful doctor. (Haven't met one yet at Angell that I haven't liked and thought to be very professional and good-hearted.)

Atticus is now nine and a half years old. With his getting older I was a bit concerned over what would be discovered at the recent appointment. However, the tests showed that there's very little change in his murmur. There is a bit more leakage from the valves than there was four years ago, but it's so little Dr. Malakoff is not concerned with it. Still we'll keep our eyes on it.

When I was going through my photos of Friday's hike along Franconia Ridge I thought of Atticus on that table a couple of weeks ago, with strips of hair shaved off of his chest so that Rebecca could perform the echocardiogram. Then I thought of the wires that were hooked up to him and how when he was laying on his side I sat where he could see me, held his head in my hands as he held my eyes with his. From time to time his little, pink tongue flicked out and licked my hand, looking for reassurance. It was the only sign that he was uncomfortable in the least bit.

I decided I'd send this series to her so she could see what his heart allows him to do because some times it fascinates even me. I mean the pumping heart, not the loving heart. I've always have known what the loving heart can do...and yet there are times that continues to fascinate me as well.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

A Breakfast of Blueberries and an Approaching Storm...August Is Here!

On the trail this morning the air felt different – cooler, cleaner, with a tiny snap of mystery to it. Then I remembered that we are now in August, and smiled. The bugs of early summer are gone and the high heat of July is thankfully also a memory. In August it can still get hot, but not as oppressive as July, and there hints of the next season come here and there. On the downhill slope of summer things just feel a bit better, more comfortable, and fresher.

I believe that when it comes to hiking there are only two months better than August: September and October. These are the prime hiking months. Long before the leaves change, the air does. Back in Newburyport the old timers used to look forward to what they called a sea change. The wind shifted and so did the atmosphere, if only for a short while, and so much freshness filled the city that you wanted to spend all your time outside drinking it in, filling your lungs with it. Here in the White Mountains this is the month when we get that same kind of change, but it’s different than it was back on the coast. Here it is not fleeting.

Our original plans for the day were scuttled when the forecast called for midday thunderstorms. When it comes to hiking the first and most important rule to follow is to take only what the Mountain Gods offer. And thunder and lightning is not an invitation to be on a mountaintop.

With the longer hike out the window, we settled for a leisurely walk up Black Cap in North Conway. It’s an easy climb with just over 500 feet of elevation gain, but the trailhead sits so high on Hurricane Mountain Road that by the time you reach the summit you’re standing at 2,369 feet and there are grand views unobstructed by the trees.

It’s easy to get lost on the rocky summit and the numerous ledges of Black Cap. Not lost as in “I don’t know where the trail is,” but lost as in a meditative way. About the only thing that has hastened our departure from there in the past are the number of people who can be on the trail at any one time. But this morning there was no one. Just us, the wonderful second day of August, and hints of the oncoming storm.

On the way up there is a fork in the trail and you can either reach the summit by those ledges in about a quarter of a mile, or take a half mile to loop round and come at it from the reverse side. We always take the longer, but easier route to the right. It’s not because it’s easier, because the ledges really aren’t all that difficult, it’s just because it brings us to a less traveled trail that has a nice out-of-the-way ledge that looks over at Chocorua and the Moats, and beyond to parts of the Sandwich Range. We have stopped there so often Atticus knows to turn down the little side path whenever we reach it.

Out of the trees and in the open, the air cooled us and we both sat and drank some water. I took out a few treats for Atticus and brought my knees up to my chest and wrapped my arms around them. I could almost hear the whisper of autumn in the music made by the turning and twisting and flipping leaves. Then I noticed we were surrounded by a tangle of blueberry bushes.

Like a child at Christmas I crouched down among the plants and excitedly plucked blueberries out of the bushes. I’d get ten or twenty in my hand and offer them to Atticus. Now let me tell you, Atticus has always loved blueberries so this was a welcome treat. Then the next handful was for me and we took turns that way. We were quite content in that spot for half an hour before heading back to the trail and to the mountaintop.

On the summit we settled down again and the breeze grew to be a gentle wind. Occasionally it would pick up and send Atticus’s floppy ears flying and we both relished the sweet coolness. While off in the distance, beyond the great hump of Mount Kearsage, the storm had rolled onto Mount Washington and the high peaks of the Presidential Range. We heard the roll of thunder, the boom, boom, boom echoing through the valleys and various ranges. The air was charged with the approaching storm and the two of us sat transfixed watching her approach.

There is nothing more exciting that an oncoming storm, especially up here...especially up high.

She hovered and seemed to grow over the Pressies, giving an occasional clap that was louder than the rest. Once she gained strength she moved south through Pinkham Notch, towards Jackson, and spread her great wings until I was awed by her reach.

She was coming and we were her witnesses. God, she was beautiful, casting the mountains in her shadow and mists.

She grew larger, fanning out as she approached. She was coming for us but I knew we had plenty of time to take cover and I figured we’d be back at our car when the downpour started. So we stayed just a little longer.

People wonder at the height of mountain peaks, at the raging rivers in spring when the snow melts, at seeing both moose and bear, but there is nothing as ferocious or enchanting as a storm flying wicked and determined on her route. Nothing stops a her when she is unleashed.

That’s what we were watching, feeling the tingle in the air and inside my bones. The boom, boom, boom grew louder like great kettle drums. Singular thunder claps sounded like gun shots whenever they exploded. Clouds grew darker, more dimensional, and day crept towards night at ten o’clock in the morning. How glorious!

By now Atticus was sitting right next to me, leaning into me. I’m not sure how long he’d been doing that or if he even realized he was doing it. We were both watching and it seemed as though neither of us wanted to leave the open ledges and our front row seats. But it wouldn’t be long before she was upon us so I said to Atticus, “Let’s go home.” At that we both got up. I grabbed my pack and we stood for a while longer to watch that great wing span of darkness looming over all those mountains.

Atticus nudged my leg with his nose. I picked him up and held him and still we watched her flying towards us. We did not want to leave. We wanted to spend time with her, to see her up close, but eventually common sense took over and I took a few steps down the ledges and put him down.

“Let’s go home, Pump.”

With those words he dropped his eyes from the sky to the trail and led us off the exposed rock and toward the trees. In the forest the air was even cooler and occasionally we would here the rat-a-tat-tat of rain drops falling on the leaves but we didn’t get wet. The storm was starting in earnest. She would save her best for a little later after we were back in the car.

And so our day started on a mountain with a breakfast of blueberries and Mother Nature putting on a great show. This was one of those mornings when I remembered just how lucky we are.