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, February 09, 2012

"Tis not to late to seek a newer world..."

There is a joy and a simplicity I feel when walking with Atticus. He is always just who he is. There is no play-acting, no posing, no trying to slip into some role that will make him more appreciated, and he never worries about fitting in whatsoever.

Over the past six months we've hiked fewer peaks than we have over similar stretches in the last six years. The difference being that our book was published and we went on tour. We continue to do appearances throughout New England and I'm fortified by the sheer numbers of folks who turn out. Of course Atticus could care less who is there. In his own Taoist way he's there and I'm there and that's all that matters. So instead of sitting up preening for the appreciative audience, he walks in, I pick him up, stand in front of the crowd with him sitting in the crook of my arm, and begin to tell our story. Before long he rests his head on my shoulder and falls asleep, his tender snores soothe my ears. After that I place him on the table and he lies down in front of all those people who turned out to see him and goes back to sleep. Occasionally he'll flop and ear, or twitch one of his bushy white eyebrows. Rarely does he do more than that.

Would any of us be so composed and relaxed in front of an excited crowd?

Atticus and I are comfortable pretty much wherever we go. Perhaps it came from the earliest days when I carried him everywhere I went when he was but a wee pup. Or maybe it's because we just fit well together and always have – as if we were made for each other. Perhaps it's all the mountains we’ve climbed or how each of us has faced our share of health issues over the past few years - always side by side. Whatever the reason, he is simply who he is and I take comfort in that.

Not long ago we were in front of a standing room only crowd in Cambridge, Massachusetts and I spoke as I always do - from the cuff, perhaps with a bit of wit and Tourette's mixed in for danger. (One never knows what I will say next. Heck, I don’t even know.) Someone asked a question and it had to do with defining our story. Oh, the places I could go with such a question. And how to boil it down into a simple answer. After all, there are many messages in Following Atticus. What I came up with was something that sounded like the following: "When we are little and standing in front of our bedroom mirror, we dream of hitting the winning homerun in the World Series, catching the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, being elected president, or being given some great award. We dream innocently of being great. But then life comes along and through the decades it wears us down and before long we are thirty or forty...or fifty, and those dreams of our youth are forgotten. No one dreams of growing up to sit in a cubicle five days a week, or beating his wife, or becoming an alcoholic. So our story is how one little dog led me back to myself, led me back to being that little boy and all the wonders he dreamed of and we came to it by crossing over all these beautiful mountains in New Hampshire."

Tennyson was correct when he said, "Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” It's never too late to pick up where we left off when innocence left off – no matter how old we are.

Last night I sat with a friend who is struggling in life - truly struggling. He is mired in fear and has a difficult time making a right step. He gets glimpses of magic but falls back on the old dysfunctions that nurtured his shortcomings and he sits and he doubts and chooses to believe in anything but happy endings. But all I could think about was how at any time in life he can start anew 'to seek his newer world...' All he has to do is to take a step, a blind step, perhaps even a giant step into the unknown. I thought off how life had dealt this fellow a raw deal but at the same time while his life was in ruins he still has a choice to make. That's when I thought of something Rumi wrote: "“Do not be satisfied with the stories that come before you. Unfold your own myth.”

So what does all of this have to do with a little dog and the magnificent White Mountains we live in? Everything.

There was a time when I faced my fears and made that same kind of leap of faith.  I followed a little dog into these mountains – two neophytes. We climbed the 48 4,000-footers in spring and summer; then in fall and winter. And what I discovered was this great, mysterious, and mythic land was the medicine I needed. Of course Atticus was my avatar; my guide back to myself for he held the innocence I had lost.

We didn't know what we couldn't do when we set out to hike 96 peaks in 90 days of one winter. We simply went because we found peace, tranquility, and virtue in the journey up and over those summits and down into the shadowy valleys.

After sitting in a dark and brooding room last night down in Massachusetts, with a friend who appears to have a difficult time believing he could make such a leap, I'm half ashamed to say that some of his hopelessness rubbed off on me. But when Atticus and I returned to the mountains and stepped onto a forest path this morning, all of that changed. We were back where we belong.

In the crunch of the snow underfoot, in the passing under the archway of trees, in the climb up and away from what once held me down, we arose as we always do, and conquered what I needed to conquer, what we all need to face and defeat time and again in life. 

Climbing mountains is a wonderful metaphor in life, in ascending beyond doubts and distractions that have us believing we can’t be great or that our own personal story doesn’t matter. 

Nature offers up a wonderful setting for us to regain what it means to be human.  (And how ironic that I became more human by getting away from society and following a little dog.) 

Today, as we sat alone on a little summit in solitude and the sun felt warmer than it should in February, I felt clean and healthy but thoughts of last night continued to race through my mind.  But to my left, about five feet away, without a care in the world, sat little Atticus – content.  I needed that mountain today.  But more so I needed that little guide who led me to the top and then had me breathing just as simply and happily as he was when taking in the view. 

“’Tis not too late to seek a newer world…”

Friday, February 03, 2012

Provincetown Sojourn

For each of the past three winters, Atticus and I have headed to the Outer Cape and rented an affordable off-season house in Provincetown. We go for the walks on the beach, we go for a change of pace, but more than anything, we go for the vast horizons and the incredible light. We'll always love mountains best, but it's great to get to the sea as well. And each time we return to the beach it's a return to Atti's childhood (or is that puppyhood?). When he was young we spent our mornings and evenings romping on the beach at Plum Island. We don't get back to Plum Island very often any more, but that's all the more reason for us to get out to PTown once a year in what is the darkest season in the mountains.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

AMC Outdoors Features 'Following Atticus'

"Reading Following Atticus can feel like taking a long walk, or a
series of walks, with a great storyteller." - Kristen Laine, AMC Outdoors
This morning, the online edition of February's AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club) Outdoors ran a column about Following Atticus.  Kristen Laine is a wonderful writer and aptly titled her piece "Following Atticus Home".  She wowed us with her ability to weave words and was the first reviewer to connect the dots between father and son so completely.  The relationship I had with my father, Jack Ryan, was sandwiched between her opening and closing paragraphs that dealt with her relationship with her own father.  It was well done.  

Of course she touched on Atticus M. Finch, my diminutive hiking partner who brought us me to this point in my life and she mentioned the mountains we have grown to love and ultimately call our home. 

We are thrilled that the AMC embraced our story, especially since White Mountain historians Steve Smith and Mike Dickerman believe Following Atticus is the first nationally published books about these great peaks.  Therefore, the mission of the AMC goes hand in hand with our love of this region.

Perhaps our favorite sentence from Kristen's column is "Reading Following Atticus can feel like taking a long walk, or a series of walks, with a great storyteller."  But there's so much more to like about it.  See for yourself by
reading the entire piece here.