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, September 06, 2012

Answering Five Questions from Friends on our Following Atticus Facebook Page

Donna Agripino: I must ask, do you every worry about Atticus falling or slipping off a cliff? Especially in winter? (I am not trying to be funny) it's just that some of the photos of him make it look like he is so close to the edge. Thanks. A former No. Conway resident.

I don’t Donna.  Atticus knows his limitations and he’s not afraid to express them.  If there’s a stream crossing he cannot get across, he comes to me to carry him over.  If a slide in winter is unsafe, he knows to let me go first – otherwise he goes on his own; and if a stream looks frozen but isn’t, he won’t go.  I don’t know how he knows all of this, but I imagine it’s a level of trust we share, which is a byproduct of Paige having me carry him everywhere we went that first month we were together.  The only reason we took on the three winter quests we did was because I knew we had the ability to communicate our limitations to each other.    I wish was just as self-assured as he is. 

For me, it’s about trust. It’s about respecting Atticus’s right to be what he wants to be. 

Besides, I’m the one with the fear of heights, not Atticus.

Francy Roentz Martin: “Why do you hike at night? I’m not afraid of the dark, but that seems scary!”

Francy, you may not be afraid of the dark, but I am – well, kind of anyway. 

I’m not afraid of the dark in my home or walking through town, but being on top of a mountain miles away from the closest person under the cloak of darkness often scares the dickens out of me.  And yet I do it. 

I think of my fear of the night woods as an irrational one and, as is the case with my fear of heights, I like to challenge my irrational fears.  I think it’s helpful and healthy to dance with our fears from time to time to put things in perspective and stretch our comfort zone.    

I had a little bit of a breakthrough when we did some winter hikes when the days are shorter and the mileage is, at times, longer.  By necessity we’d start out in the dark or end in it – or both.  Nothing horrible every happened and I realized it was both thrilling and unnerving to challenge that fear.

In the winter it’s not as big a deal because the trees are bare and the ground is covered in snow and a bright moon can light up the forest like a photographic negative.  But just to be safe, and to keep my childhood fear of the dark at a safe distance, I always bring at least three headlamps – just in case!

Jody Riger: Where do you see yourself five years from now? (And I don't necessarily mean geographically.)

Living with my wife and Atticus in a small out-of-the-way mountain farmhouse with a wraparound porch, a double bathtub, and fieldstone fireplace; where I’d continue writing, and the three of us would take in abused, neglected, and unwanted farm animals allowing them to live out their lives with the dignity they hadn’t known up until that point. By this time I’ll have perfected the world’s best vegan muffins and we’ll spend our days appreciating nature, hiking mountains, learning from each other and the animals who live with us, and writing about it all.  Our nights will be spent by the fire or out under the stars if the weather is just right.  Pretty simple really.  Simple but laced with bliss.


Lynn Hartkemeyer Laney: What is your favorite trait of Schnauzers?

I’m probably a bad person to ask that of, Lynn.  I never think of Atticus as being a schnauzer and Paige tells me that’s part of the reason he’s turned out the way he has. 

I’m not into the entire breed specific thing and more often than not I’m turned off by it.  For me, I think considering a breed is just another limitation.  I simply like dogs.  More importantly I like animals.  Heck, if I could, I’d take in an elephant. 

I know that may sound funny since Max, Atticus and Will have all been schnauzers, but the truth is I gave Max a home because he needed one. I didn’t know anything about the schnauzer breed other than I thought they looked rather grouchy and stuffy.  Then I got Atticus because I wanted another Max; or at least an “unbroken” Max.  Paige, who bred hundreds of schnauzers (and rescued many more), has always said that Atticus isn’t much like any schnauzer she’d ever known. She felt he defied any such labels.  I liked that.  And Will came to us, not because he’s a schnauzer, but because his photo was posted on our Facebook page and he was mostly blind and deaf, old and arthritic, and needed a home but was unlikely to find one.  I could have cared less if he were a schnauzer, beagle, pug, or puggle.  What mattered to me was that he was small and he was good with other animals.

I don’t believe in limitations for myself or for my friends so I think it’s okay to allow a dog to be what he wants to be.  Nowadays lots of people think hiking with schnauzers is quite normal, but they didn’t seem to think so when we first started out, especially in winter.  Had I listened to others and what was expected of the breed, we probably wouldn’t have done much of what we’ve done and Atticus would have spent most of his life, if not all of it, with a leash on. 

The other day I noticed a few people wanted to know why Atticus and Will don’t have beards like other schnauzers.  I don’t really mind how others groom their dogs, but I think a beard on a dog makes about as much sense as a tie on a man.  I’m not really into what’s outside of a dog as much as wants inside of on.  What I want for the dogs in my life is for them to be comfortable, cared for, and confident.      

Jeff Meunier: Any regret about not being able to complete all the climbs you set out to do, and do you plan on making any further attempts?

Good question, Jeff. 

No regret.  At first there was, but that was just my ego screaming like a six year old.  The truth, as it turns out, even if I couldn’t see it way back then, was that it wasn’t about reaching 96 peaks in 90 days of winter.  It was about the journey, not the destination.  And the journey over all those mountains was the lesser of the journeys.  The more important ones had to do with my journey back to myself, and the friendship and love I share with Atticus.

It’s ironic, I think, that in some ways it’s more fitting that we didn’t reach our goals in any of the three winters we set out to reach a set number of peaks.  By not reaching 48, 96, 0r 96 peaks we failed in our numbers, but succeeded in seeing to it we were safe and knew our limitations. 

In the end, it didn’t matter that we ended up with 41, 66, or 81 peaks.  Turns out it wasn’t the accomplishment on the mountains that mattered, but where those trails took us.

You know, Tennyson has that great line at the end of his poem Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”  That’s what matters to me.  To strive to be more human, to seek to become a better person and a better friend, and to find out what’s important.