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, October 18, 2012

Will's Choice

I believe in the magic of these mountains.  It’s what drew me here; it’s what keeps me here.  It’s where I connect with my late father, where I made peace with him when he was still alive. It’s where I followed a little dog home to myself, the self I always dreamed of being.  It’s where I finally met my best friend and the love of my life.  For me, the White Mountains are my beginning and my ending; my alpha and my omega. 

I find a certain synchronicity here – not only on the trails, by the rocky streams where mountain waters rush swiftly by, on the exposed ledges of the Presidential Range, the mysterious forests of the Sandwich Range, or on summit halfway between heaven and earth.  It’s even in the little house we live in down in the valley and it’s where things come together and life makes sense. 

No matter what we plan for, we can never be truly ready for what life will deliver to us. There’s just no way of knowing who or what is on the other side of that door we’re about to open.  It’s part of the mystery of it all.  Look at it all in the right way and you can see what Einstein meant: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.”  It’s what keeps life interesting.  It’s what makes us grow. 

Last spring I lost a friend to alcoholism.  No matter what I did or tried to do, I couldn’t help him, but as anyone who has been through a similar experience will tell you, the only one who can save an addict is the alcoholic himself. My friend didn’t die, he simply crawled further inside the bottle and I had to make a decision to go on with my life. What died was our friendship. 

Within a month we adopted Will, an elderly, mostly blind, deaf, and arthritic miniature schnauzer. Another friend had the opinion that we rescued Will because we couldn’t rescue the alcoholic in our lives.  Perhaps there is some truth to that – but I’m not really sure. 

I ran into the alcoholic in July.  He was still drinking and still sinking deeper into the bottle.  Meanwhile, I had expected Will to be dead by July.  He was in such bad shape, so angry, in so much pain when he came to live with us in May I wondered if it was cruel keeping him going.  But by July Will was doing much better. By August he was thriving.  Now here in the middle of October I look at this nearly sixteen year old dog with a sense wonder.  He’s not only joyful and fulfilled; he’s discovered a sense of self.  He knows who he is and what he wants.

Will doesn’t get around much. He’s been to some book signings with us, but people in town don’t get to see much of him because his poor stiff hips are in such bad shape – probably from being crated for far too many years – and he can’t walk very far.  Two weeks ago I shared our plan to try to get this old boy to the top of a mountaintop.  His hips have gotten better.  They’re no longer tender to the touch and he sits in the crook of my arm as Atticus always has. They are still not strong enough to allow him a long walk, never mind climb up even the easiest of mountains.  But I thought he may be ready to sit in one of the child-carrying backpacks parents put their kids into.  So we went to Eastern Mountain Sports, picked up a backpack, crossed our fingers, and gave it our best shot while sitting in the comfort of our backyard. 

I held Will as I always do, slowly slid him down into the seat and let his long lower legs poke through the openings and dangle downward.  At first he was a bit nervous by this new position.  Then he whimpered.  Then my heart broke when I heard him crying.  I pulled him out and held him for a bit.  We waited and gave him another try but it was clear he wasn’t just limited by fear, it was also pain. So I pulled him out and sat for a while as he buried his head against my chest and let me hold him.  (This is something that never would have happened in the beginning. He wouldn’t have let me hold him like this. He barely let me touch him, and I wouldn’t have let his flashing teeth so close to me.) 

Sitting there cradling this dog who was left to die in a kill shelter less than six months ago I wondered if maybe, holding him like that, letting him cry, letting him feel safe in my arms, letting him feel loved, if maybe sitting there with me was his mountaintop.  Perhaps he didn’t need to reach some summit thousands of feet in the air.

But while I was holding him I soon noticed that as soon as he calmed down and gave me a tiny flick of his tongue – a kiss perhaps? – that this mostly blind dog started casting his nose about in the air and let his eyes try to focus on shapes and movements all around us.  A gentle breeze tussled his white hair, he closed his eyes, seemed to smile, and I heard that same familiar sigh Atticus always makes on a mountaintop when he’s in my arms. 

Seeing him like that has me determined to get to a mountaintop.  I want him to experience what it is like just once in his life.  But I want him to enjoy it for if he doesn’t, and if he doesn’t feel safe and comfortable, there’s no sense in it.  And I want to do it before too much time passes.  Soon the roads with access to the easier mountains I have in mind will be closed.  Soon the snows will come and winter’s cold will keep Will and his brittle bones inside. 

I’m smart enough to know that for as far as we’ve come, and how Will finally understands what it is like to be loved and is clearly loving us back, how he’s so much healthier than he was, this redemption he’s going through will soon come to an end.  That’s the thing about adopting an older dog. Time together is dear but all too short. The reality is that he may not live to see another spring, not at this age. 

It seems rather cruel, that now that he’s found his home, he may not get to enjoy it for a long time.  We all knew this taking him in.  We did it to give him a place to die in dignity and with respect.  I just didn’t count on him living.  And it’s not that I didn’t count on him living this long, I just didn’t count on him choosing to live again and love again.  Unlike the friend we lost last April, Will chose to live when he had every reason to give up on life as life had given up on him. 

Because Will chose to live he’s made our lives richer because of it.  He fills our hearts on a daily basis and when the time comes to say goodbye, he will break them. 

So when people ask me why I would want to take an old blind and deaf dog to a mountaintop my answer is clear.  It’s because life is all too fleeting and all too dear not to. I want him to live while he still can, especially since he's chosen to live!

So this weekend, we’ll take one last shot at getting Will to a mountaintop.  An enclosed stroller made for dogs and cats is arriving tomorrow.  It’s rugged enough to take on a gentle trail and should be far more comfortable for Will to ride in than the backpack was, especially since we’ll swaddle him in padding.  Of course we’ll be following Atticus up that mountain and there will be two of us to lift the stroller when we get to the rougher parts. 

Hopefully when the weekend is done, Will would have sat on his first, and most likely, last mountaintop.  Will it all be worth it?  I believe so.  For I believe in fate and synchronicity.  I believe we come into each other’s lives for a reason. 

The translated Italian title for Following Atticus equates to “With You to the Top of the World.”  I think it’s ironic that while we’ll be helping Will get to a special place that’s not even close to being the tallest peak in our valley, never mind the White Mountains, or the world, something tells me that when all is said and done, all of us will feel as though we’ve reached the top of the world together.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Most Enjoyable Interview We've Ever Done

Okay, so I say "we" but as everyone knows, Atticus doesn't talk.  As I often say during radio interviews when the hosts asks me if Atticus is with me, "Of course he is, but he won't talk.  Just think of us as the Penn & Teller of memoirs. 

Recently "we" were approached about doing an interview for Chick Lit Is Not Dead by Liz and Lisa. How could "we" resist? I happily answered the questions, for both of us, and the interview went live today.  "We" hope you read it and enjoy it since it's not the same old - same old kind of interview.  The ladies ask some fun questions and because of it, this is part of one of the answers you will see:

"...on one of our most recent hikes, a five mile loop that wouldn’t have taken more than three hours in the past, we started out later in the afternoon, took our time, sunbathed on the summit ledges, then on another set of ledges watched the sunset and the rise of the full moon over neighboring mountains. We stayed there for quite some time, just the three of us, ate a candlelight dinner, and danced to the music piped from my iPhone under the full moon, and returned to the car nine hours later."

Yes, I talk of love....but I also touch on veganism, adopting unwanted animals, my favorite authors, and I even give advice to aspiring authors.  To read the entire interview click here, and we'd love it if you left them a comment - it could help you win a copy of Following Atticus.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Ordering Autographed & Pawtographed Copies of Following Atticus for the Holidays

We woke up to a temperatures in the thirties this morning and earlier this week snow fell on the 4,000-footers throughout the White Mountains.  That means winter is on its way, as are the holidays. One of the most common questions we get is "How can I get an autographed copy of Following Atticus signed by both you and Atticus?"

There are only two ways: show up at one of our book signings, and there are only two left and they are both this weekend in Massachusetts, or call our local bookstore, White Birch Books. White Birch Books is located in North Conway and they will handle your special order with ease. They've already sold more than 2,000 copies of our story and have shipped them throughout the country and overseas. 

Each week Atticus and I stop in to visit the ladies at White Birch Books to see what is new in the book world and to pick up the latest works from our favorite authors.  (Currently on my nightstand are the latest from Louise Penny, William Martin, John Irving, Carolos Ruiz Zafon, and Katherine Howe.) While there we sign copies of our books and they are promptly mailed out by Laura Lucy and her staff. 

To place your order for hardcover, paperback, large print, or audio copies of Following Atticus, call them at (603)356-3200, which they prefer, or you can visit their website at

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Where There's a Will, There's a Way

I know, this is a hiking column and I’m sure I drive some other folks who write about hiking crazy by how I deviate from a simple, straight forward piece of writing about trail conditions and elevation gain.  I know…I should be writing about fall foliage and a hike that takes us through the bright orange, yellow, and red canopy of the season to a lofty viewpoint allowing us to drink in October’s tapestry as it spreads out below us.  After all, we are in the White Mountains, the most beautiful place in the world this time of year.  And yet this week’s column offers a different look at this season, and the autumn of one’s life.  And once again, I’m sure I will disappoint some of my peers who write about these trails we all tramp. 

Each morning, the first thing I do when I wake up is spend five minutes counting my blessings.  I start out each day with what I call an attitude for gratitude.  Over the past few years I’ve started off that list with a little black and white dog, the mountains we live in, our story that’s been published not just by this newspaper every two weeks but also by HarperCollins in book form, and more than any of that, I am thankful for this simpler more soulful existence we’ve found a way to live.  Not everyone finds their dreams in this lifetime.  And fewer still can live them on a daily basis.  That’s how fortunate I am. 

But what makes our life all the better is that from time to time we can take our passion and use it to make someone else’s life just a little better.  What could be better than doing what you love and have it impact someone else’s life? 

Through the years we’ve used our hiking as a way to raise money and awareness for the fight against cancer, for animals in need, and for literacy.  And yet nothing quite compares to those rare treks when Atticus and I take a friend to the top of a mountain and let them feel what we get to appreciate regularly. 

As anyone who knows us will tell you, Atticus and I are mostly a private pair.  Yes, we have our friends and we used to hike from time to time with others, but these days the trails and our experiences on them mean just too much for us to give them up to someone else.  The woods are where he and I bond.  It’s where our friendship is renewed time and again.  But every now and then if someone is special to us, we share this intimate corner of our lives with them. 

Over the next few days we hope to be doing just that.  We have this elderly friend…his name is Will.  He’s mostly blind to the point where he can see only shapes and shadows.  He is deaf and arthritic and when we met him in May he could barely walk and he was in such pain he didn’t liked to be touched.  Like Atticus he is a miniature schnauzer and through an inconceivable twist of fate, the family he lived with for the entire fifteen years of his life dropped him off in a kill shelter in New Jersey.  Fortunately for Will, the New Jersey Schnauzer Rescue Network swooped in and saved his life.  But they knew they had a difficult case on their hands and would have a hard time placing him in a home.  I surprised both Atticus and myself when I decided that we would take him in. 

Atticus has always been the only dog in my life.  He’s great with animals – even moose and bear – but he’s never had to share me with another four-legged creature.  Not full time anyway.  But knowing him as I do I believed he’d be fine with it.  And he’s been nothing but patient and understanding and kind from the very beginning. 

When Will first came to live with us I wondered why he was still alive.  That’s how unhealthy he was.  I wondered out loud in conversations with our vet Christine O’Connell how long I should keep him alive before relieving him of his misery.  For miserable he was.  And who wouldn’t be? Live with a family for the entirety of your life and when you are blind and deaf and in such pain all you want to do is bite someone when they try to touch you, abandoned in place where you are behind bars, unfamiliar with your surroundings, quite frightened, and left to die.  It had to be overwhelming for him.  Just the thought of such despair crushes me even today.

The only reason we took Will in was to give him a place to die in dignity.  He deserved that.  We all do.  But a funny thing happened that first month.  He didn’t die.  Nor did he die the second or third month.  And now it has been five months and Will is not only alive, he’s thriving.  He’s happy, self-assured, and he’s learned to trust again.   There are not many people who could go through what he has and come out half as well. 

Before I saw Will, I thought it would be great if we could get him up a mountain with us.  But he was in no condition to do that.  However, over time his hips have come back a bit.  He now lets me massage them, something that would have elicited a bite from him in the past.  And while he will never be able to walk up a mountain he may be ready to sit in a backpack.  Tomorrow morning, we’ll head to Eastern Mountain Sports to see if he feels comfortable sitting in one.  If all goes well, the following day my two best friends will lead Will and I up a mountain.

Over the last five months Will has developed quite a fan club.  His story resonates with many folks who gain strength from his resilience and understand that if it wasn’t too late for him to love, and be loved, and to live, then it’s not too late for them to have those gifts as well. 

Five months ago, a little blind dog was left to die alone in a shelter.  This weekend he could be sitting on top of a mountain, loved, and adored.  Some mountains take five months to climb, some journeys take a lifetime, and Will reminds us that it’s never too late to find your way home.