Following Atticus: Life Lessons Learned While Hiking With a Dog

Following Atticus book cover

A Dog Story, But So Much More

Certain experiences enlarge us, expand our perceptions. If we let them.

A short list would include:

  • spending time in nature
  • taking risks
  • confronting our inner demons
  • developing a deep relationship with someone whose point of view is entirely other

Tom Ryan writes beautifully about all of these things in Following Atticus: Forty-eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship which is easily enough reason to read it. But Ryan is accompanied in his experiences by a charming miniature Schnauzer which makes the account especially memorable.

Tom Ryan – Reformer

We meet Tom Ryan as a reform-minded journalist in the small, politically corrupt town of Newburyport, Massachusetts. His stories of police stealing his trash (they were looking for something embarrassing or illegal enough to stop his investigations into their bad behavior) or conflicts between old-timers and newcomers are specific to this place. But they will also feel familiar to anyone who has lived in a close-knit urban neighborhood that feels like a small town.

Into a life dominated by work comes Max, an elderly miniature Schnauzer in need of rescue. The dog’s presence in his life allows Ryan to connect with his neighbors over something besides local gossip and politics. And his loss opened the door to the writer’s soul dog, Atticus M. Fitch.

Saved by Dog

On the advice of Atticus’s breeder, Ryan carries the puppy with him everywhere, providing the young dog with superb socialization and an intensely close bond with his person. The pair did no formal obedience training. Ryan simply treated the puppy the way he wished he had been raised.

Atticus grows into a dog with a seemingly strong sense of self. But he also becomes the family Ryan had yearned for.

With eight brothers and sisters, Ryan had no shortage of relatives. But with the early death of their mom and a father beaten down by life, the Ryan kids learned to look out for themselves.

Crawford Notch in the White Mountains

Crawford Notch – One of the Magnificent Views in the White Mountains

The desire to reconnect with family led Ryan and Atticus to the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Rare happy family memories revolved around their summer trips. And when Tom Ryan accompanied his brothers on a hike, something awakened in him. He felt the mountains calling to him.

After the death of a close friend, Tom set the goal of climbing each of the forty-eight New Hampshire peaks higher than four thousand feet. In the winter. Twice. Fewer than a hundred people had bagged all forty-eight in a winter. Only one dog had—a 160 pound Newfoundland.

Ambitious goals often lead to accidents. It’s tempting to ignore iffy weather conditions to keep on schedule. But Ryan made Atticus’s safety primary in his decisions. And he listened when the dog vetoed their plans.

Man, Dog, and Mountains

In Newburyport, Tom Ryan took the lead. But in the mountains, Atticus led the way.

Twice, after the two-hour drive to the trailhead, Atticus refused to hike. Ryan packed up his gear and headed home. They were a team. And if one didn’t feel up to the hike, neither of them went.

In the mountains, Ryan confronted his fears, came to terms with his upbringing, and made life choices. Atticus also confronted his fears, learning to ford streams despite his dislike of water and to wear the tight bodysuit meant to keep him warm in extreme conditions.

Following Atticus is about love and loss, coming to terms with one’s past, the healing power of nature, and challenging oneself. But it’s also funny in places.

The writer who liked shaking up city politics took a gleeful pleasure in challenging the preconceptions of what a “real hiker” and his dog should look like. One of my favorite moments involved the team of expensively outfitted hikers with a guide dismayed to find that a stout man and his twenty-pound dog had beaten them to the summit and were sitting eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Tom Ryan and Atticus

Tom Ryan and
Atticus M. Fitch

The two didn’t mind that they didn’t look like hikers. But they were hikers. After all, hikers are those who hike.

I loved accompanying Tom and Atticus up the mountains. Ryan is a descriptive writer who made me feel the wind and the cold. I felt a chill of fear as he told of losing his headlamp in his first nighttime hike. From the warmth and safety of my summer’s day front porch, I vicariously experienced the challenges they faced.

But I also liked his description of the small dog in his element. Above the tree line, Atticus knew instinctively to lower his center of gravity to make progress against the wind. And he also understood the trail markers that led them up the established route. Ryan never knew how he did it.

Dogs Lead People Back to Who We Were

Humans are forever trying to make canines fit into our world. We don’t want them to bark, sniff people awkwardly, or mark their territory.

But dogs inhabit the physical world in a way we’ve lost. And they challenge us to remember it.

Sure, we can’t see as well at night as a dog can. But we can see much better than we think we can. We’ve just forgotten to try.

Tom and Atticus (or as they became known on the trails, Tom-and-Atticus as one word) had helpful gear, warm layers, and Atticus even had his own snow boots. But they were confronting elements we turn aside by using double-pane windows, central heat, and automobiles.

Exposing himself to that which most of us avoid opened Tom Ryan to new ways of thinking about himself and his family. It led him to sell his newspaper and move to the White Mountains.

And Atticus got to be what few of his kind get to be—a dog. Or in the writer’s words: “In the mountains Atticus became more of what he’d always been, and I became less—less frantic, less stressed, less worried, and less harried.”

The New Hampshire mountains gave a gift to both man and dog.

Enter to win your own copy of Following Atticus through the Rafflecopter below.

TLC virtual book tour host

Tom Ryan and Atticus are still having adventures in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. You can follow them on their blog, on Facebook, or Twitter. Our review is part of a TLC virtual book tour.

Check out Mel Freer of No Dog About It when she reviews Following Atticus on Monday, September 3. Or read Roxanne Hawn of Champion of My Heart’s review from earlier in the week.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a free copy of this book to review. The opinions, however, are entirely my own.
photo credit for Crawford Notch: BurningQuestion via photo pin cc Click on the image to learn more.

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  1. fabulous review!! We aren’t entering the contest because we reviewed this incredible book on our blog a few months ago. For anyone hesitating to enter…don’t…this book is superb. Your review was also superb!

  2. Oh Dog! This sounds like a great book!

  3. This is a book I’ve had on my list to read, and I keep shuffling it back down to the bottom of the list. After reading your review, I think maybe I need to stick it back up near the top. I can’t imagine such a small dog having the strength and stamina to climb mountains!

    • Don’t let Jessica of You Did What With Your Weiner know you said that. She hikes with two miniature dachshunds up even higher mountains in the Pacific Northwest. :)

      • Really? Wow that is great! I’m going to have to check it out, it sounds wonderful and I know those dogs must have great adventures! I’ve only seen big dogs like labs out on hikes. Okay, I’ve gotta admit, I don’t do much hiking!!

  4. techeditor says:

    I’m so glad you said that, although you received a copy of the book free from the publisher, the opinions you state are your own. I’m so worried about online book reviews because so many are dishonest. Thank you. This sounds like my kind of book. I love animal books, but so many sound like they were written for children. And I hate that. This sounds like it’s for adults.

    • This is definitely a book that respects its readers as well as respecting dogs. I don’t often review dog books offered to me because of just the criticism you’re offering. This book is quite different.

  5. Atticus was the example dog that Dogs 101 used for the Miniature Schnauzer. Glad to know the book has come out, and that Atticus is still kicking.

  6. Great review! So vivid, makes me remember how badly I need to get into some wilderness mountains myself. Fortunately, the weekend is coming…

  7. Pauline Holshouser says:

    I loved this book. It’s been a while since I read it so reading your review brought it back. Fun review to read.

  8. Linda Gilmore says:

    I believe that what a dog like Atticus can teach a human on the trail is: courage, devotion, loyalty, and above all companionship that makes hiking mountains with a dog the greatest experience ever!

  9. I’ve been following them on facebook and I just love the posts. Thanks for a chance at their book.

  10. I read this book back when Edie ran her dog travel book club and I really enjoyed it. It made me want to embark upon a long journey with my dog, just for the chance to experience life with her in a more natural way. I have a feeling it would help me understand her a lot better. Maybe one day…

  11. Ann Plummer says:

    I read the book and so enjoyed it. Now that I am passing it around, not sure when I am getting it back. Of course I will be getting another book as I want to read it again.
    Atticus is one smart dog and Tom Ryan has an excellant way with words.

  12. Pam Prince says:

    My favorite book “Following Atticus” has helped me to start my forgiveness transformation: It’s about unconditional love and redemption….it is so much deeper than what I imagined when I received it as a gift. I love dogs and have a 10 year old min-schnauzer rescue, so I began reading. I could not put it down….Just finished reading for the second time. Awesome!
    Give yourself a huge gift by reading this book….your life may change, as mine has, as a result!
    With love and wags,
    Pam & the Pack
    Ojai, CA

    • Great mini review in your comment, Pam. It certainly is about redemption. And very engaging. I read it in one afternoon.

  13. Karin Wilmarth says:

    Awesome review! Tom Ryan has written a wonderful must-read book! Do you love dogs … then read this book! Do you love hiking … then read this book! Do you love the White Mountains of New Hampshire … then read this book! This book will teach you so much about yourself, forgiveness, unconditional love, and so much more. Just a heart-warming book and I can’t wait for the 2nd one!

  14. Richie Grant says:

    I rescue dogs in California so anytime I can read a book about a dog I grab it. I soon learned there was more to this book than just the story of a dog. I found Tom’s journey of discovery inspiring. I still refer back to parts of the book when I’m struggling with things in my life. The story of Tom & Atticus changed my life!

  15. I loved this book for many reasons but partly that a small dog was presented as an intelligent, noble animal and not just a pampered house pet. It didn’t inspire me to hike in the mountains since i get altitude sickness on a stepladder, but we did spend some days hiking after reading it.

  16. Diana Nelson says:

    I keep hearing good things about this book, and your review has brought it right back to the front of my mind – looking forward to reading it!

  17. Would you believe one sentence in this post moved me to tears?

    Dogs Lead People Back to Who We Were. I think you just summarized why I love my dogs so much, the joy I experience with/thru them helps me remember who I was.

    Beautiful review Pamela, just beautiful.

  18. Thank you for your wonderful blog and review on Following Atticus!
    Such an amazing story, such an inspiration. Would love to share the inspiration!

  19. You did a great job on this review, from start to finish. :) Atticus is climbing mountains, Tom is trying to keep up with him 😉 and Will is trying to climb stairs…all whilst his book is climbing to the top, and hopefully will be in the number ONE position soon. A great, life changing, inspiring, read.

  20. What a great review! It sounds like a book that would be really popular at my house. I agree that hiking is a great way to enjoy getting more connected, and less connected to so many things that hold us back, like technology.

    • I really think you’d like it. Good luck in the contest. But if you don’t win, it might make a great Christmas gift for Mr. Taleteller. And then you’d get to read it too. :)

  21. One of the best reviews I have read about Following Atticus. Enjoyed that this review really understood what Tom Ryan is portraying to his readers. This review entices one to want to actually read this book not only for its story content but to investigate the inspiration aspect that every reviewer is commenting about. This review will definitely assist in placing Following Atticus into a #1 seller!

  22. So many books . . .so little time!! I need to start making more time to read :)

    • This is a really good one that’s worth making time for. I read it in one afternoon–not because it’s a fluffy read but because it’s so engaging you want to stick with it.

      Good luck in the contest.

  23. Even reading your review of the book inspires me – I can only imagine how I’ll feel once I read the book itself! What a treat!

    Thanks for being on the tour.

  24. I love your heading of Dogs Lead People Back to Who We Were. So true! I think there’s a reason that so many people find love and comfort and inspiration in dogs.

  25. Catch up time:) What can I say, I’ve signed up for the blog, liked their FB page and next will be to try and buy the book. So inspirational. On the one year anniversary of Josh’s death this little dog reminds me of Josh. Thanks Pamela.

  26. You have expressed things here that I’ve often thought & felt but am not eloquent enough to put into words…thank you


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