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.
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.
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.
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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.