Following Atticus Home
A book about a little dog and big mountains tugs at the heart
By Kristen Laine
AMC Outdoors, February 2012
Casting about last Christmas for a present to give my elderly father, whose memory is failing faster than his will to live, I remembered that I had a copy of a new book, something about hiking in the White Mountains with a dog. The dog stared straight out from the cover, seeming to say, "Let's go!" Cute, if you liked dogs. And my father did. In recent years he'd become devoted to a dog that looked a lot like the one on the cover, a white bichon frise who answered to the name Annie. I'd grown up hearing him make fun of little dogs, but Annie had laid claim to a big soppy chunk of his heart. I wrapped the book—Following Atticus, by Tom Ryan—and sent it off.
Following Atticus is an unusual hiking memoir. One of the main characters, in a cast of many, is Atticus M. Finch, a 20-pound miniature schnauzer. Tom Ryan is his human companion and the person who named Atticus after the honorable father in To Kill a Mockingbird.
When Atticus arrived in Ryan's life, Ryan was a newspaperman in Newburyport, Mass., the editor, publisher, and sole employee of a bi-weekly paper that The Boston Globe dubbed "the insider's guide to the underside of Newburyport." In addition to muckraking, Ryan also wrote a regular column called "Letter Home," a letter about the town to his father, who lived 80 miles away in Medway, where Ryan had been raised. Ryan and his father had a difficult relationship, cut through with anger and silence. The father, in his 80s and housebound, went long stretches without speaking to the youngest of his nine children. "Letter Home" gave Ryan a way to connect across the physical and emotional distances that separated them.
After a few years, Atticus and Ryan started hiking together. Ryan's "Letter Home" column shared their beginners' experiences, first in the Green Mountains near Stowe, Vt., and then in the White Mountain of New Hampshire. Middle-aged, overweight, so afraid of heights that he became dizzy standing on a stepladder to change a lightbulb, Ryan feared, on early hikes, that he would die of a heart attack. Yet he found himself remembering childhood rambles in woods along the Charles River, a place that had felt magical to him as a young boy. He also noticed that Atticus seemed made for the mountains.
Ryan learned about the 4,000-Footer Club, for people who have hiked all 48 peaks in the White Mountains that are 4,000 feet or higher, and decided to attempt that goal with his hiking companion, thinking they'd take two or three years. Ryan had lost weight and no longer had to stop for breath walking around Newburyport. Hiking was still hard, but it gave him time to reflect. He felt himself reconnect with the young boy who had found enchantment in the woods. The physical demands of climbing a mountain were matched by an internal journey, a process by which Ryan allowed himself to be "pulled apart and then put back together again" on each hike.
Early in the book the man-and-dog hiking duo polish off every 4,000-footer, hiking them in one summer. That's one clue that Following Atticus is not your standard mountain adventure book, in which reaching the summit drives the narrative from beginning to end. There will be more goals and more summits, many of them in the middle of winter, in the book's remaining 200 pages, but they are not the focus of the story. The goals, however, do reveal Ryan's obsessive streak: The death of a close friend in Newburyport, for example, prompts him to decide to hike all the 4,000-footers in the winter as a fundraiser in her memory, with Atticus—twice in one season.
Ryan may be an obsessive, but he is a lyrical one, generous with his feelings and with stories. When I spoke with him last month about Following Atticus, he said that he modeled his approach to describing his hikes and climbs on 19th-century painters. "When they came to the White Mountains," he said, "they didn't paint what the mountains looked like so much as they painted how it felt to look at them." He wanted to describe the feelings he had when he was in the mountains, and how the mountains changed him.
Following Atticus, he told me, "is not about the dog, and it's not about the mountains." He described it as a hero's journey, in which climbing mountains is a quest to recover lost dreams from childhood. "If we become the people we dreamed of being when we were young and pure and innocent," he writes in the book, "then and only then do we find our way home again."
One of the book's important quests involves Ryan's attempts to repair his relationship with his father. The White Mountains become part of that process. Early on, Ryan recognizes that when he and his father "went to war with each other," he "left behind the mountains of my childhood, just as I left him behind." His father had yearned as a young man to hike the length of the Appalachian Trail and had taken his family on regular camping trips to the White Mountains when his children were young. Ryan's adventures in the mountains help him forge a closer connection to that man. After completing his first 4,000-footer goal, Ryan gives his father a T-shirt listing all 48 peaks. His father barely acknowledges the gift. Later, though, Ryan catches a glimpse of his father putting on the T-shirt, looking at himself in the mirror.
Reading Following Atticus can feel like taking a long walk, or a series of walks, with a great storyteller. One reason may be the way the book was written. Ryan tore up his first draft three weeks before the manuscript was due to his publisher. "It didn't sound like me," he told me last month. "I was writing what I thought they wanted." He reassured his agent, telling him he would simply write 33 "letters home." He pretended that he was an old man, telling the stories of his adventures with Atticus to his grandchildren.
Atticus will be 10 years old in March, no longer a young dog. But the dog and his human companion still get out into the mountains. These days, Ryan is more interested in exploring lesser-known areas and the peaks near Jackson, N.H., where he and Atticus now live. "I spend a lot of time in the Moats," he said.
When Ryan and I spoke, Following Atticus had been on the New England Booksellers Association bestsellers list every week but one since its publication in September. The book has received little national attention, so Ryan believes that its regional success has been created through word of mouth. White Birch Books, in North Conway, N.H., offered the book stamped with a "pawtograph" from local canine celebrity Atticus—and sold 1,300 copies before the end of the year.
Why "follow Atticus?" I asked Ryan. Because, he said, "Dogs, like mountains, bring you back to yourself."
My father called me a few weeks ago to thank me for Following Atticus, which he had almost finished. "That brave little dog," he said, choking up, "reminds me so much of Annie." At age 14, my father spent an entire summer paddling in the Boundary Waters with two teenage friends. He introduced me and my brothers to hiking and camping. His happiest adventures now are the walks he takes with his dog. It seemed to me that he wanted to talk about the book in more detail, but specifics and the different plotlines had already slipped away. So he just repeated how much he loved the story about the dog and the mountains. "That little dog," he said, "and those mountains." And then we both cried.