Published September 23. 2011 4:00AM
If the scruffy little dog on the cover of the book "Following Atticus" doesn't grab your attention, maybe the moral of the story will.
More than the charming story of a man and his dog, "Following Atticus," by Tom Ryan, is a story about the power of friendship.
"You support your friend the best you can to help them become the best they can be, and they do the same for you," Ryan explains.
Sometimes the friend that unlocks your best self is a miniature Schnauzer named Atticus M. Finch.
"Following Atticus" is Ryan's first book. Engaging, insightful, and often laugh-out-loud funny, the book chronicles Ryan and Atticus' in-depth exploration of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. After his first hike, Ryan is drawn back to the mountains and sets a goal to hike every 4,000-foot peak of the mountain range-48 in all. It's a quest Ryan takes on first for its recreational joys and later repeats to honor a friend who succumbed to cancer.
Equally as compelling as Ryan's travels is the story that set foot in motion up his first peak.
Pre-Atticus, Ryan was a self-employed journalist in Newburyport, Mass. His one-man publication, "The Undertoad," outlined life in the seaside village, warts and all. With a fair share of enemies and supporters, he settled into Newburyport comfortably, albeit alone.
Fate and instinct brought Max, Ryan's first dog, into his life. A chance email seeking a home for an elderly homeless dog caught Ryan in a moment of vulnerability, and before long, Max, a miniature Schnauzer, joined the family.
Quickly, Max and Ryan became "inseparable," and Max, who accompanied Ryan on his daily errands, became a local celebrity. When he died less than a year later, Ryan's neighbors mourned his loss with him. In one of the book's most touching moments, Ryan notes how he was stunned to see signs of support around town, among them one that read "Newburyport Lost a Good Dog Today."
It wasn't long before Ryan sought out another dog. Among the many things Ryan had learned from Max was the value of friendship: "During the time we spent together, (Max) not only found a home, he also gave me one. ... When I rescued him, I didn't realize that I was taking the first steps toward rescuing myself," Ryan writes.
Enter Atticus. The only pup left in breeder Paige Foster's new arrivals, Ryan was drawn to a photo of Atticus not only for his distinctive markings (complete with "bushy, snow-white eyebrows that looked like they belonged on an old fisherman"), but for his undeniable character. The breeder lovingly dubbed Atticus "different," more independent and not as showy as some of his litter-mates. Ryan was sold.
From Day 1, the pair struck a bond - one initially sparked by Foster's edict that Ryan carry young Atticus wherever he went as a way to seal their connection. But that simple act of carrying "this living breathing creature" in his arms soon grew into a mutual exchange of love and support.
"In the process of taking care of Atticus and creating a home, I started taking better care of myself," Ryan writes.
Boosted by his new charge, Ryan began to cultivate a more balanced, healthier existence. He took a vacation to Vermont, where the demands of his hectic job fell silent; he reconnected with his family, long lost to time and a rough childhood; and he started hiking, a practice that hearkened back to his happier childhood memories. The hikes, he soon discovered, brought an enticing sense of calm, what he calls "a walking meditation," in which the everyday demands of the world give way to the present moment.
"When you're (hiking) on your own, you internalize a lot of things, and it becomes like this therapy session where you're walking along and things start to fall away," Ryan explained in a recent interview. "After a while, you start sweating, you start moving ? your back starts to hurt and sooner or later you stop, and you're gasping for breath and you stop thinking, and you hear the birds singing, or you hear the wind, and you realize, right at that moment, that it's really kind of amazing that you're out there in the middle of all this."
Doubly helpful in staying in the present was the little gray dog leading the way. Early on, Ryan writes, Atticus seemed "made for the mountains. ... walking purposefully, staying on the trail, and (keeping) a slow but steady pace."
And sure as he is on a trail, Ryan says, Atticus is equally clear when he doesn't want to hike. If Atticus says no, they stay home.
"Animals have an ability to be who they are," Ryan explained. "Atticus has an innate sense of what he can and cannot do, which made it easy for me."
Hike after hike, man and dog fell enamored of the mountains, chasing adventure and fellowship. As Ryan and Atticus embarked on their first winter hikes - an arduous, often dangerous pursuit - their bond grew stronger and their lives changed in unexpected, special ways. As life intervened, winter hikes eventually had nothing on the challenges life could throw at a man and his four-legged friend.
Ryan's explorations, in the end, create a map of his own heart, which guides him to happier places in his life - with a little help from Atticus.
"Limitations are something we put on ourselves," Ryan explains, "and I think we limit our animals way too much."