Heroes come in all shapes and sizes; some are bold and assertive, eager to make their marks on the world, while others are barely aware that their actions are helping to better the lives of those around them. Rarely, though, are a pair of heroes as unassuming as author, Tom Ryan, and his dog, Atticus M. Finch. In his highly engaging and inspiring book, “Following Atticus,” Ryan documents his extraordinary bond with the little schnauzer, centered around their shared love of nature, which unlocked a magical friendship between the two lost souls.
Tom Ryan led the typically overworked, underpaid, and stressful life of an average American, though atypically, he was working for himself— a one-man show—running a local newspaper in the small city of Newburyport, Massachusetts, the personality of which he describes as “Norman Rockwell meets Alfred Hitchcock.” His paper, a political rag, was such a muckraker and so controversial that he began to receive death threats and his car tires were slashed on more than one occasion. His life had become a stressful rough-and-tumble existence and he feared for his safety.
It was in this emotional climate that an email blast caught his eye. There was an older dog in need of immediate rescue, and for reasons he could not explain, Ryan committed without really giving the consequences a thought.
The dog, named Max, also a miniature schnauzer, was pivotal in Ryan’s journey toward a monumental shift in his life. The two quickly became inseparable and Max was soon a fixture around town, always at Ryan’s side. After too brief a time together, Ryan found himself alone again, but Max had thawed his gruff newspaper-man’s heart, setting the stage for the arrival of Atticus, a decidedly astounding little dog.
Baby Atticus came to him from a breeder, whose main advice to him was to carry the puppy with him as much as possible in the first month. Holding the little body so close to his heart reminded him how much they were destined to rely on each other. In searching for a new dog, he had said he wanted a friend as much as a pet, a philosophical animal who would be willing to sit at length and contemplate the world. He got that in spades with Atticus.
Atticus grew up without a leash or a collar, and soon people in town knew him by name. Everyone was so taken by the well-behaved little animal, with his “fisherman eyebrows,” that he was allowed in city hall, restaurants and stores. With Atticus at his side, Ryan’s reputation in town improved. The content of his newspaper also softened, for alongside the regular critiques of the city leaders, he began a “Letter Home” column, in which he wrote an imaginary letter home to his father, with whom he had never had the best relationship, but from whom he had gained a love of nature and of the nearby White Mountains.
In wanting to be a better pet owner, Ryan felt it was important to strive to be a better person, in general, so for the first time in years he took a weekend out of town to a cabin in Vermont. With the mountains beckoning him from all around, he thus arrived at another pivotal moment in his life.
Unsure of how such a little dog would manage a long hike, and knowing he was overweight and out of shape, himself, he began with an easy one, but even so, he struggled to find a rhythm. But in what would become routine, Ryan let Atticus lead, and his little friend took to the trail with confidence. He found Atticus on the summit, peacefully gazing at the vista, as if he just “got it.” Another hiker who summited moments later noted the unusual nature of the dog, and dubbed him, “Little Buddha,” a fitting moniker.
At that moment, on that first mountain, Ryan knew he would be back, and in an epiphany of sorts he also discovered that he now had a goal—he would climb all 4,000 foot peaks in the North East, all forty-eight of them, and Atticus would be at his side. And though he was wickedly scared of heights and unfit, and his chosen hiking companion weighed less than a bag of groceries and hated to get wet, Ryan had an eerie calm confidence that they would do it.
As they began their quest, it quickly became evident that the little schnauzer was one with the forest. On the trail, Atticus always took the lead, and when the summit was reached Ryan would pick up his friend and say, “thank you,” a ritual that preceded a meditative contemplation of the beauty that lay below.
As Ryan’s stress diminished, and his sense of well-being improved, the more he craved the peaceful solitude, with only his nonjudgmental dog at his side. On their 48th summit, he pondered the distance he had come, physically and figuratively, from weighing 300 pounds and tiring when he crossed a street, to completing the list of summits in one summer, a rare feat, it turned out.
Even more rare was to summit the peaks in the more challenging conditions of winter, when deep snows and bitter temperatures could make the White Mountains impassable. Only several hundred people had accomplished it—and only one dog, a Newfoundland. But, Ryan felt a new drive, a compulsion to get into nature as much as possible. It was during the winter challenge that Ryan and Atticus gained their hero status, for they had opted to raise funds for cancer research, calling it “Winter Quest for a Cure.”
This is where Ryan’s book becomes the most engaging, as the race to complete their monumental task picks up the pace. It is also where Atticus begins to win the reader’s heart; the love between the two adventurers is apparent in every step as they ascend toward their goal. Not often do books trigger tears, but “Following Atticus” will do just that, many times over, as it is less a story about a misfit man and an unusual dog, than it is a tale about two souls connecting in an existential world.