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Life After Atticus

view from Mount Hancock in summer
View from Mount Hancock, Lebanon, N.H. Photo by Northfoot Adventures.

It’s easy, especially in the midst of an election season, to see the internet as something that drives people apart. But a mountain-climbing dog and his thoughtful owner prove it can also bring people together.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about how much I enjoy the column “The Adventures of Tom and Atticus,” which appears in the Northcountry News. Every time I visit Fairlee, Vermont, I make sure to pick up a copy (along with a slice of chocolate cream pie) in order to catch up on the exploits of Tom Ryan, a former newspaper editor, and his miniature schnauzer Atticus.

Once, Tom and Atticus’ adventures would have charmed only a group of devoted locals. But because of Ryan’s blog, a Facebook page launched concurrent to the publication of his book “Following Atticus” and Northcountry News’ presence on online publisher Scribd, they connected with fans across the country. Even the post on my own blog, whose usual audience is not concentrated in Vermont or New Hampshire, drew comments from one reader in California and another in Utah expressing their ongoing fondness for Atticus and his partner.

This unlikely community came together for a sadder reason not long ago. Fourteen years after Ryan first met Atticus, a brain tumor ended the dog’s life. A local news report said that Atticus led more than 450 climbs of the Granite State mountains in his lifetime, as well as inspiring the many fans of Ryan’s column and his book.

The Facebook announcement of Atticus’ death in May drew more than 5,000 comments of support and condolences. The Conway Daily Sun, another New Hampshire paper, ran a cartoon in Atticus’ honor. And Atticus’ fans contributed over $20,000 in his memory to the Conway Area Humane Society, with $8,000 in donations arriving in the first day alone.

Clearly, Atticus was a little dog that touched many lives over the years. While many people love animals, especially animals that show up in their social media feeds, the strong reaction to Atticus’ life – and to his death – almost certainly sprang from the deep bond between pet and owner. Ryan invited all of us into that relationship through his columns, and his sincerity elicited an equally sincere response.

In the June edition of “The Adventures of Tom and Atticus,” Ryan wrote about the experience of climbing his first mountain without his friend by his side. Ryan himself endured a medical scare earlier this year, consequently spending five weeks in the hospital. He returned home only 12 days before losing Atticus. Ryan wrote, “As I struggle to make some sense of just what happened at the end, with both of us getting sick, but only one of us surviving, I keep returning to the words of Robert Frost: ‘I can sum up everything I know about life in three words. It goes on.’”

The end of Atticus’ life will not be the end of Ryan’s explorations, or his column. Three weeks after losing Atticus, Ryan responded to a call from a friend at the Conway Area Humane Society, one that led to him adopting a new furry companion. The newcomer is named Samwise A. Passaconaway – the A, of course, stands for Atticus. Samwise is already making all sorts of new friends on Facebook, and he will undoubtedly win more hearts as he takes his unique place in the future pages of the Northcountry News. Yet that column will always have a special connection to his predecessor, whose name it still bears.

The outpouring of support and sorrow over Atticus’ death was a reminder to me of how much we may invest in one another’s lives – even, through social media, the lives of people we have never met (and their pets, too). It doesn’t even seem right to call Ryan and Atticus “strangers,” not after they have invited me to share their experiences over such a long period of time.

So now it is my turn to take a moment to mark Atticus’ passing. I offer my good wishes and look forward to viewing many future mountaintops through the eyes of Tom Ryan and Samwise.

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