Thursday, August 10, 2017

Trying the Triathlon

The clouds that had been drifting across Cannon Mountain all morning started dripping rain as I stood near the summit, peering downhill into the fog. I was amid a throng of spectators at the finish line of the 25th Top Notch Triathlon, ringing cowbells and shouting encouragement to tired racers as they pushed through the last steps of the climb.

The weather this year, organizer Kim Cowles told me, was the worst it’s ever been for the Top Notch. A stiff headwind met racers as they set off on bikes from downtown Franconia. The same wind whipped whitecaps across the surface of Echo Lake as swimmers stroked their way through the chilly water. Now the high-elevation rain showers were threatening to evolve into a full-fledged downpour.

Somewhere out there on that foggy mountain was my 10-year-old son.

After managing the top water station last year with me and his sisters, and watching several familiar faces – including a couple of schoolmates – come through, Owen asked if he could put a team together for this year’s race. His buddies – and their parents – were game, and Team McCloughton was born.

Weeks before the race, Owen asked, “Do you think we’ll win?” I knew there were likely to be tough teams and older kids who had done the race before, so my response was, “Absolutely not.”

We discussed how it’s not about winning, but about challenging yourself, having something to train toward, and tackling the challenge despite knowing you probably won’t end the day victorious. Plus, the Top Notch Triathlon is a special sort of event, filled with community and competition encompassing everyone from hardcore athletes to local families to weekend warriors out for a Saturday adventure.

(My past Top Notch stories: Surrounded by Men in Spandex, Making it to the Top, and Top Notch.)

The boys, with a combined race day age of 29, were certainly among the youngest participants. The triathlon brought them each a bit outside of their comfort zones, but despite a few pre-race jitters, they were excited to get out there Saturday morning with a few hundred other Top Notch-ers.

Wyatt smiled and waved as he pedaled out from the start toward a gnarly, nearly all uphill bike course he’d never seen before. He powered up Butter Hill and through the wooded part of the route, over rocks and through muddy ruts to Echo Lake. At the handoff, Jackson dove into the chilly, wind-churned water while storm clouds brewed overhead. Part way across the lake he turned to his mom, who was swimming with him for moral support, and declared he wanted to do this again next year.

I had assumed Owen would want me to hike with him on the last leg. He’s hiked big mountains before, including the other side of Cannon earlier this summer, but never in race mode and always with me. But he insisted he wanted to hike solo, wanted me to be at the finish line when he got there.

So I gave him a cheer and headed to the tram, which would carry us to that finish line, with the McCloughton contingent of parents and siblings and grandparents. “You know you’re raising mountain kids when you’re OK with your 10-year-old climbing a 4,000-footer on his own, in the rain,” one of the other parents remarked as we rode into the clouds and toward the summit a few minutes later.

But I knew Owen wasn’t on his own, not really. His aunt was in the race and on the mountain somewhere ahead of him. Along the way he passed his school principal, who was participating in his 20th Top Notch Triathlon, and the local police chief. A couple of older schoolmates went by. His uncle was there as a member of the town’s EMS squad. People – strangers, mostly – shouted encouragement from the open windows of the tramcar as it passed overhead, near the top of that long climb.

There is nothing lonely about this community-centric event – except the utter physical effort it takes to complete. I’ve participated in the Top Notch before, and I’ve made that race day climb three times. I know there is a buoying jolt of adrenaline at the bottom, where cheers provide a mental boost. But most of the hike is a leg-burning, lung-squeezing, cheer-less slog.

As I stood at the top of Cannon Saturday peering through the dripping fog for the familiar pattern of Owen’s favorite soccer shirt, I wondered how he was faring out there in the clouds, what was going through his mind, where he was on the mountain. And then, there he was, striding on tired legs toward the summit. Even through the mist I could see he was smiling.

It was a tired smile, but a proud one, too: the smile of a kid who’d just climbed a mountain, in the rain, on his own, and made it across the first big race finish line of his life. It was a smile matched by his teammates’ grins as they met him there, each one done with his own leg of a team effort.

Winning was far from the boys’ minds as they sat in the tram station, out of the downpour that had intensified seconds after Owen crossed the finish. Any pre-race jitters were long gone as they basked in that feeling of accomplishment, a mixture of thank-goodness-that’s-over and we-did-it!

A couple hours later we learned Team McCloughton – a combination of the boys’ last names – was the only youth team to complete the triathlon this year, and they had won the category. They’d already had a topnotch day; the medals were just icing on the triathlon cake.

Now they’re hooked, ready to do it all again next year. If they do, my son might ask again if I think they’ll win. Probably not. But it’s not about winning. It’s about making it through the woods, across the lake, and up the mountain – on your own, with a little help from your friends.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the August 11, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Accidental Forager

Our adventures in foraging began purely by chance. One day, several summers ago, my son pulled me out to the field to see a cluster of daisies he’d found growing there. Hidden beneath the happy white flowers was a treasure trove of wild blueberries, their small bushes spread out through the field like a lagoon of barely hidden delectability.

We picked those berries for days, eating some as soon as we’d plucked them from the bush – sweet and sun-warmed – and dropping the rest into small buckets for later. Further into that summer we discovered a bumper crop of blackberries ripening in a tangled thicket grown up from the front field. The thorny canes were so tall we were sometimes encompassed within them as we picked, earning many scratches in our efforts. By the end of the season, we had a freezer drawer filled with summer berries, a taste of sunshine to pull out and enjoy in the coldest, darkest days of winter.

Our foraging has evolved since then, although I’d place us still firmly in the novice category of finding wild food. We are casual foragers, not like the wildcrafting pros who make flour from acorns, dig up cattail rhizomes, batter and fry milkweed flowers, and who-knows-what else.

Beyond our favorite berry patches, there are a few small stashes of chanterelle mushrooms we look for after a summer rain, when they pop up in clusters. This year we found a chicken-of-the-woods mushroom, blooming like some exotic forest flower, on a tree in the neighborhood and added that to our list of good things to eat. Morels remain elusive, but perhaps someday we’ll stumble across those, too.

The kids know that the leaves of wood sorrel are edible – and tasty. A couple summers back they took to calling these heart-shaped greens “snacks” whenever they’d spot them along a hiking trail or at the edge of the garden. They’ve tasted ramps and fiddleheads and use the leaves of plantain growing wild about everywhere to ease the itch of horsefly bites and bee stings.

Nearly all of our first foraging expeditions emerged by happenstance, when we were out doing or seeking other things. A brief flash of orange during a bike ride revealed a throng of chanterelles. While playing under the lilac bushes, the kids have found huge meadow mushrooms tucked away there. The ramps, just the smallest cluster, we discovered at the corner of an old dump beyond the field as we were examining items discarded by some long ago stranger and somehow, now, intriguing. One year on vacation, as we walked back from the beach, we found – and devoured – a stash of wild blackberries.

I’ve taken to stowing plastic containers in the car in case we find something good to gather during our various travels. Even the dog is in on the action, wandering her own path through the fields and eating blueberries straight from the bush.

Some people find these meager hunting-and-gathering expeditions odd. How do we know these things are safe to eat, they ask. (When unsure, I always check with friends who are well-versed in eating wild things.) They wonder why we’d spend an hour in a hot field picking berries when the grocery store down the road has them by the pint for a few bucks.

It is, of course, about more than the food. During our foraging forays, we gain awareness of the places where we find our edible treasures, form a different perspective of some familiar places. We take notice of things we otherwise wouldn’t. Is the soil wet or sandy? In the sun or the shade? What kinds of trees grow near where we find chanterelles? What else is blooming or ripening at the same time? How many different types of interesting creepy-crawlies can we find in the blueberry field – grasshoppers and spiders and caterpillars covered in fuzzy prickles.

There is also something therapeutic to taking a break from summer’s whirlwind of activities to crouch in a field of wild berries on a hot summer day, a calmative effect in the rhythm of plucking berries from a bush and dropping them into a bucket. No matter how many times we find fiddleheads pushing through the leaf litter in the spring, or how many chanterelles we pick, or how many berries we gather, there remains a sense of wonder that these things grow. That they are simply there for the taking. That they taste so good.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the July 28, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

“You know everybody, Aunt Meghan,” my niece told me soon after my brother’s family arrived in town early this month, traveling from Californian suburbia to the relative wilds of northern New England.

I certainly don’t know everyone around here, but small town living generally includes a considerable awareness of who your neighbors are – and where they are and what they are doing and with whom. If you’re looking for anonymity, this is probably not the place for you. But small towns are pretty good at taking care of their own.

As I drove around with a car full of California and New Hampshire kids, my own children and I remarked that so-and-so’s car was at the post office, we waved to friends, we stopped along backroads near home to greet a neighbor now and then. For the California kids, who live in a place with a steady stream of strangers flowing past, I guess that aspect of small town-ness seemed quaintly odd.

I have lived most of my adult life where everybody – or a relatively large percentage of folks I come into contact with, anyway – knows my name, or at least my face. In Crested Butte I moved within various social and work and skiing circles, but there were large areas of overlap among these. Even if everybody didn’t really know everybody else, a general sense of familiarity permeated the scene in this small ski town.

In the village where I lived for a summer on an Irish peninsula, I was known by several names: “the Yank” who worked for the Diamonds, the “horsey woman” (because I was a horse-trekking guide), the American girl who played soccer with the Connemara Coasters. While everybody there didn’t know my name, they all seemed to know who I was and what I was doing. It is hard to hide a newcomer in a small village where people are intricately related, especially a newcomer with a strange accent.

When I first moved back east, I found it disconcerting when strangers would stop me at the grocery store or in the ski lift line or during some social event and remark excitedly that they had known me when I was THIS HIGH. Not having been paying close attention at the age of 6 or 7 and having traversed two decades since then, I would smile politely, usually having no idea who my friendly accoster was.

I’ve been here long enough now that I am rarely approached by unknown, long-ago acquaintances. These people have long since become familiar. But it is still nearly impossible to navigate local errands without some delay from bumping into someone who wants a word – or several.

A quick run into the post office to check the mail can take half an hour. Stopping at the store for a carton of milk on the way home might consume just as long. I’ve even been waylaid on early morning jogs when I run into neighbors and slow down to chat briefly, while trying to catch my breath. You simply learn to expect delays – and how to politely run away when you don’t have the time to be distracted.

The last afternoon the California crew was here, I took the kids down to the river for a pre-dinner swim. I ran into a friend there, the only other person we saw, and had a chat while the kids and dogs were splashing and exploring and looking for interesting rocks.

On the way home, there was what constitutes a traffic jam on the narrow backroad: three cars traveling in close procession toward us, plus a couple of pedestrians and a dog in the road. I yelled a greeting out the window to the first car, which contained summer friends we hadn’t seen yet this season. A bit further along, I greeted neighbors who were out walking the dog. I noted another neighbor outside doing yardwork.

“Yep, you know everyone,” my niece confirmed from the passenger seat, no longer surprised by this phenomenon.

Later that evening, one of those neighbors sent me a text. She’d found a camera on the bridge by the swimming hole and determined from the photos on it that it belonged to one of us. It did, although we hadn’t yet noticed it missing. Personal item returned practically before it’s even lost? That’s just a benefit to living where everybody knows your name.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the July 14, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record.