Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Sunrise Solace

On most days, I am a morning person. This is in part by nature and in part by habit. When my now-teenagers were babies, I started rising before the sun to have an hour of time to myself – to work or read or simply sit with a cup of coffee and the quiet of early morning. Lately, though, I’ve become a weekend morning slouch. While I’m still up-and-at-’em early through the week, I’ve taken to lazing around an extra hour or two on the weekends.

So when my youngest asked if we could go for a sunrise hike this weekend, I weighed the luxury of sleeping in with the idea of pre-dawn trail time with my daughter. The second choice was the clear winner. This daughter – like youngest children everywhere – has been dragged along on many adventures at a younger age than her older siblings were.  

When they were already toddling along gentle trails, she was carried in a kid backpack. When they were scrambling over rocks as preschoolers, she was working hard to keep up. When we hiked our first big mountains together, they were 9 years old, and she only 7. And on our inaugural backpacking treks this summer, she carried the same gear and weight in her pack as her two-years-older, several-inches-taller siblings did. (My older kids will point out that the youngest also benefits from certain perks – like getting a phone, or staying up later – at a younger age. It’s a balance.)

Sunday, though, was an adventure just for the two of us. With the pre-dawn sky at home cloudy enough to block our view of Franconia Notch, we weren’t sure how much of the sunrise we’d see. But the moon was clearly visible high in the sky, and the hot cocoa was already packed in the thermos and ready to go, so we took a chance and headed down the road toward one of our favorite little hikes with a big view.  

There were a few cars in parking lot at Baldy, and several more at the Echo Lake lot. I’d seen a slew of photos from the day before of bumper-to-bumper lines of cars streaming through the notch, presumably filled with people looking for foliage that was already past peak. But we’d spent the summer successfully avoiding the crowds, and I hoped we’d be able to find a quiet spot up on Artists Bluff so early in the morning.

Alas, there were close to a dozen people there when we arrived, including two photographers with tripods already in place and a couple of 20-somethings continually posing for Instagram shots (much to my tween daughter’s combined amusement and disgust). Still, we found a spot away from everyone else and took in the colorful scene around us. The sky was beginning to lighten in a prelude to the big event. The trees below still held lots of color. And Echo Lake was like a giant looking glass, reflecting the mountains on either side.  

After about 20 minutes of relative quiet, though, the crowd had more than doubled in size. And although drone use is prohibited in Franconia Notch State Park, three of them buzzed annoyingly just off the ledge. Our peaceful sunrise adventure was turning into a rowdy circus. We decided to move.

Back on the trail, it was quiet again, and bright enough now to hike easily toward what my family calls Mt. Baldy. “Will the sun already be up when we get there?” my daughter asked as we rounded the last corner of the trail and emerged at the base of the familiar rock scramble. We soon had our answer. 

Climbing above the gnarled trees, we looked toward the big mountains across the notch. There, from behind a cloud cloaking the tip-tops of Lafayette and Garfield, the sun was just peeking into the sky. Patches of fog dotted the landscape below us and made the valley toward home seem a sea of white. The moon, just past full, glowed in the western sky. We spent the next several minutes delighting in the golden hues of fall, discussing how glad we were to have this low rocky summit to ourselves, and taking pictures.

At one point, my daughter, on a ledge below me, exclaimed, “Mom, stand right there!” and snapped a shot of the dog and me silhouetted by the rising sun. I think that one gets the artsy award from the morning. But my favorite images from our sunrise adventure are of my daughter standing quietly on the rocks, looking out over the hills and peaks of the place we are lucky enough to call home – from a spot where we managed to get away from the crowd. 

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's October 8, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.   

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Sad so-long to Summer

Sunday morning dawned 20-something degrees. By the time I ventured onto the front porch, the temperature had creeped above 30, and the sun made it feel warmer than that. I am not ready, yet, to give up my weekend morning porch-sitting, coffee-drinking, reading-writing ritual. Of course, I’m not ready to give up many of summer’s bright spots. Alas, I can clearly see the writing on the wall – or at least the white of morning frost on the grass.

Two nights of that frost over the weekend, just before the Autumnal Equinox, did the garden in. Friday afternoon I picked all the green beans I could find, plucked one more cucumber from the vine, and harvested the last two small zucchinis. I cut all the zinnias in bloom and put them into a mason jar, where their colors have allowed summer to persist for a few more days.

On Sunday, I pulled frost-wilted plants from the vegetable garden, tilling the soil and pulling weeds. The garden looks tidy now, but barren, with only the green, frilly tops of carrots still standing. This year, the chore of putting the garden to bed seemed especially melancholy; in a year of so much strife and uncertainty, I’ve come to appreciate the colors and tastes of the garden more fervently than in past summers.

Saying goodbye to summer seems especially hard in 2020. But time stubbornly marches on.

Gone now are the bright early mornings; it’s dark these days when I wake, and the light fades soon after supper. Gone are the veggies picked fresh each day as needed. Gone are the lovely summer blooms, both cultivated and wild-growing, whose array of colors brightened the yard and our dining room table for months. Gone are the days of flinging windows open wide to sunshine and warmth.

I’ll make the transition, resistant as I am, to Fall. To cozy evenings and hearty soups, wrapping up in soft blankets and sipping hot cocoa, donning warm socks and extra layers against the chill. But I’m not quite there yet, not quite ready.

I’m holding out on putting the flipflops away. I’m hoping for a few more shorts-and-t-shirt days. And I’ll keep up with my weekend morning porch sitting for as long as I can. Here, the sun still warms me, even if I can see my breath in the chill morning air. The view of the mountains, now transitioning through Autumn’s ever-changing colors, still soothes and inspires. The birds – different ones now from spring, touching down briefly as they migrate from one place to another – still provide a welcome backdrop of sound. The dog, as always, keeps good company, making her daily rounds through the yard before settling at my feet and keeping watch for squirrels and other natural offenses.

Somehow, the coffee tastes better out here, and the news I read seems less jarring when taken in from my porch perch. I’ll pull my long down coat on if I must, and close the storm door behind me, then turn my face toward the sun – and the season that has, inevitably, arrived.

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's September 24, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.  

Friday, September 4, 2020

Mountains to the Sea

If ever there was a summer of sticking close to home, this was it. Luckily, we live in a beautiful place, and lots of the things we love to do are accessible right from the front door – or within a short drive. As long and, sometimes, strange as this summer has been, I’m sad to see it end. We’ve packed it as full as we could, with plenty of time in the mountains, numerous dips in the river, lots of backyard soccer, and a welcome – though short – trip to the sea.

July was a month of hiking for us. Between the second day of the month and the second to last, the kids and I stood atop eight of New Hampshire’s tallest mountains. These summits were not the most spectacular we’ve climbed to, nor were most of these hikes among the most scenic we’ve done. But they brought us eight peaks closer to our goal of reaching all of the state’s 48 4,000-footers – an effort that is, for us, a years-long slog.

What made these hikes special was the time on the trail – and on the peaks – spent with friends. Having a trail buddy to talk with during these long, steep days makes a world of difference – for both me and the kids. I count myself lucky to have two good friends who love to hike and whose kids are friends with my kids. We’ve covered a lot of miles together – some happy miles, and some whiny ones – and we have countless shared stories to tell.

Our last hike of July was to North and South Kinsman, with an overnight at Kinsman Pond, which sits along the Appalachian Trail. The Kinsmans are among our “home mountains,” those we can see from the yard or driving through town. They also offer up the best hiking views we’ve had this summer, comprising some of our other home mountains, including the one we ski on all winter.

Standing atop a mountain – whether in the wind and rain, a snowstorm, or on a sunny day – inspires wonder. To be on top of one little piece of the world and look out at a landscape that seems so wild, even though home is just down the valley road – well, it’s a feeling hard to explain. It’s a feeling I love, one that boosts me up, in part by reminding me how small I and my worries of any given day are in the grand scheme of things. I feel similarly about the sea, whose waves and tides seem mysterious, whose reach is unimaginably vast, and whose depths contain unknown wonders.

While our regular trip to Cape Cod was called off this year before we’d even begun to plan it, as August meandered toward September the idea of a summer without even one day at the beach seemed unbearable. So last week, the kids and I packed all the camping gear and the beach towels into the car and headed east toward the Maine coast. We spent a few days in a place we’d never been before – a far cry in many ways from our regular beach neighborhood, with its ice cream shops, familiar busy beaches, and our favorite hotdog stand and lobster roll place.

We jumped in the waves, searched for shells and sea glass, and marveled at entire logs of driftwood sitting faded and smooth along the beach. We soaked up sunshine and salty breezes and dodged exceptionally cheeky seagulls as they tried to snatch our lunch. One morning we walked within a coastal fog to explore mudflats at low tide and search for hermit crabs and sand dollars. It was, quite literally, a breath of fresh (and perfectly salty) air.

The evening the kids and I returned from Maine, our hair filled with sand and sea salt, my husband asked each of us which of two options we’d pick if we had to choose: 1) live in the mountains and visit the ocean, or 2) live near the ocean and visit the mountains. None of us hesitated; we are all, to our cores, mountain people.

Still, it felt good and right to visit the sea, to feel the sand between our toes and the pull of the waves. I’m hoping the summer memories of both – the mountains and the sea – will be enough to sustain us all through whatever this fall might bring. 

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's September 3, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.