Thursday, September 22, 2016

Mountain Views

I have seen the moon rise over Mount Lafayette many times, watching as its glow first reveals the mountain’s silhouette, then ascends beyond the ridge to illuminate the whole night sky. But Friday was the first time I stood at an elevation of 4,200 feet, nearly to the top of Lafayette, to watch the moon climb from behind that sprawling mountain. From that perspective, on the deck of the Greenleaf Hut with my children, it seemed almost as if we could reach out and touch the full Harvest Moon.

If I close my eyes and imagine a mountain, it is always Lafayette I see: broad and craggy and tall against the ever-changing sky, its wide expanse seeming to reach out and envelop the world in a stony embrace. This mountain is a focal point for town, the view from my living room window, and the namesake of the elementary school from which a friend and I sprang our kids early Friday to embark on one more summer adventure in the mountains.

Up we trekked from the paved parking lot, along the Old Bridal Path, the kids chattering happily along until we reached the ledge where we could look out over the ridge – Lafayette to Lincoln to Little Haystack – we would hike the next day. Munching trail mix, we studied the mountains, so familiar from below, but slightly foreign from this vantage. Then it was up and over “the Agonies” and onward to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Greenleaf Hut.

“This has been my dream for so long, and now I’m here,” my son told me when we had reached the hut and tossed our packs onto bunks. He said this with the look of happy wonder and slight awe that makes my heart full of happy when I see it in my children’s faces. He said this when our adventure had really just begun.

To be in the mountains is a gift. I have felt this way since I was old enough to know that not everybody experiences this gift – really since I went to college in upstate New York, in a town tucked among hills and lakes, with nary a tall peak in sight. As if to make up for that deficit, I moved to Colorado right after graduation, to a town nestled firmly in the embrace of the Rockies, where alpenglow lit the peaks each early evening of the winter, summer days were so blindingly beautiful they seemed unreal, and the aspen leaves turned the landscape golden in fall.

After five years in Colorado I came circuitously home to the mountains of my childhood. When I was a kid, I took these mountains for granted. Now, even after 15 years of this daily view, its wild beauty often stops me, literally, in my tracks – Lafayette’s craggy mass and Cannon’s familiar contours, the distinctive shapes of North Kinsman and Garfield, the majestic height of the Presidentials.

Some days it is not enough simply to look upon the mountains. Some days I long to be on the summits, to see the world from the peaks rather than the valley. Everything looks different from there; perspective shifts in a way that stays with me even after I return to a lower elevation.

This summer I hiked more than I have in years, and I introduced my children to that altered perspective that comes with climbing toward the clouds. We spent many hours together on trails leading up and over tall mountains. There is power in standing on a summit, in knowing you can arrive there of your own free will and effort. And there is humility, too, in looking out on the world from so high and realizing it is larger than we can comprehend.

Spending the season’s final weekend hiking the rugged landscape we see from home and school and town, and all winter from our skis atop Cannon Mountain, was the perfect cap to our summer of hiking. It was a glorious day to be on Franconia Ridge, with blue skies and views forever and beyond.

What an amazing experience to walk along the sprawling mountains and ridgeline so familiar when viewed from below, yet completely novel from this height. How high and lovely Lonesome Lake looks, and how tiny Mt. Baldy. How small even Cannon seems, and how vast the Pemi Wilderness – all trees and endless peaks, rising and falling in static waves toward the lofty Presidentials. Walker Ravine seems exceedingly precipitous when you’re perched above it. Shining Rock is just as dazzling up close as when viewed from several miles away – and a few thousand feet lower.

My daughter sing-songingly declared the adventure “absolutely, positively awesome” as she trekked along the ridge. Every few minutes one of our young, intrepid adventurers would blurt out, “This is so cool!”

It was also long and hard. There was some whining and a few brief tears. There were sore knees and shoulders. And there was joy and excitement and so much wonder and confidence building (the kids’) and overwhelming gratitude (mine) to live in this place and share this experience with my children. Even as I huffed and puffed with the effort, even as the hiking aches set in, my heart sang to be on the mountains on this day and with my children. Mountains, I think, are good for the soul.

What will my children remember from this mountain adventure? I don’t know. But days after we’d left the mountain tops, after we’d made the long descent and emptied our packs and put away our hiking gear, we were all still glowing from the hike. I hope my children will always remember the mixture of elation and accomplished exhaustion that comes with climbing mountains. I hope we’ll climb many more together, adjusting our perspective in a way only possible from the heights of tall peaks. I hope they’ll remember that time they had a front row seat to watch the Harvest Moon rise over Lafayette and see the mountains illuminated. 

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 September 23, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Saving Summer

In these early September days, as summer meanders toward autumn, I am savoring the passing season. After a short first week of school, the kids had a long weekend, with perfectly summery weather, and we packed in as much more summer fun as we could: hiking with friends, afternoons on the water, campfires and roasted marshmallows. With the mornings and evenings dropping toward downright chilly, and the colors of fall steadily overtaking the more boisterous hues of summer, spending the days in shorts and t-shirts feels like sweet, borrowed time.

A handful of summer goodness
That’s how I feel about the summer treasures of berries and veggies I am packing into the freezer at this junction of seasons, like I am scoring some bonus bounty that will show up during darker days to feed both belly and soul.

In the basement of my childhood home, tucked around the corner from the washing machine, there was a chest freezer. By the end of each summer, this was filled with gifts from the garden: Ziploc bags of yellow and green beans, broccoli florets, and garden peas. For months after the garden was put to bed, my mother would send one of us down to the cellar to pluck a bit of summer from the freezer to add to dinner.

We don’t have a large freezer dedicated to garden overflow now, and beyond the occasional inspired foray into canning – one year it was dilly beans, another apple pie filling – I am unlikely to stock the pantry shelves with home-grown, painstakingly preserved food. Mine is not a Yankee farmer’s pantry containing enough canned sauces and vegetables to make it through the apocalypse, but rather a small space filled with modern conveniences: store-bought, kid-friendly staples like peanut butter and crackers and granola bars. And without a root cellar, I plant only enough carrots and potatoes to feed us during the growing season.

But I always try to stash a bit of summer’s flavor into our refrigerator freezer, small batches of goodness to be savored some later time.

Each year there seems to be a different overabundance. A few years ago it was green beans, another summer shell peas. One year we had a freezer drawer filled with wild berries and basil pesto. Sometimes the summer bounty stored in the freezer is gone by the time we reach Halloween, but some years I can still find a bag of blueberries hidden in the back corner the following spring, months after we crouched in a hot summer field to gather them.

This year, it is the tomatoes that have flourished to abundance. I don’t know if it was the hot, dry summer we had, or the new compost-manure mixture I added to the garden, or the combination of heirloom tomato seedlings I planted, but even as the lanky stalks have grown wilted and tired-looking, they hang heavy with ripening fruit. Through the summer, the tomato plants have produced small green orbs that swell – sometimes so large they split near the stems – and ripen through the colors of a sunrise: pale yellow to subdued orange to bright, look-at-me red.

While my youngest child will eat cherry tomatoes by the handful, popping them into her mouth sun-warmed and straight from the vine, I am the only one who eats the fresh, full-sized tomatoes. The others prefer theirs in the form of pasta sauce or ketchup. So I have gathered the excess, plopped the whole tomatoes into a quick boiling bath so the skins slide off, sliced them and pushed out the slimy seeds, and frozen them in chunks.

What will they become? Perhaps soup. Possibly pizza topping, Probably sauce. For now, the tomatoes share freezer space with shredded zucchini and plump blackberries. If I’m lucky, I’ll forget they are there, at least for a while. Then on some dark, cold afternoon, when the garden is blanketed in icy white and I’ve forgotten (again) what the landscape looks like when it is filled with lush green, I’ll peer into the freezer, wondering what to make for dinner. And I’ll find a bit of summer there, just waiting to add a flash of color – and perhaps a memory or two – to a winter day. 

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 September 9, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, August 25, 2016


Mornings are the hardest, I think, when I come downstairs and there is no tail thumping softly against the floor to greet me. Or maybe it’s bedtime, when I head toward the door to let the dog in before remembering. Or the countless moments in between: when the kids drop Goldfish crackers on the floor and there is no eager pup to lick them up, or when we head out and there is no happy, giant ball of fur pleading to come with us, or when I reach my hand down mindlessly from the couch to rub a belly and meet empty space instead.

One of Lil's favorite activities: going for a ride.
We said goodbye to the best dog ever last week, and there seem to be lots of empty spaces in our home now, a home that before last Thursday always included Lily. We are getting used to the sad fact that our girl is gone, and most of the time we are, at least outwardly, OK. But the reminders of her are everywhere; often the sadness hits all over again, and one person’s tears lead to general sniffling all around.

Baby Lil
Lily was intertwined in everything we did. We brought her home when she was a puppy, all fluff and energy and hopeful joy. That was before we were married, and I knew when David suggested we get a dog, he was serious about me. She was there a year later when he popped the question, and stood witness with our family and friends the following summer when we said our vows. She was there to welcome our children home with curious sniffs and gentle licks, to love them unconditionally and to play with them as they grew – at first enduring their climbing all over and around her, later tagging along happily on hikes, forays around the yard and woods, and drives to school drop-off in the mornings.
Welcoming the littlest one, a few years ago.

Lily was there for more than 12 years. Always ready for an adventure. Greeting us happily when we came home, whether we’d been gone all day or only a few minutes. Wagging her tail sleepily in the mornings. Begging for her bedtime biscuits at night. Following the kids into the kitchen when they cleared their dishes after meals, always hoping there was a crust of toast or a bit of leftover hamburger that might end up in her dish. Bounding out to roll in the snow. Swimming in the river. Smiling her golden smile all the time.

She had been my nearly-constant companion these years since the human children arrived. She accompanied me to take the kids to school, then we returned together to a quiet house. Now and then, always just at the point where I needed a distraction, she’d plod over to where I sat typing and put her head in my lap, gazing at me beseechingly until I got up from the keyboard and took her on a walk through the woods. She was always good company on those walks, leaving me to my thoughts as she trotted along sniffing the myriad smells of the forest.

Everybody's buddy
Just over a year ago Lily and I headed out together for a favorite hike, and she struggled the whole way. I knew then, sadly, that it would be our last long hike together. Gradually she went from jaunting around the field to moving more slowly through the yard. By the end, she could barely get to the garden without stumbling, her legs simply giving out. Often, she could not get up without help. Finally, she needed to be carried more often than she could make it outside herself.

While Lily’s legs failed her, her spirit never faltered. She still smiled at us and stretched out as much as she could for belly rubs. But we knew she was hurting more than we could fathom. We knew it was time to say goodbye, to let her go.

Two happy girls in the woods.
I’m still getting used to her not being here. Yes, the mornings are the hardest: that quiet time before anyone else is awake, when it used to be just me and Lil blinking the sleepiness away while the coffee percolated. Once the kids are up, the house becomes a bustling distraction of breakfast and playing and planning out our final fun-filled summer days. But underneath all that activity, I miss my dog. We all do.

Next week, the kids return to school. I will be doubly lonely then, driving home without Lily in the backseat, her head pushed blissfully out the window. There will be no kid-fueled distractions at home, just me and my work. I’m not quite sure how I’ll manage. Lily has always been here with me. I imagine I’ll find myself getting up often to let the dog out. I may well fall into melancholy when I spot a tuft of Lily fur lingering in some corner of the house. I’ll miss her well-timed interruptions, that take-me-for-a-walk look. I’m dreading that first solo trek through the woods. 

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 26, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.