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.