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.

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