Friday, September 22, 2017

What goes up must come down

Sunday afternoon, knees creaking with every step, I remembered ABC’s Wide World of Sports intro from many years ago and thought the wording could be changed to, “The thrill of summiting and the agony of descent.”

Coming down Cannon earlier this summer.
Hiking can be a punishing sort of pleasure, even more so with kids, and I was feeling the punishing part of it on the way down Mount Moosilauke.

There was a time when I preferred the downhill to the up. I remember running down trails as a kid, exhilarated by the speed and making daring leaps over obstacles. Not once did I consider my knees and their perfect cartilage.

Those days are long gone. Now, the descents are often, indeed, agonizing. My knees grind and click with every step. I lean heavily into my hiking poles to get through the steepest parts of the trail. Somehow, I still expect the down to take less time than the up, but that is rarely the case.

“When will we be at the bottom?” the youngest hikers in our group asked repeatedly during Sunday’s descent of the steep Beaver Brook Trail, when each landmark we remembered from the trek upward seemed impossibly far away from the last one we’d passed.

The tradeoff for the pain of going down, of course, is reaching the lofty tops of mountains after going up, looking over a small piece of the world from thousands of feet higher than when you started. On the upward journey, there is the promise of the summit, of views that stretch for miles across other peaks and into neighboring states.

Sunday’s hike up Moosilauke also included scrambling along pretty waterfalls and marveling at the wooden steps bolted into granite ledges for our climbing pleasure. The kids checked out a backpacking shelter just off the trail, the boys distracted themselves with some imaginary game they’d devised, and the younger girls happily plucked bright red bunchberries from the edge of the path.

There was mild consternation at the steepness and length of the climb, but this was easily assuaged by doling out chocolate and well-timed breaks. Less than a mile from the summit, a tweaked knee threatened to keep the 8-year-old tweakee and her mother (me) from the top, but with the goal tantalizingly close, she power-limped through.

And then – ahhh. What a summit! What a thrill! I’d be long content at the top of about any mountain I’ve climbed – at least on days like Sunday, which was sunny and bug-free and warm even at nearly 5,000 feet up. I could sit there and watch cloud shadows drift across the landscape for hours.

Alas, the world below always eventually calls.

With our summit aspirations met, lunches dug out of backpacks and hungrily consumed, and obligatory top-of-the-mountain photos taken, our merry crew of five kids, two dogs, and three creaky-kneed grownups headed down. The kids were raring to get back on the trail, unimpressed in their youth with contemplating life from on high. We adults, though, lamented the quickness with which we were back below treeline, away from the views and the openness of the summit.

On tired legs, we slowly made our way down the mountain. Back through the high-elevation fir forest, descending until we reached birches and mountain ash, following the trail back to the steep cascades of Beaver Brook, picking our way carefully down the wooden blocks and boulder steps. Once down, we piled, relieved and exhausted, into the car, where the dog promptly fell asleep with her head in the littlest’s lap.

“That was not my favorite hike,” said littlest told me when we reached home.

That’s an easy sentiment to hold immediately after a challenging climb and descent. But once we’re all showered and fed and have unloaded our packs, we remember most the fun – or funny – parts of each hike. The moon rising over Mt. Lafayette and that sense of awe in looking out across a wilderness nearly unmarred by human activity. The gray jays that ate puffed corn snacks off the kids’ heads on Mt. Jackson (incidentally, on the way down that not-as-steep trail). Our famished dog thieving a pizza lunch on Moosilauke (not funny at the moment, but something I bet we’ll all remember for a long time).

We tend to forget the hardest parts of each hike and hold tight to the special memories and the lofty places that make hearts sing. In the end, we are always happy to have gone up a mountain – even if it means we’ve also had to come down. 

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 22, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record.

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