Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Community Strength

On a hot, sunny, beautiful day last week, the kids and I met friends in the early morning at a trailhead. Sunscreen and bug dope applied and backpacks strapped over shoulders, we headed into the woods, following a trail that meandered upwards to the summit of one of New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers. It would have been the 24th 4,000-footer – the halfway point – for three of the five kids in our posse.
A hike and perspective from another day

We didn’t make it to the top.
A bit more than three miles into the White Mountain National Forest, we ran into an emergency on the trail. It wasn’t our emergency, and, so, much of the story is not mine to tell. The day took a turn none of us anticipated, nor would have chosen. As with many things, however, there was a positive take away – for me, it was the coming together of both strangers and familiar faces in a tough moment, and a reminder of the strength of community.

The short story, the part that belongs at least partly to me, is that this was the kind of emergency that included a call to 9-1-1, the administration of first aid none of us had ever had to do before, and a long wait for the search and rescue crew to arrive and take over. There was not a happy ending.

The friends I was hiking with are good ones. We’ve seen each other cry through terrible days, and we’ve laughed together countless times. We’ve vented about a vast array of annoyances, shared parenting advice, and watched as our kids have grown up together. But we’d never been thrown into a situation of literal life and death before this. I’m thankful we were there together – and that if I have to have this story as part of my history, it’s one I share with them.

There were others there with us, too. A solo hiker just behind us jumped in to help. His name is Ryan, and he spent a few harrowing hours with us, with no complaints and with as much good humor as any of us could muster. Two other groups – a trio of college students and a pair of young women – also stopped. Through it all, the 9-1-1 dispatcher was calm and encouraging.

Because we were hiking close to home, we know many of the members of the Pemi Valley Search and Rescue Team who dropped whatever they were doing when the call for help came and rushed toward the trail. We also knew it would take them close to two hours to reach us, no matter how fast they hiked.

One member of PVSART, who also happens to be our children’s elementary school principal, called to talk with me twice en route to the scene, to get information and give support. Another friend and PVSART member unable to respond that day also checked in by phone. When, already exhausted and emotionally drained, I said I wasn’t sure what we should do, she told me, “You just have to do what you think is right.” Clear enough advice for pretty much any situation, and exactly what I needed to hear at that moment.

Although I was not the one who needed rescuing that day, I’ve never been so thankful for the local search and rescue crew. These folks have a strong sense of doing what is right. They do not stumble across emergency situations, as we had, and react. Instead, they dedicate hours of training and effort to the volunteer work of coming to the rescue.

After the trained professionals – and the trained volunteers – arrived, the three of us headed back down the trail. It was a slow descent. Sometimes we talked about what we’d just seen and done, often we were quiet in our own processing of thoughts, occasionally one of us would steer the conversation toward something unrelated, something more cheerful, normal.

As we hiked out, we saw more bright yellow-shirted PVSART members hiking in, some familiar, others unknown. I’ve read a hundred stories about mountain rescue operations, even written a few. But seeing them in real time, sweating through a hot day and moving as quickly as they could to reach a stranger in need of help, was a welcome comfort amid a difficult day.

And then we were down, our statement written out for the Fish and Game officer at the trailhead we’d left hours ago, free to go. We each climbed into our individual cars and drove the short distance homeward solo. But we weren’t quite ready to let each other go. So we gathered the kids and spent another couple of hours together in my friends’ yard. The kids ate ice cream, then ran around chasing chickens and swinging and being kids. The grownups sat with adult beverages and rehashed the day again, from all perspectives, trying to sort it all out.

The principal came to sit with us awhile, to make sure we were ok, the kids were ok. Our phones buzzed with others checking in. It is a small community, after all, and word travels fast. A small community, but a strong one. A good one. 

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's June 26, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record. 

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