Thursday, October 7, 2021

Twenty Years Home

Twenty years ago this month, I landed in Franconia. This place was already familiar, as I’d spent all of my childhood winters skiing at Cannon and rare summer days splashing in the cool Ham Branch and climbing the mountains nearby.

But it wasn’t home.

I arrived in Franconia late on a mid-October night after a cross-country drive with my mom, who’d flown out to Colorado to make the long trek back East with me. Except for a few boxes of stuff I’d shipped, everything I owned – including my somewhat neurotic cat, Fiona – was crammed into my little Subaru.

I was 27, fresh off a six-month stint guiding horse treks and waiting tables and getting pretty close to blending into a small town on the west coast of Ireland, where I was known alternately as “the horsey girl” or “the Yank who plays soccer.” The five years prior to that I’d spent in Crested Butte, Colorado, working ski town jobs to live a ski town life of sliding through snow all winter and hiking and riding my mountain bike all summer.

I could have stayed in those mountains forever, but I didn’t. I thought – twice – that I was on my way to grad school. Instead, I decided to return to Ireland, the place of my ancestors and where I’d spent a summer during college – a place I’ve seen in my dreams all my life.

Now, here I was, five years out of college, adrift. I’d spent the better part of the past week saying goodbye – first to the craggy coastline and my friends in Renvyle, then to the tall mountains and my Colorado friends. I had developed some sort of hybrid accent during my six months abroad, so even my voice seemed strange. All of my worldly possessions were crammed into a small car. I was essentially homeless and jobless – and broke.

If you had asked me then where I thought I’d be in 20 years’ time, I guarantee the answer would not have been, “Franconia, New Hampshire.” This was just where I was going to crash for a while, staying with my parents, until I figured out the next thing. I thought I’d end up somewhere bigger. Portsmouth, maybe. Or Portland. Or Concord. Definitely somewhere in northern New England, much, I believe, to my mother’s relief.

When I went west to Colorado, my folks thought I’d be gone a season, maybe a year. When I told them half a decade later that I was heading to Ireland, I think they thought two things – one, that I had lost my mind (or at least my drive), and two, that I was never, ever coming home to New England. I may have considered those two things in my own mind, too.

But in that funny way that life has of nudging us in unexpected directions, it was my time in Ireland that led me back to New England. I loved Crested Butte, and for five years that quirky little town nestled into big mountains was home. But I knew I was done waiting tables and working retail and helping to take care of the very expensive, very big houses of people who spent a few weeks a year there. I’d grown tired of the job prospects (or lack of), and of the new crop of 18- to 22-year-olds who arrived in town each fall, even if I’d been one of them not that long ago.

Renvyle had also felt like home. I had friends and work buddies and my soccer teammates. I had green fields and wild hedges of gorse and fuscia and the smell of the sea almost everywhere I went. But I did not have a work visa and was therefore limited in my ability to make a living. I stuck to my original plan of staying for six months, which meant I boarded a plane just weeks after 9-11. I cried miserably at the airport gate and felt as if I’d landed in another world – not returned home – when I arrived hours later in Denver.

Sometimes, those years in Colorado and the months in Ireland seem like a different lifetime. But my time in both of those places, the experiences I had there, the people I knew have become a part of who I am, of the way I think, of how I view my world.

And yet, it seems, I am a New Englander through and through. Sure, I grew up in a different part of New England, in a different sort of town – one with several main highways passing through it, with fast food joints and a real downtown and traffic lights (and even a good old New England rotary). But the landscape of my heart includes old houses and white-painted steeples, farms and forests, mountains and lakes and the sea. I would be lost without apples and colorful leaves in fall, snow in winter, mud and pastel blooms come springtime, and the heat and humidity and sprawling green of summer.

When it was time to set down roots, I did it here, in a place that had not quite been home, but was close. Franconia is partly the sort-of-home of my childhood and fully the one I chose as an adult. It is here that I have spent a large chunk of my life – more years than in any other place – building a career, raising children, growing vegetables, finding a community.

For years, when people would ask me where I was from, I’d hem and haw and give some roundabout answer about growing up in Massachusetts, childhood winters in New Hampshire, college in upstate New York, time in Colorado and Ireland. Now, though, if someone asks, “Where’s home?” the answer is easy: Franconia, New Hampshire.

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's October 7, 2021 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.

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