A Quest for Upper Valley Gems: Mother and Daughter Set About Exploring Their New Home

  • Harriet explores a winding path at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish. “I wasn’t fully expecting my toddler to understand the idea of a treasure hunt,” author Kelly Burch writes. “I was surprised when she grasped the concept immediately, and loved it.”

  • The author’s 3-year-old daughter, Harriet, finds the answer to the Valley Quest clue “Find the man on a stone carved with fish and a wave” at the Admiral Farragut monument during a visit to the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, the former home of the prominent American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

  • The author and her daughter check their Valley Quest clues on a smartphone. Clues are now available on-the-go with the Valley Quest app, available for free download on iPhones. The app allows users to search for quests around the Upper Valley and access clues right on their phones, so the next adventure is only a tap away. Photographs courtesy of Kelly Burch

  • —Courtesy photograph

  • —Courtesy photograph

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 6/27/2017 1:06:41 PM
Modified: 7/5/2017 3:24:26 PM

“Now what does your phone say, mommy? What’s next?”

My 3-year-old, Harriet, is running ahead of me. She’s just located the massive honey locust tree outside the former home of Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The studio and homestead of this prominent American sculptor from the turn of the 20th century are now a national historic site and arguably one of the most beautiful places in the Upper Valley.

We’re on a quest and Harriet is focused. I read her the next clue from the Valley Quest poem that will teach us about the attraction we’ve visited many times but never learned much about.

“If you look out from the porch, a tall mountain you’ll see / It is all by itself and named Mount AS-CUT-NEY / To hike, and to ski, on its slopes you can go / But it was once a volcano a very long time ago.”

“I didn’t know that,” my sister chimes in. Nor did I, I think. While I expected Harriet to have fun doing the quest, I didn’t expect to learn anything new myself. We’re only two clues into our adventure and I already have new information.

When I moved to the Upper Valley two years ago, my Harriet and I quickly set about exploring our new home, learning where we could find the best wild blackberries, hike to the most stunning views or splash in the most secluded swimming holes.

As I drove south on 12A one day I noticed the sign for Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site and turned in on an impulse. The stunning mansion with breathtaking views of Mount Ascutney quickly became one of our favorite spots for a picnic or photo opportunity.

A quick Google search told me who Saint-Gaudens was, but I had never taken time to learn more about his work or his homestead in Cornish.

Sarah Cottingham, Valley Quest coordinator, says shedding a new light on favorite attractions is one of the most valuable aspects of Valley Quest.

“It might be a place you have walked by every single day of your life and you never knew the story about that building, or maybe there’s an old tree in your town or a great waterfall,” she said. “Valley Quest gives you an excuse to slow down and look at the world in a way that we don’t often do anymore, and it really is a gem in that way.”

Valley Quest is one of the oldest and most loved programs at Vital Communities, a nonprofit organization based in White River Junction.

The quests are treasure hunts that highlight the history, community, natural resources and cultural significance of special sites throughout the Upper Valley.

“The purpose of Valley Quest is to celebrate and share the special places in the Upper Valley,” Cottingham says. That might mean well-known places like Saint-Gaudens, or hidden gems that might otherwise not get a second look. Over the 25 years of the program, Valley Quest has grown to include nearly 200 adventures. The clues are available to print out online, in a book from Vital Communities, or via the Valley Quest app.

I set out with Harriet, my sister and my infant nephew on our first Valley Quest on a hot summer evening. While I expected to have fun — I always enjoy a visit to Saint-Gaudens — I wasn’t fully expecting my toddler to understand the idea of a treasure hunt. I was surprised when she grasped the concept immediately, and loved it.

“Find the man on a stone carved with fish and a wave / He was an American admiral and was especially brave,” one clue read. Harriet sprinted from one sculpture to the next until she found the relief that the clue referenced. She enjoyed her find for a moment before bounding back to me, shouting “What’s next?”

Cottingham wasn’t surprised to hear how much Harriet had enjoyed questing.

“Within a family you can find a quest for little kids, who can look around, point and find objects, all the way to teens who are up for more of a challenge,” she says. “There is something for everyone.”

Likewise, the quests are perfect for visitors or natives to the Upper Valley.

“It’s pretty fun to be able to share things with newcomers and people who have grown up here,” Cottingham says.

Toward the end of our quest, Harriet was getting tired and I knew that pursuing the last clue might result in a toddler meltdown. I made an executive decision to cut the quest short, but I was worried that Harriet would protest that we hadn’t found the treasure. However, she wasn’t fazed.

“Can we do this adventure again tomorrow?” she asked.

She seemed to understand that the real treasure at the end of this quest was the experience of connecting with the history and culture of our community.

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