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Columnist John Stifler: Appreciating western Mass while hiking the AT

  • The cabin at Upper Goose Pond along the Appalachian Trail in Berkshire County. JOHN STIFLER

  • A hidden corner of northern New Jersey along the Appalachian Trail. JOHN STIFLER

  • At top right, John Stifler, right, and his hiking companion known by the trail name OMG pause upon entering Vermont where the Appalachian Trail is contiguous with the Long Trail. COURTESY JOHN STIFLER

  • Mark Mosher studies Appalachian Trail notes at the New York and Connecticut state line. JOHN STIFLER

  • Hiking companions known by their trail names Pura Vida, left, and OMG rest at the summit of Mount Greylock in Berkshire County. JOHN STIFLER

  • John Stifler stands near the war memorial tower on Mount Greylock in Berkshire County. MARK MOSHER

  • Northwestern Connecticut landscape along the Appalachian Trail. JOHN STIFLER

  • The Appalachian Trail route.



Tuesday, August 01, 2017

From the time I was born, my mother put photographs of me into a scrapbook. One of my favorites shows me at age 4, standing on top of a bale of hay in a field on the slopes of Mount Greylock.

She or my father took the photo after we had driven from our little house in Williamstown up to the summit of the highest peak in Massachusetts, seen the great war memorial tower topped with its huge globe, and driven part way down again before stopping for photos.

My second visit to Greylock was a couple of weeks ago. This time I walked up several miles of the Appalachian Trail, carrying a 30-pound pack and a pair of non-matching hiking poles — one wood, one metal — wearing a faded, used-to-be-maroon-but-now-looks-pink baseball cap, accompanied by a couple of fellow hikers known by their trail names: Pura Vida and OMG. We took pictures, read signs and plaques describing the tower and its history, ate snacks in the appropriately rustic Bascom Lodge at the summit, and then resumed the 2,189-mile hike.

For northbound hikers, the Appalachian Trail rises from Cheshire, winds over the top of Greylock, descends to North Adams, crosses Route 2, and enters Vermont. When I reached Mount Greylock’s summit, I had been hiking for more than 15 weeks.

I feel like a deep-space probe. When NASA launched Voyager 1, for example, the astro-engineers sent it on a course near Jupiter and then Saturn, thereby powering Voyager with what is variously known as a gravitational assist or a slingshot effect. Those two great planets’ gravitational fields accelerated the vessel into deep space.

Just so, when I crossed the Hudson River at Bear Mountain, New York, walked into Connecticut, met friends in Great Barrington and then hiked above the Massachusetts Turnpike, I could feel western Massachusetts pulling me and at the same time slinging me farther north.

The best thing about the Appalachian Trail hike is the camaraderie, the sharing of a repetitive but also highly refreshing experience with whoever else happens to be nearby on the trail or staying at night in the same shelter or hostel.

But where the trail weaves its way through places close to where I spent some of my early childhood and have spent a large part of my adult life, the places themselves start exerting a pull as strong as the personal acquaintances. The slingshot effect worked nicely – I got to Killington, Vermont, as quickly as I had hoped – but at the same time the attraction of familiar names and sort-of-familiar places was strong.

Five days before reaching Greylock, I had stood on the footbridge over the turnpike in Becket, the one you drive under when you officially enter or leave the Berkshires. I looked to the right: an hour east on that road and I’d be home. I looked away from the traffic below and kept walking.

Still, Massachusetts was not going to push me into northern New England before I made sure to appreciate my own territory. In the week I took to walk from Connecticut to Vermont, I discovered details about Massachusetts about which I previously had been oblivious — like Upper Goose Pond.

It’s a beautiful little lake, in woods north of Great Barrington, and on its shore is a well-kept old red cabin, formerly a private getaway, now managed by the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Berkshire chapter. A dozen of us slept in the upstairs bunk room, more pitched tents outside, and the caretakers made coffee and pancakes for everyone’s breakfast. I took a zero day there (no hiking, just resting), swam in the pond and narrowly beat OMG and Snapchat in Scrabble.

I felt the gravitational pull again in Dalton when the trail crossed Route 9. I could get on that road and be in Florence in an hour, but the slingshot effect was working: I was being pulled north more than east.

Another ridge, a few more miles, and we got to Cheshire, now one of my favorite towns in the Bay State. Entering Cheshire, Pura Vida and I made up our glycogen deficits with dishes of ice cream at a splendid little restaurant called Diane’s Twist. A dozen of us spent that night camped on the parish hall floor at St. Mary’s Church of the Assumption, which is open to through-hikers for that purpose. In the morning, we loaded carbohydrates and caffeine at the Cheshire Dunkin’ Donuts, and then we walked up Massachusetts’ biggest hill.

The acceleration effect increased with Greylock, and it increased even more, later that afternoon, with the Papa John’s pizza restaurant in North Adams. This restaurant is, as trail lingo puts it, hiker-friendly. If you’re an AT through-hiker, your pizza is half price. They also have a wifi password exclusively for hikers. Devour cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms and anchovies, and check your email.

The pizza place is half a mile west of the trail, which means an extra mile of walking if you want to stop at Papa John’s before continuing the hike. However, where the trail emerges from the woods and enters a residential part of town, a sign invites hikers to borrow one of the bicycles parked in front of a nearby house.

I left my pack behind a shed, pedaled to the pizza restaurant, then pedaled back again, put the bike back into its rack, and put on the pack, having consumed enough calories to hike another three miles to the next campsite. Just in case I might still be hungry, a group of backyard partyers handed me a beer, sweetened iced tea, some slices of barbecued chicken, and half a dozen excellent homemade chocolate chip cookies when I walked past their house.

North Adams rocks.

Speaking of rocks, I have not forgotten the other states farther back, notably including Pennsylvania. Officially it’s the Keystone State, but AT hikers call it Rocksylvania. It offers miles of what is supposedly footpath but looks more like a geology lab display. Walking means balancing on one rock and maneuvering to the next without falling. It’s like that hour after hour, for days. Fortunately, it is punctuated by the old former factory town of Duncannon, where a hotel called The Doyle looks like a 1950s movie set, with type-cast actors to run the bar and serve the hamburgers.

The brief New Jersey sections of the trail reveal a New Jersey that is not the turnpike, not the oil refineries, not “The Sopranos,” but in fact a vast area of marshland, ponds, forests, small towns, green hills, and farms. It’s obvious that residents have promoted the traffic-pollution-crime version of New Jersey in order to discourage out-of-state tourists from spoiling the considerable beauty of the state.

For a mile in Connecticut, the trail is a ridge of exposed bedrock above the Housatonic Valley. From there you can survey the towns of Kent, Falls Village, Sharon and Lakeville. At a clearing in the trees you can look down at the track at Lime Rock Park, one of the premier auto racing venues in the Northeast. In Falls Village, you walk past a sign advertising the chamber music series at Music Mountain.

I was walking through my distant past. I was walking in the present. I was walking into summer’s second half, and into Vermont’s Green Mountains.

In August, after a three-week break to visit a project in Haiti that has nothing to do with the hike but will serve as a welcome rest for my knees, I’ll hike through the White Mountains of New Hampshire. By Labor Day, I should be in Maine.

John Stifler is a writer and teacher who lives in Florence. This the second of three columns describing his hike on the Appalachian Trail. The final one will be published in the fall after he completes his journey.