Welcome ‘trail magic’ through Massachusetts

  • Entering Massachusetts hiking south on the AT means smoother trails, town walk-throughs, great hiker magic and memorable trail features. COURTESY ERIC WELD

  • Upper Goose Pond, about half a mile off the Appalachian Trail, offers a chance to swim, canoe and soak aching feet in pristine mountain water. PHOTO BY ERIC WELD

  • Cookie Lady Ruth Sangree and her daughter Liz, both teachers, tend the blueberries and vegetables and host thru-hikers throughout the summer in Washington, Mass. CONTRIBUTED/ERIC WELD

  • The writer takes a needed break in the welcome breeze atop Mount Greylock, Massachusetts’ highest point. CONTRIBUTED/ERIC WELD

  • Massachusetts Appalachian Trail ridge runners Sam Del Molino, left, and Denis Boudreau take a break from their duties in Bascom Lodge on Mount Greylock. CONTRIBUTED/DENIS BOUDREAU

  • Massachusetts AT volunteer Cosmo Catalano takes a trailside break for rest and contemplation. COURTESY COSMO CATALANO

For the Gazette
Published: 9/2/2022 8:50:21 PM
Modified: 9/2/2022 8:46:44 PM

To thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) in its entirety — roughly 2,190 miles from Georgia to Maine or vice versa — one is required to walk 90 miles of trail darting through the Berkshires in western Massachusetts.

In proportional terms, the Massachusetts section makes up a small fraction — about 4% — of the entire trail’s length. But in terms of lore, Massachusetts’ Appalachian Trail offers several standout features.

I embarked on a southbound (SOBO in the vernacular) thru-hike of the AT on June 30, having summited Maine’s Mount Katahdin and headed due south into that state’s notorious 100-mile wilderness. At time of writing this dispatch, I am in bucolic Kent, Connecticut, having hiked nearly 750 miles.

Western Massachusetts is my home territory, so I may be partial to its charms. But from nearly the minute you begin hiking this classic trail south, from a few hundred miles away, you begin hearing about not-to-be-missed aspects of the Massachusetts section.

“Be sure to stop by the ‘Cookie Lady,’” mentions practically every northbound AT hiker who has experienced Massachusetts. The Cookie Lady is a legendary stop, a blueberry farm in Washington run by Ruth and Liz Sangree, a mother-daughter team, both schoolteachers, who took over the farm — and AT hiker hosting duties — last year when original Cookie Lady, Marilyn Wiley, died after 30 years at the farm. Free (donations accepted) cookies, hibiscus lemonade and a shady porch greet every wise thru-hiker who makes the .01-mile detour.

Ten miles further south is Upper Goose Pond, a must-stop according to thru-hikers meting out trail advice. The site offers a cabin with a bunkroom, complete with mattresses (unheard of), and a pristine pond with docks for diving in and canoes for checking out the water.

And, most legendarily, the volunteer caretaker makes hot coffee and pancakes for overnight residents in the morning.

“There’s definitely a different feel in Massachusetts,” says Cosmo Catalano, a longtime AT volunteer from Williamstown. “This state has very unique features: Upper Goose Pond, and Father Tom campsite,” an in-town camping spot in Cheshire specifically for AT thru-hikers.

“And we get a lot of traffic in Massachusetts,” adds Catalano, who has section-hiked 500 or 600 miles of the AT and has tended the Massachusetts section for 20 years.

“A lot of stuff is done for you in Mass. There are a lot of overnight sites, about seven miles apart. And there’s more infrastructure, and a lot of ‘trail magic.’”

Trail magic is an essential and appreciated lifeline for AT thru-hikers. It refers to any time someone provides provisions for hikers, or leaves goodies or water alongside the trail. These often-anonymous volunteers are called “trail angels,” rightfully so. The Sangrees, for example, are trail angels of the highest order.

As I worked my way south through the Berkshires in mid-August, the region was amid a summer drought that dried up most the natural water sources along the trail. Without water, a hiker hefting 30 pounds and climbing up and down the mountains of western Mass. might last about five miles in New England’s August heat and humidity.

At least a dozen times I took advantage, with salivating appreciation, of trail magic water caches left by road crossings, topping off my bottles for the next sweaty stretch.

Like a church

It’s more than just the special amenities and trail magic that set Massachusetts apart on the AT.

“For north bounders (NOBOs), Massachusetts is special because it’s the gateway to the north,” notes Sam Del Molino, a ridge runner on the trail. “Massachusetts starts to pick up elevation again. And Mass. has a little bit of everything: farm fields, rocks and rivers, difficult climbs, water to cross, Mount Greylock, a legendary mountain. And you can see the Green Mountains of Vermont.”

Trail ridge runners themselves are another unusual aspect of the Massachusetts AT. Only a handful of AT-hosting regions employ ridge runners, including Georgia and parts of Virginia and Maine, in addition to Massachusetts.

In this state, ridge runners are employees of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. Their job is to hike their section of the AT, provide some trail maintenance, and interact and work with hikers to ensure safety and adherence to protocols.

“We’re really unusual here in Mass.,” says Denis Boudreau, who has worked as a ridge runner on the Massachusetts AT for 13 years. “We’re hiking the trail about 60% of the time, doing maintenance about 40%. A large part of our job is educating people.

“We see the trail almost like a church — it’s a sacred area. We want thru-hikers to feel respect and love for the area, the towns, other hikers. As a ridge runner, that’s part of our job, to foster that kind of relationship.”

Passing through town

Massachusetts’ 90 miles of Appalachian Trail serves as a sort of welcome transition point for thru-hikers, whether they’re headed either north or south.

For SOBOs, the Massachusetts trail starts to ease up in elevation gain, for one thing, and smooths out with less intense rocks and roots obstructing passage in comparison with Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. It’s also the first state in which the trail passes through small towns, such as Cheshire and Dalton, giving proximity to local libraries, eating establishments, grocery stores and homes of hiker-friendly residents. Passing through towns is often mentioned by hikers as one of the trail’s highlights.

For NOBOs, Massachusetts marks a return to climbing mountains again after hundreds of miles — through northern Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and the northwest corner of Connecticut — of relatively flat and viewless terrain.

“They haven’t seen anything like Race Mountain in a while,” recalls Del Molino, who northbound thru-hiked the AT in 2018. From Race Mountain in the state’s southwest corner, with its rocky summit and 360-degree views, up to Greylock and its impressive top distinguished by the War Memorial Tower, the mountain views of Massachusetts give a hint of what awaits NOBOs in New Hampshire and Maine.

Outsize contribution

The appeal of the Massachusetts trail, with its relatively friendly terrain and special trail features, may partly explain a noticeable increase in hiking traffic on the state’s AT.

“The profile has been raised quite a bit here,” Catalano says. “We’re definitely seeing more use. I’d say 20% more, just anecdotally. We’re seeing more hikers earlier in the year.” Only about 10% of AT users are thru-hikers, he notes.

Boudreau agrees. “The word is getting out,” he says, having noticed spikes in AT traffic following successful Hollywood movies including “A Walk in the Woods” and “Wild.” “I meet people from all over the world,” he says: “Russia, China, Japan.”

Massachusetts may not be at the top of the list for hikers’ favorite stretches of the AT — that’s typically reserved for the White and Smoky mountains. But it’s safe to say, a thru-hike of the trail would be a less enjoyable adventure without the memorable features of the Berkshires stint.

“This is an amazing experience,” Del Molino says of thru-hiking the AT. “It’s an inherently valuable experience, once in a lifetime.”

Hiking the 90 miles of the Massachusetts section makes an outsized contribution to the Appalachian Trail journey.

Eric Weld, a former Gazette reporter, is the founder of agingadventurist.com.

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