فصل 16

کتاب: قدم زدن در جنگل / فصل 16

فصل 16

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In 1983, a man walking in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts just off the Appalachian Trail saw–or at least swears’ he saw–a mountain lion cross his path, which was a little unsettling and even more unexpected since mountain lions hadn’t been seen in the northeastern United States since 1903, when the last one was shot in New York State.

Soon, however, sightings were being reported all over New England. A man driving a back road of Vermont saw two cubs playing at the roadside. A pair of hikers saw a mother and two cubs cross a meadow in New Hampshire. Every year there were half a dozen or more reports in similar vein, all by credible witnesses. In the late winter of 1994 a farmer in Vermont was walking across his property, taking some seed to a bird feeder, when he saw what appeared to be three mountain lions about seventy feet away. He stared dumbstruck for a minute or two–for mountain lions are swift, fierce creatures, and here were three of them looking at him with calm regard–then hightailed it to a phone and called a state wildlife biologist. The animals were gone by the time the biologist arrived, but he found some fresh scat, which he dutifully bagged up and dispatched to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Laboratory. The lab report came back that it was indeed the scat of Felis concolor, the eastern mountain lion, also variously and respectfully known as the panther, cougar, puma, and, especially in New England, catamount.

All this was of some interest to me, for I was hiking in about the same spot as that initial mountain lion sighting. I was back on the trail with a new keenness and determination, and a new plan. I was going to hike New England, or at least as much of it as I could knock off until Katz returned in seven weeks to walk with me through Maine’s Hundred Mile Wilderness. There are almost 700 miles of gorgeously mountainous Appalachian Trail in New England–about a third of the AT’s total trail length–enough to keep me occupied till August. To that end, I had my obliging wife drive me to southwestern Massachusetts and drop me on the trail near Stockbridge for a three-day amble through the Berkshires. Thus it was that I was to be found, on a hot morning in mid-June, laboring sweatily up a steep but modest eminence called Becket Mountain, in a haze of repellent-resistant blackflies, and patting my pocket from time to time to check that my knife was still there.

I didn’t really expect to encounter a mountain lion, but only the day before I had read an article in the Boston Globe about how western mountain lions (which indubitably are not extinct) had recently taken to stalking and killing hikers and joggers in the California woods, and even the odd poor soul standing at a backyard barbecue in an apron and funny hat. It seemed a kind of omen.It’s not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that mountain lions could have survived undetected in New England. Bobcats– admittedly much smaller creatures than mountain lions–are known to exist in considerable numbers and yet are so shy and furtive that you would never guess their existence. Many forest rangers go whole careers without seeing one. And there is certainly ample room in the eastern woods for large cats to roam undisturbed. Massachusetts alone has 250,000 acres of woodland, 100,000 of it in the comely Berkshires. From where I was now, I could, given the will and a more or less infinite supply of noodles, walk all the way to Cape Chidley in northern Quebec, 1,800 miles away on the icy Labrador Sea, and scarcely ever have to leave the cover of trees.

Even so, it is unlikely that a large cat could survive in sufficient numbers to breed not just in one area but evidently all over New England and escape notice for nine decades. Still, there was that scat. Whatever it was, it excreted like a mountain lion.

The most plausible explanation was that any lions out there–if lions they were–were released pets, bought in haste and later regretted. It would be just my luck, of course, to be savaged by an animal with a flea collar and a medical history. I imagined lying on my back, being extravagantly ravaged, inclining my head slightly to read a dangling silver tag that said: “My name is Mr. Bojangles. If found please call Tanya and Vinny at 924-4667.”

Like most large animals (and a good many small ones), the eastern mountain lion was wiped out because it was deemed to be a nuisance. Until the 1940s, many eastern states had well-publicized “varmint campaigns,” often run by state conservation departments, that awarded points to hunters for every predatory creature they killed, which was just about every creature there was–hawks, owls, kingfishers, eagles, and virtually any type of large mammal. West Virginia gave an annual college scholarship to the student who killed the most animals; other states freely distributed bounties and other cash rewards.

Rationality didn’t often come into it. Pennsylvania one year paid out $90,000 in bounties for the killing of 130,000 owls and hawks to save the state’s farmers a slightly less than whopping $1,875 in estimated livestock losses. (It is not very often, after all, that an owl carries off a cow.)

As late as 1890, New York State paid bounties on 107 mountain lions, but within a decade they were virtually all gone. (The very last wild eastern mountain lion was killed in the Smokies in the 1920s.) The timberwolf and woodland caribou also disappeared from their last Appalachian fastnesses in the first years of this century, and the black bear very nearly followed them. In 1900, the bear population of New Hampshire–now over 3,000had fallen to just fifty.

There is still quite a lot of life out there, but it is mostly very small. According to a wildlife census by an ecologist at the University of Illinois named V. E. Shelford, a typical ten-square-mile block of eastern American forest holds almost 300,000 mammals220,000 mice and other small rodents, 63,500 squirrels and chipmunks, 470 deer, 30 foxes, and 5 black bears.

The real loser in the eastern forests has been the songbird. One of the most striking losses was the Carolina parakeet, a lovely, innocuous bird whose numbers in the wild were possibly exceeded only by the unbelievably numerous passenger pigeon. (When the first pilgrims came to America there were an estimated nine billion passenger pigeonsmore than twice the number of all birds found in America today.) Both were hunted out of existence–the passenger pigeon for pig feed and the simple joy of blasting volumes ofbirds from the sky with blind ease, the Carolina parakeet because it ate farmers’ fruit and had a striking plumage that made a lovely ladies’ hat. In 1914, the last surviving members of each species died within weeks of each other in captivity.

A similar unhappy fate awaited the delightful Bachman’s warbler. Always rare, it was said to have one of the loveliest songs of all birds. For years it escaped detection, but in 1939, two birders, operating independently in different places, coincidentally saw a Bachman’s warbler within two days of each other. Both shot the birds (nice work, boys!), and that, it appears, was that for the Bachman’s warbler. But there are almost certainly others that disappeared before anyone much noticed. John James Audubon painted three species of bird–the small-headed flycatcher, the carbonated warbler, and the Blue Mountain warbler–that have not been seen by anyone since. The same is true of Townsend’s bunting, of which there is one stuffed specimen in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Between the 1940s and 1980s, the populations of migratory songbirds fell by 50 percent in the eastern United States (in large part because of loss of breeding sites and other vital wintering habitats in Latin America) and by some estimates are continuing to fall by 3 percent or so a year. Seventy percent of all eastern bird species have seen population declines since the 1960s. These days, the woods are a pretty quiet place.

Late in the afternoon, I stepped from the trees onto what appeared to be a disused logging road. In the center of the road stood an older guy with a pack and a curiously bewildered look, as if he had just woken from a trance and found himself unaccountably in this place. He had, I noticed, a haze of blackflies of his own.

“Which way’s the trail go, do you suppose?” he asked me. It was an odd question because the trail clearly and obviously continued on the other side. There was a threefoot gap in the trees directly opposite and, in case there was any possible doubt, a white blaze painted on a stout oak.

I swatted the air before my face for the twelve thousandth time that day and nodded at the opening. “Just there, I’d say.”

“Oh, yes,” he answered. “Of course.”

We set off into the woods together and chatted a little about where we had come from that day, where we were headed, and so on. He was a thru-hiker–the first I had seen this far north–and like me was making for Dalton. He had an odd, puzzled look all the time and regarded the trees in a peculiar way, running his gaze slowly up and down their lengths over and over again, as if he had never seen anything like them before.

“So what’s your name?” I asked him.

“Well, they call me Chicken John.”

“Chicken John!” Chicken John was famous. I was quite excited. Some people on the trail take on an almost mythic status because of their idiosyncrasies. Early in the trip Katz and I kept hearing about a kid who had equipment so high-tech that no one had ever seen anything like it. One of his possessions was a self-erecting tent. Apparently, he would carefully open a stuff sack and it would fly out, like joke snakes from a can. He also had a satellite navigation system, and goodness knows what else. The trouble was that his pack weighed about ninety-five pounds. He dropped out before he got to Virginia, so we never did see him. Woodrow Murphy, the walking fat man, had achieved this sort of fame the year before. Mary Ellen would doubtless have attracted a measure of it if shehad not dropped out. Chicken John had it now–though I couldn’t for the life of me recall why. It had been months before, way back in Georgia, that I had first heard of him.

“So why do they call you Chicken John?” I asked.

“You know, I don’t honestly know,” he said as if he had been wondering that himself for some time.

“When did you start your hike?”

“January 27th.”

“January 27th?” I said in small astonishment and did a quick private calculation on my fingers. “That’s almost five months.”

“Don’t I know it,” he said with a kind of happy ruefulness.

He had been walking for the better part of half a year, and he was still only threequarters of the way to Katahdin.

“What kind of”–I didn’t know quite how to put this–“what kind of miles are you doing, John?”

“Oh, ‘bout fourteen or fifteen if all goes well. Trouble is”–he slid me a sheepish look–“I get lost a lot.”

That was it. Chicken John was forever losing the trail and ending up in the most improbable places. Goodness knows how anyone could manage to lose the Appalachian Trail. It is the most clearly defined, well-blazed footpath imaginable. Usually it is the only thing in the woods that isn’t woods. If you can distinguish between trees and a long open corridor through the trees you will have no trouble finding your way along the AT. Where there might be any doubt at all–where a side trail enters or where the AT crosses a roadthere are always blazes. Yet people do get lost. The famous Grandma Gatewood, for instance, was forever knocking on doors and asking where the heck she was.

I asked him what was the most lost he had ever been.

“Thirty-seven miles,” he said almost proudly. “I got off the trail on Blood Mountain in Georgia–still don’t know how exactly– and spent three days in the woods before I came to a highway. I thought I was a goner that time. I ended up in Tallulah Falls– even got my picture in the paper. The police gave me a ride back to the trail the next day, and pointed me the right way. They were real nice.”

“Is it true you once walked three days in the wrong direction?”

He nodded happily. “Two and a half days to be precise. Luckily, I came to a town on the third day, and I said to a feller, ‘Excuse me, young feller, where is this?’ and he said, ‘Why, it’s Damascus, Virginia, sir,’ and I thought, well, that’s mighty strange because I was in a place with the very same name just three days ago. And then I recognized the fire station.”

“How on earth do you– “ I decided to rephrase the question. “How does it happen, John, exactly?”

“Well, if I knew that, I wouldn’t do it, I suppose,” he said with a kind of chuckle. “All I know is that from time to time I end up a long way from where I want to be. But it makes life interesting, you know. I’ve met a lot of nice people, had a lot of free meals. Excuse me,” he said abruptly, “you sure we’re going the right way?”

“Positive.”

He nodded. “I’d hate to get lost today. There’s a restaurant in Dalton.” I understood this perfectly. If you’re going to get lost, you don’t want to do it on a restaurant day.We walked the last six miles together, but we didn’t talk much after that. I was doing a nineteen-mile day, the longest I would do anywhere on the trail, and even though the grade was generally easy and I was carrying a light pack, I was real tired by late afternoon. John seemed content to have someone to follow, and in any case he had his hands full scrutinizing the trees.

It was after six when we reached Dalton. John had the name of a man on Depot Street who let hikers camp in his backyard and use his shower, so I went with him to a gas station while he asked directions. When we emerged, he started off in precisely the wrong direction.

“It’s that way, John,” I said.

“Of course it is,” he agreed. “And the name’s Bernard, by the way. I don’t know where they got that Chicken John from.”

I nodded and told him I would look for him the next day, but I never did see him again.

I spent the night in a motel and the next day hiked on to Cheshire. It was only nine miles over easy terrain, but the blackfly made it a torment. I have never seen a scientific name for these tiny, vile, winged specks, so I don’t know what they are other than a hovering mass that goes with you wherever you go and are forever in your ears and mouth and nostrils. Human sweat transports them to a realm of orgasmic ecstasy, and insect repellent only seems to excite them further. They are particularly relentless when you stop to rest or take a drink–so relentless that eventually you don’t stop to rest and you drink while moving, and then spit out a tongueful of them. It’s a kind of living hell. So it was with some relief that I stepped from their woodland realm in early afternoon and strolled into the sunny, dozing straggle that was the little community of Cheshire.

Cheshire had a free hostel for hikers in a church on the main street (Massachusetts people do a lot for hikers, it seems; elsewhere I had seen houses with signs inviting people to help themselves to water or pick apples from trees), but I didn’t feel like a night in a bunkhouse, still less a long afternoon sitting around with nothing to do, so I pushed on to Adams, four miles away up a baking highway, but with at least the prospect of a night in a motel and a choice of restaurants.

Adams had just one motel, a dumpy place on the edge of town. I took a room and passed the rest of the afternoon strolling around, idly looking in store windows and browsing through boxes of books in a thrift shop (though of course there was nothing but Reader’s Digest volumes and those strange books you see only in thrift shops, with titles like Home Drainage Encyclopedia: Volume One and Nod If You Can Hear Me: Living with a Human Vegetable) and afterwards wandered out into the country to look at Mount Greylock, my destination for the next day. Greylock is the highest eminence in Massachusetts and the first hill over 3,000 feet since Virginia for northbound hikers. It’s just 3,491 feet to the top, but, surrounded as it is by much smaller hills, it looks considerably bigger. It has in any case a certain imposing majesty that beckons. I was looking forward to it.

And so, early the next morning, before the day’s heat had a chance to get properly under way (a scorcher was forecast), I stopped in town for a can of pop and a sandwich for my lunch, and then set off on a wandering dirt road towards the Gould Trail, a side trail leading steeply up to the AT and on to Greylock.Greylock is certainly the most literary of Appalachian mountains. Herman Melville, living on a farm called Arrowhead on its western side, stared at it from his study window while he wrote Moby-Dick, and, according to Maggie Stier and Ron McAdow in their excellent Into the Mountains, a history of New England’s peaks, claimed that its profile reminded him of a whale. When the book was finished, he and a group of friends hiked to the top and partied there till dawn. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edith Wharton also lived nearby and set works there, and there was scarcely a literary figure associated with New England from the 1850s to 1920s who didn’t at some time hike or ride up to admire the view.

Ironically, at the height of its fame, Greylock lacked much of the green-cloaked majesty it enjoys today. Its sides were mangy with the scars of logging, and the lower slopes were pitted with slate and marble quarries. Big, ramshackle sheds and sawhouses poked into every view. All that healed and grew over, but then in the 1960s, with the enthusiastic support of state officials in Boston, plans were drawn up to turn Greylock into a ski resort, with an aerial tram, a network of chairlifts, and a summit complex consisting of a hotel, shops, and restaurants (all in soaring 1960s Jetsons-style architecture) but luckily nothing ever came of it. Today Greylock sits on 11,600 acres of preserved land. It’s a beauty.

The hike to the top was steep, hot, and seemingly endless, but worth the effort. The open, sunny, fresh-aired summit of Greylock is crowned with a large, handsome stone building called Bascom Lodge, built in the 1930s by the tireless cadres of the Civilian Conservation Corps. It now offers a restaurant and overnight accommodation to hikers.

Also on the summit is a wonderful, wildly incongruous lighthouse (Greylock is 140 miles from the sea), which serves as the Massachusetts memorial for soldiers killed in the First World War. It was originally planned to stand in Boston Harbor but for some reason ended up here.

I ate my lunch, treated myself to a pee and a wash in the lodge, and then hurried on, for I still had eight miles to go and had a rendezvous arranged with my wife at four in Williamstown. For the next three miles, the walk was mostly along a lofty ridgeline connecting Greylock to Mount Williams. The views were sensational, across lazy hills to the Adirondacks half a dozen miles to the west, but it was really hot. Even up here the air was heavy and listless. And then it was a very steep descent–3,000 feet in three milesthrough dense, cool green woods to a back road that led through exquisitely pretty open countryside.

Out of the woods, it was sweltering. It was two miles along a road totally without shade and so hot I could feel the heat through the soles of my boots. When at last I reached Williamstown, a sign on a bank announced a temperature of 97. No wonder I was hot. I crossed the street and stepped into a Burger King, our rendezvous point. If there is a greater reason for being grateful to live in the twentieth century than the joy of stepping from the dog’s breath air of a really hot summer’s day into the crisp, clean, surgical chill of an air-conditioned establishment, then I really cannot think of it.

I bought a bucket-sized Coke and sat in a booth by the window, feeling very pleased. I had done seventeen miles over a reasonably challenging mountain in hot weather. I was grubby, sweat streaked, comprehensively bushed, and rank enough to turn heads. I was a walker again.

In 1850, New England was 70 percent open farmland and 30 percent woods. Today the proportions are exactly reversed. Probably no area in the developed world has undergonea more profound change in just a century or so, at least not in a contrary direction to the normal course of progress.

If you were going to be a farmer, you could hardly choose a worse place than New England. (Well, the middle of Lake Erie maybe, but you know what I mean.) The soil is rocky, the terrain steep, and the weather so bad that people take actual pride in it. A year in Vermont, according to an old saw, is “nine months of winter followed by three months of very poor sledding.”

But until the middle of the nineteenth century, farmers survived in New England because they had proximity to the coastal cities like Boston and Portland and because, I suppose, they didn’t know any better. Then two things happened: the invention of the McCormick reaper (which was ideally suited to the big, rolling farms of the Midwest but no good at all for the cramped, stony fields of New England) and the development of the railroads, which allowed the Midwestern farmers to get their produce to the East in a timely fashion. The New England farmers couldn’t compete, and so they became Midwestern farmers, too. By 1860, nearly half of Vermont-born people–200,000 out of 450,000–were living elsewhere.

In 1840, during the presidential election campaign, Daniel Webster gave an address to 20,000 people on Stratton Mountain in Vermont. Had he tried the same thing twenty years later (which admittedly would have been a good trick, as he had died in the meantime) he would have been lucky to get an audience of fifty. Today Stratton Mountain is pretty much all forest, though if you look carefully you can still see old cellar holes and the straggly remnants of apple orchards clinging glumly to life in the shady understory beneath younger, more assertive birches, maples, and hickories. Everywhere throughout New England you find old, tumbledown field walls, often in the middle of the deepest, most settled-looking woods–a reminder of just how swiftly nature reclaims the land in America.

And so I walked up Stratton Mountain on an overcast, mercifully cool June day. It was four steep miles to the summit at just under 4,000 feet. For a little over a hundred miles through Vermont the AT coexists with the Long Trail, which threads its way up and over the biggest and most famous peaks of the Green Mountains all the way to Canada. The Long Trail is actually older than the AT–it was opened in 1921, the year the AT was proposed–and I’m told that there are Long Trail devotees even yet who look down on the AT as a rather vulgar and overambitious upstart. In any case, Stratton Mountain is usually cited as the spiritual birthplace of both trails, for it was here that James P. Taylor and Benton MacKaye claimed to have received the inspiration that led to the creation of their wilderness ways–Taylor in 1909, MacKaye sometime afterwards.

Stratton was a perfectly fine mountain, with good views across to several other wellknown peaks–Equinox, Ascutney, Snow, and Monadnock–but I couldn’t say that it was a summit that would have inspired me to grab a hatchet and start clearing a route to Georgia or Quebec. Perhaps it was just the dull, heavy skies and bleak light, which gave everything a flat, washed-out feel. Eight or nine other people were scattered around the summit, including one youngish, rather pudgy man on his own in a very new and expensive-looking windcheater. He had some kind of handheld electronic device with which he was taking mysterious readings of the sky or landscape.He noticed me watching and said, in a tone that suggested he was hoping someone would take an interest, “It’s an Enviro Monitor.”

“Oh, yes?” I responded politely.

“Measures eighty values–temperature, UV index, dew point, you name it.” He tilted the screen so I could see it. “That’s heat stress.” It was some meaningless number that ended in two decimal places. “It does solar radiation,” he went on, “barometric pressure, wind chill, rainfall, humidity–ambient and active–even estimated burn time adjusted for skin type.”

“Does it bake cookies?” I asked.

He didn’t like this. “There are times when it could save your life, believe me,” he said, a little stoutly. I tried to imagine a situation in which I might find myself dangerously imperiled by a rising dew point and could not. But I didn’t want to upset the man, so I said: “What’s that?” and pointed at a blinking figure in the upper lefthand corner of the screen.

“Ah, I’m not sure what that is. But this–“he stabbed the console of buttons–“now this is solar radiation.” It was another meaningless figure, to three decimal places. “It’s very low today,” he said, and angled the machine to take another reading. “Yeah, very low today.” Somehow I knew this already. In fact, although I couldn’t attest any of it to three decimal places, I had a pretty good notion of the weather conditions generally, on account of I was out in them. The interesting thing about the man was that he had no pack, and so no waterproofs, and was wearing shorts and sneakers. If the weather did swiftly deteriorate, and in New England it most assuredly can, he would probably die, but at least he had a machine that would tell him when and let him know his final dew point.

I hate all this technology on the trail. Some AT hikers, I had read, now carry laptop computers and modems, so that they can file daily reports to their family and friends. And now increasingly you find people with electronic gizmos like the Enviro Monitor or wearing sensors attached by wires to their pulse points so that they look as if they’ve come to the trail straight from some sleep clinic.

In 1996 the Wall Street Journal ran a splendid article on the nuisance of satellite navigation devices, cellphones, and other such appliances in the wilderness. All this hightech equipment, it appears, is drawing up into the mountains people who perhaps shouldn’t be there. At Baxter State Park in Maine, the Journal reported, one hiker called up a National Guard Unit and asked them to send a helicopter to airlift him off Mount Katahdin because he was tired. On Mount Washington, meanwhile, “two very demanding women,” according to an official there, called the mountain patrol HQ and said they couldn’t manage the last mile and a half to the summit even though there were still four hours of daylight left. They asked for a rescue team to come and carry them back to their car. The request was refused. A few minutes later, they called again and demanded in that case that a rescue team bring them some flashlights. That request was refused also.

A few days later, another hiker called and requested a helicopter because he was a day behind schedule and was afraid he would miss an important business meeting. The article also described several people who had got lost with satellite navigation devices. They were able to report their positions as 36.2 degrees north by 17.48 degrees west or whatever but unfortunately didn’t have the faintest idea what that meant, as they hadn’t brought maps or compasses or, evidently, brains. My new friend on Stratton, I believe,could have joined their club. I asked him whether he felt it was safe for me to make a descent with solar radiation showing 18.574.

“Oh, yeah,” he said quite earnestly. “Solar radiationwise, today is very low risk.”

“Thank goodness,” I said, quite earnestly, too, and took my leave of him and the mountain.

And so I proceeded across Vermont in a series of pleasant day hikes, without anything electronic but with some very nice packed lunches that my wife made for me each night before retiring and left on the top shelf in the fridge. Despite my earlier vow not to hike with the car, I found it rather suited me here–indeed, completely suited me. I could hike all day and be home for dinner. I could sleep in my own bed and each day set off in clean, dry clothes and with a fresh packed lunch. It was nearly perfect.

And so for a happy three weeks I commuted to the mountains. Each morning I would rise at dawn, put my lunch in my pack, and drive over the Connecticut River to Vermont. I would park the car and walk up a big mountain or across a series of rolling green hills. At some point in the day when it pleased me, usually about 11:00 A.M., I would sit on a rock or a log, take out my packed lunch, and examine the contents. I would go, as appropriate, “Peanut butter cookies! My favorite!” or “Oh, hum, luncheon meat again,”

and eat in a zestful chewy silence, thinking of all the mountaintops I had sat on with Katz where we would have killed for this. Then I would pack up everything very neatly, drop it in my pack, and hike again till it was time to clock off and go home. And so passed late June and the first part of July.

I did Stratton Mountain and Bromley Mountain, Prospect Rock and Spruce Peak, Baker Peak and Griffith Lake, White Rocks Mountain, Button Hill, Killington Peak, Gifford Woods State Park, Quimby Mountain, Thistle Hill, and finally concluded with a gentle eleven-mile amble from West Hartford to Norwich. This took me past Happy Hill Cabin, the oldest shelter on the AT and possibly the most sweetly picturesque (soon afterwards it was torn down by some foolishly unsentimental trail officials), and the town of Norwich, which is notable principally for being the town that inspired the “Bob Newhart Show” on television (the one where he ran an inn and all the locals were charmingly imbecilic) and for being the home of the great Alden Partridge, of whom no one has ever heard.

Partridge was born in Norwich in 1755 and was a demon walker–possibly the first person on the whole planet who walked long distances for the simple pleasure of it. In 1785, he became superintendent of West Point at the unprecedentedly youthful age of thirty, then had some kind of falling out there, and moved back to Norwich and set up a rival institution, the American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy. There he coined the term physical education and took his appalled young charges on brisk rambles of thirty-five or forty miles over the neighboring mountains. In between times he went off on more ambitious hikes of his own. On a typical trip he strode 110 miles over the mountains from Norwich to Williamstown, Massachusetts (essentially the route I had just completed in gentle stages), trotted up Mount Greylock, and came back home the same way. The trip there and back took him just four days–and this at a time, remember, when there were no maintained footpaths or helpful blazes. He did this sort of thing with virtually every peak in New England. There ought to be a plaque to him somewhere in Norwich to inspire the few hardy hikers still heading north at this point, but sadly there is none.From Norwich it is about a mile to the Connecticut River and a pleasant, unassuming 1930s bridge leading to the state of New Hampshire and the town of Hanover on the opposite bank. The road that led from Norwich to Hanover was once a leafy, gently sinuous two-lane affair–the sort of tranquil, alluring byway you would hope to find connecting two old New England towns a mile apart. Then some highway official or other decided that what would be a really good idea would be to build a big, fast road between the two towns. That way, people could drive the one mile from Norwich to Hanover perhaps as much as eight seconds faster and not have to suffer paroxysms of anguish if somebody ahead wanted to turn onto a side road, because now there would be turning lanes everywhere, big enough for a truck pulling a titan missile to maneuver through without rolling over a curb or disrupting the vital flow of traffic.

So they built a broad, straight highway, six lanes wide in places, with concrete dividers down the middle and outsized sodium street lamps that light the night sky for miles around. Unfortunately, this had the effect of making the bridge into a bottleneck where the road narrowed back to two lanes. Sometimes two cars would arrive simultaneously at the bridge and one of them would have to give way (well, imagine!), so, as I write, they are replacing that uselessly attractive old bridge with something much grander and in keeping with the Age of Concrete. For good measure they are widening the street that leads up a short hill to the center of Hanover and its handsome, historic green. Of course, that means chopping down trees all along the street and drastically foreshortening most of the front yards with concrete retaining walls, and even a highway official would have to admit that the result is not exactly a picture, not something you would want to put on a calendar called “Beautiful New England,” but it will shave a further four seconds off that daunting trek from Norwich, and that’s the main thing.

All this is of some significance to me partly because I live in Hanover but mostly, I believe, because I live in the late twentieth century. Luckily I have a good imagination, so as I strode from Norwich to Hanover, I imagined not a lively mini-expressway but a country lane shaded with trees, bounded with hedges and wild-flowers, and graced with a stately line of modestly scaled lampposts, from each of which was suspended, upside down, a highway official, and I felt much better.

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