Travelogue: Northwest corner, 3491 feet high ...

 ... anchoring the not-flat Commonwealth of Massachusetts

by Don Norris

THIS HANDSOME traditional New England place is the home of the Boyd family in Charlemont, at the eastern edge of the Berkshire Mountains. It turns out that Debbie Boyd, who has an antique shop here, has a connection to Melrose: her mother, the former Joan Crowley, was a classmate of the author and now lives in Greenfield, on the Connecticut River. (You can click on the picture for a link to a screen-sized view -- the photo is a slightly enhanced hi-res digital print).

If you ever find yourself in the northwest corner of Massachusetts -- about 150 miles due west of Boston -- you will find yourself immersed in beauty.

The Berkshire Mountains (outsiders call them Berkshire Hills) begin at the Connecticut River, which runs north-south and bisects our state into two disequal halves -- and continues on from about 500 feet altitude, all the way up to 3491 on top of our Mount Greylock.

It is gorgeous. The villages are beautiful, the mountains are semi-spectacular, and very little is on the level.

Greylock seems to put a cap at the northern end of our Berkshires, for if you go two miles further north, you'll find yourself in the Green Mountain State. Vermont, that is. Those people, too, have some handsome landscapes.

We're not exactly flat, mind you ...

Massachusetts isn't a flat state, by any means. No, for even Boston at the beginning of the Atlantic Ocean is in a formidable bowl -- appropriately called the Boston Basin -- which is surrounded by a soaring ridge that approaches 300 feet, to the south, west and north.

In fact, from my house in Melrose -- which perches on an ancient rocky summit of 200 feet -- we can look down on Boston five miles to the south. And with a minor walk to the peak of our unnamed rocky mount, we can view the outer harbor and the Atlantic, as far north as Swampscott. Spectacular!

I brag about our summit home of 200 feet because we once lived in the flatlands of Arizona -- the Sonoran desert -- and on that just-above-waterlevel coral outcropping called Florida. Why, even in our native New Jersey, we had to travel 60 miles to reach the altitude of our lofty home in Melrose. Do I exaggerate?

Lovely mountains, twice as high ...

But the Berkshires are lovely, old mountains, that once (a geologist told me) were  twice as high as they are now. How does one relate that to anything, considering that our meager planet is a mere 4.5 billion years old? No wonder our Berkshires are rounded.

Sometimes, for the fun of it, drive out to Charlemont, maybe 110 miles west of Melrose. This is the northern gateway to the west, the point at which your highway will enter a great curving, meandering, steep-walled canyon, always climbing, struggling to reach that northern Berkshire plateau. It is a small spectacle, this road.

And when you get to the top, now a lofty 2000 feet above Boston, you are suddenly plunged down again in (of all places) a place called Florida. Yes, Florida, in Massachusetts. Here the road takes a sharp right, turning northward -- fortunately, for if you kept going straight, you would sail out into space, only to succumb to gravity which would drop you unceremoniously in the old mill town of North Adams, a thousand feet below.

Here, the University of Massachusetts maintains a lovely campus. It is an historic place, this North Adams, considering that our history as a people here on this continent only goes back a few hundred years. Three, maybe four.

Columbus missed the boat ...

Earlier homo sapiens arrived in this place about ten or twelve thousand years ago, at a time when the last ice age was rapidly coming to a close. They were called Indians, as a group, because Columbus, an Italian sailing under the Spanish flag in the 15th century, thought he had landed in India. He missed his port by a mere half a globe. However, we still have a holiday in his name.

Actually the Berkshires, like the Green Mountains in Vermont, are a series of north-south running granite mountains, providing really beautiful valleys, from the Connecticutt River to the east, all the way to the Hudson River shortly over the New York border.

It is the beautiful, deep valleys that make our Berkshires so inspiring.

Down at valley level in North Adams at about 1000 feet above the sea, is where most civilization collects. Funny, nobody cared to build cities on top of the mountains. But the Berkshire Mountains are chocked full of quaint little ancient towns, like Becket, Cummington, Plainfield, Peru and Washington. They are charming little farming communities that generally seek the shelter of some small valley up in the heart of the Berkshires. The people who live out there have to travel a "fur piece" to get to amenities.

The high road up Mount Greylock ...

Anyway, on a recent weekend spent at Tanglewood and a few hours with some old Impressionist friends at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, we diverted hardly before we started our home journey by taking the high road up Mount Greylock. The road actually starts out in North Adams and heads due south through rising neighborhoods before suddenly getting into the forest.

It is at this low point that the road turns pretty bumpy -- not to say 'bad', but it is best not to go fast. It winds and turns and there are potholes and repairs that got worn out; the only traffic you'll meet are other tourists coming off the mountain.

And shortly you make a sharp turn around a lonesome summer cottage, and there is the gate and sign, announcing that you are entering Mount Greylock State Reservation. And the road gets steeper, although better -- not good, but it is never straight and is always uphill. And very narrow.

The forest is all encompassing now. You have tunnel vision because the forest is so lush. It is the only drivable mountain I have ever climbed that didn't allow views -- for the first outlook with a view is only at the summit, some six or eight miles further.

The flood on top of a mountain ...

There were a couple of tight, steep hairpin turns at which I doubted our little four cylinder engine could make -- but it did. It was hairy, and the narrow road added to our sense of adventure.  

There are overlooks, but the forest blocks the views. Furthermore, those menacing thunderclouds we watched from the valley now reached us at 3000 feet, suddenly releasing a torrent of water such as I have never experienced before. So hard did the rain come down that visability was only to the hood ornament. Beyond that there was a blurred, whitish veil.

The tower atop Mt. Greylock.

Then God apparently turned off the shower, for we had a three-minute respite before it hit again. And when we finally reached the summit, it was impossible to get out of the car for the ferocity of driven rain. And we were dressed for art museums and classical music, not tromping along a muddy little piece of the Appalachian Trail.  

During the respites, to the north we could see sun shining in Vermont, but here it was akin to being under water -- on a mountaintop. Again the rain halted briefly, and we could see clouds far below us, in the valleys. Far down there were the microscopic houses of Adams, where our Governor lives. And then the deluge began again.

But going down the mountain in second gear was easier and faster than coming up. But it was all worth it, for we had never been to Massachusetts' highest point before. Yes, it was fun, even in all the torrential rain. Try it.

Sketches and photography by the author.

August 3, 2001

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