Poet's Seat and F.G. Tuckerman
Hiked On 3/1/23
Anyone who has spent time in the Pioneer Valley in New England has seen the proliferation of long ridges that spring up from the otherwise relatively flat landscape. Most of these are good hiking. Over a week ago I was in a car traveling north and noticed a particular ridge that looked promising. Further examination revealed that it is the location of the "Poet's Seat" a castle-folly and the monument to the relatively forgotten 19th Century Romantic poet Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. A few days later--on an appropriately romantic and rainy day--I went out to walk and explore.
It really was snowing and raining for most of the time. However, the gray moodiness for this hike worked well. The trail along the long ridge undulated and the the snow shifted slightly under my feet. The rain and mist rising up from the warming snow was atmospheric, creating the sort of atmosphere that must have inspired a writer like Tuckerman. He preferred to keep to himself, after all. In 1860 when he published his first and only book--perhaps unimaginatively named "Poems"--he received a confused response. Many of his friends and acquaintances among the New England Literati didn't actually know he was a serious writer before their complimentary copies arrived. Tuckerman's book was only a mild commercial success. The response from his transcendentalist and romantic friends like RW Emerson, Jones Very and the Longfellows indicated that he had potential. However, only Nathaniel Hawthorn seems to have actually enjoyed it entirely.
That said, most saw moments of brilliance, particularly in his collection of sonnets. They praised his close observation of nature. Later he would be described as a writer of herbariums. His focus on the minutia of the natural world could--when his writing was on point--create an immersive effect prized by readers of the day. His description of beans--in a poem ostensibly about coffee but really a story about some local characters--is typical of that work;
"The bean, the garden bean I sing--
Lima, mazagan, late and early
Bush, butter, black eye, pole and string
Esculent, annual, planted yearly"
He was also known to make up place names and allude to people he invented as if they were from the Bible or ancient literature. The dude could create a world, which is something that--as a gamer and reader of speculative fiction--is something I can get behind.
That said, not all was happy in his life. Most of his poetry is dark. His later poems--after the death of his wife--are even more gloomy. As a young man he retreated out to Deerfield to be away from society and from the many connections cultivated by his family. He was the brother of a famous botanist, Edward Tuckerman, and a composer, Samuel Tuckerman. Henry Tuckerman--another writer--was his cousin. Far from Boston, apparently, he could be his romantic self.
In the early 20th Century, Tuckerman was rediscovered...or...in some ways discovered for the first time. But the discovery was brief. At least it got him a monument, right? Now you can find his work in some anthologies of poets from the era. However, the easiest way to read him is to get his one book for your e-reader. After all, it is free online.
There is more about Tuckerman and about the hike in the video below. Also, I turned it into a podcast
Hiked on February 14, 2023
This was a spontaneous hike. Thursday's weather looked hideous as usual and I wanted to see the sun! I decided, therefore, to hit Route 2 and head over to the High Ledges Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary on a Tuesday to catch the view. I had been saving it for a perfect day...and this was pretty close. The loop I chose was around 5 miles and featured an undulating landscape with a small mountain, a fire tower, a valley, and some hills. The snow was fairly compact to start and then it got loose as the air warmed it up. This made footing a bit of a challenge...and I brought out the micro spikes.
I could use the workout though. There has been quite a bit going on. The church is wrestling with some big questions. Finally, I have a few weeks of sabbatical starting soon. I will give thought to the church's questions then and add in a few of my own....
Lately I have been thinking about life-changing moments. Specifically those times when we make a decision to leap into the abyss and become a miniature or occasional "knight of faith" in the old formula of Kierkegaard. There are times when our lives change because of something that happened to us. However, when we are able to exercise of free will, our moments of decision change the trajectory of who we are, how we are perceived, and maybe who other people are around us.
These decisions aren't always drastic. This is a good thing. People can wait their whole lives and miss the turning points if they believe that our choices only come in large sizes. Sometimes we hardly notice them at the time. Either way we make them, don't we? They are the beats of our lives. Looking back they are the decisions we mark to say that life was different afterward...in some way large or small.
I remember deciding to become a minister at the foot of Doubletop Mountain in Maine when I was 19. It wasn't momentous at the time but there I was...and here I am. I just went for a walk in the evening and decided that--given my interests and my emerging skill set--the parish and I would be good for each other. My ministry outlived the campsite we stayed at. It seems to be a much bigger deal now.
A short time later I met my future wife at a meeting of college activists. In an uncharacteristic fit of optimism, I thought I would like to get to know her better. Turns out I didn't make much of an impression on her at the time...but here we are three decades later.
There are decisions that change our lives in smaller but still-lasting ways. I remember the first time I played the ukulele in the middle of a sermon. Everybody was surprised. These days--many music ministries later--it isn't a big deal anymore. The same can be said for Dungeons and Dragons Club and the "Snow Posse" (sidewalk shoveling) youth group events that grew into something for a few years then seemingly faded away. Those youth are grown up now and some keep in touch. I am always pathetically happy to see them when I can. Two of the gamers now help me teach their parents in "adult" D&D. Maybe it didn't fade after all.
Each of these decisions and many others started small and even commonplace. What grew out of them was a life. I feel like there will be a few more decisions like that soon. Maybe I will make them. Maybe someone else will. Right now with the church it feels like many, many big decisions are coming down the line. However, it will be the small ones that lead to another and another that will determine our future.
I say all this now because hikes like this are a series of small decisions. This week on a Tuesday I decided to get up and get going. I decided where to go. There were all kinds of micro decisions that helped me to focus on the day. How would I get there? Would I do both the out-and-back to the tower or just the ledges themselves? Was this a good use of my time? How would I deal with the vagaries of weather?
Also, on this trip, I decided to do some more extensive filming. It has been a while. Many of you are aware of my interest in 21st century communication. This weblog is part of that. My podcasts are as well. For a long time I was into making youtube videos of sermons, church news, meditations, music and--during the plague--entire worship services. Sometimes this meant collaboration. At other times I worked on them by myself. I got into it through a series of small decisions that brought me joy. A series of small decisions may bring me back...or maybe they come to nothing. It is too early to tell.
If we use the model of "Sabbath Walks" that I write and talk about here and elsewhere, all of these endeavors--these choices made and sometime pursued--fall into the category or "frame" of dialogue or creativity. On this hike, for example, the choice to film meant stopping and starting; recording sections of trail, talking to the camera while imagining future viewers, editing after getting home while re-living the excursion, and improvising a soundtrack. I had to make decisions about equipment. If I keep doing this there will be more decisions to make as some things may need replacing.
There are many little steps. After all to even get to the point of recording there was research. There were skills that could use some improvement through repetition. That said, I am learning. While this decision may not lead to anything more, it just might...probably in surprising ways. After all, nobody thought the skills I learned from my "hobby" would help hold online worship together during the early months of Covid. Ultimately we found somebody more skilled. Of course, nobody thought that the skilled person we found would be a beloved former member of the D&D Club and the Snow Posse who had moved away. Decisions keep on rippling out, don't they?
Anyway, I have included the video. I think it is pretty good for a first attempt! I also started a Sabbath Walks YouTube page that you can subscribe to to get notifications. Just click on the video above and hit "subscribe." I may decide make more of these moving pictures. We shall see. Both I and the church are looking for ways to communicate. Perhaps this is the way.
Here is to your decisions and dialogues. I hope you have found something to bring the sabbath "walk" to life regardless of what it is or how you go about it. Many blessings on your travels until next time. I will see you out on the trail.
Hiked on February 2, 2023
Somewhere along the way of this project, it appears that at least a few people got the impression that I am particularly rugged or outdoorsy. I am not of course. I am just a suburban dad transitioning to empty-nester with a bad back and sore knees. I prefer a room and a bed--preferably my own--to a tent or sleeping platform. It is just that I find the Transcendent in nature, and that helps get me through the week.
I have been doing some workshops on Sabbath Walks. I have been pitching them as "mindful walking" workshops because the word "sabbath" appears to make some folk uncomfortable. Maybe it is because "sabbath" is a religion-word. I like it better, though, "mindful" is way too broad.
Anyway, It is at these events--and the conversation around them--that I have noticed this disconnect. People will come up me to say it is all very interesting...but they cannot go on a big hike. Usually this is for physical reasons, which I totally get. The only issue is that I am not talking about hiking. I am talking about walking and even that has more to do with sitting. The process is all about perspective and intention. Are you paying attention to the world around you? Are you letting your experience influence your understanding through reflecting on your context? Then you are more than good.
Actually I haven't gone on many big hikes lately. Work has gotten in the way. So has the weather. I do get out every week but all of my Sabbath Walks in 2023 have been in Massachusetts. It is a good thing that we have so many great opportunities to get out in nature here! Yes, it will be hard to cultivate "likes" in the same way when the views are less dramatic and the physical effort may also be. That said, I have enjoyed immersing myself in the land close to home.
Some of the best hikes lately have been repeats. I trundled up Mount Watatic again and again. The Graces and the Crow Hill Ledges still stand out. One of the best walks I had was my usual four-mile round-trip stroll downtown...but at night. This made all the difference.
What I really want to talk to you about though, is the Assabet River Wildlife Refuge.
I have to say that I only recently really clued into its existence. I went over there because the weather in New Hampshire was turning dangerous and I also had the need to find something more accessible for a group Sabbath Walk in the spring. As I mentioned earlier, people think that these walks need to be challenging. They do not. I was--and am--searching for places where a person could walk a few feet to find a pretty place to sit. If they wished, they could move on for a more challenging workout...but they wouldn't have to. When you are in a group you need both "easyish" and "hardish" options, so everybody gets what they want or need.
Now, on this hike I had expected to see wildlife...and I did. What was surprising, though, was the large amount of evidence of previous human habitation! Many of the trails were unusually wide and there were patches of old, cracked pavement in places. Also, right where I parked was the foundation of an old tavern dating back to 1700. However, the most remarkable thing was the proliferation of immense concrete bunkers tucked away in the forest. Each had a massive metal door that was barred and locked like some dystopian Hobbit hole. Since my trip I heard from friends who had been in one. The description seems to fit as they appear bigger on the inside. The one they visited was vast, cold, and oppressive.
Now, I later learned that there were 50 of these bunkers in the park. Therein lies a story. First, of course, this land was wilderness. Then it was occupied by native Americans. Then, as Europeans came to this continent, it was a neighborhood for a long time. That is where the old tavern came in. Later Henry David Thoreau would pass through to visit friends. In fact, it stayed a agricultural community until 1942.
Then, as the Second World War heated up, the land was seized by eminent domain. The people were moved. There were about 100 of them and they claim their compensation was 10 cents on the dollar. Their houses and the tavern were destroyed. In their place were those big bunkers, to store ammunition for Fort Devens. After a while this annex was sealed off and abandoned. Finally, in 2005, it was opened to the public. When I told this story in church and asked if anyone had been there only my eldest son raised his hand. His high school cross-country team ran there. Otherwise it is a new park to pretty much everyone I know.
As you walk along its trails today there is all this evidence of the past. There are so many layers of humanity. Some of those layers tell peaceful stories of life lived in the usual ways. Others tell stories of fear, displacement, and violence.
Now, the story of this refuge can be read as a parable. With any good parable we have choices to make about how we approach it and where we see ourselves in it. We can imagine ourselves in the position of The Native Americans, or the early colonists, or the neighborhood right before the war...all of them swept away. Perhaps instead we could see with the eyes of those massive bunkers stubbornly demanding our place in the midst of the wilderness. They are solid, powerful, obnoxious even…but largely irrelevant to the world moving around them.
Or…we could see ourselves in the refuge, itself; adapting to our current context to serve current needs and connecting to the ecosystem that sustains us. Whatever we choose--and at times we have probably felt ourselves in all these categories with more besides--this walk reminds us of the fullness of time and the power of creation to alter our understanding of what "truth" is.
It is a thoughtful place for a walk, or a sit, or a stand. I spent a couple of hours there. Then I went to a bar and wrote the beginnings of a sermon--here is the podcast version--with this story as its inspiration. That is what is supposed to happen on a sabbath walk. There should be a physical and mental challenge, then a new insight gained and a dialogue created. We make sense of our reality through reflection, after all.
\My step counter says I walked 8.5 miles and there was much more to explore. I will definitely be back there soon.
Thoreau actually wrote a poem about travelling though this area. The Old Marlborough Road exists as a road outside the preserve, but inside it continues as a perimeter road to the park. I hiked it. It was mostly quiet, with a few strollers and fat bikers. Anyway...here is the poem. It isn't necessarily one of his best, but it helps to give life to the people who used to live there. Also the page describes the area a bit. In my sermon I said the refuge is in Sudbury and Wayland. Of course it is actually in Sudbury and Maynard. After twenty years living here my geographical references are still those of a Mainer. By way of reparation, the link is to a Maynard historical site.
Hiked On January 5, 2023
It is hard to get going sometimes, isn't it? Getting ready for church on Epiphany Sunday even my brain felt bloated and out of shape. Two Sundays went by without a service. How do I do this again? Why do I do this? In the end it was fun. I preached about beginnings and about not falling back into the same old ways of last year. After all, the old patterns may not be so hot. The band also did a pretty good job leading Good King Wenceslas. It is ostensibly a Boxing Day carol --"Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen"--but really it's just cool folk tune about the legendary Duke Vaclav of Bohemia.
Anyway, hiking is like that too...but worse. I mean, it has been over a month since I put in any really serious reps hiking. I have been to the gym a handful of times and did those Solstice Walks but sometimes I worry that I won't really get back up to climbing shape. This isn't my favorite time. You know this. I would rather hike in "shoulder season" in the spring. Winter is here, though, and getting out is important.
On Thursday I concluded that I could probably clear a few homiletical cobwebs as well as partially arrest my downward slide in health and fitness by taking a good walk. Maybe I could shock myself back into action! I put my heavy pack on and drove back out to the Leominster State Forest. There I continued the loop that I started a couple weeks earlier. The total hike was about 3.8 miles and 600ish feet of total elevation. So not a big climb. However, I am out of practice. My knees hurt at the end.
The thing about this loop up the Crow Hill Ledges is that it features a short, steep section at the very beginning. I guess it could be at the end instead if one takes the loop the other way. I like to climb up rather than climb down, though. So I always choose the hard part first.
After that things roll a bit along a long ledge. There are obscured views through the tree trunks that wouldn't be there the rest of the year. On this day, though, many of them were still socked in a bit by rain and fog. The crisp, clean wintery air had been replaced by, well...shoulder season weather. It felt like early spring.
Still, it was more than nice to be out and about. Parks like this are very popular on nice days, so a little inclement weather meant that I had it to myself for the most part. There was a college kid scaling the massive cliffs and a couple different people walking their dogs on the flat. There was also the constant sound of traffic from Route 31. That aside, though, the fog added a mystical quality to the hike. The landscape--now wet with rain rather than covered with snow--looked very different from the last time I was there. Once again I wandered about a bit, exploring the side-trails and looping around the local swimming hole still holding on to a little ice in spite of the relatively warm winter weather. I felt like I could spend all day there.
In the end I didn't spend the day. In fact, it was already pretty late when I arrived! Technically Thursday is my sabbath. However a variety of errands and tasks early in the week--start up stuff for the church mostly--had pushed quite a bit of work into the morning. Once again this made me late. Just like last time I found myself pulling out my headlamp on the way back. The rain had made the journey a perpetual dusk until the dark appeared. Then I drove to a Dunkin' Donuts for dinner and to write my sermon.
Still, at least I achieved my goal. I got out and did a thing. I had a small adventure. I cleared my head enough to get the most creative parts of my job done. Maybe this trip will beat back the inertia. Maybe this year won't entirely be a slog after all.
Here is that Wenceslas...
Solstice Walks: Pegan and CH Ledges
It was winter solstice Wednesday. Solstice is a holiday that flies under the radar in these parts, but not necessarily everywhere. In a way we all celebrate it. It is at the root of all the December holidays. When it does pass unnoticed, it may simply be because it is the rare holiday built on scientific fact. Thanks to the special relationship between the earth and the sun we have a "shortest day". No god in his chariot made this happen.
The forces of ecology and personal biology make this a particularly difficult time for may of us. That is the real reason for the parties, the festivals, the light in the dark. Since the birth of the solar system--roughly--there has been the fact of winter. It is a fact that we sometimes grapple with. Often it is a fact that changes and molds us.
It deserves a moment of our time, doesn't it? These layers of legend decorating winter solstice, as beautiful as they are, can otherwise obscure a primal element of human existence. The dark comes. So, too, does the cold, the ice, and the famine. Therefore, it is good to find a way to mark the moment when the darkness recedes, even though the winter is just beginning. Doing so helps us to understand our place as part of nature. It also reminds us that the sun--and spring and better days--will also return in their time.
For me, this year's observance of solstice came down to two walks. The first of these was on the solstice day, itself. Every year the church hosts some sort of walk to mark the occasion. It is a ritual, but it rests lightly on us. At our most hardcore--a few years ago--we would take a midnight stroll through the outdoor labyrinth at nearby Wellesley College. That was a hearty little group!
Since the plague, however, we have erred on the side of--relative--accessibility. Even these days we feel the struggle to gather sometimes. Being outdoors is uncomfortable, but at least we know we can be together. With this in mind, we now hike up Pegan Hill right here in the neighborhood. Instead of midnight we chase the sunset around 4:30. Then we sing carols until it is too dark to see the lyric sheets even with our "vigil candles". Finally we hike down, grab refreshments at a nearby congregants' house, and move on to our own dinners.
My job this year was to organize the thing and play the ukulele. The tension is always between formality or informality and we haven't quite figured it out. Is this an earth-centered worship service or a fun carol walk with friends? It is somewhere in the middle, which can make it tricky to plan.
It has been a while since I have been up on Pegan Hill in the light of day. It is pretty then, but for me--thanks to these nocturnal gigs--it is usually perpetual twilight. On a clear day or evening one can see the Pack Monadnocks in New Hampshire. This is one of the benefits of Eastern Massachusetts's flatness. Any rise is prominent.
At 410 feet, Pegan is the tallest rise in town. The name comes from a faction of the Natick Praying Indians who farmed it. Though the Praying Indians are still around and sometimes worship at our church--built on the spot of their original congregation--we do not know what happened specifically to the Pegan group. I thought of them Wednesday as I do whenever I am up there. There is so much we miss in history and relationships that we can only speculate at now. The human history that this hill represents is complicated. It is important to recognize humanity at its worst so maybe, as the earth turns again, we can do a better job.
The second hike was the next day. It ended up being a small, solo celebration of the promise of more light. After my work was mostly done I drove an hour to the Leominster State Forest and climbed up to the Crow Hill Ledges that look out toward Mount Wachusett. There was snow for this one. It felt like winter, which of course was the point...and also a bit of an obstacle. Micro spikes were necessary and some of the rock faces were quite slick. Still, I took my time even though I knew the dark wasn't far away.
Of course the extra light on Thursday as compared to Wednesday was not much. It won't be for some time. That said, it was still a hint and a promise. Snow and ice get pretty old pretty fast for me. In a couple of weeks my animal brain will be living for spring. There is nothing I can do about this; just push forward and find joy where I can. I lingered for a while under the massive cliffs, which were more impressive than the view. Then I put my headlamp on and got back to the car in time to grab some food and go play TTRPG's with friends. Then I drove home from Worcester in the rain.
If you want to replicate these hikes, neither is terribly strenuous. Pegan Hill is probably about a mile round trip and--if you don't go exploring down random trails like I did--Crow Hill Ledges is about the same. The footing on Pegan is solid for a suburban hike. There was some sketchy scrambling on the ledges, though. It would be worth considering before heading out. Leominster State Forest--where the ledges are--seems worth exploring. So you can expect more posts from there in the future!
I hope you are all having a blessed holiday and you are getting what you want and need from this time. As I write this the power is out and my tasks are becoming unmoored! Oh well, nature has its say apparently. There are things that just won't get done.
Wolfe's Neck and the "Easy" Walk
I always expected that hikes and posts would drop off once work started up again, but I guess I didn't realize how precipitously. I promised myself to do a "big hike" every week or so and post regularly on various topics. Instead life caught up. Ministry is an emotional business sometimes. The various arenas of parish life require commitment in multiple ways. Essentially, there are things that must be done to aid a changing church and changing lives of church members. I haven't been able to get away for extended periods of time.
Man...I would love to though...
That said, I have been able to take a few smaller walks and hikes. The most challenging one involved a treadmill and an elliptical at the YMCA. The most meaningful one for me was Wolfe's Neck Woods State Park, just outside of downtown Freeport in Maine. This is one of those places I went often as a young person. It was relatively close to where I grew up. We would have picnics here regularly. Later, when I went to a private high school, the park was on my way home. Back then I would sometimes go running here to stay in shape for the worst cross-country team in the state.
Then, when I, my siblings, and our significant others worked in the "outlet heck" of Freeport, we would sometimes take our picnic breaks here. Family members who worked at a sandwich shop would bring the food. Then we would drive home...to the same house, because we lived with our parents. In that group a number of our "first dates" happened here. Oh yes, there was camping involved, too...
Through the trees you can see the innocent-looking island where the ospreys nest. One of the first lessons I ever got about the power of nature was a warning not to go over there because the ospreys would attack you. There have been plenty of stories about people--sometimes arrogant, sometimes drunk and arrogant--doing just that and ending up in the hospital.
The path, itself, is not all that difficult. It winds from the picnic area along the coastline. There isn't a beach (thank God) so it is a hiker's park, mostly. The range of the tides is pretty extreme, so the view constantly changes. Also, there are many spots where one can turn back to the parking lot if necessary. It can be a pretty convenient feature if schedules or abilities differ. During this most recent trip on an unseasonably warm day, my niece had to head home after a while to get ready for school, so she just turned off and we continued on.
There isn't much to say about the walk we took. It wasn't very technical. I nabbed a geocache. We spent time with family, like we always have here. Then we went back the way we came. However, it does bring up a subject that I have been reminded of frequently in this project. That, my friends, would be accessibility.
Many of the hikes I list on Sabbath Walks can be challenging for some people. I forget that. Probably that is because the hikes are also challenging for me and I do not think of myself as much of an athlete. As a slow hiker, there are plenty of people to remind me on every trip large or small that it is harder for me than it is for them. That is how people roll; one-upping each other with abandon.
It turns out that there is a degree of difficulty in what I do--even on Mount Cube or Hedgehog--that is worth recognizing. It might be that for some people the challenge makes those hikes less relaxing than they should be for a sabbath walk.
The big accidental secret is that I take a lot of shorter or easier walks. It's not just Wolfe's Neck! I just didn't know anyone would be interested. With that in mind--and to reveal where I go when I am not climbing a mountain--here are some of my other favorite easy (or easier) hikes, some of which I have done more times than I can count...
OK...one further note. No walk is really "easy." There is always a challenge. The trick is knowing what you are up for and what you think you can manage on any given day. When I injured my back all the hikes on this "easy" list were off the table for a while. For some people they may always be just manageable or not manageable. Know thyself, thy interests, and thy ability. If these seem a bit too easy, I recommend my Easyish Hikes list.
Also...again...know you are hiking your own hike. Sometimes someone else thinks you are a loser for accomplishing something they think is beneath them. I have been on the receiving end of hiker toxicity more than once, myself. That is on them. You don't need their insecurities to harsh your vibe.
Ridge Hill Reservation, Needham, MA
I credit this trail with much of the progress I made rehabbing my back. However, my relationship with it starts way before my injury. When I need to think and then get right back to work, this is where I go. The trails here can sustain a hike of anywhere between 1/4 mile to 3 miles. It is dog-friendly and--unlike some parks not on this list--the dog walkers keep their furry friends relatively under control.
There are no epic views here. However, there is a lovely boardwalk through a wetland. Most importantly: do not miss the area across Charles River Street from the parking areas! It is oft-forgotten so there are fewer people. Also, it takes you down to the Charles River, which is always pretty.
Oliverian Brook Trail, WMNF, NH
I hiked this one in the rain, but I have to say that the river was very pretty and--in an area of relatively tough climbs--it was a good cool-down. I sat by the brook for a while. On a pretty day I could see spending even more time there quite happily. If you are stuck in the White Mountain National Forest and don't want one of the many riskier hikes available, just tell your friends you are doing this and will meet up with them after.
Note that this is an out-and-back. The same trail leads to some relatively easy--but more challenging than this list--ledges. Also, if you make the wrong turn you could end up on the butt-kicking slopes of Mount Passaconaway. Turn around when you are ready. You really call the shots.
By the way, it gets a mention on my Mount Hedgehog post. Hedgehog, itself, is "easyish" and these trails could make a nice two-day combo.
Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary, Natick, MA
In the Covid era this extremely popular sanctuary required a reservation. It may still. Also, if you are not a member the Audubon Society, it will cost a you a tiny bit. That said, I love this place! I have hiked/snowshoed here in all kinds of weather. There are trails that make cute 1/4 mile loops and longer arrangements as well.
This also borders the Charles River. I have passed the farthest flung trails from time to time in my canoe. If you like turtles do check out the various observation areas in the wetlands near the parking area. Finally, be warned, since the plague this place has been packed on the weekends.
Cochituate Rail Trail, Natick/Framingham, MA
One warning about this one...it is paved. This is a multi-use trail that is probably best on a bike but walkers can enjoy it too. It serves as a pedestrian/bike path for commuters. You can hit the mall. It leads to the back gate of Cochituate State Park. I made a loop of it from my house--which came to around 9 miles--in order to train up for the Great Glen Way road walk portions. Worked great.
Be warned that the hard surface can do a number on your feet if you go the whole way.
Mount Agamenticus, York, ME
This is the "hardest" of these easy hikes and it is the only one that has its own entry on this blog. I will refer you there for details. Still, it was very accessible and there were plenty of trails that skirt the mountain, itself if that feels like too much.
Long Pond Loop (Tully Lake Reservation) Athol, MA
This loop is also on the challenging end of easy. There is an optional tiny mountain to consider. That said, it is one of my absolute favorites of all time. It follows Long Pond just north of the much-busier Tully Lake. There are views both over the pond and up on the tiny mountain. It is also the longest on this list at about 7 miles. Unlike the rail trail, you cannot really bail out, which is a consideration. That said. it is very doable if you give yourself enough time.
Bradbury Mountain State Park, Pownal, ME
I have mentioned this one before as well. I spent a huge amount of time here growing up. One of my brothers worked as a summer ranger here as well. This tiny "mountain" has a great view of the towns and villages where I grew up. Trust me, though, you will like it even if you are from away. Also, yes, my high school cross-country team ran here from time-to-time as well.
As with Wolfe's Neck and Broadmoor, there is a fee to get in. The shortest trail to the top is about .4 miles. However, I usually take the perimeter trail that makes the whole experience closer to 3 miles.
That is all for now! It was nice getting to think about these special places. I have already been to Ridge Hill once this week. Maybe I will head over again soon...
Peak Colors on Hedgehog
The glory of the mountains is color. A great many people think that they see all that there is to be seen of the White Hills in one visit...but what if you could go into a gallery where the various sculpture took different attitudes every day? ...Would one season be sufficient to drain the interest of it? Thus the mountains are ever changing. They are never two days the same. --Thomas Starr King
Hiked On October 12, 2022
Many years ago my mother-in-law came across a Walter Launt Palmer painting in a thrift shop in New Jersey. That painting eventually got her an appearance on the Antiques Roadshow. Back then this name was new to me. Palmer worked mostly in New Hampshire in the White Mountains and his work was heavily influenced by the Hudson River school that began about a generation earlier. Since that time I have seen his work in many American museums. I remember, too, an exhibit of "New Hampshire school" painting at Fruitlands where the emphasis was on the use of light, how it falls, and how it changes a scene. Light and color are both evident in his work. Somehow his paintings seem both over-the-top and true-to-life at the same time. He creates spaces the viewer can recognize and inhabit, while also understanding that the perfection of these works makes them somewhat other-worldly.
It turns out Palmer is a big deal. Looking at his paintings--easily available for viewing online--you can experience some of the dynamism of the natural world. They draw us in. They compel us with their familiarity. We inhabit the scene because it is magical, too.
The appearance of our lived landscapes alters with the season and the time of day. We experience this in all its glory when we leave our homes to journey farther into the wild. However, we are familiar with it from our own more mundane lives as well. Looking at the trees outside my window I can see them cycle through the seasons; from brown, to green, to yellow and red, then back to brown. When it rains they look different from when they are in the sun or the snow. We are used to this phenomenon. Still, for most people it remains fascinating.
The Universalist and Unitarian minister, Thomas Starr King also saw this aspect of light and color. He is most associated these days with California, where he ministered and where a seminary is named in his honor. However, Starr King was a New Yorker and a New Englander before that. In fact, he wrote a book in the 19th Century style about what he called the "White Hills." Now one of those "hills" is named after him and resides on the 52 With-a-View List. The quote at the top of this post refers to something that many people who visit regularly have observed. The light changes constantly. So, too, does the color...and not just in the fall.
The mountains "are never two days the same." This is why we go out into the natural world more than once a year. When we return to the same place at a different time, we are reminded that this thing called life is dynamic and ever-moving. We are all these things as well.
I climbed up Hedgehog on my own about 30 seconds after peak foliage. The weekend before--when we did the Carter Loop in the snow--was the busiest the Whites had ever been...or, at least, had been since the previous Indigenous People's Day weekend. Our drive home after that hike was a bit of a nightmare, actually. As I mentioned in my previous post, most peaks were crawling with people.
This past week it was still crowded. However--just as with the Carters--one can find hikes where the more casual tourist doesn't go. They are looking for either the easy view or the famous mountain. I don't really blame them and have done so occasionally myself. Driving down the Kancamagus Highway on my way to the trailhead for Hedgehog, I saw overflow parking--cars along the road--at all the major trails and viewpoints. Random pedestrians popped out into my path to get a better angle on pictures of the Saco River and God knows what else. It was a bit chaotic even for the tail end of foliage season.
Since I was in New Hampshire for a few days this time, I had planned at least a couple of more obscure hikes. This was the first of them. Pulling in the trailhead parking there was only one other car. The little mountain was pretty much neglected in favor of the more famous ones. That, of course, was my gain.
After a quick conference with the couple in the car next to me, we chose different routes. My new acquaintances had a steeper climb straight to the peak. I decided to go counter-clockwise. I wanted to start with a clear view from a series of ledges over the Oliverian Brook valley toward Chocorua, Paugus, and then--most strikingly--to Passaconaway only two miles away. Passaconaway is a massive mountain I would rather look at than climb a second time. I knew that the direction I was going would put it front-and-center as I walked along.
The early ledges were pretty much all that I expected them to be. Colorful hardwoods crawled up the slopes from their lower vantage point, attempting, maybe, to pull the dark, massive, pines back down toward them. I had to concentrate a bit on the early ledges that ended abruptly in a steep drop toward the valley floor, but that was not too much of a challenge. Also, having to focus on the ground gave me the opportunity to look at some of the reddish alpine communities growing in the cracks and crevices near my feet.
Eventually those ledges ended, followed by a dip and then a steep climb toward the top. Somewhere before that final climb, I encountered the couple from the parking lot who told me that we no longer had the place to ourselves. Still, I only saw a few more groups over the course of the day. Some encounters were welcome. Resting at the peak, in fact, I had a conversation with a young person from Germany. She had rented a van and was spending a month or so hiking on the east coast. We got maps out, identified some peaks, and compared notes on our respective future and past hikes.
She was also concerned about some older folks she had passed on her way up. They were moving quite slow to her mind. As a somewhat older person myself who is known to hike slowly, I told her I would check on them. They were fine. They had chosen to move steadily toward the seat we had recently vacated, careful to monitor their progress and their condition. This wasn't their first rodeo. They knew what they wanted from the climb. One can accomplish a great deal with an awareness of one's own strengths and limitations. The people I worry about are more confident--or overconfident--ignorant, and ill-prepared.
After the peak I started down. With a little gas left in my metaphorical tank, I decided to take the diversion out to Allen's Ledge. Here, again, I could look over the Oliverian Brook valley. These ledges were off the main trail. There was no one else around. I spent about 40 minutes admiring the silence and the colorful display. It was easy to imagine being up there in other seasons. Probably winter, in particular, would be delightful on the ledges here. Maybe I will go see it then.
The change of seasons that we witness in this way--just by looking out our windows every month or week of the year--can reflect our own personal seasons. Spring and fall have their easy, spectacular demonstrations of life and death. However, we also live through the pulsating heat and drought of summer. We survive the freezing cold of our winters. It is important to understand that there is beauty in times of desperate survival as well. Otherwise we will not get through the journey as well, will we?
The next day--after a climb of Mount Israel that will be the subject of another post--I hiked along the Oliverian Brook. I was curious what the space between the mountains looked like from below the ledges. While I was there, the ferocious rain stripped many of the trees clean. The leaves gathered in muddy puddles along the trail, becoming soil in real time. Peak foliage is over for another year, but this new landscape had its own beauty to observe.
I sat under the roots of an old tree along the brook and watched the current, the rain, and this year's bright color turn to the browns and grays that the snow will later outline like a Palmer painting. The cycle of life continues. Creation never ceases. We are blessed to participate and witness.
Willard and Pemigewasset
I am in the process of catching people up with some early hikes and other encounters with nature that I thought people might find interesting as part of a "How It Began" (HIB) series. Mostly this will describe specific hikes and perhaps some lessons learned along the way...if there are any. They are meant to be short and, perhaps helpful in some way to other hikers or fellow-travelers. I will post the dates of when I hiked a specific mountain since the ones in this series are NOT posted at or near the date I actually hiked them.
To add further confusion, I am not doing them in order! Here is a post about a winter hike. We did so many and have posted so few...
Today is the second day of my sabbatical and I am getting restless. Yesterday was all indoor work to prepare for various events to come. I arranged hiking companions and started on a schedule. Today it is raining off and on and I wish I was somewhere other than my living room. Oh well...I do have a pile of used books for the sabbatical and I can start breaking in to them.
To keep the content flowing I have a couple of relatively easy hikes that we did in the winter. Winter hiking is its own thing, with special equipment and special rules to follow. It is not like downhill skiing. Winter climbing requires a trudge uphill, after all--causing wide fluctuations in body temperature if one is not careful--and there isn't a lodge nearby most of the time. Some people--including my wife Allison--claim it is easier to hike in the winter. The dips between roots and rocks are often filled in and there is the ease of butt-sliding down the larger peaks. I am not sure that matters in the total summation, though. The packs are heavier. We are heavier. Also, with the cold and ice we have a whole new way to mess ourselves up.
Still, the views are something else. There is a whole winter-wonderland vibe that is different on the trail. Also, the trails are quieter. Many hikers hunker down for the winter. Others ski or sled. There are still people on the weekend but--as always--if you get out on the trail early or during the week, you can have plenty of space.
Anyway, the two hikes. They are relatively close to each other and both sport some of the best views-for-effort in New Hampshire. In the regular hiking season there are generally thought of as the easiest of the 52 With-A-View list. Whether you will find them easy is subjective, obviously, so be advised!
Mount Willard: Hiked on December 30, 2021
After our first hike up North Kinsman--which was less than ideal--we decided to get some more winter experience on smaller mountains. Willard shares a trailhead with Mount Avalon, one of my favorite mountains. We had hiked that after a long day of peak bagging in the fall. We knew that whatever Willard had to offer would be equally stunning...and include snow. It was misting a bit ("spitting" is the term I grew up with) and we moved on up with some trepidation concerning the weather. That said, the fog hanging over the snow was pretty special.
The trail was mostly straight. It just went up, and then up more steeply. However, true to the conventional wisdom, it wasn't so bad! The snow had indeed rounded out many of the edges. We shed layers as our bodies warmed up and then added them back on for breaks. Layering is a key element of the whole winter hiking experience. We need to pay even more attention to our bodies with this new weather development. Snacking is pretty key as well. It is a good idea to eat something (a protein bar or a handful of GORP) right before starting. It will give your body something to do at the beginning and the energy is helpful as well. I also found myself sucking on hard candies most of the time. That may have been for morale reasons.
After a while we hit the top and the clouds began to part. The only others up there that day were fellow peak-baggers testing out their Christmas gifts. In the clear winter air we were treated to highly technical conversations about hats, gloves, backpacks, and snowshoes. No doubt they were treated to ours. We actually packed snowshoes for this trip but did not put them on. That said, we wore micro spikes the whole way. For some other hikes snowshoes were essential. We want them when the trail isn't quite as broken out or if the wind has caused drifts. However, the spikes were always on otherwise. They are essential kit. Don't do serious winter hiking without them in your pack or on your feet.
One great feature of this climb was that the clouds had begun to part and the sun warmed the top. It was rather relaxing to plop down on the snow in our winter gear and take a break to soak in the view. Finally, though, we turned to head down. Honestly with was a lovely half-day hike for us, which helped me, at least, feel like winter hiking was something I would be able to do. The trail is 3.2 miles round trip with only 900 feet of elevation gain. The reward is a fantastic look straight down Crawford Notch.
Mount Pemigewasset Hiked on January 8, 2022
This was very similar to the hike of Willard in most respects. The view in this case was of Franconia Notch. The folks at the peak were more 52 WAV peak baggers and the whole vibe was very relaxed. It was a touch longer (3.8 miles) and quite a bit steeper (1,250 feet of elevation gain). Also, it was a cold, clear day which brought with it different challenges but, of course, a view untroubled by clouds.
This hike was not without its challenges. The steepness got to us and our post-holiday bodies so we needed to stop a couple times to catch our breath. Some of our water froze as well and we needed to re-pack a bit. The trail was icy in places which gave our micro spikes a work out on the way up and the way back. I do not love winter gear...but it is necessary.
There was one incident that reminded me of the importance of layering and of modifying your layers. The temptation is just to keep on hauling but, really, that can be a bad idea. On our way down we passed numerous groups heading up. Like I said, it is considered an easy mountain and--unlike our Willard walk--it was a beautiful day.
It was also a big vacation time in the Whites and a number of people who probably had spent part of the week skiing decided to take a hike, instead. Most of them were fine. However, there were a number of groups with children who were way too bundled up. Steam was rising from the open spaces in their heavy jackets and they were screaming bloody murder trying to tear them off while their adults were forcing all that gear back on. A few adults were in the same situation as the kids. They all looked like old fashioned cars with burst radiators still trying to move forward.
It is important not to be afraid of removing layers as well as adding them. We all know from sitting in our driveways during the pandemic that if you are staying still outside, the goal is to be as warm as you can be. However, with something a physically trying as climbing a mountain, it is more important to maintain a safe and comfortable average temperature. This requires using that big pack to take off and don clothing throughout the day. It is annoying and slows you down, but it is really for the best. I always start a little cold, knowing that I will warm right up when I move. Al always puts on a warm (but packable and lightweight) jacket for the first ten minutes then stops to take it off. Either way we are often bundled at the top where the wind chill requires it and we always wear hats and wool socks...and carry spares.
Anyway, the drama of the descent aside, this was another fantastic hike that is probably doable for a lot of people who want to try winter hiking. I would suggest starting with Willard or Watatic as a shakedown. Then Pemigewassett and bigger peaks await. Actually we finished early enough from our Pemigewassett hike that we did another and explored Flume Gorge...
My Favorite Mountain: Watatic
A stone on Mount Watatic in honor of when it became a local park. "Other stones in other places may commemorate the histories of people and things now dead and gone. This stone marks the site of a mountain that lived, a mountain that lives on because of people who cared, people who started with nothing but a dream and the will to work for it, until the dream became as real, as solid as this stone, as sure as this ground beneath your feet, as true as this mountain on which you stand, this mountain holding you up to meet the sky."
Hiked Most Recently on September 9, 2022
Most people I know--be they casual walkers or intense backpackers and peak baggers--have a favorite hike or walk. For some people it is the longest (or most difficult) trip they had. Maybe it is the hardest (or tallest) mountain. For others convenience and accessibility are key. Maybe there is a pretty spot involved. Sometimes it is a place where an important personal event occurred. As with most heart-centered choices, the reasons vary. For me, the decision really comes down to how it makes me feel.
What I want to talk to you about today has to do with the internal dimensions of hiking. We live in an anxious world. Some of us internalize that anxiety as we move through an era that tries its best to push us away from our center. Make no mistake, this is intentional. Anxiety (along with a number of negative emotions) makes us feel empty and unworthy. It also makes us buy stuff to fill the emptiness. The Man gets rich off our unhappiness.
I know this feeling very well. I start worrying before I get out of bed in the morning. I worry all day. Sometimes I worry in my sleep. Every moment of every day, even when I am doing or thinking about something else, I am anxious about something. What that thing is doesn't really matter. It can be big or small...but it is always there. So when I think about what I need in a hike, the "challenge rating" is not foremost in my mind. Availability is. Remoteness is. Primarily, though, I am looking for a chance to transcend that worry.
I want to be away from everything. I want to be insignificant in the face of the vastness of the universe. I want to sink into my surroundings until I know that whatever personal failing or foible that is concerning me is insignificant, too. This technique is different from things like positive self-talk designed to build ourselves up. I am a believer in that too. However, when I hike (or walk or whatever) I am trying to find my way to a positive connection with the Divine. I am trying to be part of a whole that will lift me up as I swim in its current.
I want to snicker at the trippy prose of transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson when he writes in his book Nature, "Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God." I can't though. Not really. After all--when I am out in the world trying to feel the wind in the air and the rock beneath my feet--what the heck am I doing if not stumbling toward the same thing?
This brings me to my current favorite mountain. A couple of posts ago I included a picture of Bradbury Mountain near where I grew up. It is where I learned to connect with the natural world and where I learned a certain sort of nature-spirituality that stays with me even here in the suburbs where I live now. These days Bradbury is too far away to really be my current favorite. That said, it is a good indicator of what I am looking for. It needs to be near enough so I can visit when I need to. It needs to be far enough that I have the process of physical as well as spiritual journeying.
It also needs to be challenging enough that not everyone uses it for this purpose. It doesn't need to be--in fact it shouldn't be--risky. It just needs to be inconvenient. When I manage to strategically select my time, I want the place to myself or, at least, to be in the company of other people seeking the same isolation. I climb plenty of mountains and hike around a large number of lakes. If there are too many people--and I love people--then it is a different sort of walk.
So when I need to clear my head, Mount Watatic gets the nod these days. It is right of Route 119 (in Ashby and Ashburnham) and a little over an hour from my house. The climb can easily be made into a 4 mile loop by including Nutting Hill and heading over to the New Hampshire border at the end. It gets busy on the weekends and on many weekdays too. However, if you get up early, you can have the place to yourself.
This is what I did on Friday. I left the house at 4:45 and arrived a bit after official sunrise. I walked to the top--getting turned around a couple of times--and made it to the ledge just below the peak where I sat alone for an hour.
Watatic is a Monadnock which--as I have mentioned numerous times--means that it juts out alone over an otherwise flat landscape. Wachusett is easily visible. That is another great hike. To the north one can see a number of larger peaks across the NH border. It also serves as a trail end for the Wapack trail that heads up the Pack Monadnocks to the north. It is also the northern end of the Mid-State trail that heads south across Massachusetts. Or, at least, the NH border just beyond it is.
Anyway, on Friday I spent the hour at the ledge not thinking very hard. There is plenty going on in my life right now, which is typical for most everyone. We need to slow down and shake off some of that burden when we can. As often happens, this became a theme in my sermon Sunday. It was already a theme for sabbatical just around the corner.
It took a while to get in the mood. I put my bag down, had a snack, and wandered around the ledge trying to decipher the 19th century graffiti scratched into the rock. Finally, though, I settled in. After that there isn't much to say. I didn't make it to "transparent eyeball" status by a long shot. However, there was a moment when my brain stopped sprinting toward numerous finish lines. That was the longest period of not worrying I have had for a long time. Both my body and my mind were grateful for the break.
When I think about what attracts me to walking and what makes a "good hike" I can make a list.
I take sabbath walks because...
1) I can connect to nature, "creation," and God
2) I can to witness the beauty and the silence
3) I can escape the suburbs and the often-mindless busyness they represent
4) I can experience the mental challenge of doing something difficult
5) I can experience the physical challenge, too
All of these are spiritual reasons. They are good Watatic-climbing reasons, too. Does this activity constitute a "church"? No of course it doesn't. Churches are communities first and foremost. They have a call and a hold on a person. On the face of it, these are potentially solitary reasons even when they are shared among others. Still, they do form a framework for a discipline, or a prayer. They make a walk a "walk"--both literal and metaphorical--which gives me strength to head out into the world.
This may not be your bag. If so, what is? What do you love doing? Can you make a list like this one as to why? What is your "walk"? I would love to know.
I am in the process of catching people up with some early hikes and other encounters with nature that I thought people might find interesting as part of a "How It Began" (HIB) series. Mostly this will describe specific hikes and perhaps some lessons learned along the way...if there are any. They are meant to be short and, perhaps helpful in some way to other hikers or fellow-travelers. I will post the dates of when I hiked a specific mountain since the ones in this series are NOT posted at or near the date I actually hiked them.
JANUARY 24, 2022
After our hike up the Osceolas, my brother Dan and I decided to head out closer to where he lives in Maine. Our eventual destination was Mount Agamenticus. This tiny mountain (about 600 feet) is yet another monadnock, boasting views well over its weight class. Also...you can see the ocean, which is cool. I am unsure the exact distance we hiked but it was probably between 4 and 5 miles. We intentionally explored a bit...then we were briefly lost. It was all good, though as it was a spectacular place to be.
Most of my winter hiking up that point had been in the White Mountains of 2,500-4,500 feet (and yes, I will get to at least some of them). This, however, was different, not just because of the height but because there was very little snow. Of course the absence of snow sometimes means a great deal of ice, so microspikes were definitely in order.
As promised, this little peak boasted some fabulous views. Back in the day, it was the home of the "Big A" ski area, with night skiing, snow cannons, and chair lifts. It is funny to think of this now when most ski mountains are quite more involved. That said, you can see how it made sense. The location of York in southern Maine near both Maine's and New Hampshire's population centers sustained the business from 1966 to 1974 but it must have been hard to compete against the big guys.
Anyway, it was a great day. The company was fabulous and the trails had a lot to offer. As I have mentioned before, I also like a little decaying machinery in my views. There was plenty on Agamenticus in the form of Big A ski gear.
And that flat thing out in the distance? That is the ocean, my friends....
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.