Several weeks ago I decided to take myself for a walk. It was time to clear my head and try to get up high enough to burn through the mists and confusions and daily preoccupations. Self-employment affords me an ample amount of flex time, so I asked my supervisor about it and she said she'd be happy to look after our kids while I wandered in the wilderness for a few days.
I pulled my decades-old backpacking gear out of the attic, wondering whether the water filter had anything left to give besides giarrdia. The dust on the outside of my tent had the familiar red tinge of southern Africa, residue from the last time I did any solo camping, before I became a family man.
I set aside the whisper-light stove, cut the handle off my toothbrush: anything to keep the unaccustomed weight down. It's been a while, you see, and I doubted my desk-softened constitution was up for the full immersion mountain hop I had in mind.
There was no question of my destination. Here in the southern Berkshires, there is no larger patch of wilderness and no finer views to be found than the Taconic Plateau. Straddling the tri-state boundary at the nexus of Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York, this massif of forest and ravine, cliff and promontory is the hard, granitic nub of an ancient mountain range that 440 million years ago rivaled the Andes in grandeur. At 2,600 ft. or so, Mt. Everett is the highest point remaining after eons of erosion and glacial scour, but the Plateau has other marvelous mountains along its rim and I planned a traverse of many of them.
There are two trail networks that run along the margins of the Plateau heading North and South. The Appalachian Trail - the AT - ascends the eastern flank in Salisbury, Connecticut and exits 17 miles later in Egremont, Massachusetts. Along the way it affords views and campsites and a spectacular ridge walk up the spine of Mt. Race before attaining the summit of Mt. Everett. On a clear day you can see Albany, the southern Adirondacks, Vermont, but that's nothing compared to the pre-industrial view recorded by Rev. Timothy Dwight in the late seventeen-hundreds:
"The chain of the Green Mountains on the east stretched its long succession of summits from north to south a prodigious length, while over them, at the distance of forty miles, rose the single, solitary point of Mt. Tom; and farther still, at the termination of fifty or sixty miles, ascended successively various eminences in the Lyme Range. Monadnock, at the distance of seventy miles, is distinctly discernible on a day sufficiently clear, but to us, the weather being a small degree hazy, was invisible."
I have searched the northeastern horizon in vain for New Hampshire's Monadnock, but even in this modern age of yellow smog and blurry vision, it is possible to see vast distances from the heights of the Plateau and other, higher peaks across the northeast. My father has a story from his college years when he was a mountain guide in New Hampshire's Whites. One winter night when brittle stars filled the heavens, he and his companions were called out for a mountain rescue. He recalls counting the lighthouses on the Maine Coast from high in the Presidentials, a tale that almost defies belief until one recalls that Mt. Washington was often recorded in ship's logbooks as the first visible point of land that greeted early voyagers to that coast: over 80 miles inland!
There is nothing today that compares to those clear skies. There is so much small, particulate matter in our air that National Park Service studies show that the lungs of Appalachian Trail through hikers are in worse shape from breathing that stuff at altitude than if they had stayed at home. All that distant and not-so-distant fossil fuel use accretes and accumulates its pollutants in the high points of the northeast. After the Adirondacks and Catskills, the areas of highest nitrogen deposition in this region are within the Taconic Range, and particularly the high elevations of its southern Plateau. The long-term impacts on human health are a cause for real concern, while the effects of nitrogen, phosphorus and mercury deposition on the extraordinary forest system that blankets the Taconic Plateau may be highly significant in ways we do not yet fully understand.
The problem with being aware is that the more you know about something the more potential things you have to worry about. A bit of knowledge about the threat of introduced forest pests and pathogens, for example, is enough to make one despair for most of the trees in our forests. Mark Twain said something about the danger of awareness in a reference I have not been able to lay my fingers on since I first encountered it: probably in "Life on the Mississippi." It went something like this: "I once saw beauty in every swirl and eddy, snag and sandbar along the Mississippi. When I became a riverboat pilot, these all became just navigation hazards." Invasive species can really kill your sense of aesthetic: lurid loosetrife, bitter bittersweet.
Luckily, the cure for the paralysis of analysis is a good dose of perspective, and I find nothing affords better access to that broad vision than a hike in the hills. Being alone with his thoughts in an inglenook made Rene Descartes nearly mad with self-denial. Doing the same in the wilderness opens the self to other possibilities. Besides, mountains, deserts and oceans are uttery indifferent to us, even if we are deeply moved by them, and can be merciless to the inattentive. So ponder on, backpacker, but watch where you place your feet and keep an eye to the weather as you wonder.
I planned a hike up the AT as far as Mt. Everett, and then a traverse of the town of Mt. Washington (where there is hardly a village center and no actual mountain by that name) to Mt. Alander on the western rim of the Plateau. From here, the Catskills loom above the Hudson valley, and segments of the great inland fjord of the river itself flash silver in the late afternoon sun. The Taconic Crest Trail bisects Mt. Alander running north from the Quarry Hill trail to the Catamount Ski Area near Jeffrey Amherst's old east-west military road: the modern Rte. 23. I planned to turn south at Alander and summit North and South Brace Mountains before dropping down to Quarry Hill, and hopefully being met by my loving spouse and offspring.
Altogether it was a hike of about 30 miles with many ascents and descents, and I allowed two nights and three days to complete it. I'll share the journey with you in another posting.