Saturday, November 17, 2012


The sunlight calls my feet forward, drawing me up a new path. I have been coming here for many years, up the yellow trail to the summit and back down the red trail to my car with little variation. But today I follow the last rays of November sunlight onto a new path, hugging the south the side of a mountain until I reach an outcropping of crumbling basalt rock. Below, the broad valley of the Connecticut River spreads out like a quilt. Green and stubbly fields patch the alluvial plain of the river, dotted with long, narrow barns for drying tobacco. A ribbon of traffic slides silently along Interstate 91.
Spread on both sides of this ridge, the Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts has been settled for centuries, first by agriculture, later by industry and still later by subdividers who build ever larger houses on the abandoned fields. The wooded ridge of the Mount Holyoke range is comprised of seven individual summits strung together like vertebrae on a backbone – an island of nature in this sea of human activity, rising over the valley like a sentinel. The people who live below come here for a dose of nature – hiking, running, biking or simply sitting on the mountaintops to breathe in the view and better understand the lay of the land they inhabit.

When I first got my drivers license and began to come here as a teenager, it seemed to me one of the most beautiful places in the world, a place where I could escape from pressures and asphalt and do exactly as I wanted. It seemed like pristine wilderness. Since then, I have spent time in wild places that make the Mount Holyoke range seem modest. I seek unfamiliarity. I find comfort in new places, in starting over. But lately I've found comfort in the familiar as well, and few places are as familiar as this.When I return home to western Massachusetts, this is where I come back, to walk, to reflect, and to feel the incomparable sense of home that often eludes me on my travels.

If there is a river that is home to me, it is the Connecticut, in whose valley I have lived the majority of my life. And if there is a forest or a mountain that I can call my own, it is here. I have taken dates here, lost myself in solitude, cried, dreamed, tripped on mushrooms, learned about the natural world and gained the confidence to explore it by myself. I have grown up here.

My favorite time to come is in November, when the deciduous northeastern woods rise above a carpet of sepia-toned leaves – oak, beech and maple, slippery underfoot and studded with rocks and stumps. The trees are spaced far apart, knobby and slender, bare arms reaching for the light. The people who came to see the blazing colors of autumn are gone, and the forest is quiet, waiting for winter. In November, the magic light of evening stretches ever earlier into the day until the entire afternoon is a pool of slanting golden light. Or on some days there is no light at all, just a diffuse grayness that settles over the trees and into your bones, echoing its silence through skeletal branches. I walk through these November afternoons lost in the rhythm of my steps, unhindered by the brambles of summer, free to wander.

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