A Different Kind of Interstate

Photo by walknboston http://www.flickr.com/photos/walkn/

I grew up near the Wapack Trail, a modest path through the woods linking Mount Watatic in Ashburnham, MA to North Pack Monadnock in Greenfield, NH.  Throughout my childhood I’d hiked bits of it, grown so accustomed to driving past its numerous road crossings that I never really wondered about where they went (let alone how they might connect to each other), and eventually stopped noticing the trail entirely.  Lacking any obvious excitement or mystery, it faded pretty quickly into the background  of my impression of the region.  So I was startled to learn several years later that the Wapack, far from being unremarkable, was actually the first interstate hiking trail ever established in America.

Tellingly, it is not very old at all: in America the idea that public trails through the wilderness might be considered a good and useful service really only emerged in the last hundred years or so, and the Wapack was blazed as recently as 1922, by two locals named Frank Robbins and Marion Buck.  It travels across an unprepossessing range that Thoreau called the “Peterboro Hills,” that have in the time since been labeled variously as the “Monadnock Hills” or the “Boundary Range,” but are now almost universally known as the Wapack Range – named after the trail rather than the other way around.

As long-term hiking commitments go, the Wapack Trail does not easily impress.  Compared to the monstrous Georgia-to-Maine Appalachian Trail, to Vermont’s Long Trail, or even to Massachusetts’s own 92-mile Midstate Trail, the Wapack, at 21 miles, is basically a stroll.  Everything about the route is sort of petite.  Even Pack Monadnock (2,288 ft), the Wapack’s highest peak, is saddled with a name that comes out in translation roughly as “Monadnock Junior.”  To add insult to injury, Mount Monadnock (only 3,165 feet, but a towering massif in this part of the state) looms to the west throughout the trail’s length, forever regarding the little range with something like the bemused look of a haughty older brother.

So in an area where more challenging and visually rewarding hikes abound (Mount Monadnock has for years been the most-climbed mountain in the Western Hemisphere), it’s perhaps not surprising that the Wapack has wound up as one of the region’s quieter trails.  Parts of it are very popular among day hikers — several of its peaks are independently accessible via the major roads that criss-cross the region — but hiking the whole route end-to-end is probably more cumbersome than it is satisfying.  Twenty-one miles turns out to be long enough to take up at least one full day of hiking but not quite long enough or high enough to impress anyone who would ordinarily choose to walk that far.

But there’s a particular charm to this little trail that goes beyond just its historic significance. Henry David Thoreau hiked this ridgeline in the summer of 1860 and wrote about the route in his journal with his characteristic gush.  The “noble walk over the Peterboro mountains, along the very backbone of this part of New Hampshire” he declared “the most novel and interesting walk that I can think of in these parts.”

In his day, there was no need for a trail.  The ridge was kept open by grazing cattle and sheep that had been driven up from farms in east-central Massachusetts, and today the Wapack winds and climbs through that most telling of New England landscapes: pastures that faded long ago into forest as the country’s agricultural center of gravity slowly and steadily migrated to the fertile, unrocky, and wide open spaces of the American Midwest.

Robbins and Buck were among the people who herded cattle along this route, and when the trail was finally conceived of in the early 1920s, they were the ones dispatched to cut it.  The trail’s life as an idea had begun in 1921, in a conversation between Allen Chamberlain, later the president of the Appalachian Mountain Club, and Albert Annett, a farmer in Jaffrey.  The notion that familiarity with wild nature might constitute a valuable human experience was just beginning to emerge in the public consciousness, and Chamberlain and Annett thought the dappled ridgeline from Watatic to North Pack ought to be set aside as a recreational corridor for the public to amble through.

The very idea of this project must have seemed absurd in the 1920s.  Environmentalism was not yet a word; the National Park Service was all but in its infancy; the idea of maintaining a public walking trail through wilderness must have seemed the very opposite of progress.  What Chamberlain and Annett were proposing might have been outlandish at the time – preserving a passageway for scenic, not commercial interest – but it would contribute to a fundamental change in the way Americans related to their national landscape.

In any case, Annett knew just the man – Robbins – to cut the trail, and Robbins knew just the person he wanted to help him do it.  Marion Buck had been a young teenager in the Massachusetts mill town of Fitchburg when a last-straw argument with her mother finally incited her to leave home and run off to work for a farm just over the New Hampshire border, in the town of Rindge.  The Robbins farm was where she would work for most of her young life, and perhaps more importantly, where she would meet Frank.

As it happened, the two trailblazers fell madly in love with each other shortly after Marion first arrived at the farm as a teenager.  Frank, inconveniently, was already married to another woman at the time.  His staunch religiosity was such that even considering leaving his wife was out of the question, so instead he and Marion had to work alongside each other for years in private torment, essentially waiting for this poor woman to die of natural causes.  Impressively, his friendship with Marion would persevere long enough for this long-term plan to actually play itself out and in September of 1946, a year after the death of Robbins’s first wife – and nearly a quarter-century after the two of them cut the Wapack Trail together – Buck and Robbins would finally marry each other, at the respective ages of 52 and 73.  In what might be the most frustrating possible end to this story, Robbins died suddenly the following year.

Marion Buck was actually my great-great-aunt – the sister of my great-grandfather – and I’d heard vague tales throughout my childhood that alluded to some of her spunky heroics.  But when I suddenly showed an interest in the history of the trail last summer, various relatives leaped at the chance to provide me with drawers upon drawers full of information about Aunt Marion.  My favorites of these artifacts are a gigantic silver cup and an accompanying newspaper article, which reads:

“Miss Marion Buck of New Ipswich today hurled a challenge at all the women of New England who believe they know something about chopping wood.  She says she is the New England champion and she is willing to prove it… The thousands of girls from Boston and other cities who attend the big carnival [in Wilton] every year had better stick to the sleigh rides, the most attractive girl contest, or the spectators’ seats, Buck advises, for she says that wood-chopping requires more than cupid-bow lips and a pretty ski costume.”

Featured with the article is a photograph of Miss Marion Buck of New Ipswich, wielding an axe and looking delighted.  The cup I mentioned, which stands about a foot high, is emblazoned with the words “World Champion Woman Woodchopper – 1st Place – Won by Marion H. Buck.”

Buck was the person responsible for the name “Wapack,” which she coined by combining the names of the trail’s southern and northern termini.  In addition, in response to the immediate success of the Trail, she and Frank built the Wapack Lodge – a temporary residence for hikers, snowshoers, and skiers using the trail – in 1924 and administered it until it closed over thirty years later.  She is honored today with the Marion Davis Trail (Davis became her name when she remarried after Frank’s death), an alternate route to the top of Pack Monadnock that opened ceremoniously in 1985.

On Annett’s urging, Robbins and Buck cut the trail starting in late summer of 1922.  They marked the trail at intervals with a white triangle, a symbol of friendship.  (Time has been kind to the symbol, which in ninety years has changed only in color: today it is yellow triangles stenciled onto trees and rocks that carry the Wapack all the way from North Park to Watatic.)  In a way, their experience herding cattle across the ridgeline made them the perfect people to cut the trail, and not just because they were familiar with the ridge.  They were also used to conceiving of that path as a corridor, a connection between different worlds, so marking it as a route was the most natural thing in the world for them.  By doing so, they helped ensure that paths like this one would seem that way to generations that would follow.

It took them about four months, and they did most of the work on Sundays, when farm chores were fewer.  By the end of the year, the first interstate hiking trail in America was finished.

*

I’d done day hikes along the more popular parts of the Wapack but had never hiked its full length from start to finish, and figured that there might be something to be gained from walking those 21 miles in a row.  On a sunny day in August, I parked my car at the trailhead in Greenfield and walked up into the woods.  After ascending the Pack Monadnocks, the trail climbs across the summits of Temple, Barrett, New Ipswich, and Pratt Mountains before ending at Watatic.

By the time I had summited Temple Mountain, I felt I had begun to get a sense of the trail’s visual rhythm.  Because its hills are so modest in height, he Wapack never really breaks treeline, but it comes close, and its granite peaks are just rocky and open enough to afford the through-hiker regularly-occurring vistas as he bobs, dolphinlike, down into and up out of forest for the length of the trail.  It was enough to reorient myself during these gasps of visibility before I plunged back in, following the scores of yellow triangles that marched off into the forest in front of me.

The Wapack is not a crowded trail these days, and I only saw one or two other hikers along each major stretch.  In its early days, however, the novel trail to Massachusetts very quickly attracted many devoted admirers, including one named Benton MacKaye, who would go on to use the Wapack as his model and inspiration when he designed the Appalachian Trail.

While the Wapack was the first, it was followed by a large number of new, longer trails that would link the various terrains of the country in unexpected ways: over mountains rather than around them, wandering from viewshed to viewshed instead of taking the more direct route.  Many of the longer ones are now maintained by the Park Service’s National Scenic Trail system, which includes such heavyweights as the Pacific Crest Trail through California, Oregon, and Washington, the Ice Age Trail through Wisconsin, the Florida Trail from Pensacola to the Everglades, and the storied Appalachian Trail, now arguably one of the most famous hiking trails in the world.  Many others, like the Wapack, are smaller and managed on a state, local, or even private level; most of what we find in our region fall into these categories.  All you need for an interstate hiking trail is a path through the woods that emerges in another state, and although most of the longer, federally-maintained trails are concentrated out west, one advantage to be found here in New England is an abundance of state boundaries in a relatively small area.

Of the many benefits these trails provide to the public, for me it seems the most striking is this new way of orienting oneself.  If you walk from Quebec to Massachusetts along Vermont’s Long Trail, for instance, you finish with a different – and almost undebatably a more thorough – understanding of Vermont than someone who drove up I-91 to traverse the same distance.  Covering ground by walking through the woods forces you to consider the arbitrariness of political boundaries and the importance of natural ones, and it leaves you with a more nuanced and complete understanding of the local landscape.  You can gauge distance by relative muscle fatigue.  You find you know the topography more intimately because your legs have to work in a new way every time it shifts.

The act of departing from a network of roads and walking, running, and crawling over the landforms in between those paved passages affords the hiker an opportunity to discover new links between places, to reassess his impressions of relative distance and spatial orientation, to rely less on a mental map of two dimensions and more heavily on a new and deeper understanding of where things are.

Unexpectedly, the closest thing to this that I’d experienced before had been in an urban setting.  In the days before I bought a bike in Boston, I got around by subway, which led me to perceive the city less as a vast and interconnected web of streets, buildings, and people and more as a series of discrete locations I could pop up into before returning back underground to be shuttled in the dark along some mysterious and unknown route back to my neighborhood.  When I did get one, though, my mental map absolutely blew open.  Instead of imagining spatial relations based on a given destination’s relative distance from Park Street, I was able to slowly stitch together a sense of how all the neighborhoods of the greater urban area blurred into each other, and to build a knowledge of the city that was based on its landscape – where the river curled, where the hills were, and so on – rather than on its subterranean skeleton.

This same sensation is more or less what I felt at the end of the hike, as I stepped off the trail at Mt. Watatic and was greeted suddenly by MA-119.  It is what I had been feeling regularly during the 21-mile walk, whenever I found myself at another recognizable landmark.  Even though I knew where I would come out on the other side of the woods, whenever I emerged onto a state highway, a parking lot, or a side road that was already familiar to me, I was always surprised at the new connection I’d discovered.  And here at the edge of 119, having now forged a mental and physical connection between North Pack and Watatic, I felt my sense of where I was grow sharper and more complicated all at once.  All my impressions of relative distance realigned themselves as northern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire locked into a more detailed and orderly arrangement in my head.

A week after I finished the Wapack, I climbed Mount Monadnock.  I went up the eastern side of the mountain, following the Birchtoft Trail.  This route leaves a pond at the base and wanders through the woods for a while before becoming the Red Spot Trail, ascending the steep Pumpelly Ridge, and then following the crest of that ridge all the way to the summit.

After I hauled myself up over that first rise, I looked behind me to the east and saw laid out before me the peaks of the entire Wapack Range.  It was a view I’d seen many times before, but having walked them all in succession I felt more like I knew these hills now.  I knew the name and character of each one, and I knew exactly what it was like to walk from one to the other.  As a result, I could also vividly picture the roads and towns that intersected with the range, though they were largely invisible from above the tree line.  I could imagine my mental map of a region I’ve known all my life shifting around, readjusting, and finally clicking into agreement with the unlabeled landscape that stretched out before me.

 

Ben Cosgrove is a writer and touring composer/performer from central New England, currently based in Cambridge, MA.  His instrumental music takes various geographic subjects as inspiration and he regularly criss-crosses the country performing it.  For more about his work, please visit www.bencosgrove.com.