'Reading' The Mountains Of Western Massachusetts

Dec 5, 2018

Standing on top of Mt. Holyoke, I can see Mt. Greylock to the west, and Mt. Monadnock to the north.

One biographer of Thoreau said he walked from Concord to Monadnock, hiked up, and looked across to Greylock. And then, because he was Thoreau, he hiked down Monadnock, walked all the way to Greylock in North Adams, Massachusetts, and hiked up that. Then down to Pittsfield.

Mountains, like books, mean different things to people. Some plots of land have more layers than plots in a novel. But both tell stories and offer different points of view, so we walk away changed.

When Melville lived and wrote in Pittsfield, he could look up and see Greylock.

Some think it was metaphorically his whale — a giant presence on the horizon that held his gaze.

When Thoreau slept on top of Greylock  he described waking surrounded by “an ocean of mist,” as if he'd washed up on a deserted island.

The summer before last, I hiked up Greylock ten times, on seven different trails, not out of some obsession, but to fully experience it myself,  to “read” it like a novel you have heard about and want to turn the pages first hand.

Mt. Greylock and Bascom Lodge with mountains in the background.
Credit Miwasiwka / Creative Commons

Each trail has a different name and personality. Bellows Pipe is the trail Thoreau supposedly took, named for the wind that hustles down the mountain. The first two miles are gradual, then it hits you with a crazy-steep ascent. It’s like a character that plods along, then suddenly accomplishes everything all at once.

Jones Nose is the opposite. I don’t know much about Jones, and I know even less about his nose, but this trail ascends steeply right away before leveling off, like someone who rushes to get somewhere and then is content to amble on.

Both end at the summit, where you can now climb 89 steps to a glassed-in view.

Looking north, I see Stratton Mountain, and from Stratton, I can see Bromley, and from Bromley, Killington, and at the top of Killington, I stop to catch my breath.

This is a book I want to keep reading — not to see how it ends, but to see how it doesn’t end.

Susan Johnson teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.