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Willem Lange: A Landscape That Demonstrates the Value of Preservation

Adams, Mass.

There used to be a popular Vermont bumper sticker — I haven’t seen it for years — that read, “Pray for me. I drive Route 7.” That must have been the bad old days, before Route 7 got widened, straightened and paved like an interstate. Nowadays, traffic gradually picks up speed from Rutland south to Bennington, until the ambient velocity is about 75.

The new right-of-way flies past Manchester Center on a bypass whose significance can’t be appreciated unless you remember trying to get through the village during tourist season. Rising behind it to the west is Mount Equinox, one of the four peaks mentioned by President Coolidge in his “I Love Vermont” speech. Accessible by road and topped with wind turbines and radio transmitters, it’s pretty civilized. Few people know about the abandoned tunnel up there, dug to provide access to a cryonics depository where the remains of especially intelligent people would be stored for future resurrection, or the large Carthusian monastery on the side of the mountain.

A little farther on, rising from the east side of the road, is Glastenbury Mountain, imposing, but innocent in appearance. The Appalachian Trail passes over its summit; but its main claim to fame — or notoriety, if you prefer — is that over the years more than half a dozen people have disappeared on its slopes. Locals sometimes refer to it as the Bennington Triangle, and one travel brochure recommends that would-be hikers not make the trip. Joe Citro describes some of its potentially spooky features in his book Passing Strange: True Tales of New England Hauntings and Horrors. Just looking at it arouses in me a perverse inclination to spend at least a night up there, in spite of locals’ reports of weird noises and glowing lights not only on the mountain, but above it. Not today, however; I’m headed farther south.

Crossing the border into Massachusetts, you’re among mountains less lofty than those of southwestern Vermont. But they loom closer and seem higher, crowding in on the road. Soon the zigzag, genteel streets of Williams-town slow things down, and a few miles farther south a large sign directs you into Mount Greylock State Reservation.

We’re here today, the crew and I, to hike a few of the trails on the mountain with Mina Greene, a weekend radio host from WBZ-AM in Boston, and her husband, Doug. They come here a lot from their home way down on the Cape. If there were a Greylock fan club, they’d be officers.

The mountain itself is geologically upside down. It was formed during the so-called Taconic orogeny, about 500 million years ago, when a collision of tectonic plates thrust dense metamorphic rocks up and over younger metamorphic rocks, like marble, which is still quarried in the foothills of the local peaks. You can see great piles of crushed white marble piled beside Route 7 south of Rutland. The older upper layers are more resistant to erosion.

When the continental ice sheets arrived, during the last few hundred thousand years, they flowed up and over the mountains, grinding them down into the imposing, but gentle domes of today. After the ice sheet retreated, a small mountain glacier remained for a while that left a modest cirque in the magnificent valley known as the Hopper. We stood today at an overlook above the Hopper and looked down upon the backs of vultures floating on the steady breeze flowing from the north into the valley.

There have been European immigrants here since the 18th century, when eager-beaver frontier farmers left the coastal settlements and trekked upstream along the Hudson and Connecticut valleys, spreading out east and west as they did. They found native Americans and timber, as one old-timer put it, thick as hair on the back of a dog. They cleared the trees for their cabins and fields. There was here, just as everywhere in North America, no thought of using the land or its resources for anything but survival and, once that was secured, making money.

During the 19th century, the name Greylock stuck to the mountain. Like many old names, it has at least a dozen explanations of its origins; and as with many old names, no one knows for sure. Many famous Americans apparently fancied the place — Hawthorne, Bryant, Holmes and Thoreau. Herman Melville, who struggled vainly all his life for popular acclaim, purportedly was at least partly inspired by the mountain’s profile to write Moby Dick. I’m sure that if I searched long enough, I’d find that George Washington slept somewhere very nearby, as well.

After about 300 years of exploitation of the land, the citizens and leaders of the United States suddenly woke up to what they were losing. Forests and watersheds had been practically destroyed; rivers flooded and dried up; topsoil was washing or blowing away. Thus, the decades before and after 1900 saw a spasm of resource protection — national parks, Adirondack Park, the Weeks Act, national forests and Greylock State Reservation. Over 100 years later, many of the forests have regenerated, so it’s probably difficult for many people today to realize how bad things had gotten.

Greylock, providing you ignore the network of trails and roads leading to its summit, looks much as it did centuries ago. There is even a 550-acre patch of old-growth forest that’s been saved from the loggers’ axes. You can walk here for weeks and not exhaust the trails system; you can walk to a crystalline cascade guarded by a sign saying, “One mile — Rough”; you can reprise a Tour de France alpine climb on your road bike; you can chat with Appalachian Trail thru-hikers resting en route to Mount Katahdin, over 400 miles away; or if you fancy a gourmet meal in a restaurant with a five-state view, there’s a really good one here, sitting right on top of the mountain.

Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached at will.lange@comcast.net.