Saturday, October 19, 2013

Taking the Road Less Traveled By

The sign said Mount Everett State Park. Finally after years of driving past that sign on a beautiful stretch of high country road, we make the turn, a left off of Mount Washington Road. I expected to see something high profile from the size of the sign, at least a little headquarters building and a human being. But in fact the official presence at the so-called state park consists of little more than a few largish brown signs stuck like children's stickers on the surface of miles of wooded upland country. 
            The official state park color in Massachusetts is a muddy brown that seems to have been distilled from wood and earth. Its management policy is benign neglect. 
            We drive slowly past a mini couple-of-cars parking area and an arrow for a trail; roll by a ladder of horizontal signboards promising something like "picturesque nature area" and "picnic area." The second of these was our desired activity as it happened, so we continued down what turned out to be a narrowing dirt road. No further signs -- (A sign, lord! Give me a sign!) -- or indications of park presence and I begin to wonder, a touch anxiously, where I would find a turn-off spot if another car came down the other way. As I articulate the first words of that thought another vehicle does in fact come down the road from the other way. Happily I have just noticed a bit of roadside; I pull over and let the other guy pass.

            We continue. Up and down and then around a bend. I worry where those mud "signs" are leading us, but a strip of water glows in the polished autumn light and beside it pull-off space with room possibly for two cars. We pull in beside the one already there.

            "A picnic area," Anne says. A sure enough sign (lord). A bare brown regulation picnic table wedged into a shady spot under trees. The temperature up here was about 15 degrees lower than it had been down in the lower, high-sun elevation where we walked earlier in the day. Sitting down to our backpack munch at the table, I listened to the birds including an unseen woodpecker until some cars and people came and scared them away.

            The picturesque nameless lake in the hills attracted more visitors than seemed likely at first. We heard the voices of a group of four working their way down a path coming down from the hillside above the water. A fit-looking hiker and his obedient female dog (they struck me as a devoted couple) came down the road. The van parked next to our car belonged to him. We chatted on what a wonderful site this was, the whole area was, the shutdown of the national park ("let's not talk politics"), and he told us that we could hike up the hill for an hour to a summit and then we -- or some ideally eager individual -- could pick up the Appalachian Trail.

            When he drove off another car took his place. A really large vehicle rolled slowly down from the top, an RV with its sliding door open -- a vehicle I could not imagine driving to a Walmart parking lot let alone up a dirt road to a mountain -- so we could hear the laughter of its female passenger as the thing jounced slowly over the bumps.  

            Then when we started on the loop trail around the lake we passed another ordinary-sized car tucked off the side of the road and discovered another couple on the trail ahead of us. They were a singular pair, both propelling themselves at a glacial pace with the aid of two ski poles, one in every hand. They were dressed for cold weather and wore woolen Snoopy style elf hats, adding to the impression that they expected winter sports to break out around them at any moment.

             The trail was one of the more rigorous ones we've encountered recently. Narrow and never flat for more than two steps because it was cut through a hillside with sizable trees, large boulders, and roots to step over and around. We crossed a mountain rill on a halved log. When it was clear that our pace would not improve  -- and having already walked a few miles over easier ground before our picnic lunch -- we reversed course and headed back.

            We passed our ski-capped couple on the way back. They were pretty much in the same place where we left them and appeared content to spend the rest of the day in the same manner, leaning on their sticks, exchanging occasional observations,  and waiting for the snow that from the day's high skies and autumn leaves appeared about three months off.

            They were taking the path less traveled by, I realized. It wasn't our path. But then we weren't taking anybody else's path  either.