New England, to give a gentle refresher, is a region in the Northeast that is comprised of six states—Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Maine. English explorer John Smith, known for his role in establishing the colony of Jamestown, named the region “New England” back in 1616, four years before the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower and established Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. The Appalachian Trail (AT) goes through all of the New England states except Rhode Island. For northbound (NOBO) AT thru-hikers, Connecticut is the first of the New England states. Since the trail clips the corner of Connecticut, the trail length through the state is relatively short.
Upon walking into Connecticut, the AT crossed over the quick-moving Ten Mile River on a concrete-and-steel footbridge next to the mouth of the river where it empties into the Housatonic River. The bridge had ship-like stairs on one side which was peculiar for bridges of this type. From there, it was a only a short stroll to Bull’s Bridge Road which crosses the Housatonic at Bull’s Bridge, a wooden 19th century covered bridge. The village of Bull’s Bridge made for a worthwhile stop, especially since it had been raining buckets. As planned, I stopped at the hiker-friendly Bulls Bridge Country Store to replenish supplies and charge up before making big miles through Connecticut. The woman who operated the store was well acquainted with the needs of thru-hikers and kept a sizable inventory of hiker-related foods and snacks. There were frozen food goods along with a microwave so I splurged on an extra-long bean burrito and topped the meal off with the usual pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
It should be of little surprise that small town general stores often have no price stickers on their merchandise. Either the clerk memorizes individual prices of each product, keeps a binder of prices behind the counter, or “creatively prices” goods for each customer at the point of sale. I had been forewarned about gradual price markups in the Northeast; compared to the South, the prices appeared superficially inflated. Grocery markets take on pricing that resemble convenience stores or tourist stands. A can of pop costs $3.50 and a bag of potato chips $5.75. The sales tax in Connecticut is 6.35 percent compared to 2.9 percent in Colorado where I live. “Sticker shock” is something for which I had been prepared, but it was nonetheless a financial strain as no one wants to see money disappear into thin air.
Outside the country store were picnic tables where I had laid out my sopping wet sleeping bag to loft in the sun. There I met several students from Yale University who were sectioning part of the AT in Connecticut. Pythagoras, known simply as “Py,” had a miniature camping guitar and was plucking catchy riffs while I was small talking with the other Yalies. Py had thru-hiked the AT the previous year and was bringing his Yale friends along for a few nights on trail. After learning about each of the students and their respective areas of study in college, I proceeded to pack up, knowing that I needed to get miles in.
Before I even had a chance to leave, K-Bar, whom I had not seen since Virginia, came up to the country store. K-Bar is a bubbly 23-year-old from New Jersey who is full of energy and enthusiasm. Last year, she attempted a thru-hike of the AT but was forced off trail at this exact spot due to an apparent bacterial infection. Everything north of here would be unseen territory for her. She and I, along with a section hiker, left together from the store and began the first big ascent in Connecticut. K-Bar used to drive trucks while in the Army but now lives in her RV back in Jersey. We got to talking about hikes that we wanted to do at some point in the future. K-Bar has aspirations to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Everest Base Camp in Nepal. There are numerous hikes around the world that appeal to me; I’d personally enjoy hiking The Trans-Canada Trail (“The Great Trail”), Israel National Trail (INT), Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, and the Inca Trail/Machu Picchu in Peru.
Caleb’s Peak, St. John’s Ledges, and Lion’s Head were notable scenic points within Connecticut, all of which were marked by elegant light green signs nailed to a tree. Hitting 1,500 miles on the AT, I had to pinch myself on how far I’d come! A monument in Saint Mary’s Catholic Cemetery near one of the road crossings read “Go where the journey leads.” This statement reminded me that things on trail had not always gone according to plan; however; the journey, with all of its unexpected events, would go on.
Wildlife in Connecticut was abundant, especially among the black bear population. A mother and her two fluffy cubs fled up a hillside just as I was ascending Bear Mountain, a fitting name for the mountain, which is also the highest peak in the state. Chipmunks, with their distinctive five dark brown back stripes, dash along the tops of fallen trees which act as a highway system of sorts. Garter snakes are also ubiquitous and slither in and out of the underbrush. “Ribbet-less” toads crawl and jump up the creeksides.
A rich variety of birds in Connecticut sing and call melodiously. Stocky barred owls perch on treetops with their forward-looking gaze. Along one lonely stretch of trail, I met a retired fellow whose eyes were fixed on a congregation of chickadees that had landed on a high-limbed tree branch. The snowy-haired man was a member of the National Audubon Society, which is an organization dedicated to the conservation of birds and bird habitat. Both an ornithologist (one who studies birds) and a bird-watcher (“birder”) can find much visual pleasure on the trail. One recalls James Audubon’s illustrative work entitled Birds of America, printed between 1827 and 1838. The book contains 435 life-size watercolors of North American birds, all of which were reproduced from hand-engraved plates. Audubon’s landmark work is hailed as the “archetype of wildlife illustration.” Although I did not have birding binoculars or a field guide from the ornithological society, I found much pleasure watching and listening to finches, wrens, starlings, sparrows, and warblers. Some let off shrill “charr-charr” notes, while others made “pew-pew-pew” noises. Bird life abounds in the Northeast and one can be sung to sleep just hearing the dawn chorus—the concerted twitterings, tweetings and chirps of wild birds sung at the start of a new day. High up on the Connecticut treetops, the pileated woodpecker with its black body and prominent red crest, performs a percussive drum solo—drilling and tapping at trees—sending echoes and reverberations throughout the forest. Pecking for bugs and hollowing out nesting areas, woodpecker drumming becomes one of the pleasantest morning sounds.
A hydroelectric plant in Falls Village hummed with a continuous low pitch as I walked next the brick building before crossing an iron bridge back over the Housatonic. Thru-hikers sometimes pass sprawling power plants and electrical substations, all of which are fenced with galvanized barbed security fencing. The hiker on an almost daily basis encounters abrupt breaks in the treed forest—clearings for high-voltage transmission towers and lines. On drizzly days, the three-phased lines, gracefully suspended across steel lattice electricity pylons, emit a buzzing sound known as corona discharge.
As one of the shortest states on the entire AT, the CT/MA border had been reached quickly; it was now time to part ways with the Nutmeg State. Despite the brief trek, Connecticut was truly a pristine segment and a positive introduction to hiking in New England.
When I rise up let me rise up joyful like a bird. When I fall let me fall without regret like a leaf.—Wendell Berry