A brown-painted sign with the chiseled words WELCOME TO MASSACHUSETTS hung along Sawmill Brook situated within an old growth hemlock forest. Sages Ravine was one of the lushest jungle-like stretches with verdant vegetation and rain-swollen creeks. Ascending Mt. Race Ledges, wedge-shaped “helper steps” aid the hiker up and down the steep-sloping bedrock. Cairns (pile or stack of stones raised for the purpose of marking a trail) were then followed on the grueling climb up to the summit of Mt. Everett (2,602 ft). The foundations of the now-removed Mount Everett Fire Tower (1915-2002) rest permanently on the peak of the mountain.
Descending to a road crossing called Jug End Road, the trail gradually dipped into low-lying marshes and pastures. At one particular stream crossing (near mile 1,522), a cloud of mosquitoes surrounded me for a blood meal. These were particularly aggressive mosquitoes, the likes of which I’d never seen. Using my sit pad as a swatter, I tried to bat them away but my actions proved futile. Rather than running through the cloud, I made the regrettable mistake of pitching my tent at a nearby stealth spot to “take cover.” As a consequence of stopping, I was bitten dozens of times in the process of setting up my tent; one even bit me under my right eye and another on the lip! “If I sleep here and wait until dawn when the temperature cools,” I calmly calculated, “then maybe I could make my escape unbitten.” The problem is that it remained muggy all night long, and there was not a drastic decrease in the morning temperature. The mosquitoes buzzed by the hundreds right outside the screen mesh of my tent waiting for the prospect of blood withdrawal. The next morning, I would unzip my tent and make a run for it. Knowing that I was going to face the mosquitoes head on, I put on my rain clothes as “battle fatigues” and employed my Buff neck gator to be used as a face mask. Even gloves were worn for the fingers; I had to ensure no skin was exposed for blood donation. In the bogs of Massachusetts, countless thousands of mosquito eggs were hatching in the water from which would come mosquito larvae. A female mozzie, by one estimate, can produce up to 500 eggs before she finally dies.
In female mosquitoes, a mouth part called a proboscis pierces the skin of a person or animal and sucks out blood to grow her eggs. The male’s proboscis, unlike his female counterparts, is not strong enough to puncture the skin and drink out blood. In an enlightening KQED article entitled Mosquitoes Use 6 Needles To Suck Your Blood, the author vividly instructs on the intricacies of a mosquito bite:
The mosquito’s mouth, also called a proboscis, isn’t just one tiny spear. It’s a sophisticated system of six thin, needlelike mouthparts that scientists call stylets, each of which pierces the skin, finds blood vessels and makes it easy for mosquitoes to suck blood.
The insect forces in the six needlelike parts. Two of the needles, called maxillae, have tiny teeth that allow the mosquito to saw or bore through human skin like drill bits. Another set of needles, the mandibles, hold tissues apart while the mosquito reciprocates into the skin. A fifth needle, called the labrum, pierces a blood vessel. Finally, the mosquito’s sixth needle, called the hypopharynx, drips mosquito saliva from the bug into humans. With all of this technical knowledge of mosquitoes, a hiker will surely improve his slap response time!
Hiker comments on my navigation app Far Out reminded me that a sense of humor is necessary when confronting these flying insects with piercing mouthparts. One such hiker, humorously announced:
Come on down to the swamp, the Mosquito Thunderdome! One hiker vs. a swarm of biologically engineered mosquitoes that aren’t affected by DEET. Come watch the carnage!
Another hiker, in consideration of the mosquito-ravaged stretch, conceived the challenge—albeit tongue-and-cheek—of an organized sport of evasion complete with a set of rules:
The Not-So-Fun 5K Mosquito Run
1) Run, don’t walk; they prey on the weak.
2) If you feel an itch or a bite, they already got you. Stopping to scratch or slap the bug will slow you down.
3) These bugs are stronger than what you have seen before; it takes three slaps to kill one mosquito.
4) Long sleeves, bug net, and bug repellent are a necessity. People who finish without at least 42 bug bites will be disqualified (they probably blue blazed).
5) It is recommended that you have a double hamburger or a steak because you will be iron deficient by Route 7.
6) There are no rest stops, no orange slices and Gatorade. The only thing you have to drink are your tears.
After narrowly escaping the mosquitoes and shedding the extra layers of clothes that had been used to shield my skin, I came upon a grassy battlefield from the Revolutionary War. A rough-quarried monument read: LAST BATTLE OF SHAYS’ REBELLION WAS HERE FEB. 27, 1787. Right on the Sheffield pasture before me, a battle had once ensued in the winter of 1787. It was the last significant conflict of Shays’ Rebellion—an uprising of farmers who had gone into much debt after taking up arms in the Revolutionary War. The rebellion was named after Daniel Shays, a farmer and ex-Revolutionary War soldier who fought at Bunker Hill. An infographic furnished a historical explanation of the the skirmish:
Shays’ Rebellion had economic roots in the longstanding English tradition of agrarian revolts, as well as in the resentment of rural Massachusetts of the political and financial dominance of Boston…Shays’ Rebellion was an early test of the limits of state government after American Independence. Many of those who took up arms on the side of the ‘Regulators of Government,’ as they preferred to call themselves, were young men who had served during the Revolution and still considered their actions patriotic. Others saw them as dangerous counterrevolutionaries.
The Connecticut Courant described the revolters as “the most discontentedest”:
The most discontentedest became the soldiers in Shays’ Rebellion. Their anger was focused on the courts where foreclosures, bankruptcies and incarcerations were sanctioned. Shays’ men were called the ‘Regulators’ because they wanted to regulate the laws that disproportionately favored the wealthy. The Regulators wanted more protection for the poor.
Reaching a major trailhead outside Great Barrington on MA Route 23, I decided to order some food and have it delivered to the parking lot. Since I’d run out of food, this was an option to get some extra calories without shuttling all the way into town. After calling in a supreme pizza and garlic roles from Vivaldi’s Pizzeria, I began walking around with idle curiosity. A highway sign indicated that Great Barrington was the birthplace of W.E.B. Du Bois, the black Harvard-educated intellectual, scholar, and political thinker. Having read about Du Bois in the past, I recalled how his ideas were in sharp opposition to Booker T. Washington.
Both W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington were two influential leaders of the black community in the late 19th and 20th century; however, they strongly disagreed on strategies for black social and economic progress. As the visions of these two men were articulated, debates raged and their arguments clashed. Du Bois, who founded the NAACP, advocated political action and argued for social change through a small band of educated blacks he termed “the Talented Tenth.” Booker T. Washington, on the other side of the debate, was an educator who preached a philosophy of self-help and racial solidarity, urging blacks to elevate themselves through hard work, material prosperity, and education in industrial and farming skills.
A dash down a blue blaze led me to Benedict Pond, a recreation park with picnic grounds, hiking trails, and a swimming hole. The pond was set up with a public swimming area as well as a canoe launch site. Floating divider rope was strung, designating the perimeter of the safe swimming zone. An unattended information shack with an outside outlet made for a suitable place to top off my Garmin battery and charger. Leftover pizza made for a satisfying snack at a nearby picnic table.
Further down trail at Webster Road, Pitstop and I rendezvoused; he took me to Bonnie Rae Campground in Pittsfield where he had a reservation with his travel trailer. A double zero provided the replenishment my body needed. Pitstop cooked a bacon-and-eggs breakfast each morning and made pasta dishes in the evenings. The meals were prepared with fresh ingredients from Market 32, an enormous gourmet grocery store that is a subsidiary of Price Chopper. Driving around the Berkshires (pronounced “burk-sheerz”) afforded me the chance to see non-hiker towns such as Lee—“Gateway to the Berkshires—which had much New England charm.
Once back on trail, the AT routed circuitously through the town of Dalton. Making a priority stop at Juice ‘n’ Java, I nursed a vanilla latte while my devices charged in the wall outlet. The place had antique cast iron café tables, and one could hear the town gossip from the locals who frequent the establishment. Cheshire was another shire through which a hiker walks. The British term refers to an administrative division of land much like a county in other parts of the United States.
En route to Mount Greylock was a stone inscribed with a Henry David Thoreau excerpt which read:
It were as well to be educated in the shadow of a mountain as in more classic shade. Some will remember, no doubt, not only that they went to college, but that they went to the mountains.
Mt. Greylock is the highest mountain in Massachusetts (3,491 ft) and hiking up required a steady rhythm to overcome the incremental elevation gain. Rising above the summit was a towering monument to fallen soldiers; it was the 1932 War Memorial Tower—the Commonwealth’s official war memorial. In 1931 construction began on the memorial to honor Massachusetts men and women who had perished during the First World War. The memorial tower is 93-feet in height from base to beacon and was constructed with blocks of Quincy granite. At the public observation level, it is crowned with eight observation windows, which provide expansive views, some 70 miles across three states and a stunning view of the Berkshires.
Mounted atop the memorial is a bronze beacon, which was originally lighted by twelve search lights. Once lit, the beacon is intended to keep bright the memory of Massachusetts’ war heroes and their inspiration. The beacon also serves to guide aviators over the Berkshires at night.
The tower’s beacon, possibly the most powerful light in Massachusetts, was intended to ‘shine each night, perpetually, to honor the memory of fallen heroes and to guide aviators in their lone night-time journeys over the treacherous mountain range.’ Except for a few weeks in spring and fall, when the light is dimmed to avoid confusing migrating birds, the beacon continues to shine each night as a memorial to casualties of all wars.
Inscribed over the tower’s entrance is the seal of the Commonwealth and the dedication in classical letters: “Erected by Massachusetts in grateful recognition of the loyalty and sacrifice of her sons and daughters in war.” Directly inside the base of the tower is a domed memorial chamber with a mosaic tiled ceiling. On the walls within the chamber, and in no particular sequence, is a poetic tribute to the state’s fallen veterans written in gold letters. One line of poetry particularly grabbed me:
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies
grow in Flanders fields.
It’s the closing line from a wartime poem entitled In Flanders Fields by John McCrae. As Memorial Day was soon approaching, it was fitting to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice defending freedom. Mysteriously drawn to the poem, I was at first a little confused with the wording. What exactly do poppies have to do with fallen soldiers? And what is Flanders Field? You see the poem speaks of the fallen soldiers who left the transient world, yet their souls are still attached to the land. The poem references the red poppies that grew over the graves of fallen soldiers. Poppies continue to be used as a symbol of remembrance of those who perished in the conflict. As for Flanders Fields, it was a specific major battle theatre during the First World War and has since been used to speak generally about battlefields in that war. The poppies and endless rows of crosses that mark the hallowed graves of those who lost their lives during war is chilling. They should serve as a reminder that freedom is not a given in human history; it had to be fought and died for.
After spending some time gazing out the tower’s top observation windows, I headed down the multi-storied spiral staircase back to the ground level. That night I made camp atop Mt. Williams. Soon thereafter I finished Massachusetts, arriving at the MA/VT border. What an extraordinarily state Massachusetts had been; there was so much to take in and the people were kind and gracious. New England has been a pleasant surprise thus far and I anticipate, as I perambulate further north, that experience to become all the richer.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
If ye break faith with us who die
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
—John McCrae, In Flanders Fields