Unforeseen Memorable Moments: A Jog on a Trail towards Enlightenment

Unforeseen Memorable Moments: A Jog on a Trail towards Enlightenment

A Journey into Hidden America

It had been one of those nights, ending with an unanticipated stay at a Holiday Inn Express - paying top dollar after an unsuccessful attempt at "roughing it".

The next morning, what originally had been anticipated to be leisurely run in a college town now held the prospect of dodging cars and trucks trying to "jog" on the shoulder of a state highway.

So, in a somewhat surly mood, I set out from the hotel parking lot,  past the neighboring Wendy's and McDonald's serving up breakfast to an access road leading me away from the highway, but instead towards the parking lot of a large Home Dept. The prospects seemed uninspiring.  I mentally prepared myself to just block out my surroundings and run - even if it meant doing so with my eyes closed.

Still, I had to remain aware of unfamiliar surroundings. An immediate choice was facing me: whether to turn right or left. To the right was an office park just off the UMass/Amherst campus. In the other direction was the state highway. But if I could get past that highway, there were picturesque farms and hills that could provide an appealing backdrop no matter what may lie just in front of me. So I chose left.

Just after the turn I was confronted by the Hampshire Mall to the left with its J.C. Penny and Trader Joe's. Across the street to the right was more of the same. I sprinted to try to get past it all - thankfully, I did not pull a muscle as I was running at a faster pace than this "maturing" body was used to.

Finally past the sprawl, The Maple Farm road stand greeted me as the roadway narrowed, first to two lanes and then to no shoulder. Just when I began to worry that  the road without a shoulder might be too dangerous for my run, there in front of me was a crossing walk and a path to both the right and left.

I had stumbled upon the Mass Central Rail Trail.

A sign at that spot informed me that The Mass Central Rail Trail was made up of multiple branches along the former right of way of the Massachusetts Central Railroad, and that I was entering the Norwottuck Branch, an 11-mile (18 km) combination bicycle/pedestrian paved right-of-way running from Northampton,  through Hadley and Amherst, to Belchertown.

The rail bed under which the trail operated opened in 1887 under the control of the Central Massachusetts Railroad. Shortly after its completion, it was leased by the Boston and Maine Railroad and referred to as the Central Massachusetts Branch. Three round trip passenger trains were run in the 1920s, as well as numerous freight trains. Competition from cars and trucks caused a decline on the line, as passenger service was discontinued in 1932 and freight service managed to hang on for another forty-two years, primarily to deliver goods to a farmer's supply warehouse in Amherst.

The rail bed was acquired by the state in 1985 and developed into the trail in 1993, as its current name. The name of "Norwottuck" was the result of a suggestion by the Hadley Historical Commission, who believed that the name corresponded to the local Native American tribe, the Norwottucks. It was also the term for the entire area

This is a trail , it told me, that is used by bicyclers, rollerbladers, and hikers. Both recreational and commuter traffic occurs here.

Turns out there are sites along the trail, such as the Norwottuck Rail Trail Bridge over the Connecticut River. A beaver pond near the eastern end of the trail is host to a number of different kinds of birds including great blue heron and various woodpeckers, as well as ducks, turtles, and various other critters.

With all this trail to explore a choice had to be made again - left towards Amherst or right towards Hadley and Northampton. I went right.

I was greeted by a tree covered path providing welcoming and cooling shade on a muggy morning.

As I ran, I thought about how the rail line reflected American progress - a vital mode of transportation that changed the area until one day it was vital no more, replaced by cars, trucks and the highways built to carry them. There just off to the right ran Route 9, today's vital link which had eclipsed and made the rails irrelevant.

Today Route 9 not only transports people and goods, but also serves as an economic engine - it is anchor to the development on both sides - resulting in a landscape of commercial sprawl next to working farms. Just beyond the trail to the right can "The Mountain Farm" shopping center, Mill Valley Commons and stores that would make any suburbanite feel at home - what I had come to think of as a "commercial/marketing muzak" . In the meantime, to the left just beyond the parking lots can be found silos, tractors and cows.

At one point just after the Route 9 tunnel, I came upon a large building that looked a bit like a barn. In fact, it was a restaurant,  "The Pulse Cafe", a place known for it Sunday brunch. It had an over-sized parking lot that was empty except for two dozen new Subarus, spillover from the dealership just across the highway. This all was unremarkable. What struck me was what that just next door  was a field occupied by three grazing cows.

Continuing my run, I next came across an opening offering a beautiful view towards the north - fields and rolling hills in the direction of  Deerfield, Greenfield and Montague. In the immediate view was a christmas tree farm - future trees about halfway in growth before they would be cut down four months from now in order to sit in a living room on Christmas eve. In between, the hills and the trees sat one large rural McMansion - the first of what looked to be many in a future subdivision just beyond the farm.

I chose to focus on the hills and the trees and not the large house. It was an exercise that made a lasting impression. From that moment on I continued to confront both the appealing and not so appealing there together side by side.

I found crowing roosters whose neighbor was a new pre-fab building housing a pre-school there on Route 9. A pathway providing access to bikers, joggers and  trail trekers was situated in the back of a Whole Foods parking lot just beyond the dumpster. Inspiring views contrasted by the growing number of stores that made the strip look like one in your city or suburb - "tasteful sprawl".  Bet you can name at least ten of those stores (answer below)

But, as mentioned above,  somehow my approach to what I was confronting was starting to change. I focused on what appealed to me and tried to "downplay" what did not (rather than crying over a view or ambiance once more pristine now seemingly "destroyed".)

The next day, I returned to the trail and set out in the other direction - eastward  towards Amherst.

This time there seemed to be less sprawl adjacent to the path. Route 9 had curved to the left leaving the rail trail a straight shot, shaded under a canopy of trees. There were  gentle grades of brush protecting the path on either side. As we ran, we passed fir trees and then came upon an opening to our right - a field full of cows gently grazing, surrounded by corn beginning its summer growth - a first hint that autumn was now not that far away.

The cows were silent while I was near, but as soon as I had passed, it started - a cacophony of moos - as if the bunch of them had suppressed their instinct to yap at one another until the human intruder had departed.

Leaving the cows and their mooing behind, I settled into a slow but steady jog for a spell, encountering only an occasional biker or runner. I was engrossed with the surroundings and in my own thoughts. Then suddenly a noise came from the brush to the right, and out came a woman, late 60's white hair in a bun attired in sneakers, sweat pants and a long-sleeve shirt. The clothes, perhaps appropriate in this era of Lime's Disease,  nonetheless stunned me as I was jogging in shorts and a t-shirt. The woman took two tentative steps and then broke into a jog, easily catching up to and passing me - cruising with ease in her heavy clothing. On my return, she passed me once more before departing the trail as quickly as she had appeared earlier at that same spot,  exiting stage left onto a small dirt path leading to back to her farm.

Her trek reinforced the egalitarian nature of the path - a trail for us all - whether a visitor like me or a neighboring farmer who runs long-sleeved on a hot muggy day. It was an equal opportunity place - come as you are and accepting all for who we are, as we are in this place. A place to exercise, re-connect,  reach beyond yourself and just be you.

Soon this second and last jog was over. I was again crossing past the state highway, the office park, the McDonald's and the Wendy's.  But I was feeling much better than when I first started: pleased,  refreshed and a bit enlightened after these jogs on the trail. All good - that is, except for the souvenirs from bugs who must have also been pleased and refreshed after feasting on me.

Quiz answer: Marshall's, Pier One, Old Navy, Target, AT&T, Verizon, Metro Panera Breads, Auto Zone, Bed Bath & Beyond, Walmart, Wendy's, Whole Foods, J.C. Penny, Trader Joe's, and more)