The Notch Road runs long and smooth, 6.5 miles from North Adams, around Mount Williams, south into Adams next to Mount Fitch, briefly into and then back out of Williamstown, past Rockwell Road—which rises from the south through Lanesboro, New Ashford and Cheshire—and finally to the 3,491-foot summit of Mount Greylock, the highest point in the state.
Arriving at the parking lot after the drive up, I stopped at a sign directing visitors to deposit money in a collection box—$2 for in-state cars, but $4 out-of-state. But the box was not there.
“Two dollars please,” a young man said to me, making his way over from a Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) pickup truck. The lot was less than half full. Most of the cars had New York or New Jersey plates.
“How long has the box been gone?” I asked him.
“I’m not sure. This is my first season up here,” he answered, as I handed him my money. “I wish it were there, so I could get back in the woods.”
I parked at the end of the lot, grabbed my backpack, and headed out of the car, eager to see the sights at the summit: Bascom Lodge, the War Memorial tower, and the unobstructed, above-the-treeline view—a rare treat in this region. But the longing I heard in the ranger’s voice lingered with me, so before following the paved sidewalks from the lot, I hiked down the Appalachian Trail.
There is something about mountain summit auto roads that has always bothered me, even though they are abundant throughout the Northeast. Mountain roads have been paved up Mount Equinox in southern Vermont and Mount Mansfield in the north, Mount Monadnock outside of Keene and Mount Washington north of Franconia Notch in New Hampshire. Here in the Valley we have a road up Mount Tom on the west end of the Holyoke Range, and another up Mt. Holyoke to the Skinner House east of the Connecticut River.
“Climbing the mountains brings out the joyous, conquering impulses, and places life in sympathetic play with life,” Greylock commissioner John Bascom said in 1913. An informational kiosk with his quote greets visitors in the parking lot at the base of Notch Road.
But can cars climb mountains, as the popular Mount Washington bumper sticker asserts? Or is something essential to the alpine experience lost by roads, even as they provide greater accessibility to a greater number of people?
“In the 1930s, skiing meant trudging up hill for two hours carrying equipment, all for the thrill of a two-minute run,” reads the sign on the Thunderbolt Ski Shelter, which I found at the far end of Greylock’s summit parking lot. “Still, the new sport quickly gained popularity, and in 1932, after studying all the hills in the area, local skiers chose this spot for an expert ski trail.”
One of those skiers, Rudy Konieczny, of Adams, served during World War II in the 10th Mountain Division, and was killed in combat in April, 1945. The shelter—which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1934—was officially dedicated to Konieczny at a 1999 ceremony that included some of his descendants.
The CCC was busy on Mount Greylock in the 1930s, building not only the shelter and the Thunderbolt Trail, but the magnificent mountaintop Bascom Lodge as well. The shelter is still used as a warming hut for skiers, though signs on its two doors state that staying there overnight is permitted in cases of emergency only.
Exiting the shelter, I found the Thunderbolt and Appalachian Trail (the same trail at this point on the AT), stepped precariously over the slick-wet rocks, crossed over the access road, and continued into the overgrown flora below. A few minutes later, however, I found myself standing on a muddy trail in wet sneakers, surrounded by thigh-high ferns. My idealism dissipating with each descending step, I decided the view from the summit would be better.
Mount Greylock State Reservation was the Commonwealth’s first wilderness park and originally included 400 acres at the top of the mountain when it was founded in 1898. But by then it had already been a well-traveled wilderness destination for decades.
Williams College built an observatory on Greylock’s summit in 1840. Nathaniel Hawthorne hiked the mountain several times when visiting the area. Herman Melville was supposedly inspired to write Moby Dick when staring at Greylock’s snow-covered, whale-like summit from his home in nearby Pittsfield, and dedicated his 1857 novel Pierre to the “majesty” of the state’s largest mountain.
Henry David Thoreau spent a night in 1844 sleeping on the observatory at Greylock’s summit, and later wrote of the mountain’s otherworldly nature: “As the light increased I discovered around me an ocean of mist, which by chance reached up to exactly the base of the tower, and shut out every vestige of the earth, while I was left floating on this fragment of the wreck of the world.”
Thoreau’s quote is stenciled into a rock at the summit—one of several trailside rocks so adorned.
The quote also appears on a sign posted at a scenic spot overlooking Adams. During my drive up, I had stopped there, pulling in next to a family driving a van with a Pennsylvania license plate marked handicapped. The roadside placard also includes a 1916 Lewis Hine photo of a 14-year-old girl working at the Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company mill in Adams, and a picture of a postcard from 1910 highlighting the deforestation of Greylock, which was typical of the time.
Today Mount Greylock State Reservation stretches out over 12,000 acres and features over 70 miles of trails, 11.5 of those miles belonging to the Appalachian Trail. The AT was cut over Greylock in 1931, and the interstate trail—which runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine—was completed six years later. I was surprised to learn, however, that Rockwell Road, which runs to the top of Greylock from Lanesboro, was constructed from 1906 to 1907, before the trails were cut.
I vcfollowed the AT past the parking lot to the summit, where the mountain appeared to drop off to the valley below, replaced by a spectacular vista of the Berkshires and beyond. A large group of visitors lingered at the summit, enjoying the view.
The summit is marked by the War Memorial Tower, which stands where the Williams College observatory once did. It was originally built of Quincy, Mass. granite in 1933 by Springfield’s John G. Roy and Son, and has since served as the state’s “official commemoration of its war dead,” says its sign. It is currently closed for renovations, scheduled to re-open in 2016, though Bascom Lodge’s co-manager Peter Dudek sounded skeptical of the proposed timeline. “They haven’t even started to work on it yet,” he told me.
Dudek operates the lodge with his brother John and Brad Parsons, the third business partner of their Bascom Lodge Group. They have managed Bascom for several years, and just renewed their multi-year lease with the state.
The CCC constructed the lodge from local stone and old growth red spruce, lending it a timeless quality that struck me as both stately and rugged, the ideal combination for a mountaintop lodge. It accommodates up to 50 guests, offering both private and bunk rooms. The dining room serves three meals a day, with menu items switching nightly. To my surprise, they even have homemade ice cream: the cherry chocolate chip was outstanding, though, admittedly, everything tastes better at elevation.
Dudek schedules the lodge’s events, which are held on most Wednesdays and Sundays throughout the season from May to October. The evening I was there, Cricket Creek offered a tasting of its local cheese. The following Wednesday, the folk music group Wintergreen performed. Earlier in the summer, two-time AT thru-hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis read from her book Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph, and discussed how she hiked the AT in just 47 days, averaging an incredible 46 miles a day. The first week in August, DCR interpretive ranger Alec Gillman is scheduled to speak about the history of Greylock and the continuous desire to both shape and protect its wilderness.
Touring through the lodge, I saw two women with large hiking backpacks renting bunks for the night, but most of the guests appeared to have driven up.
“Hikers on the AT don’t usually stay here,” Dudek said. “They’re usually more concerned with getting their miles in.”
The lodge also offers an artist-in-residence program, Dudek told me as we came across Rich Remsberg playing his banjo on the glassed-in back porch.
“Are you up here for the entire summer?” I asked him.
“No, just for the week,” Remsberg said. “But if it was for the summer,” he added, turning to Dudek, “I’d happily do it.”
Looking out the window across the surrounding valley, it was easy to share his desire. But there was another auto road to explore, and I was eager to drive it.
(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)