Fallen hemlocks

It had been some time since I hiked the mountain trail by myself. The other morning on a whim I decided to climb the knoll to survey the rocky ridge.

The chain that formerly spanned the squat stone pillars at the entrance to Laurel Hill had snapped and lay rusted among the traces of last year’s leaves.

Freshly fallen white catalpa blossoms littered the trailhead. I made my way up the shaded path to the top of the rise, where it disappeared into a newly cut dirt road. The access road had been paved with crushed stone. I hunted for the trail below the concrete water cistern and followed it across the muddy run up the switchbacks to the old chimney. Here I paused to study the charred remnants of an ancient fire at the base of the rocks before moving ahead into the forest.

Warblers wheezed from their treetop hideouts. Off in the distance a thrush sounded his fluid refrain. Tiny yellow wildflowers edged the path near the power line cut.

I had but an hour, so I dropped down to the first ridge and followed it back through the ancient hemlock grove. Here I encountered the remnant of a giant evergreen that had been struck by lightning during a summer storm fifteen years ago. Although the massive trunk had since snapped in half, you could still make out the smooth grey groove spiraling up the tree.

I thought of Thoreau’s pitch-pine on the shore of Walden Pond:

In one heavy thunder shower the lightning struck a large pitch-pine across the pond, making a very conspicuous and perfectly regular spiral groove from top to bottom, an inch or more deep, and four or five inches wide, as you would groove a walking stick. I passed it again the other day, and was struck with awe looking up and beholding that mark, now more distinct than ever, where a terrific and resistless bolt came down out of the harmless sky eight years ago. (“Solitude” in Walden)

A little ways ahead I paused to survey two towering hemlocks. Both had shed their green needles long ago. One tree cracked at the base and had fallen across the path into the uppermost branches of the other, which held it firmly — a final filial embrace before eventually collapsing onto the forest floor, there to decay amidst the verdant moss and moist rotted leaves.

"Awestruck" 2012 © Brian T. Maurer

“Awestruck” 2012 © Brian T. Maurer

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A good walk spoiled — almost

Walt Landgraf used to boast that he never went for a walk in the woods and came back disappointed.

I’ve always put a lot of stock in his remark—up until today. Were it not for the fact that I continued to press forward along a woodland trail, I might have returned distraught indeed.

I started out early. The morning air was crisp, but the weatherman was calling for sunny skies with highs in the 60s. I grabbed my binoculars and camera and set out for the Metacomet Trailhead.

"Metacomet Trailhead" 2012 © Brian T. Maurer

A wren called from a sparse lilac bush. I heard the familiar “Pe-ter, Pe-ter” notes of the titmice and focused my binoculars on several chickadees flitting about in the upper branches of a stand of hemlocks.

"Metacomet Trail" 2012 © Brian T. MaurerFrom the small plateau just below the remnants of the Bartlett Tower I panned the lower Farmington shimmering silver in the morning sun. I turned and entered the forest, following the blue blaze marks along the narrow rocky ridge trail.

When I reached the first power line cut my stomach tightened. There before me lay a newly constructed gravel road, wide enough to accommodate a large utility truck.

"Metacomet Trail: Utility Road" 2012 © Brian T. Maurer

At first I thought I was dreaming; perhaps I had taken a wrong turn. But no, there was only one path—the one I was on—and that path led most assuredly onto the road.

Gone was the rocky outcropping on which I had stood countless times over the past three decades to survey the distant Barndoor Hills, gone was the lookout point with the blue blaze mark; gone the familiar ancient oaks and underbrush, spring nesting grounds for hermit thrush.

I hesitated, looked back over my shoulder, then stepped out onto the crushed grey stone, hoping that it might vaporize beneath my feet. It didn’t, of course.

I followed the road along the ridge to where it veered sharply in its descent down the eastern slope of the ravine. At this point I was able to pick up the original trail again. I had traversed a distance of perhaps 600 yards. I stopped to look back at this swath of centuries old Indian trail, now obliterated by earth-moving machines and buried in gravel.

"Metacomet Trail: Gravel Road" 2012 © Brian T. Maurer

A young man passed me on the trail ahead. I hailed him to ask about the road. “It’s been there for the past several months,” he said. “The power company put it through after last fall’s storm.”

“I thought it was public land,” I said.

He shrugged his shoulders. “The power company can do whatever it wants,” he said, and walked off.

I continued down the trail, seething under my breath. The scarred woods had momentarily lost their magical charm.

I stopped to study a placard mounted on a tree. It carried a map of the area. I traced the stretch of Metacomet Trail along which I had come, chagrined to find that it lay just outside the border of the town land trust.

I fought back the lump in my throat and pressed ahead. At the second lookout point I paused to survey the valley before entering the woods again. I decided that I would go as far as the flat rock before heading back.

Shortly, I was greeted with a cacophony that grew louder and louder. As I approached the vernal pond nestled in the hollow behind the flat rock, the crescendo became deafening.

"Vernal Pool" 2012 © Brian T. Maurer

I crept closer, inching my way to the shoreline. Scores of little dark knobs bobbed on the surface of the pond. Periodically, concentric circles of ripples expanded from the knobs. As I peered closer I noticed a frog floating near a fallen branch close to shore. From time to time it stretched its hind legs and kicked languorously two or three times.

"Spring Peeper" 2012 © Brian T. Maurer

I brought my binoculars up to survey the water. Each knob turned out to be a young frog, newly formed from its prior existence as a tadpole. Hundreds of them bobbed on the surface.

Awestruck, I stood and listened to the peepers—for how long I cannot say. Like Thoreau seated before the door of his cabin on a summer morning, in those moments I grew like corn in the night.

The bark of a dog broke my reverie. I turned to see a golden flash along the trail. A jogger followed, and both promptly disappeared over the next rise.

I climbed up the steep cut to the flat rock and looked out over the valley. I trained my binoculars on the swamp just east of the town. The water shimmered through the dead trees in silver patches in the late morning sun.

I turned and retraced my steps back through the forest to the lookout point. From there I took an alternative route back to the village.

My good walk had come quite close to being spoiled, but in the end an unexpected orchestral performance of spring peepers redeemed it.