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Take a Hike: Wachusett Mountain ... busy, but still magical

Sadly, the pandemic news had so clouded my awareness that I realized the first full day of spring had come and gone without my noticing it. I felt I needed to get in sync with the natural world, so my husband and I headed out to Wachusett Mountain State Reservation in Princeton, a favorite place for a hike, and within a 45-minute drive.

The mountain is geologically considered a monadnock, an isolated hill or ridge rising above the level plain. So while Wachusett is only 2,006 feet above sea level, it has the qualities you appreciate in any mountain: trails with distinct character, a sense of arrival when you reach the summit, and a beautiful 360-degree view.

I was a little dismayed that the lines of parked cars along the road at the Echo Lake Road parking area were longer than I’d ever seen them. The same was true at the Westminster Road parking area. Were people there because everywhere they would normally be was closed? How many have been furloughed from their jobs? Would they normally be at their kids’ soccer games? Shopping? The line of people walking up the steep Stage Coach Road, toward the windmill farm, looked like a pilgrimage.

By the time we reached the narrower hiking trails, people had spread out according to their natural walking speeds, but still the trails were crowded, so people stepped aside for faster walkers coming up behind them or for walkers coming from the opposite direction to pass. It seemed to me that the interactions in those moments were guarded, with heads down, discouraging a greeting, although they may have merely been focused on negotiating the slippery rocks and muddy areas before moving on. I began to miss the brief exchanges I usually have with strangers I come across on the trail. We came upon a couple whose little dog had been attacked by another dog. That was unusual because most dogs on a trail exhibit such happiness. A couple of people were listening to music from speakers in backpacks. I felt annoyed that I couldn’t get away from the distracting noise of civilization.

Almost at the top of Old Indian Trail, the ski lift that empties out there (near the inspirational monument to the 10th Mountain Division that trained on Wachusett during World War II) was out of service. But as many people were milling about on the man-made snow as there would have been on a ski day. Some appeared to descend below the crest of the ski trail, which looked unwise to me.

Soon after that, we saw a large family group with small children clambering up some steep rocky ledges off the trail, pulling themselves up and clinging to branches and small trees, while someone took pictures from below. Great photos no doubt, but that activity seemed unwise as well.

But, of course, even a simple social gathering has become unwise. Seeing children and grandchildren in Brooklyn is unwise. It’s considered a risky undertaking to go to the grocery store. Every day more strict guidelines are put in place.

Boston on the horizon

Surprisingly, the summit was no more crowded than on summer days when cars are allowed up, with the walkers emerging from four trails. From a small stone parapet, the Zakim Bridge and buildings of Boston are detectable on the horizon on a clear day. A huge tower that is visible for miles around sits on an open platform. From the platform you can get a bit higher for views of the Green Mountains in Vermont that lie in that beautiful blue area between land and sky. To the north are views of Mt. Monadnock and the Wapack Range in New Hampshire. You can learn about the forests, the animals, and the birds in the reservation from explanatory displays. A plaque on a rock denotes that a hotel once stood here. People and dogs sprawl out and eat lunches on the rocks and walls. Slightly below the summit but in the same area is a pond that kids like to hang around. You can see amphibians and little fish swimming in the water.

A mountain with charisma

It’s usually cool and breezy up here, even in the summer. The night Thoreau camped out on the mountaintop was thrillingly (to him) stormy and windy and almost blew his gear away. During a full moon a surprising number of people walk to the top at night, and not just hardcore hikers either. The mountaintop has charisma, despite a summer parking lot, towers and satellite dishes, a ski lift, and maintenance buildings. This is not a place for transcendental contemplation, but its accessibility to everyone makes it a beloved mountain.

Yes, the trails will be crowded for now with people whose regular lives are disrupted. I may miss the familiar sense of place I experience at Wachusett, but I’m glad that Wachusett is there to help with the stress we are all experiencing. It took a little longer than usual for the mountain to work its magic, but by the time I was down, I was smiling and on an even keel again.

Old-growth trees are standing by, birds are blithely chirping, the heartbreakingly beautiful blue mountains and hills in the distance are where they always are. The windmills are churning away.

The Pine Hill Trail at Wachusett Mountain State Reservation.(Courtesy photo)

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