WESTMINSTER — An avid hiker, I have a hobby of crossing borders on foot. During a year off from college, I walked 500 miles across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail. A few years later, I clutched a well-worn copy of poems while walking 190 miles between coastal borders of northern England. As a farewell to our extended homestay in Alaska, a colleague and I followed the Chilkoot “gold rush” trail from Alaska into British Columbia.
So it was with delight that I learned about our under-recognized trekking treasure, the 95-plus-mile Massachusetts Midstate Trail. This relatively tame and well-maintained footpath is well signed (by yellow triangles), crosses both inhabited and more isolated areas, and offers the option of short day hikes or “thru-hikes” as it connects down the central part of the state from the New Hampshire border to Rhode Island.
Walkers will pass Redemption Rock, the site of Mary White Rowlandson’s release from captivity in 1676 during the King Philip War; Oxford, where American Red Cross founder Clara Barton was born; and Charlton, location of an 18th-century tavern and militia ground, a 19th-century schoolhouse, and the hometown of “Grizzly” Adams, who traveled the country in the 1850s wrestling bears with P. T. Barnum.
Before any hike one must first think through some factors: How will you arrive and depart from the trail? What will you eat? How many miles can you walk each day? And how many details should you divulge in advance to your mother? (Back in the 1980s, when I was in fifth grade, my lack of orientation skills transformed a casual early autumn saunter down a fire road with my younger brother and cousins into an overnight “lost in the woods” ordeal in New Hampshire’s White Mountains where we attracted over 200 search volunteers.)
I broke the Midstate Trail into four legs. Using the trail guidebook’s maps, I planned my first leg to start 17 miles south of the New Hampshire border, leaving the beginning of the trail for another day. I set out on a sunny morning in early May from Westminster, carrying a backpack with a raincoat, two liters of water, and plenty of snacks. I was immediately transported to a meditative realm by the lush greenery, birdsong, and relative lack of city sounds, or even fellow humans.
I passed Crow Hills, a popular site for rock climbing; summited Mount Wachusett; sidestepped an old prisoners’ camp; and sauntered through the first of a few Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries. At the end of the trek in Rutland I discovered I had no cell signal to call a taxi. Luckily the son of the cashier at the local general store drove me back to my car.
The next week, I put out a message on Facebook seeking company on another section of the trail, and was joined by a junior high school acquaintance. This time we started at the trailhead in Ashburnham, near the New Hampshire border, and did a three-mile loop from the parking lot to the summit of Mount Watatic, and onward to the trail’s northern terminus. Thinking of my companion, I was more aware of the potential monotony of some stretches of this flatter section of trail but then we would come across something surprising to ponder, like the occasional abandoned pickup truck without a clear entry point.
Nearly 10 hours later we crossed Route 2 and had a hearty dinner in Westminster at the Wachusett Village Inn’s restaurant. Since we did not have a way back, we called a company for a ride to my car. When they didn’t show up another customer at the restaurant took pity and drove us to the trailhead parking lot.
Walking down through this section of the state is like taking a step back in geological time. A mile-thick glacier covered the area 20,000 years ago, and in the next 6,000 years a slight warming of the ice helped transform the terrain’s shape and composition into what we recognize today. Bulging clues serve as reminders of the forceful geological history: enormous isolated boulders, kettle ponds, small lakes, exposed granite hilltops, deep sand pits, and detached steep hills. Hikers may also encounter wildflowers, various species of native trees, swampland, and a host of cute critters. I saw frogs, salamanders, snakes, red squirrels, chipmunks, beavers, cardinals, hawks, and hummingbirds; other walkers have reported seeing muskrats, skunks, turtles, red fox, coyote, black bear, and even moose, as well as swallows and warblers.
In late August I completed the final 59-plus miles to the Rhode Island border in two days. I could not find a hiking partner and decided to go it alone, taking the commuter rail from South Station to Worcester’s Union Station, then a taxi to my start point in Rutland. I walked 24 miles and stayed at the Spencer Country Inn in a spacious room furnished with antiques. The next day presented a problem. The nearest lodging, a few miles off the trail in Sutton, had no vacancy. I inspected my developing blisters and called my parents, who agreed to drive from Arlington to pick me up near the trail’s end. That meant I had to cover 35 miles in one day.
This was a long slog, made more pleasant by small human encounters: falling into step with two local women out for an hour’s walk, the pizzeria employee who slipped me a slice, and the trailside homeowner who rested on her rake while clarifying directions.
At twilight I made it to the Douglas State Forest and, despite a wrong turn on one of the fire roads, arrived at my destination. I caressed the granite Massachusetts-Rhode Island boundary marker, sore but elated. Using my headlamp as a guide, I eventually wound my way out of the forest and found the boat ramp parking lot and my waiting parents. That’s when it occurred to me that they were likely to be having flashbacks to my overnight disappearance in the White Mountains nearly a quarter century ago.