Recently, I found myself in the midst of a controversy when I used a loaded word in a story. That word was “Berkshires.”
As everyone knows, the Berkshires is a local term used to refer to the area west of Route 128, that place you hit on the Pike or Route 2 when everything starts to feel boring.
I had invoked the term while writing about the town of Cummington, which I referred to as being in “the foothills of the Berkshires.” I wrote that because I made the mistake of using my brain, which is not allowed in Massachusetts geography, where logic never trumps localism.
Please understand that I was just teasing earlier. I know the Berkshires are the mountains — hills, if we’re being honest — out in Western Mass. that people enjoy for day hikes while high.
But as several readers informed me, you aren’t supposed to use the term “Berkshires” until you’ve crossed into Berkshire County. Cummington, which is most certainly in the foothills but just over the line in Hampshire County, does not make the cut.
“The mountains end at the county line. Duh,” a friend from Great Barrington texted me. He was one of the polite ones, for local geography is defended vigilantly in Massachusetts, and living in the Berkshires is just about the only interesting thing these people have going for them, once they realize that no one cares that they used to live in New York.
I get it. I’m from Boston, and part of being able to utter that statement is an oath to defend it. Many get quite militant about illegitimate claims. Stop me if you’ve heard a fiyafighta from Dawchestah say, “I was down at Disney with the family and we meet this guy who says he’s from Boston, and I’m like ‘Whereabouts?’ and he’s like ‘Chelmsford,’ and I’m like ‘Buddy, that ain’t Boston.’ ”
I live on the North Shore now, which is full of pretenders, though you would think the presence of the word “shore” would make it easy. There are 20 towns and cities that touch the coast if you were to follow it from Winthrop to the New Hampshire border, but I can identify at least that many inland poser towns you might catch leaning against the Cinnabon at the North Shore Mall. I get that Merrimack Valley doesn’t sound as cool, but no one wants to hear someone from Andover saying they’re from the North Shore.
The South Shore Plaza in Braintree is the same story. Place is crawling with Hanover, which doesn’t touch any oceans I know of. There are just 11 cities and towns that physically border the Atlantic between Boston and Cape Cod, the Route 3A towns. But then there’s another dozen off Route 3 that claim or feel South Shore. And the truth is, where else is Hanover if not the South Shore? Like, what else could you say?
It’s complicated, and some make it more so. As I was being yelled at for my use of the term Berkshires, I was also accused of being the sort of coastal elite who thinks everything west of Worcester is Western Mass. My only response to that is: You are correct.
Apparently, there’s an entire region of Massachusetts between Worcester and the Berkshires, three whole counties stacked on top of each other along the Connecticut River that I’m told is called the Pioneer Valley.
If I knew this I forgot it, probably because Pioneer Valley sounds like a made-up marketing name to avoid saying Connecticut. Watch as I forget it again. Boom. Forgotten.
Western Massachusetts is a perfectly fine name for everything west of Worcester. The name is not Westernmost Massachusetts. If UMass isn’t in Western Mass., then I quit. I’m not driving any further.
But Wests and Norths, shores and mountains — those are the easy regions of Massachusetts geography, in terms of grouping them on a map. What of those mostly in-between places? I like to think I have a decent feel for knowing exactly when to say “Uh-huh” after someone tells me where they live and I’ve heard of it but definitely can’t find it on a map. I suspect they can tell, or I can tell that they suspect, and so there’s often a practiced addendum, like “it’s off of 495,” or “You’ve heard of New Bedford, right? It’s kinda near there.” Uh-huh.
I apologize to the following communities. When I tell my brain to flood me with names under the category of “Massachusetts cities and towns,” I know you’re here, but I have no clue where. Taunton. Bellingham. Holyoke. Ayer. Rehoboth. Boxborough. Leominster. I can find you with my thumbs in seconds, but my brain not in forever.
I fully expect to receive angry e-mails from their residents, shouting, “It’s off of 495!” We are programmed to defend our turf. The reason we were so protective of being from Boston is because it kept up the idea that everyone else stunk and wanted to be us. (As opposed to not assuming that the random guy in front of you in the line for “It’s a Small World,” who just turned around and asked you where you were from for some reason, would know Chelmsford.)
(Final parenthetical: Even worse is if you meet someone who says they’re from Boston and their story checks out. The rules dictate that you then move onto a game of “Who’s more Boston?” Start by asking where they went to high school and then move through a series of tie-breakers until a champion is found.)
These things matter. Rules must be established and enforced. And so I apologize to the people of the Berkshires, and to the good folks of Cummington for associating them with those awful people.
I get how it stings. Just the other day I saw something wildly offensive, a new dispensary called Cape Ann Cannabis. I live on Cape Ann, but this dispensary was two towns over the line, in Rowley. Not even close. Cape Ann Cannabis is what my buddy Jon grows in his backyard in Rockport, 40 minutes away. Rowley’s in, like, the Berkshires.