Initially, the walking tour was just a ridiculous, romantic collaboration between musicians Raianne Richards and Mark Mandeville. With gas prices on the rise a few years back, a handful of their fellow musicians were coming up with creative ways to tour without using fuel.
On June 16, the couple will embark on their sixth Massachusetts Walking Tour — kicking off with a performance at the Jamaica Plain Boathouse — proving that even the most implausible dreams can have staying power. Three days later, the hiking portion of the tour begins in earnest, heading south from Framingham along the Bay Circuit Trail, and will end on June 30 in Duxbury, with concerts almost every night along the way.
Richards and Mandeville were inspired by a friend, Christopher Bell, who “toured” from Buffalo to New York City via canoe on the Hudson River and Erie Canal, in addition to riding his bike from Buffalo to Chicago.
“We liked the idea and have always enjoyed hiking, so we decided to combine our two interests, music and hiking,” said Richards. “We walked for 17 days from the Berkshire Mountains clear across Massachusetts and into Boston. More than 160 miles of road walking.”
In their first year, the pair visited a town that had not hosted a concert in more than 20 years.
“This was our motivation to keep going, making the event annual and trying to unite artists in these communities so that a town wouldn’t have to wait 20 years again,” said Richards.
According to Mandeville, that first trek was a bit overwhelming — the artists carried their musical instruments and other overnight essentials — but a success nonetheless. The pair applied for Massachusetts Cultural Council funding and were able to increase the scope of their mission by affiliating with the National Park Service and Appalachian Mountain Club.
“While, initially, we sought to bring our music in and out of towns on foot, adhering to a minimalist folk aesthetic, the Mass. Walking Tour has grown into a string of concerts which highlight local artists in the towns we visit, promoting state trail systems, and empowering towns to organize yearly concert events of their own,” said Mandeville.
“Our original intent was to visit each town in Massachusetts, without having a clear idea just how long that would take,” he said. In six years, the count is up to 70 towns, with hikes on three major trail systems.
On June 17, a short hike on the Emerald Necklace, from Jamaica Plain to Cambridge, will be followed by a concert at Club Passim.
“While the Emerald Necklace is a gem in Jamaica Plain and offers great recreation opportunities to city residents, it doesn’t have the variety of habitats and wildlife nor the access to acres and acres of protected woods and wildlife that the Bay Circuit Trail offers,” said Richards. “We are very excited for the opportunity to connect the two together.”
Taking the tour off-road represents an evolution, said Mandeville, bringing the musicians closer to the subtle joys that the natural environment offers.
“When we first started, the walks would meander from state roads, through neighborhoods, to bike paths and sidewalks,” said Mandeville. “With regards to being more publicly visible, it definitely perpetuates our mission as passersby witness our efforts. However, trail volunteers and greenways organizations have welcomed our efforts in full, and have the resources and connections to link our yearly tour to ongoing trail projects, expanding the scope of the tour.
“The Bay Circuit Trail Alliance is made up of devoted individuals across Eastern Massachusetts who believe in the importance of a public greenways,” he said. “It has been highly rewarding to work with them and their vision to complete a trailway originally imagined over 100 years ago.”
Richards and Mandeville, who both work at Blackstone Valley Music in Uxbridge, will again be joined by musicians Amy Alvey of Somerville and Mark Kilianski of Jamaica Plain, who have participated in the past three tours, and Kristen Sykes of the Appalachian Mountain Club. Musicians and outdoor enthusiasts, young and old, are invited to join the traveling troupe.
“We’re spoiled here in the city, with all the theaters and music venues, but what about towns like Royalston?” asked Alvey.
“Bringing our music to these art-starved towns, not to mention doing it in the hardest way possible, is extremely fulfilling,” said Alvey.
The feeling is reciprocal.
“The moments that stay with me are the acts of kindness we get from complete strangers,” said Alvey. “In 2013 we were hiking to Erving, and some trail angel had left us a huge bowl of watermelon and lemonade on the side of the road that said: ‘For the Musical Hikers.’ ”
One of the tour’s biggest challenges, according to the musicians, is trying to reach as many communities as possible, which often means not being able to offer encore visits in successive years.
“This is how we decided to give back to our community,” said Richards. “Mark and I do a lot of traveling out of state and all over the country and we visit so many forward-thinking and culturally enriched places. That inspired us to find a way to make that happen right here in our own backyards.
“Everyone should be given the chance to gather with their community and sing a song, hear a poem, or see a piece of art,” she said. “This art should be celebrated and shared. People should be aware of the trails in their neighborhood so they can enjoy them and protect them for years to come.”
Details on the concerts and hikes can be found at www.masswalkingtour.org .