The Seven Sisters
Have you ever read Blueberries for Sal?
It was one of my all-time favorites as a kid. In it, Robert McCloskey – of Make Way for Ducklings fame – tells the story of a little girl, Sal, who sets off with her mother one morning to pick blueberries for canning. Kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk – the blueberries drop into Sal’s pail one by one, only to be eaten in the next step.
Unbeknownst to them, on the other side of the hill, Little Bear and her mother are eating their own share of blueberries to get ready for the long winter ahead. Somehow – and I’m a little sketchy on the details at this point – Little Sal and Little Bear inadvertently trade places, with Little Sal following mama bear, and Little Bear trudging behind Sal’s mom.
This is about where we found ourselves on Saturday afternoon, the first day of our hike. We’d just ascended a steep hill and had stopped for a moment to take a picture.
As we pulled on our packs to set off along the ridgeline, we both heard what we thought was a dog’s bark not far off in the distance. We walked about 10 yards further before coming face to very started face with Little Bear, or, more likely, Little Bear’s slightly older brother, Teenage Bear. He, himself, had just come over the ridgeline and let out a distinctive grunt, akin to that of the Tim “the tool man” Taylor from Home Improvement, an episode of which we happened to catch the night before we set off on our hike.
We backed away quickly, telling him not to worry, that we meant no harm and were happy just to continue on our way. Of course, I’m not sure he heard any of this, since he was clearly just as surprised as we were, and turned tail and ran back down the hill as fast as his young legs could carry him. After giving him a brief head start, we cautiously continued on our way, trekking polls extended in hand, singing The Day the Music Died and The Other Day I Met a Bear until we found ourselves safely on the side of the road three miles later.
And thus began our quest to hike the Metacomet-Monadnock trail from the end to end…
It was exciting, for sure, but also rather anxiety inducing. By the time we’d made dinner (on the banks of a state mental institution, no less), hiked another few miles, and began to set up camp for the night as the last moment of dusk skirted below the horizon, I was picturing packs of coyotes, the undocumented-but-rumored-to-exist northeastern mountain lions, and the lone grizzly bear that managed to swim across the Mississippi River and make its way to the summit of Mount Tom, all converging on our tent at once.
All that, combined with the howling winds, fireworks, and shrieking teenagers on the mountaintop half a mile behind us, made for a rather fitful night’s sleep. Still, we’d made it 22 miles during the first day and our spirits were high for a fast thru-hike.
Day 2 began with a series of technical boulder fields that skirted their way along the mountain’s ridgeline before descending to the Connecticut River. We’d already experienced our first water-crossing – wading across the Westfield River five miles into Day 1. The trailguide suggested otherwise for the Connecticut, however, so instead we hitchhiked our way across with the generous help of four young guys out for a day of boating and boozing on their little motorboat (not to worry – we got to them before the boozing commenced).
Westfield River Connecticut River
We paused briefly on the beach of the river – Brent nearly broke his leg when he brilliantly decided to swing off a hanging rope into the very, very shallow water beneath him – before bushwhacking our way back to the trail and heading up to the top of another mountain and breaking for lunch and a short nap on the grassy lawn of Summit House, a visitor’s center and banquet hall teeming with dayhikers and picnickers. Several years ago, Brent’s brother and sister-in-law were married in that very spot.
We spent the next nine hours slogging up peak after peak, the only “relief” coming by way of the steep technical slopes between them. We made it to The Notch at 5:00 PM, the visitor center at the bottom of the last downhill climb, just as they were closing up for the night. We had intended to fill our water bottles there and then head off for another couple hours of hiking before stopping for the night. With the doors locked and the alarm set, though, we found ourselves in a precarious situation. We had one full nalgene (BPA-free, of course) left between the two of us and little hope of getting to the end of the next section before nightfall.
There were two water sources marked on the map. We came upon the first 20 minutes later, only to find a bone dry stream bed. We thought about turning around at that point, pitching a tent at the visitor’s center and waiting until they opened at 9 AM the next morning to refill, but backtracking wasn’t appealing to either of us. So we pressed our luck and continued on to the second, and encountered little more than a series of puddles that wove their way around the trail. We looked at the puddles dubiously for a few minutes before putting down our packs, breaking out the iodine tablets and, using Brent’s shirt as a filter, filling our empty bottles and setting up camp. We’d hiked for 11 hours and only made it 12 more miles. And we were exhausted. What’s more, Brent accidentally left his shoe insoles back in Philadelphia, and his feet were beginning to turn on him.
The night passed relatively uneventfully, save for the swarms of mosquitos (by far the most vicious of the animals we’ve encountered so far… Brent’s dad warned us about rabid housecats in the area, but we haven’t seen them yet) and the skies opening around 3:30 AM. We started off again at 7:30 the next morning. The rain didn’t prevent us from racking up 11 miles before lunch, though Brent’s feet were steadily declining and we took full of advantage of two beautiful waterfalls along the gently rolling hills to stop for photo ops and make-shift ice baths.
After consulting the trail guide that morning, we realized that we would be passing right by Brent’s parents’ house around quitting time (they live about a mile off the trail), so we decided to camp there for the night, eat chinese food and take showers and sleep in a bed. Hey, if thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail could hitchhike into towns to do laundry and eat steak dinners and sleep in motels, why couldn’t we make a pit stop?
Brent was pretty sure that he could navigate us off-trail to his parents’ house, cutting off a couple miles and bringing us right to their backyard. By that point, he had suggested that we take a rest day the following day, give his feet 24 hours to heal, and then head off for the back half of the hike. With my own arches smarting a bit and some pretty nasty blisters on my toes, I readily agreed. Now all that stood between us and a day off was four miles of back trails. Or so we thought. Somehow – here, again, I’m a little sketchy on the details – we managed to skirt the very mountain we sought to avoid in taking this shortcut, only to come out on the other side and link up with the M-M trail again, about a mile up the road from our destination. Not quite the detour we were expecting… I guess that’s what you get for attempting to outsmart the trail gods.
In the 10.5 hours of day 3, then, we covered 20 miles, got 157 mosquito bites, solved 6 minute-mysteries, and ate several handfuls of gorp. No scary animals, though we did get spooked by a big black dog that jetted off down the trail in front of us, likely to catch up with its owner hiking a couple hundred yards ahead.
And now we’re in Amherst, Massachusetts, contemplating a day at the movies before setting off again tomorrow to wrap up the 59 miles remaining on our Metacomet-Monadnock adventure.