WILLIAMSTOWN — Autumn is the ideal time for hiking in these parts. Biting insects are banished. Heat and humidity have given way to cool nights and warm days. We usually get early rain, followed by a stretch of dry weather. Need I mention colorful leaves? Leave your car behind, or at least at the trail head.
The fall hiking season officially opens when the Williams Outing Club begins its series of weekly sunrise hikes on Pine Cobble. I ran into 50 students on the trail the other day. They had risen about 6 a.m. in order to summit and return in time for classes. Director Scott Lewis, often accompanied by Bernice, provides snacks and inspiration.
Students aren't the only creatures out and about autumn mornings. A doe and a couple of fauns one day. A bear cub, mother not far away, another. A porcupine up a tree, singing his heart out. The call of an owl, answered.
Signs of habitation
Thomas Wolfe wrote of "a stone, a leaf, an unfound door." His readers have wondered what he meant, exactly. In Berkshire woods it's clear: they refer to signs of former human habitation, the stone tumbled from the pasture wall, the leaf of the lilac that still stands where once a farmhouse stood, the partial remains of a foundation, the first floor with a door long gone. It is a special pleasure of Berkshire hiking to find that people lived in what is now forest.
People lived and worked there. The very path may have been a logging road or, before that, a stage road or a carting road. Steep portions of the Bellows Pipe Trail were cobbled, each stone placed by hand, so that wagons, even carriages could climb. The stage coach climbed from Cheshire past Jones Nose and down through New Ashford. Money Brook Trail, once a road deep into the Hopper on Greylock, passes a ford, mill foundations, a sketchy foundation that may have been a home or a barn. An old mill at the junction of the Dunbar Brook Trail and Tilda Hill Road in Monroe. The mills and water system along the Shaker Trail across from Hancock Shaker Village.
As leaves fall, older uses of the landscape become more prominent. You can pick out traces of roads no longer used, fields no longer plowed, orchards no longer kept up. The wild grapes may once have been domesticated. Invasive species signal human history. The multiflora rose was probably planted, originally, as living fence. Bad idea! That Japanese knotweed was planted once, to hold the river bank.
New, better views
It is easier to see where you're going after the leaves start to fall. Some of the trails that are green tunnels in the summer open up vistas in the fall, especially along the ridges. For instance, the view from Berlin Mountain improves, as does that on the trail up Prospect. New views open on the way to Spruce Hill on the Hoosac Range Trail. Even the occluded view from Mt. Everett improves, although not as good as when the tower was there.
Wondering where to walk? Choices are infinite in Berkshire County. You could find ideas in "50 Hikes in the Berkshire Hills," WW Norton/Countryman, published last July.
At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.
A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.