Friday October 19, 2012

On Columbus Day, when the westbound lane of the Massachusetts Turnpike was backed up from Sturbridge all the way to Boston, prospective leaf-peepers could have easily avoided the traffic jam and gotten to see some foliage at the same time. How? By dropping over to nearby Route 20, an unheralded road finally achieving some overdue recognition.

Turnpike officials speculated that in this era of GPS, drivers don’t carry maps in their car and can’t find alternative routes to avoid traffic jams. If we are now such GPS sheep that drivers don’t know enough to get off the pike when it has become a parking lot and take Route 20 -- or Routes 2 or 9 for that matter -- going west, we may be doomed as a society.

Before there was a turnpike Berkshire drivers had no choice but to take one of those roads east when going to Boston. When they took Route 20 they were on the last leg of the road’s 3,365-mile journey from Newport, Oregon to Boston, and Route 20 is now the only coast-to-coast highway that hasn’t been rerouted or cut up at some point. Boston native Bryan Farr created the Historic U.S. Route 20 Association in honor of this remarkable road, the origins of which date back three centuries, and the state has officially recognized the designation (Eagle, Oct. 18).

One of the most remarkable stretches of Route 20 is the Jacob’s Ladder Trail, which extends 35 miles from Lee to Russell.


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As it winds through bucolic towns like Becket and Chester, the trail goes into forests, past rock ledges and the Westfield River, by a large abandoned quarry in Becket and offers access to the Chester-Blandford State Forest.

When time is an issue, the turnpike is obviously the way to travel -- except for certain times of the day and year on the heavily traveled eastern end. But when time is not a factor and the weather is good, drivers should explore the wonders of the Jacob’s Ladder Trail and visit other intriguing Route 20 communities no longer on the beaten track. The quieter, slower-paced America that existed before the era of high-speed roads and chain restaurants still flourishes on historic Route 20. Get in the car and go see it.