Bernard A. Drew: The lure of heights and boundaries


GREAT BARRINGTON >> Some of my woods hikes are motivated by curiosity as to what I might see along an old stretch of road or trail. Others are quests, searches for specific walls, foundation walls or other landmarks. I know a handful of others in Berkshire who share this interest — in Rudolph W. Strobel's case, it became a compulsion — in searching for hidden history.

Strobel (1906-1994), a native of Erie, Pa., lived on Darlene Street in Pittsfield. He began hiking while an engineering student at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. He worked for General Electric in Pittsfield as a distribution cutout engineer beginning in 1936, and is credited with at least four patents for switches, breakers and other electrical devices. An Army captain during World War II, he at Gen. Joseph Stilwell's behest came up with a plan for the construction of the Ledo Road, a vital supply link to the Burma Road during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

In 1964, Strobel took an in interest in the stones and metal posts along the New York-Massachusetts border as surveyed and marked in 1898 — as described in my previous Our BerkshirEs column. He wanted to visit all 114, from Boston Corner to the Vermont border. He told Richard V. Happel of The Berkshire Eagle there were 53 tall and 35 short granite markers, also 26 cast iron markers.

"To pace the boundaries," Strobel told Happel, "requires a kind of 'land navigation.' He studies a topographical map, takes a compass bearing from a fixed known point, then sects out overland following the azimuth. He also carries an altimeter to check the elevation shown on the map, which helps him realize when he has overshot a marker.

"'After a reasonable time,' says he, 'if I don't find it, I backtrack on a bearing about 20 feet to the side of my original course. Also, when I reach an elevation where the marker should be and don't find it, I do the same."

South Berkshire was particularly challenging, he said, because of dense laurel and scrub oak, not to mention rocky and sometimes steep terrain.

The chance discovery of a stone marker while hiking on Lebanon Mountain sparked his interest in following the whole 50.3-mile boundary.

Climbed lower 48

Strobel took a particular interest in heights, an interest that accelerated after his retirement in 1966. He started to collect them. He scaled the highest peak in Wyoming, Gannett Peak, in 1974, and checked off his 48th highest mountain in the lower 48 states.

"Most of the Rocky Mountain peaks do not have trails," he told Rinker Buck in another story in the Eagle, "so I just sized up the mountain, found a guide if necessary and began the climb."

A familiar sight in the Catskills, the Adirondacks and the White Mountains as well as the Berkshires, he and Angelo E. DeSouse were honored by the Taconic Hiking Club of Troy, N.Y. in 1966 for hiking the 28.8 miles from Berry Pond in Pittsfield along the Taconic peaks to Pownal, Vt.

Strobel became the second out-of-state president of the Adirondack Mountain Club in 1970, which at the time had 17 chapters. He was an Adirondack Forty-Sixer — having summited New York state's 46 highest points. He contributed the preface to a book published in 1958, obviously titled "The Adirondack Forty-Sixers."

He also belonged to the Catskill 3,500 Club, having been to the tops of all the peaks of that elevation or greater in that region.

Strobel admitted he on occasion became disoriented, if not actually lost. He managed to figure out where he was, one time in the Adirondacks, and leave the woods safely and without assistance, he told reporter Vera V. Fielding in 1978. He said he took matches and First Aid supplies when he hiked, and a sleeping bag in winter. He left a description of where he was going with his wife, Catherine.

Strobel liked to rock climb as well as hike, and scaled a few walls in the Rockies as well as on Monument Mountain in Great Barrington. His stamina lessened as he got older, but his enthusiasm never waned. Pleasure came, he told Fielding, in "planning a trip outdoors and the exhilaration of reaching a goal.

"'Hiking shouldn't be just a stroll in the garden. A good hike should get your heart to working, get you to breathing deeply and taking more oxygen into your lungs. And you'll do a lot of healthy sweating, too. It's a good physical fitness strategy.'"

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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