CHESHIRE — The town has rolled out the welcome mat for hikers on the Appalachian Trail looking for a place to bed down for the night.
The Cheshire Appalachian Trail Committee and town officials recently opened a tent- and hammock-only overnight campsite on unused municipal space just off the trail.
The open-air stopover, in the works since last summer, is next to the municipal Highway Department. Hikers will find plenty of amenities: running water, a picnic table, portable toilet, trash barrel, and soon-to-be installed electrical outlets for charging cellphones and other mobile devices.
"It's the campsite of all campsites," said trail committee Chairwoman Eileen Quinn.
"We've named it the `Father Tom Campsite,' " she said, a nod to the Rev. Thomas Begley.
Begley, who was pastor at St. Mary of the Assumption Church from 1981 to 2001, was known for being immersed in parish activities and throughout Northern Berkshire.
The need to offer hikers a formal camping area arose last year, when the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield stopped allowing hikers, as it had for decades, to camp out on the lawn of the church.
The local trail committee has made sure that 2020 hiking guides and social media apps have removed St. Mary's as a viable camping spot. Quinn says hikers can rely on the Guthook app for details about the Cheshire campsite.
The Cheshire campsite has become vital to the hikers as Appalachian Trail shelters, campsites and privies on state parkland are closed due to COVID-19. In addition, there is absolutely no camping anywhere along the 90-mile section of the trail in Massachusetts — all located within Berkshire County.
The Appalachian Trail is a 2,175-mile-long path that runs from Georgia to Maine, attracting thousands of people each year who hike part or all of the trail.
The site also has poles to tie up a hammock for those who would rather sleep above ground than take the time to pitch a tent. Most recently, a kiosk was installed with information posted about the town and the trail. The kiosk and picnic table are courtesy of the Berkshires' Massachusetts Appalachian Trail Management Committee.
Finally, an on-site bike shed contains four bicycles that hikers can borrow for a ride into town to dine, shop, visit Cheshire Reservoir or simply explore the community..
Quinn notes that several committee volunteers will monitor and sanitize the campsite on a daily basis.
Select Board Chairwoman Michelle Francesconi says that what hikers are on the trail during the coronavirus pandemic are grateful for are the accommodations.
"A couple of hikers who spoke to volunteers said they were very impressed," she said.
Added Quinn: "The hikers are loving this, and we're going to be known for this [campsite]."
The pandemic delayed the town having the campsite ready in May, but municipal employees and volunteers stepped up preparations after hikers, through social media, learned that the campsite was in the works.
"Hikers started camping there, and we weren't going to tell them no," Quinn said. "That was back [in early June], so, we decided to get it ready for official use."
In late August, the Cheshire Planning Board approved plans to provide a rustic, free-of-charge camping site, and some preparation work was done in the fall. Whitney's Farm Market and Garden Center in Cheshire donated the 13 arborvitae plants to screen the site from a neighboring homeowner and give the hikers some privacy.
Trail advocates and town officials say the camping initiative justifies the 2018 designation by the Appalachian Mountain Club of Cheshire as an Appalachian Trail Community. The club bestows the honor on communities dedicated to the management and preservation of the trail.
After initial opposition and concern by some residents to the town-sanctioned campsite, Town Administrator Ed St. John IV commended all who cooperated to see the project through.
"Our volunteers did a tremendous amount of work to make this happen, and we are very grateful for their time and energy," he said, "especially their commitment to make the area safe and well-maintained."
Dick Lindsay can be reached at email@example.com.