COMMENTARY

Ralph Gardner Jr. : Taking a tiny vacation in the Berkshires

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GHENT, N.Y. — I took my first vacation of the pandemic last weekend. It was a small vacation. A truly small vacation. It started around 9 a.m. Sunday morning when I left my house in Columbia County in New York, traveled to the Berkshires to go hiking, and ended five hours and 16,331 steps later, including lunch.

My companions were Bruce Shenker, a friend since college who lives in Canaan, N.Y., and who regularly walks, runs and bikes the local landscape, and Tad Ames, another longtime friend and the former president of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council. Tad ran the environmental organization for 16 years, from 2002 to 2018. These days, he’s the director of donor communications at Kripalu.

I invited my daughter, Lucy, to join us. But she thought it might better serve as a socially distanced boys’ outing, so she headed into the woods around our house to collect mushrooms. 

'LONG-RANGE VISION'

While at the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, it was largely Tad’s vision to connect the Berkshires’ disparate walking trails into a network.

“It’s a long-range vision,” Tad said after the first leg of our walk, as we sat on a granite bench dedicated to George Wislocki, Tad’s predecessor at Berkshire Natural Resources Council. 

The bench is located on a ridge in Pittsfield called Mahanna Cobble. It’s above Bousquet ski area and offers a pristine view of gently receding hills spreading beyond Massachusetts into Connecticut and New York. 

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Ideally, Tad said, the goal would be to create opportunities such as in England’s Lake District, the Swiss Alps or Spain’s Camino de Santiago where one can walk from town to town, hostel to hostel and, even more importantly, from restaurant to restaurant, knowing that your effort and exercise will be rewarded with an excellent local meal. That’s still a ways off. 

“There are traditions in Europe, probably from ancient habits, of passing over other people’s land,” Tad said. “The United States is so much more interested in private property rights and your own fiefdom, your own domain. We just don’t have that idea of sharing and communal use backed into our system that much.”

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But Berkshire Natural Resources Council and other environmental groups such as the Massachusetts Audubon Society are joining forces with private property owners to bring that dream a few steps closer to reality. There was certainly more than enough terrain to keep us occupied on our walk. From Mahanna Cobble, we traveled well-marked trails, stopping occasionally to pluck wild raspberries and blueberries, until we reached Yokun Seat, another spectacular view, overlooking the city of Pittsfield.

My only regret is that I neglected to bring along my pair of adjustable walking sticks. They lend an added degree of self-confidence as you’re negotiating slick moss and slippery exposed tree roots. I was also under the misapprehension that I was in relatively decent shape from occasional runs, weekend bike loops and general outdoor chores. 

And perhaps, I was. But Bruce, who has raised exercise to something of a secular religion, set a lively pace. Also, he and I have slightly different attitudes toward injury. Mine is to pay them homage. Bruce’s is to ignore them. Retracing our steps back to Mahanna Cobble, he confided that he’d twisted his ankle by stepping in a hole. His solution: go even faster.

I’m not sure of Tad’s exercise regimen, except that he looked in good shape and arrived at the Bousquet parking lot, where we met, with a couple of kayaks atop his Honda Fit. Unlike me, he had no trouble keeping pace with Bruce who offered me a pack of Gu, a banana strawberry energy gel that tastes about as appealing as it sounds. I suppose it helped because I didn’t have to be carried off the mountain.

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ENJOY THE EXPERIENCE

However, there’s a lesson I’ve learned, and find myself increasingly incorporating into my everyday life, from having observed sun-bronzed septuagenarian and octogenarian sun-bronzed Swiss hikers who have no trouble negotiating the steepest, narrowest Alpine paths. Their secret seems to be that there’s no shame in going slow. The goal is to enjoy the experience, arrive with all your appendages intact, and acquire a ravenous appetite rewarded with an excellent raclette or gratin montagnard.

Such culinary experiences are yet to be savored along the Berkshires’ hiking trails, but Bruce suggested we celebrate our survival with a beer. Unfortunately, Tad had to leave us after we made our way back to the Bousquet parking lot. The final leg of our journey had been down ski slopes turned to fields of wildflowers in summer. 

A beer sounded like a good idea. Even better, a cheeseburger washed down with a beer. I managed to acquire one at Blueberry Hill Market Café in New Lebanon, N.Y., and then transport it a few doors down to the Roaring 20s Brewery & Taphouse, a new watering hole whose pale ale came highly recommended by Bruce.

Others apparently had similar impulses since the restaurant’s gracious lawn was filled with groups enjoying the socially distanced sun and shade. However, I doubt many felt as virtuous or that they deserved the refreshments as much as I did. For my next vacation, I’m considering the Catskills.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and The New Yorker who can be reached at ralph@ralphgardner.com.


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