It was a gorgeous autumn day in New England when my hiking club headed to Mount Toby in Sunderland, Massachusetts. The air was dry and crisp, the sky a glaze of cobalt blue. Parking our cars, we stepped into the crunchy leaves, unloaded our gear and headed toward the trail head. Some hikers prefer walking sticks or poles, but I find them more cumbersome than helpful. Besides with a backpack and layered clothing to shed, I didn’t need another thing to carry.
Our leader warned it was a steep hike, but I doubted it. She said the same thing as a precaution when we headed to Monument Mountain in Great Barrington two weeks prior. That hike was easy and pleasant with several beautiful vistas on at least three sides of the mountain. There were huge boulders for exploring and resting. The trail was narrow, but smooth, a pleasure to traverse. Being outdoors with good friends and conversation was invigorating that day, so I didn’t quite believe our leader’s hike difficulty rating of Mount Toby.
As we started uphill, Tower Road trail was newly groomed, wide, and covered in orange, yellow and red leaves. It was hiker friendly as well easy management for a forest ranger in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. It looked effortless to travel. We were happy. Walking, a large clump of yakking humans invading and disturbing the quiet of nature, we hikers moved into the woods. In quick time, we reached the first cross path, things changed rapidly for the worst. Washed out trails, huge gullies on either side and the steep ascent appeared. Surprisingly, we realized we were out of breath and had to stop. Turning to look for stragglers, it was evident we had already climbed a steep incline. A tractor engine roared in the distance. Wondering if it was the forest ranger, we continued. Approaching a Jeep in the middle of the trail, we met a husky, bearded ranger. He greeted our group of twelve cheerfully, cutting his engine to let us pass. His vehicle was not what deafened us. He warned about the bulldozer ahead. Forest engineers were repairing the water damage from the historic torrential rains of the late summer of 2005. We were asked to proceed cautiously because the trail was a little more challenging than usual. Hm! Some of us were starting to wheeze, feeling the strain of muscles and lungs was not a good sign since we barely hiked a quarter mile. We admitted our leader was right this time. It was a darn steep hike! On we went, though, around the bulldozer that temporarily stopped from turning up soil, rocks and leaves. Back on the trail the surface became equal to stepping into quick sand. Barely getting through that stretch, we were back onto an unrepaired path with more gullies and small rocks hidden under leaves. Slipping and sliding as the passageway went uphill, time-outs were called often. Huffing like the wolf in the Three Little Pigs, I was caught by surprise. The trail was a challenge. It took nearly one and a half hours to get to the peak.
We were relieved to finally get to the top, but discovered there was no view unless you were willing to climb the five story, steel fire tower. Well, that proved little reward. How disappointing and exhausting. I found the nearest log and sat. Having no energy left, I had to catch my breath and eat something. No one attempted climbing the tower as most everyone was in the same condition. We hydrated and munched our way through a list of complaints.
Helping to cheer us up, our apologetic leader rewarded us with her homemade chocolate chip cookies. Chocolate chips coursing through our veins and strength returning, a handful of brave souls, including myself, headed for the tower. Holding onto the windblown, shaking railings, we climbed the weather exposed structure. Once at the top, a spectacular view over the trees sprayed a blanket of muted golds, reds and greens. In my mind’s eye, I took in the beauty, briefly, as I was interrupted by the tower swaying in the wind. I clung to the railing, unable to use my camera or binoculars. Grasping the two side rails, I cautiously inched down the narrow steps, glad to hit solid ground.
Descending the trail to the base of the mountain, we ran into more mushy soil, the bulldozer, the fire ranger and many other explorers. My hiking buddy and I were the last to return because my tricky knee acts up on the descent, making a quick return impossible. The only cure for the pain is the ice cream stop made on the way home. A double chocolate chip on a sugar cone helps wounds heal. Oh and yes, the ice pack, the Ace bandage, the Advil and the nap as soon as I get home helps, too.
Though our leader had accurate predictions this time, it was worth it to enjoy a great day hiking in the beauty of a New England autumn.