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Driving Cross-County

(Or, Rachel and Ethan's Wacky Fourth of July)



Our Fourth of July observance this year involved no barbecues, no parades, no waving of flags or adornment with bunting. There were fireworks, eventually, but only in a coincidental way. This year, Ethan and I decided to spend the day attempting to visit, and photograph, every town in Berkshire County.

This was his idea, and I was skeptical, especially once he sent me this URL which lists all 32 Berkshire towns. Thirty-two seemed like a lot of towns to visit in one day. Berkshire's a big county, by New England standards; the Pioneer Valley (the north-south swath of state to our east, roughly equivalent in size to Berkshire) spans three counties, not one.

And to complicate matters, I had spread the word to our friends that they were welcome to meet us at 6 p.m. at a Steeplecats game in North Adams. I was convinced that, given that time constraint, we'd never pull it off. Still, I was happy to try.

***

The Fourth dawned sunny and clear, and by 8:45 we were on the road, taking one of our favorite back ways from our Lanesboro house into Hancock. Our second stop was south Williamstown, where we photographed Caretaker Farm. We go there weekly to get our share of vegetables, but the weekly dose isn't enough to inure me to the place's spectacular beauty.

After grabbing bagels and coffee at the Store at Five Corners, where the proprietor greeted us by name, we headed south, driving through the third Berkshire town in which we could once claim residence, New Ashford. (In those days, we lived in a sheep barn. We resisted the temptation to photograph it, figuring its new inhabitants might be kind of baffled, and instead grabbed a shot of the tiny town hall.) In Lanesboro, our current town of residence, we photographed the town's old stone church, its steeple newly-replaced. The old one rested neatly in a corner of the exterior, behind a pair of trash cans.

Pittsfield was where we came closest to a parade. We avoided the main streets, but we were still forced to detour by a friendly policeman and set of wooden barricades, and around us pedestrians carrying lawn chairs thronged the usually-empty city streets. At a crosswalk, we nodded politely to a large family, headed up by an older gentleman in military uniform.

In Richmond, we stopped to photograph the combination post office/bistro/store. I'd eaten at the bistro before, but had never tried the store-which turns out to have one of the most impressive cheese collections I've ever seen. Local and foreign, cow's-milk and goat's-milk and sheep's-milk, pasteurized and raw, enormous wheels and tiny herb-coated blocks: the selection was giddying. We picked up some ewe's-milk cheese, a link of hard dry sausage, a loaf of rosemary bread, and some cornichons and got back on the road, promising to return.

***

As we photographed each town, we checked it off our list. We spent as little time as possible in Lenox and Stockbridge, which the BerkshireLinks webguide calls the "orchid towns" of South County. They've always been a little too shi-shi for our tastes; no ordinary mortal can afford to live there, and (in Stockbridge especially) the seasonality of the population means restaurants can suck with impunity because no one's there long enough to make return visits.

West Stockbridge, in contrast, is charming. The main street is quirky; the package store (side note to southern readers: this is a northern euphemism for "place where one can buy liquor") is painted a vivid pink with teal trim; the proprietors of Baldwin's, down the street, make and sell the world's best vanilla extract. With regret we skipped the daily glassblowing demonstration and avoided the myriad art galleries; after all, we were on a mission.

After West Stockbridge came the hamlet of Alford, population 399. As we approached the so-called town center we marveled that anyone lived in these far reaches of the county. It's one thing to call ourselves rural when our house is mere minutes from Route 7, one of the county's main throughways; being rural in Alford must be a totally different experience.

The houses, tucked into fields and gardens, were beautiful. The middle of town held a wee white clapboard school, a wee white clapboard church, and the wee white clapboard town hall, all on a green beside a wee old cemetary.

We were charmed instantly-and became even more so when an older fellow pulled his truck over beside ours to see if we needed help getting anywhere. He directed us to the next town, Mount Washington, via back roads (there's no other way; Mount Washington is devoid of numbered highways) and wished us a happy holiday. We'd effectively met, and conversed with, a quarter of one percent of Alford's population!

Mount Washington is the smallest town in the county, population-wise; it is home to a mere 129 souls, and the BerkshireLinks guide says only "The ruggedly beautiful town of Mount Washington is the site of Mt. Everett (2nd highest peak in the commonwealth) and the spectacular, legendary Bash Bish Falls. Perhaps the ideal time to visit would be the end of June, when the mountain laurel is in full bloom." We decided to skip the commonwealth's second-highest peak, but we hit the other two highlights: mountain laurel were blooming everywhere along the roads, and we decided to take a quick walk to the falls and photograph them as our memorial of Mount Washington.

The trail to the falls is well-marked, and there were a few dozen cars parked at the trailhead; the sign just said "to the falls" and "no swimming," and didn't list any kind of distance or difficulty rating. We figured it'd be a quick stroll, so there was no need to take food or water with us. Besides, we could hear the waterfall from the top of the trail, so how far could it be?

Okay, so that wasn't our brightest moment. The falls are probably only a quarter- or half-mile from the road, but the trail goes almost straight down. In a few places there are steps; mostly it's a sandy scramble over tree roots. The waterfall is spectacular; the hike back up to the car was...hot. And unpleasant. And when we finally reached the tarmac, and I said a fervent silent prayer of thanks that we'd made it up the hill without my lungs collapsing or Ethan going into an insulin reaction, the truck battery turned out to have died.

A quick rendezvous with another truck and Ethan's jumper cables solved that problem, and we blasted off again in air-conditioned comfort.

***

As we drove, we talked; we listened to music; we caught two hour-long episodes of "Agents of Change" on WAMC, featuring David Kaczynski (head of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty; coincidentally, the brother who turned in the so-called Unabomber) and Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany (who turns out to have remarkable things to say about, for instance, how priestly celibacy--a discipline, not a doctrine--may be partially responsible for the relative shortage of new priests, which is in turn getting in the way of providing eucharist to all of the parishes which need leadership). We stopped to buy soda and bottles of water. We ate weird crunchy things flavored with faux-pizza spice. We spent the day poring over maps, moving through space, stopping to see things, getting back in the car again. It was like the cross-country trip we took together six years ago, in intense microcosm.

In Great Barrington we photographed a little airfield filled with small planes, long one of our favorite spots in South County. The heart of Sandisfield turns out to be the mid-eighteenth-century settlement of New Boston. In Tyringham, we admired the bizarre exterior of Santarella, the county's so-called "gingerbread house."

One of the roads we traveled was rutted dirt through a long stretch of forest and "land for sale" signs. We got caught in a sudden rainstorm, and watched steam rise from fields and ponds. We drove through towns and state forests, on roads paved and dirt, under the Turnpike and over mountains. Around the county we photographed town halls, libraries, Congregational churches, volunteer fire departments.

In addition to the photographs we took, there were the ones we didn't take. Some, like the ornate tower at High Lawn Farms dairy, we avoided snapping because we didn't want to embarrass the people working there. Others, like the "Tyringham: A Hinterland Community" sign at the border of Tyringham, we missed because there were cars behind us and we couldn't pull over to get the shot.

In North Adams, we caught the first four innings of the baseball game, during which time we watched another rainstorm move over the mountains and drench the ballpark and move on to someplace else. We ate hot dogs and hamburgers and stood up and cheered when the Steeplecats hit a home run.

Our last two towns were Adams and Cheshire, which we photographed on our way home. In Adams, Ethan snapped shots of the main street, one of our favorites in the county. In Cheshire, a town we navigate routinely, he managed to find and photograph the monument to the enormous Cheshire cheese presented by the town to President Thomas Jefferson. (Depending on who you ask, it weighed either 1,235 or 1,450 pounds; it was made with curds from the dairy of every farmer in town.) Finding something so strange and wonderful, in a town I thought I knew well, was the perfect end to our Berkshire adventure.

***

By nightfall we were lounging on our deck, drinking cold beer and being eaten alive by mosquitoes and watching five distinct fireworks displays across our ten-mile view. The ones over Onota Lake, where we'd photographed the medical center in Pittsfield that morning, were tiny starbursts of color. The ones at the far end of our valley were dazzling; we saw their light a second or two before their sounds reached us. And now and then, somebody really close would set off a roman candle, and we would cheer. In between, we watched fireflies in our bushes.

Berkshire County takes a long time to drive through. There's a lot here, and the landscape has a different flavor when one's taking the time to see the county as a plane, as something spacial, instead of as a network of roads providing the shortest distance between any two points.

Ethan's been talking about a cross-county drive for a while now. We picked the Fourth of July as our date because it was a beautiful day, and a day off from work, and on some inchoate level it seemed like a neat thing to do on the holiday. We weren't looking for a "patriotic" way to spend the day--but celebrating the pan-political agglomeration of unique, historic, and beautiful towns in our county seems now like the perfect celebration for the Fourth of July. Patriotism means "love of, and devotion to, one's country," and what better way to express that love than by taking the time to explore the ins and outs of the very particular piece of country that we call home?