Travelers can go for miles without seeing anyone, but towns along the way offer hot food and socialization.
ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL, Mass. (AP) -- It's time to get your bearings.
There are miles of woods at your back, and 30 pounds on it -- a backpack filled with what you definitely need (food, tent, sleeping bag) and some of what you probably don't (a paperback, that third pair of socks).
You've faithfully followed the Appalachian Trail blazes -- white, 2-by-6-inch rectangular marks painted at eye-level every few yards on trees -- to the top of Massachusetts' highest mountain, through dense woods and across flowing brooks.
Now, with mud on your boots and sweat on your forehead, it's time to cross the street.
Just as soon as the trucks let you, that is.
Your eyes dart across Route 8 in Dalton, searching for those white blazes to draw you past houses, athletic fields and traffic before leading you back to the woods, where you thought a hiker belonged.
There's one -- on a telephone pole. Then another -- on the back of a stop sign.
You've been walking the Appalachian Trail through the Berkshires for almost three days, and the trail mix and energy bars that have kept you rolling along have already lost their appeal.
So you follow the white blazes right to K's Pub and Family Restaurant on Depot Street, where hot meals and beers from the Berkshire Brewing Co. have long beckoned hikers along the trail.
"This place is packed during the summer," said bartender Mike Demary, who lives in nearby Peru and takes to the Appalachian Trail for day hikes with his son and the Boy Scouts he supervises.
Hikers "like the Berkshire brew," Demary said. "It's heavy, and they think it has a lot of protein so it will keep them going. We went through a lot of it this summer."
Nature meets civilization
Such is the Appalachian Trail in Massachusetts, a scant 90-mile stretch of the 2,160-mile footpath that connects Springer Mountain, Ga., to Mount Katahdin, Maine. While the trail passes along the 3,491-foot summit of Mount Greylock, where sweeping views of western Massachusetts, eastern New York and southern Vermont blend into a green, hilly horizon, it also crosses through small towns and across busy roadways, making it as easily accessible to day-hikers as it is for longer-hauling backpackers.
That idea of an escape into nature was what the trail's first planner had in mind. In his 1921 essay, "An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning," Benton Mackaye, who lived in Shirley, outlines his reasoning for developing the footpath. People living in a postwar, industrial-focused society grappling with rising unemployment needed to refocus their attention on leisure time, he said.
An Appalachian Trail, he envisioned, also could serve as grounds for collective farms, nature retreats and learning centers -- things that never fully developed.
MacKaye originally wanted a ridgetop trail. But to get from one ridge to another, the trail needed to dip into the valleys where the towns are, explains Brian King, a spokesman for the Appalachian Trail Conference, based in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
"It's become a culture of long-distance hiking to spend a day in town," King said. "From Massachusetts down through Virginia, there's a typical pattern of going for long stretches and then hitting a town. Hikers love it."
As easy as it is to find a place to jump on the trail, you can go for hours and miles without laying eyes on another person. If you're lucky enough to get to a spot like Finerty Pond in the October Mountain State Forest to yourself, the only thing that could startle you are the thumping wings of a flock of grouse beating the air like a helicopter's rotor blades.
"The lure of the trail is to get away from it all," said Steve Wilson, a 44-year-old minister from Lancaster. "It's a very spiritual experience."
Wilson spent a few weeks last fall hiking the Appalachian Trail from Connecticut up to Mount Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts. Much of the trip was spent in seclusion, he said, walking through what seemed like a constant tunnel of trees that surrounded him in silence.
Then he hit Dalton, and left the trail for a cheeseburger.
"I sat in the restaurant and all I heard was the din of people," he said. "It was sending shivers up and down my spine after hearing nothing but crickets for days."
His last night on the trail was spent at Bascom Lodge, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The lodge, which opens for the season May 20, seems luxurious compared to the basic wooden lean-tos that offer shelter to hikers along the trail.
After his long hike up the mountain, there was a shower waiting for him and a meal of soup, salad, chicken parmigiana and spaghetti shared family-style with one other backpacker and a dozen others who drove up Greylock's auto road just for a night's getaway.
Soon after dinner, the Girl Scouts showed up -- a troop of eight 11-year-old girls from Bronxville, N.Y., accompanied by two adults.
"They're working for their outdoorsmanship badge," said Susan Cody, one of the chaperones.
Here, in the sheltered comfort of home-cooked meals, flush toilets and bunk beds at Bascom?
"No, this doesn't really feel like the wilderness," Cody confessed. "Usually we're pitching tents and cooking outside, but we didn't have to do it on this trip."
But you don't want to discount the Appalachian Trail in Massachusetts as "easy." Although the terrain itself is almost perfectly flat for long stretches, unlike the more challenging topography of northern New England, the rolling Berkshire hills still give your body a workout. And in cold, rainy weather, you have only the gear on your back and your wits to protect you at times. The trail is both a place of quick escape and a proving ground.
But whether you've been hiking for a few hours or a few months, eventually you need to get back to everyday routines. In a journal at Bascom Lodge, a thru-hiker walking the entire trail from Georgia to Maine wrote about how he was looking forward to getting home, especially for his mother's lasagna.
"Then again," wrote the hiker, "I know that after a few days I'll have to accept reality and get a job. And pay bills. And take care of responsibilities. And then, like many other thru-hikers before me, I'll probably think of how much better it would be to go back to hiking."
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