Humble-hiking: The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) defines “humble hiking” as… nah, just kidding. As far as I know, I just coined the term.
This will not be some Zen piece about “seeking grace in every step”, or turning your sight inside “to try and understand the serenity of a clear blue mountain lake”. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but John Denver might be a better guide than me on that one. This essay uses humble in a much more literal sense. Humble refers to the more modest trails of Southeastern Massachusetts, specifically Bristol County, as compared to the more mountainous terrain of the White Mountains several hours North of here. Here, Southeastern Massachusetts, trails rarely gain elevation of more than a couple hundred feet; and in some places, fail to gain more than 100 feet, even over several miles. Copicut Woods
in Dartmouth, for example, is only a little ways above sea level and the 1.6 mile loop from Yellow Hill Road barely gains 50 feet in elevation. No, the trails in Bristol County do not impress in the same way the Berkshires or the White Mountains do; and they lack the majesty of the Rockies or the Sierra Nevadas. However, while they lack the magnificence of something like the John Muir Trail in California, they do possess a number of other qualities that make them as significant in their own way. Humble-hiking takes a back seat to none in terms of its significance to the health and well-being of the hiker.
Planning a peak-bagging trip to New Hampshire? Do you hope to hit six, seven, or more peaks on your trek? Unless you’re a well-seasoned hiker who summits every four thousand footer every month for twelve months—yeah, people do that—you’re probably going to be on the trail for the weekend. That means lugging a fifty liter pack—at least—loaded with food and camping equipment through perhaps thirty or forty miles of rugged terrain. However, ain’t nobody got time for that—unless you’re a dirtbag (a positive phrase in the climbing community; it describes someone who gives up everything to climb pretty much all year round; literally, someone who lives to climb and climbs to live). So keep it simple; keep it local; humble-hike.
As with any outdoor adventure, hikers need to put safety first. Shorter trails closer to home, lacking the elevation present in mountainous terrain also means more safety. Certainly, anybody can fall and twist or break an ankle anywhere, whether on a 10,000 foot peak or walking down their stairs in the morning.
That being said, wider, less technical trails on fairly level ground, closer to civilization means several things: 1) you are less likely to injure yourself on the trail: 2) you are much closer to help if you do injure yourself: and 3) if you are unable to make it back to your starting point safely (or at all) it is much more likely you will encounter another human being on the trail who can either help you directly or call for help. Given the worst case scenario, would you rather crawl or limp through two miles of mud and dirt, or drag yourself down 5,000 rugged feet of a mountain?
Part of being safe means having equipment that fits and works properly. You do not want to break in new gear on a big hike in the mountains, especially an item as essential as boots. It’s important to know that in addition to providing better traction through more rugged terrain—dirt, rocks and mud—a good boot cushions the foot on the descent by preventing the toes from ramming up against the end of the boot, which may cause blisters and potentially damage or remove nails. So, you’ll want to put a few miles on your new boots before planning a bigger trip. You may also want to know how that new pack is going to ride on your body, whether it will cause chaffing and how comfortable those straps are going to be—especially on internal frame packs that hug the body more closely than external frame packs. Shorter trails with gentler slopes provide an excellent opportunity to test out new gear in the natural environment.
Here in Southeastern MA we’re lucky to have a ton of hiking in or very near pretty much every city or town. Quantity and convenience mean that if you’re not hiking, you’re not trying. While it would be amazing to get out every day or every weekend for extended hikes, the realities of family, work, and life in general probably prevent that. Living in Bristol County, from Attleboro and Taunton in the North, to Westport in the South, and New Bedford and Swansea West to East, means that you’re most likely no farther than a few miles from a great hike. Take the towns of Freetown and Lakeville, for instance. Both are about fifteen minutes from Fall River (closer if you live in the North end). There are miles of trails in the Fall River / Freetown State Forest; and both Profile Rock in Freetown and Dighton Rock in Dighton are places where one can enjoy shorter, more brisk hikes—perfect for a busy lifestyle. Betty’s Neck, a little farther out and just off Long Point Road in Lakeville offers a bit more. Betty’s Neck offers a fantastic variety of scenery difficult to find in a single location. Pocksha and Assawompset Ponds form the Eastern and Northern borders of Betty’s Neck respectively while state route 105 runs along the west side—lots of bikers and Sunday drivers cruise 105 through Rochester, Lakeville and Middleborough for its beauty. Assawompset also happens to be the largest body of fresh water in MA.
In addition to the expansive fresh water vistas, there is a mile, mile and a half loop that runs ‘round two open air fields. The town hays these fields in the Summer; and there’s something bucolic about a field full of hay bales. Betty’s Neck also contains roughly three miles of densely wooded paths. Two or three fairly steep hills interrupt the otherwise rolling topography, and while these don’t ascend extremely high, they do so quickly, putting one out of breath after scratching to the top. Betty’s Neck should certainly make any top five list of Bristol County hikes.
The low elevation and high degree of maintenance on many of these trails make them perfect for hikers of all ages and skill levels. Of course, your animal friends are welcome on virtually all of these trails as well. The nature of these trails in this part of the state also provide a particularly amazing opportunity to introduce little hikers to the outdoors. Taking your five year old on the eight or nine mile Franconia Notch Loop probably won’t be the best idea you’ll ever have. However, kids will love trails like those that run through the Frank Knowles Little River Reserve on Potomska Road in Dartmouth.
In addition to frogs, snakes, deer and woodchuck—all of which I’ve seen with my own kids—the Knowles Reserve has an awesome set of suspension bridges that children can’t get enough of. They are a little ways into the woods, but this gives junior hikers a goal toward which to work. Additionally, there is a working farm (Cornell) at the opposite end of the reserve where they raise livestock such as llamas (or maybe alpacas, I can never tell the difference). You can also begin here if you prefer; it’s only a matter of which end of the reserve you choose to enter from. Either way, it’s great exercise that everyone can participate in and have fun doing.
Finally, it’s almost impossible—almost impossible—to get lost on these well maintained trails near your local town or city. Of course, one should always be prepared. There is nothing wrong with taking a little extra water, some snacks, or a compass and map no matter where you are. “Better to have it and not need it, then need it and not have it.” I think Abraham Lincoln said that. When section hiking the AT before sunrise (which I’ve previously written about here), for example, there were times when my son and I couldn’t always see the next blaze on a tree or rock and we had to rely solely on the fact that it still looked like we were on the path, which at times was indistinguishable from the brook running through it, especially when the trail suddenly veered uphill while the brook ran down. This problem really doesn’t exist on more well-trod-trails. The reason probably has something to do with the fact that it’s a heck of a lot easier to create or maintain several miles of trails and paths than it is hundreds or thousands. A single town worker in a day or several hours can clear several miles of debris of overgrown ferns or grasses. By contrast, the roughly 210 miles comprising the John Muir Trail in California, about 10% of the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail), took forty-six years to complete. Being able to completely care for entire trails in a single day means that blazes will almost always be fresh and clear on trees, and paths will rarely, if ever, be overgrown, allowing hikers to always find their way “over the river and through the woods”—a Led Zeppelin lyric, I think)—with relative confidence and ease.
So it doesn’t matter if all your adventures can’t be grand. The important thing is that you get out there (hashtag getoutthere, hashtag hiking, hashtag whythehellamiwritinglikeimontwitterorfacebook). Nature comes in many forms: that includes the humble as well as the regal. Get out there, and keep getting after it.