We went west last month, intent on camping along the Mohawk Trail, driving north toward New Hampshire first, then taking Route 2 from Concord west.
That route took us through a number of colonial-era communities, including Johnny Appleseed’s Leominster, ‘Furniture City’ Gardner, Petersham and the Harvard Forest and a variety of other towns that you only hear about when a tornado touches down, a Police Chief resigns in disgrace, or a small plane crashes in dense forest…
The ‘new road,’ that’s American slang for ‘you’re out of luck.’
Many of the small communities that Route 2 passes ‘through’ are actually not on the road, are obscured by forest, or were bypassed when the ‘new road’ was constructed.
In some ways it all works well, for both traveler and community, as many of those towns feel awkward to pass through, such is their fallen state.
Yes, most have interesting histories, a few famous former residents, and stories to tell – but that’s not nearly enough.
The town of Orange, to cite one example, has had a fascinating run.
They were building cars in a factory in Orange, a steam-powered car called ‘The Grout’, in the late 1800’s!
A manufacturing company in Orange once shipped over a million sewing machines in one year.
A lot of that had to do with the railroad that runs through Orange, from Albany to Boston, which was made possible by the ‘Big Dig’ of the late 19th Century – the Hoosac Tunnel – which cost (in today’s dollars) $600 million to build in 1870.
That was a long time ago. Today Orange looks poor and has little to boast about save for the new Walmart that likely sucked the life out of the last few remaining Mom and Pop’s that used to be there.
That’s why we stopped in Orange: to get a few items for our trip.
That’s one of the great myths of America, isn’t it? The idea that if you just get off the highway, take the alternate route, that you’ll stumble upon some perfect little ‘town that time forgot,’ a town where there’s a general store, a church, a post office and a library – all painted white – all grouped around a central square, a common where…
I’ve always felt that if you can imagine it, you can make it happen but though we have certainly imagined and re-imagined the American small town it seems to only exist in Disney World.
What’s the problem?
Why we are so bad at making and keeping good places to live?
Our system seems ready-made for innovation and creativity – and making money, but no one I know, no community I have seen has figured out the secret formula for keeping the American small town alive and vibrant without abandoning what came before or selling off what made it great in the first place.
Of course it depends, in large part, on how you define a livable community so let me say that what I mean, is a place where the byword is diversity: diversity of culture and economics, and ecological diversity as well.
Natural beauty cannot sustain a community on its own. Cultural homogeneity is like art glass: pretty to look at, but too fragile to use every day. And it goes without saying that communities that share only their economics – whether wealth or poverty – are no place to live.
There are many communities that have one, or the other: but an effective balance is hard to maintain. Maybe that’s because no one seems to willing to commit to one place or one town for any length of time.
When I was walking through the western deserts of California, Arizona and New Mexico in 2018 – trying to follow what’s left of Route 66 east – I noticed a particularly disturbing trend: when the highway moved, the commercial center moved as well, abandoning long-standing businesses, ignoring the location of civic institutions.
That was particularly jarring along the path of the old Route 66: though those cultural ruins were often the only claim to fame of many of those desert communities, no one seemed to have complained when the new highway bypassed those areas and wealthy business people bought up the new intersections and built new hotels and restaurants – driving the old Route 66 businesses (further) into the ground.
I thought, at the time, that this was a phenomenon particular to the West, but I’ve changed my mind: it may be easier to do that in the West, where so much land is still ‘available’, but it happens here too.
In Plymouth, when malls began to appear along Route 3, we abandoned our downtown, even moving institutions like the County Courthouse and Registry of Deeds outside of long-standing commercial centers.
If it weren’t for our unique history (and a liberal attitude about liquor licenses) Plymouth’s downtown would be a ghost town today.
There was no plan.
There is no plan.
There is simply, in my opinion, economic expediency.
And where economic expediency is what passes for planning, good luck!
Those are the rosy thoughts that came to me as we drove west on Route 2 hoping to stumble into that perfect little mythic American small town.
Orange may have been depressing, but most of Route 2 west of Concord was disappointing, at least until we reached the Mohawk Trail.
The State Forest there – and tiny towns like Savoy and Florida and others sprinkled between trees and tributaries of the Connecticut River – was luxuriantly green and brown and dappled with sparkling water.
That’s not an accident, not completely.
In lieu of civic planning there was the poor man’s version – conservation.
The mountains in the northwestern part of the state were preserved, in part because they were so inaccessible, and in part because of the establishment of state forests, and parks.
Then, realizing what they had, additional money was made available – I think out of a kind of municipal guilt – to maintain the roads to allow visitors to reach the area without difficulty.
It wasn’t the intention, but sinking the railroad beneath the ground, temporarily improved the economic well-being of towns on each end of the tunnel, and at the same time preserved the woods and mountains there in perpetuity.
That was where we camped, cooked out and hiked.
That was where we hugged trees too (some of the tallest in the Northeast).
It was great to forget everything else and for a few days simply worry about where your feet are about to land.
It took a while but eventually we were able to relax, to rejuvenate and then, of course, to head back.
We didn’t have to go far to go wrong.
Less than an hour east of the Mohawk State Forest as you are about to reach Greenfield there is a long descent from the plateau of the state forest and just before your tires find the valley floor you come across an abandoned ‘trading post’ that – perhaps in one last desperate attempt to lure speeding traffic off Route 2 – featured a 75 foot lookout tower.
There might have been a view there, a few years back.
Ascend that tower today though and what your eyes would be immediately drawn to is the rotary at the edge of Greenfield.
And radiating out from that rotary a slew of fast food restaurants, pre-fabbed hotels, box stores and more of the same.
That briar patch of commerce grabs at your tires, tugs at your wallet, and stings your eyes and you shouldn’t be surprised if you find yourself checking into a fourth-floor hotel suite and looking down at this alien world, clicker in hand.
If you are capable of resisting these Velcro developments beware the rotary itself: it seems designed to suck you on to the highway and shoot you up to Canada or south toward New York and it takes a good grip on the steering wheel to resist it’s pull.
For your effort though you’re sling-shot back on to Route 2 and forced to explore the downtown/main street section of Greenfield which has all the personality of an abandoned movie lot.
Remember the Neutron Bomb? Not many do. It’s chief selling point was that it preserved buildings while decimating the population.
Is that what happened to Greenfield?
What might have once been a classic small city (or is that just a myth as well) is now a mishmash of architectural styles, auto dealers, gas stations, banks, restaurants and once statuesque hotels that have devolved into cheap apartments.
Orange had a look of abandonment. Greenfield’s theme is confusion.
Follow the main drag through the old downtown and in a few miles you’ll find yourself turning north on High Street and into an older residential section of town and, if you look up and to your right, you might catch a glimpse of a brown, castle-like turret at the top of a long, high ridge.
It’s the Poet’s Seat.
Really, that’s what it is called.
The entrance to the road where the Seat sits is not easy to find, but we managed and found ourselves standing on the top level of that tower, looking down on the city proper along with a few dozen teenagers and a smattering of other wayward travelers.
It was a nice night, just on the far side of sunset, but I still can’t imagine any poet, save perhaps Charles Bukowski, poet laureate of the bar stool, belching out an ode at this spot.
“It’s not who lived here,” Bukowski once wrote, “but who died here;
and it’s not when,
the known great,
but the great who died unknown;
but the lives of men.”
No, that doesn’t do the disappointment justice. What about Thoreau’s ‘the mass of men…’
“The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.
What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.
From the desperate city you go into the desperate country
and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.”
A few days before during a hike along the Mohawk Trail we came upon the ‘shunpike,’ a trail along the river – opposite the southern shore with the paved road and railroad tracks – that was created by travelers and tradesman who wanted to avoid the toll road.
That’s the road we thought we were on all along.
Somehow we have to find a way to combine the two: the desire to make a living, to create wealth for its own sake, and the need to have a real life in a real community.
We have to stop building new roads, and instead work to perfect the roads we have already made.
We have to reward honest work, not speculate on the future, and refuse to abandon the good we know in favor of the unknown no matter how it glitters.
After Greenfield though I stopped fighting it. I ‘shunned’ the scenic way and took 91 South to the Mass Pike, then east on toll roads all the way home.