Friday, August 1, 2003
On my back is a small day pack. it is very full. I stuffed it with: a clean shirt, a pair of newly-pressed pants, clean socks, dress shoes, a Walkman radio, my cell phone, a hand-held GPS (Global Positioning System), topographic maps printed off the Internet, a camera, a bottle of water, an apple, a banana and a notebook. The bag must weigh nearly 20 pounds. If I were driving to work, like I do every other day, I would be travelling lighter. Somehow the eight-mile walk I am planning this morning makes me think I need all this stuff. I guess if I want to keep going, I am prepared.
I am wearing long pants and a long-sleeved shirt to protect my skin from the mosquitoes, deer flies and ticks. On my feet are a pair of "trail runners". A floppy hat doused in bug repellant crowns my outfit.
I hop across the brook behind our house on Woodridge Road and look at my watch. It is 7 a.m. I make a note of the time in the notebook and walk into the woods. First I move along the private trail that leads from our land onto the conservation land. Here I join the main trail and head south. Fifteen minutes later, I pass a stone wall on the top of a small hill. I have passed into Concord.
As the trail undulates over the rises and dips of the terrain along the western edge of the Carlisle swamp, it becomes smoother, a soft hollow of packed dirt with fewer outcrops of root and rock. The walking is easy. Large trees create a woodland canopy sixty feet overhead. There is less underbrush here. I can see down the slope and out across the swamp. Blueberries and lawns of green fern carpet the ground.
I was out here walking my dog a few years ago. It was Patriots Day. I could hear the pipes and drums of the Carlisle Minutemen marching through the woods on their way to North Bridge. It struck me then that out in the woods you can come loose from your place in time and imagine being in another. It could be a morning in the 1760s or the 1860s. There is no clue to say "it is 2003" until a plane passes overhead or you look at your sneakers.
I arrive at the end of the Carlisle trail at a spot we know locally as "bald tree junction" and turn west on an old cart track, wider, rutted and severely rocky. It winds up the hill along the edge of a prominent stone wall. On the other side of the wall and down the slope is the Botrychrim swamp. This is Thoreau country. He knew this swamp and the nearby Yellow Birch swamp. If I were to get off the trail and push my way south through the brush and across the marsh, I would find Thoreau's "Boulder Field" now overgrown with trees.
When I reach the Estabrook Trail, I make another note on my pad. It is 7:25 a.m. An overgrown dirt track through the woods, it is also known as the Old Carlisle Road. I follow it south toward Concord. It is all down hill from here, all the way to the Assabet River. There are stone walls running parallel through the brush along the edges of the road. Here and there they reach out away from the road and into the woods to mark off rectangular areas of the woods, as if to corral groups of trees.
It is humid from the rain last night, the dirt track wet and slippery, the air full of mosquitoes. I keep moving and hurry past the old Estabrook cellar hole. Three years ago, I saw a fisher cat hanging in a tree near here. It was a breezy morning and I was moving upwind. I got to within maybe six feet of it and stopped. We stared at one another for close to a full minute. Then the weasel-like face on the long glossy and black body was gone. I did not see the fisher leave. It was suddenly just not there.
At night when I lay in bed with the windows open to a gentle southern breeze, the breeze that blows across these woods, I hear the noises of the woods. They flow across the dark on a stream of air. The howls of coyotes running along the ridge, the hoot of owls and occasional chirp of a restless bird, and sometime those horrible rending shrieks that cause me to roll over and crank the window firmly shut. I think that shriek could be the fisher.
As I proceed along the trail, the hazy sun warms the humid air. The bugs keep me moving. I begin doing the "Eastern Woods Dance." It is an easy step. It goes like this: while walking briskly, every twenty steps I take my right arm and reach up and behind my head to sweep it from the nape of my neck over the top of my head from left to right, then I take my left arm and do the same from right to left. If I catch a deer fly or mosquito, I roll it between my forefingers as I swing my arm forward and flip it away to the side, with vigor, on the down stroke. Then I take my left arm again and sweep up the under part of my right forearm from elbow to wrist. I try to make this a smooth and fluid motion, with a little flair in the wrists. I repeat the move - sweeping my right arm my your left. Then finally, I roll my shoulders, swing my elbows out and bring my hands together for two quick claps. I count out twenty more steps and do it again. It keeps the bugs away. Probably strangers too.
By 8 a.m., I am of out of the woods and in the open, leaning against a stone wall where the Estabrook Trail leaves the woods. I have covered maybe 3.5 miles. I have a drink and a snack. There are fewer bugs in the open air, but I swallow one with my snack. The day is becoming sunny, blue patches appear in the sky. The rest of this walk will be along roads and sidewalks; the woodsy part is complete. I continue down the paved Estabrook Road past some of the most attractive houses in Concord. There are rolling green fields, wildflowers, several picturesque old barns, a sudden deafening roar as a commercial flight into Hanscom airport roars by just overhead. After a minute or two I can hear the birds again.
Now that I am out in open, I turn on the GPS. My heading is 198 degrees magnetic SSW. My speed is three knots.
While crossing the line of cars waiting to get through a four-way stop on Lowell Road, I see my reflection in a windshield: a sweaty guy in damp clothes, pant legs sodden from knee to wet feet. He wears a backpack, a floppy green bush hat, and has a wire running from one of his front shirt pocket to the headphones on his head. In one hand he holds an orange notebook, in the other some kind of instrument lashed to his belt with a lanyard. It has a small flashing LCD screen. He clutches a pen in his teeth as he waves his arms at the cars waiting for him to cross. He heads down Barretts Mill Road. His cuffs are muddy.
Walking along Barretts Mill Road, I cross Spencer Brook. This is the same drainage, the same watershed, as the brook behind our house in Carlisle. The water which flows across our property passes under this bridge on its way to the Assabet River, then the Concord, the Merrimack and into the sea at Newburyport.
Along Barretts Mill Road, I talk to a mother following her kids to the school bus stop. I want to know where the old mill was. She thinks it stood near the brook. As the yellow bus pulls away, I watch the kids wave to me out the back window and then turn to continue down the road to where I can cut through the field behind the State Police Barracks and make a dash across the Route 2 highway traffic. From the front lawn of the prison I head along its long high west wall and then down the old abandoned cinder railroad bed into the center of West Concord.
It is 9:15 a.m when I arrive at work. I call ahead on the cell phone to ask our receptionist to come down to the parking lot and take a picture of me finishing the trek. The picture is the last on the roll and is cut off during processing. When I look at the orange negatives, all I can see is my feet in half a frame. Somehow it doesn't matter.
© 2003 The Carlisle Mosquito