If you’re one of those people that chase foliage from afar, I feel for you! As a veteran of attempting to predict, photograph, and schedule the best hikes around the changing of the leaves in New England, I can tell you that this is about the toughest gig in town. This year, even worse. Those loaded tour buses were likely long gone when the trees really started to pop with color in Massachusetts.
I did okay, but peak foliage in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, traditionally one of the hottest tickets in foliage town, and peak in Western Massachusetts, where I live, were a full three weeks apart, which is very uncommon. In fact, I had given up on the colors popping in my local area and then, BOOM! There it was! Crazy stuff!
Though I am merely an amateur photographer and don’t much aspire to be a professional, I still have thoughts about taking a good picture. In my humble (or not so humble?) opinion, fall foliage is the hardest thing to get a great shot of. Those calendar pages with fire engine reds and neon yellows are the work of Photoshop, not a great professional. Or, as I have come to say, “Nature doesn’t do that.” I think it’s quite unfortunate that we live in a world that alters reality to the point that when we see something naturally amazing, we aren’t amazed. How did this happen?
As someone who spends a lot of time outdoors in nature, I have learned to accept the natural world as it is, even if I don’t always capture it in its finest form. I do my best, and let memory take care of the rest. Autumn 2021 sure seemed like it was going to lack foliage memories, but it really turned out okay in the end!
The White Mountains were loaded with visitors, so busy that I had to forfeit a hike or two because of parking issues. Truth: There were so many leaf peepers around, I couldn’t even out hike them! Mind you, I’ve had the Grand Canyon and other national parks to myself by doing unpublicized trails with huge secret views. I thought I had outsmarted the general public a couple of times in old New Hampshire, but voices nearby soon proved me wrong. I’ve done the Whites two year in a row. Next year, I’ll head to some other nearby hills instead.
Know what the worst thing about foliage is? What follows it. Once the leaves are off the trees, I lose interest in the forests of New England. There isn’t anything too great about a naked maple and a frigid breeze slapping you in the face. Even snow is better than that! But what’s better than everything is the hope of spring. My sights are set on it.
Whoa! It’s been three weeks since my last post! Never fails that I get caught up in foliage season and abandon most other pursuits. Like life itself, foliage is fleeting. You have to get it while it’s hot. And let me tell you, it was smokin’ hot this year.
So you see, something has gone right in 2020. New England foliage! Take that, COVID19!
Well, let me eat a little crow. The leaves changed early this go-round, so it was a bit of a confusing leaf peeping season even for me, a pro tree gawker. I booked myself a room in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for October 10th, 11th, and 12th, thinking myself very smooth indeed, picturing the glorious hiking I would do, and what happens? The foliage “peaks” the weekend before! Not only that, but at home, the foliage was making my jaw hit the steering wheel as I was driving north out of it! I strongly considered weaseling out of my reservation in North Woodstock and hiking at home, but with a five-day cancellation policy, it would have cost me as much to sleep in my own bed as it would have to go. With a weather report going south quickly (as I’ve seen happen a few times in the White Mountains!), I sucked it up and made the drive, figuring that at the very worst I’d catch up on my writing and my sleep instead of hiking.
And guess what? I ended up having incredible weather all weekend other than a massive storm that rolled in on Saturday night and closed down the town after I was already tucked away for the night, the foliage was still fantastic, and I caught up on my sleep and my writing! Four points for me. Oh, should I mention that it rained at home for most of the weekend?
Hiking through foliage really does remind me of being in a kaleidoscope. I’m talking about those cheap cardboard ones where you stick one eye in a hole and turn the end of it and watch tiny fragments of color changing form in a pattern that delights the senses. Just one shake of the trees from a wayward breeze adds to the kaleidoscope effect. The real thing is better than anything Photoshop could produce. I still think that taking a great foliage picture is the toughest job in photography, at least for me.
Some of the best foliage I encountered was at little stops on the side of the road that most people were whizzing by to get to the tried and true “views.” Not complaining, because I was headed there, too! But why not check out stuff that others miss because they’re in such a hurry? The world offers some hidden gems, “good things for those who wait,” and foliage is no different.
Like most things worth seeing, foliage takes something we Americans don’t have a lot of: time. It takes time for the leaves to change. It takes time to seek out the best spots. But what a reward!
I run around like a chicken with my head cut off for about three weeks. This year, the chicken sewed her head back on earlier this week. There comes a point when I tell myself that it’s time to stop chasing and just enjoy the rest of the leaves, because what comes after is the death of New England for almost half a year, until renewal comes with the joy of spring. I rest my case and drink in the remainder of color before dull November takes control. The beauty is hanging on longer than usual this year. I hope I follow suit.
I end this post with a special shout out to Amanda, my beautiful and strong niece down in South Carolina: HAPPY BIRTHDAY! I LOVE YOU!
If you look hard enough, you’ll find that the world is still a mysterious place, with lots of hidden gems that can be discovered with a little bit of perseverance. Back when my mom and me used to road trip together, in the days when people read newspapers and cut things out of them that were interesting, she would get her scissors out and I’d get the keys to my car ready. We would go looking for oddities that journalists would write about, sometimes driving for hundreds of miles, even on overnight trips. An Eskimo boy in the Great North Woods of New Hampshire, ghost towns in the American West, a celebration of Marilyn Monroe’s life at her gravesite in Westwood, California. Occasionally, after Mom passed in 2004, I’d still come across something interesting online and would seek it out, but it wasn’t quite the same without her.
About a month ago, I decided to go on a wild goose chase for the grave of a six year old boy named Wendell Farnsworth. Little is known about Wendell, but the story of how he was forgotten deep in the woods is better documented.
Quabbin Reservoir, the largest body of water in Massachusetts, is a man made wonder in the center of the state and with an incredible history. In the 1930s, four towns were destroyed to create the reservoir, which would satisfy the demands for water in Boston. Any map from the era will show the hamlets of Dana, Prescott, Enfield, and Greenwich. Contrary to popular belief, the “lost” towns are not all “underwater.” Quabbin is my second home, and with COVID19 changing the way we all had to do business, I spent more time than ever this summer exploring the old roads and cellar holes and mysteries of the disincorporated towns.
One mystery I never solved was the discovery of Wendell’s grave, though I’ve known about it for years. The story goes that when the towns were flooded, close to 7,500 graves had to be relocated to Quabbin Park Cemetery in Belchertown, Massachusetts. A lone grave was left behind, high on a ridge behind a farmhouse that is no longer a farmhouse. The forgotten grave was not discovered until several decades later, by a hiker who alerted local historians, most of whom didn’t believe the tale.
It isn’t easy to get information about Wendell. In fact, I had two different maps that told me he was in two different places, as well as three different GPS coordinates that were miles apart. Leave it to me to pick the wrong one to follow on my first serious foray into locating the legendary grave!
So there I was on Tampling Road, with a map and coordinates provided by a fellow hiker, who published a blog about finding Wendell. I’ve been to this area of Quabbin a million times and was titillated to find out that Tampling Road held something interesting, as I had hiked it before and had seen a whole lot of absolutely nothing! The hiker’s advice, which I was following closely, led me to a nondescript area of what used to be a town road in the defunct Dana, Massachusetts. Other descriptions I’d found said that the grave was two miles from the entrance gate. According to my map, I needed to go about a half mile from what used to be the center of Dana, on Tampling Road, and head into the woods before the only sharp turn of the road. The coordinates soon had me bushwhacking in thick blown down trees from the last major storm we had here, the tail end of hurricane Isaias. Dropping “pins” here, there, and everywhere, my phone battery was taking a hit, too. As I searched, I had the worst crash I’ve had in a while, my foot getting stuck between branches. Down I went, pitching forward, as I tried to navigate on my phone, which flew out of my hand as my skin tore! Really rather comical when you think about it (and visualize it!) but not so great when you have to walk around all bloody for a week and have people staring at you like you did yourself in on purpose!
After a couple hours more of frustrating searching, my interactive map told me that I was right in front of the grave. But I wasn’t right in front of it. In fact, the grave wasn’t anywhere to be seen, and I was convinced that maybe I needed to suspend my search until fall, when there was less vegetation to deal with. The biggest stumper was the “high ridge” the grave was supposed to be on. No high ridge was to be found on Tampling Road. I dragged back to my car after putting on nine miles, mostly walking in circles.
As someone who has spent her life finding things, I hate NOT finding things.
The following day I reviewed all the information available, looked at dates that the articles or blogs were posted. The most recent visit to the grave was made by the guy whose map of Tampling Road I had used. I saw on his blog that someone had just written to him about Wendell’s grave a few days before. Doubting that the man would get back to me, I left a message for him anyway, disappointment making my craw ache. It was really my only hope of finding what I was calling “the needle in the haystack.”
Sunday morning, the day after my “epic fail,” as I referred to it on social media. Visiting with my sisters and telling them the story of Wendell Farnsworth. I decided to check to see if the blogger answered my inquiry…And he did! With apologies for posting the wrong map and succinct directions to the grave. The fighting spirit rose inside of me. I had to get back there!
I couldn’t return that day, but I carved some time on Monday afternoon before it got dark. As I walked at a vigorous pace, knowing precisely what area I was going to, I envisioned how exciting it would be to find the needle in the haystack. Several friends on social media cheered me on, waiting patiently for a victory post. “After Dana Common, follow Dana Road to the ponds, and take the first right into the woods.” That was the easy part. The tough part was finding what the blogger described as an “area where there would have been a barn on the right and a house on the left.” He had given an approximate length of measurement to get there, but it turned out to be further. Frustration was setting in again, especially since it was already late afternoon and time was of the essence. My phone was fully charged this time, and I started dropping pins again. The coordinates showed that I was on to something.
Massachusetts probably doesn’t sound like a place you would go if you want to find yourself in the middle of nowhere, but I’ve been there many times in my home state. It’s not the same kind of “nowhere” as, say, the Mojave Desert, but close enough. And I was there now. Just me and a wayward porcupine. To my left I definitely saw some crude trails that basically went nowhere, and a hill that maybe could be called a “ridge.” But there was no way I could picture this place where the pins started to make sense as the former site of a house with a barn on the other side of the road.
Yet the pins were right on. So I started making circles again in thick ferns on those animal trails. They just ended in more ferns. I abandoned the trails and started climbing hills. I was getting further away. I went back to the road a couple of times. Back to the original plan. The taste of another defeat rose again in my throat as a lump. Soon I would have to go to get back to my car before dark. One more try.
Hit the animal trail. Wait, is that another one not noticed before, heading up the hill, between wilting ferns? Maybe. Up I went. Yes, it was a trail. It was taking me somewhere. Up to a clearing. Up to a ridge. Up to…
The curve of a narrow stone that my eyes had been keening to see for three weary days, that I had been wondering about for years…
I started to tear up, feeling like I knew this little fellow by now.
Wendell. On a ridge, the stone facing away from what used to be the home built by his parents, John and Sarah. I was incredulous to be there, though sad that I had so little time left to spend with Wendell on that lonely but peace-filled ridge. Like many graves I’ve found, Wendell’s resting place was respectfully honored with gifts from the few people who were tenacious enough to seek it. I sat and pondered my discovery as long as I could, pushing the boundaries of daylight. This was not where I wanted to be in the dark, alone!
As of today, I have not been back, but foliage time is nearly here, and now that I know where I’m going, I’ll soon return to spend more time with Wendell!