Dividing Lines

Training Hike #4: Appalachian Trail, 29 January 2017; Bull’s Bridge to Indian Point; 8.1 miles, 1000' +/- elev. gain (2000' +/- cumulative), base temp 36, ridge line temp 28. [Not a major hike by any means, but I’m reminded of talking to through-hikers years ago, who had trekked from

From Indian Point looking east. 

From Indian Point looking east. 

Georgia, who had just crossed northern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, only to be shocked at the steepness and difficult of these low Berkshires.]

Dividing Lines

From the ridge between Bull’s Bridge and Indian Point, looking east one can peer east, down upon the Housatonic River and the tiny cars on CT Route 7, or west across Old Rt. 22 and Ten Mile River in NY. Nowadays, as we zoom along on Interstate highways, we tend to think of state lines as arbitrary--if we think of them at all. But thinking back to our colonial period this ridge was a barrier difficult to cross. It makes the demarcation between states understandable. The ridge, part of the Berkshire chain, extends north separating Massachusetts and Vermont from New York.

Today I hiked alone… again, which is nice. No one else on the trail except at the very beginning a guy walking his dog. Chilly along the road, temperature dropping as I zigzag up the east face. As the elevation increases it gets quite cool but I’m stripping off layers and sweating. At the lowest point on the ridge the trail is icy but south-facing--lots of bare rock. Half way to Indian Point the trail is slick and the ice continuous. It makes one focus. All is good.

Two hundred and fifty one years ago the winter in the Berkshires varied from a bit too warm to freeze the lakes solid enough to drag cannon-laden sledges across the ice, to cold bitter enough to freeze soldiers driving oxen. On January 18th, 1776 Colonel Henry Knox left Fort Ticonderoga with 58 cannon weighing 120,000 pounds. Crossing the Berkshire Mountains required 80 yoke of oxen. From 1776 by David McCullough:

   …snow in the Berkshires lay thick, exactly as needed but the mountains, steep and   tumbled and dissected by deep, narrow valleys, posed a challenge as formidable as any. …Knox…wrote of climbing peaks “From which we might almost have seen all the kingdoms of the earth. … It appeared to me almost a miracle that people with heavy loads should be able to get up and down such hills…”

As I walked I thought about this project, Peaking At 70, about the logistics, the budget, the time frame. And I thought about Henry Knox and the soldier under his command. Climbing, dragging the cannon up the steep slopes was difficult, but going downhill was more treacherous. Sledges had to be lowered inch by inch, roped to trees and men. Oxen don’t work in reverse.

I’ve come to the conclusion this project needs to be done in steps. Isn’t that the way of all projects? At first conception it was one big picture. Now I begin to see the pieces, how they’ll be arranged, organized; what parts can be handled, which ones will need to be postponed, what might need abandoning. Not the climbs, and certainly not the training, but the number of people. This blog will be the foundation for the book; the videos the base for the documentary; the interviews the fodder for the enlightenment--Rediscovering America.

The original idea was kind of a Travels With Charley (Steinbeck and his dog) trip… a trip to gauge the pulse of the nation at a level below the raging national news media. Not sure how it morphed into getting a group of old guys to cross western glaciers and peak above 14,000 feet. That's not important, now, but what is is this land, this nation, from purple mountain majesty to sea to shining sea… how did it happen... what has happened to it?!

Think about it: 120,000 pounds of cannons, plus the sledges and all the gear needed to sustain men and animals on a trek across the Berkshires in the dead of winter. That feat makes the 1954 trials of the Red Chinese Army bring artillery to Dien Bien Phu look like a cakewalk. To my mind it is comparable to Hannibal crossing the Alps in 218 BC. This is our heritage.

The ridge rises and falls as it runs north; most of the elevation gain was achieved ascending the east face, but there are short, sharp ups and downs. Imagine trying to climb, to cross this obstacle with any significant weight. For training I’ve about 25 pounds in my pack—way more than needed for a quick day hike. Descending is more difficult. What’s true for cannon-laden sledges is true for 70-year old knees. I’d better consider wearing a neoprene sleeve and my G-II Unloader brace. That’s one of the challenges of peaking at 70!

Once across the mountains Knox’ journey to the outskirts of Boston was a bit like a Memorial Day parade with farmers leaving their fields to watch the spectacle. On the night of 4 March 1776, under the cover of low, dense fog, those cannon were towed to the tops of the twin hills of Dorchester Heights, and by mid-morning the next day British General William Howe knew he’d been beaten. Soon he ordered the withdrawal of British forces from Boston. America was on the rise.

Now, 241 years later, America rising seems to be not only in question, but seemingly, to some, to be undesirable. So I have a few questions I’d like to ask. They’re designed to not extract quick TV-learned, radio-learned, or internet-learned responses. Today’s pundits all talk to niche audiences, and to hold their listeners/readers they speak in bias. But if you ask a man or a woman to look forward 25 or 50 years, and you ask what does he or she want for his daughter or her son, the answer seldom is less immigrants, giant border walls, free abortions or genderless bathrooms.

Look forward two, three, five decades. What do you want for your fellow countrymen?

What divides us, and what keeps us united? At one time the great obstacles were physical. The peaks and valleys, the ridges and rock faces are still there, but they are no longer the barriers of our separation. We need a paradigm shift. We need to see each other in the light of these and other different interrogatories, and not in the shadows of nouns.