It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Seven days ago, I was on top of the world. I was in Rhode Island visiting old friends, the latest twist of this amazing journey. What a treat spending two days with Nels and Janet, learning they were even cooler than I’d remembered. (And when you haven’t seen someone for a decade, this is rare indeed.)
I was in great spirits. I’d hit my groove, and the states were starting to fall pretty quickly. In the six days before I took my planned two-day break from the trail, I had hiked the final 12 miles of Vermont and the first 80 of Massachusetts. That included my first 20-mile day on the AT, a 25.1-mile sprint through a nice, flat section of The Bay State. When I would get back on the trail Halloween, my plan was simple: finish Massachusetts in the afternoon, blitz through Connecticut in two-and-a-half days, then rush through New York and New Jersey in a blur. Soon I’d be averaging 20-plus-mile days and I would be cruising home to my children and indoor plumbing.
One thing the trail teaches, though, is that things don’t always go according to plan. As Nels drove me back to Great Barrington, I felt like crud. I had chills and lacked energy, and my stomach sounded like the percussion section of an out-of-tune orchestra. I had Nels drop me off at the Travelodge instead of the trail; my favorite day of the year, Halloween, would be spent in bed instead of Connecticut. I buried myself under the covers in front of the TV as dozens of teenagers were likewise buried during hours of cheesy horror films. I longed for my kids. It was easily the worst Halloween of my life.
The next morning, I felt worse. I had spent many hours in the bathroom, and whatever I ate went right through me. So I walked the five-mile round trip to the hospital emergency room and found that the only time I struggled to use the restroom was on command from the doctors. Still haven’t heard back what’s wrong, and it might be a week before I do. And so a man on a mission but also a budget keeps hearing that familiar ringing in his hears: ka-ching! ka-ching! ka-ching! A frugal hiker can spend less on lodging in 500 miles than I’ve shelled out this week going nowhere at the cheapest motel in town.
Let me say one thing about the Berkshires: I absolutely hate this place. I am sick and tired of Massachusetts. I have been trapped in hell for five full days. I cannot wait to put this awful region behind me. There are few parts of the country I have enjoyed less.
Let me say one more thing about the Berkshires: There is nothing wrong with this area. In fact, this little area in the mountains of western Massachusetts is teeming with culture. Herman Melville wrote his classic “Moby-Dick” at his farm, Arrowhead, with its view of Mount Greylock in Pittsfield. Another American literary master, Edith Wharton, called the Berkshires home. You can visit that house, The Mount, in nearby Lenox. And since things — good and bad — seem to come in threes, let’s not forget the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.
After being trapped in my dingy motel for four full days, I dragged myself out Wednesday morning and caught the bus to the Rockwell museum. Don’t let my expression in the photo below fool you; it was amazing. (I just still felt that ill.) With Rockwell part of the American fabric, I never stopped long enough to admire his work. If I’d had more energy, I might have stayed longer. As it was, I only glanced inside his art studio (bottom photo) before heading back to my motel. But what I saw inspired and delighted me. Ol’ Norm really tapped into the humanity of everyday life.
The Wharton and Melville houses are closed to the public in November. Otherwise, my lost week in the Berkshires might not have been so bad. But I learned an important lesson this week just the same. I could’ve been in Key West … or Austin, Texas … or Bloomington, Indiana … or Zion National Park … or any other of my favorite places in the world. When you are ill and alone — and especially when it’s Halloween and you are far from your children — it doesn’t matter where you are. Even the Berkshires seem like hell on earth.