The Tonic of Wildness

Less than an hour from Keene lies an opportunity to drink in the “tonic of wildness.” In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are spending more time outside, some even venturing out to areas just outside the Monadnock region.

“We need the tonic of wildness.” That advice from Henry David Thoreau is even more salient today. I’ve always appreciated getting on a hiking trail for exercise, good mental health and to improve my mood. But I especially value the outdoors these days. Fortunately, from my home in Ashburnham, Mass., a wealth of hiking opportunities literally lies at my doorstep. One such option is 1,435-foot Mount Hunger on the Midstate Trail.

To get to the trailhead from Keene, take Route 12 for 12.4 miles to Route 119 in Fitzwilliam. Continue east on Route 119 to Massachusetts Route 101. Turn right onto Route 101 south and drive 1.8 miles. Turn left onto Holt Road and continue for 0.1 miles. The trailhead is on the right.

So, on an early spring morning, under a bright blue sky with the temperature in the low 60s, my wife, Maureen, and I ventured outside the Keene area and headed for the trailhead with our dog, Buck. Minutes later, we arrived at the empty parking lot off Holt Road. Keeping in mind social distancing and making sure Buck was on a leash and under control, we started out on the Midstate Trail, which is blazed with yellow triangles.

Immediately, I noticed what appeared to be a clump of bright yellow dandelions. But my wife, a master gardener, identified them as Coltsfoot, a flower in the daisy family known for its medicinal purposes. The common name refers to the resemblance of the leaf to a colt’s foot.

As we continued, lots of mountain laurel proliferated on both sides of the trail. Although not in bloom with its bell-shaped white and pink flowers, the narrow, shiny green leaves were impressive, nonetheless.

After walking past a disturbed area populated with young poplar and birch saplings, we followed the narrow path through an alleyway of shoulder-high mountain laurel. The only sound was the twittering of birds, a welcome relief from the world of computers and iPhones. The needle-softened path widened as sun filtered through trees and we came to a grove of tall hemlock. To the right was a wet area in woods where, weeks earlier, we were treated to the high-pitched clucking chicken sounds of wood frogs.

Ten minutes more of walking brought us to one of the highlights of the hike: a gurgling underground spring. We took a few minutes to appreciate this wonderful natural sound and place the Native Americans viewed as sacred.

The trail turned right and moved uphill past polypod fern-covered boulders in an open sun-splashed area, dry beech and oak leaves matting the path. After stepping through a gap in a stone wall, the trail briefly leveled off. Taking a seat on a boulder, we took a 10-minute break to appreciate the quiet. Back on the trail, a short, steep stretch brought us to a ledge where we were teased by a tree-obstructed view to the north of Stodge Meadow Pond and Mount Watatic, both in Ashburnham. However, a short time later, we would be rewarded with the unobstructed view.

The trail snaked along the ledges on the east side of the mountain, passing a rocky area that looked to be an ideal spot for porcupine dens. About 40 minutes into the hike, we emerged from the hemlock forest and dropped downhill back into sunlight. Five minutes later, we reached the summit – a wooded area with a very limited view and marked by a stone fire ring. After a brief rest on the natural moss blanket carpet, we turned left and continued on the trail down a short slope thick with mountain laurel to an open ledge.

Here we were treated to a sweeping view of Mount Watatic, Stodge Meadow Pond, and the Wapack Mountain range snaking northward toward southern New Hampshire. And tucked among the rocky ledges, Maureen discovered a final nature treat: a delicate low growing Trailing Arbutus (Mayflower) plant with its exquisitely sweet-scented pink and white flowers.

Don’t be afraid to explore areas close to (yet just outside of) Keene. Nearby nature and the outdoors lend themselves to social distancing, while at the same time providing some internal peace during this time of uncertainty.