November 16, 2010

Berkshire Cycling: Washington – Becket Loop 1 (part 1)

17 miles                 Paved and Dirt
Towns: Washington and Becket
Park: Washington Town Park, Rte. 8

No question that my preference is for paved roads, but it hasn't always been. I used to spend more time riding  local dirt roads. Then last week at work, Andy, a volunteer doctor and avid cyclist, mentioned how the dirt roads are perfect for colder weather: speeds are lower, so it’s warmer than 35 mph downhill. Besides, the bare trees provide a different perspective and view of the world around them. 

It is cold enough now in early November, the leaves off the trees and a skim of ice on the swamp in the morning. For many weeks a pied billed grebe had taken up residence, diving and surfacing, diving and surfacing. But with the first ice it disappeared. The beech leaves linger on their trees, many until the spring when the buds swell with new growth, pushing the old leaves off. In the autumn, they turn a beautiful bright yellow, then with time fade to a sort of parchment color. The American Beech is a common tree here, beloved by black bears, which thrive in years with big crops of beech nuts. You can often find bear claw marks on large trees, and claw marks from smaller animals like raccoons and squirrels on beeches of all sizes. A big beech might be 60 feet tall, though that’s only half the size of a mature tree in a stand of old growth, where they might be 120 feet tall. The difficulty is finding a stand of old growth trees. Trees of New England tells of a tree in Tennessee, still standing in 1900 and showing these words carved into it: “D Boone cilled a bar on tree in year 1760.” The tree fell in 1916, when it was estimated to be about 365 years old. We don’t see those old trees today. Now the American Beech is threatened by development, logging and the fungus Nectaria coccinea, which usually attacks younger trees, with more penetrable bark. Sadly, younger trees are pretty much all that’s left. Moreover, these younger trees do not produce the big mast, needed by bear, squirrel, birds, turkey for food.  

There is lots of good riding on the dirt roads in the hilltowns of the Berkshires. I set off on a familiar one, but this time with camera along, under sunny skies. It is one of the flattest rides in Washington. From the town park on Rt. 8, I followed Lower Valley Road almost to the driveway of Heartwood Owner Builder School. If you want to learn how to build your own timber framed house or barn, or to build fine cabinets, or you’re a woman, wanting to learn some basic carpentry skills,  look at their website, It’s a fantastic school, with excellent teachers, a wonderful atmosphere, and good food, where you’ll meet lots of like-minded people. Today I rode to their driveway, just to take the photo, then turned back and followed Depot Brook along Lower Valley Road, which turns to dirt where Johnson Hill goes straight. It quickly returns to Rt. 8 where I turned south towards Becket. Though 8 is a major thoroughfare here, with not much shoulder, this time of year there is very little traffic. 

I rode south, through the village of Becket, with its fire station, library, arts center and general store, then to the intersection of McNerney Road. I turned right, then left immediately onto County Road. County  Road was at one time a main road in Becket and Washington; now it travels back into October Mountain State Forest.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, farmers in the Berkshire hilltowns knew the beech well: it grew on high ground and in the valleys, in forests and fields. The tree prefers rich, moist soils and has wide, spreading roots. Like oaks and maples, it has a taller, narrow crown in the woods, a wider and spreading crown in a field or near one of the stone walls that so often follow old roads in New England. Farmers moving west to Ohio or Michigan recognized the tree from home in New England, but it was bigger in the midwest and always indicated good soil.  And many local farmers did move west. October Mountain State Forest contains old walls, cellar holes, wells, cemeteries, school sites.

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