Steve Jermanok’s Active Travels: Exploring the Berkshires
From the outside, the Guest House at Field Farm in Williamstown is nondescript if not downright ugly. Then you enter the Bauhaus-era home, now a 5-bedroom inn run by the Trustees of Reservations, and you understand the beauty of American modernism. All those rectilinear lines created the perfect opportunity to place large glass windows around the exterior and take in the stunning views of Mount Greylock. Walking into the living room is like walking into a post-modern early 60s museum set where Don Draper is your host. Unlike the architecture, all furniture seems to have curves from the Isamu Noguchi glass coffee table to the swan-backed couch by Vladimir Kagan. For visitors hoping to take in the art at the Clark Art Museum, reopening on July 4th after a major renovation, there’s no better setting.
I started my final day sampling the TTOR properties with breakfast at the Field Farm. Then it was on to another architectural wonder,Naumkeag in Stockbridge. Formerly owned by the Choate Family of New York before it was bequeathed to The Trustees of Reservations in 1958, Naumkeag is a 44-room Berkshires “Cottage” from the Gilded Age, designed by the prestigious architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White, and filled with arts, antiques, and collections around from around the world. But it’s the outdoor gardens that truly inspire, a masterpiece of 28 years of collaborative work by former owner, Mabel Choate, and her dear friend, Fletcher Steele, one of America’s first modern landscape architects.
Described by the Library of American Landscape History as a “playground for the imagination,” The Trustees recently completed Phase 1 of an extensive 5-phase, 3-year, $3.3 million garden and landscape restoration project designed to rejuvenate the gardens and bring them back to Choate and Steele’s original vision. I was fortunate to visit Naumkeag prior to Saturday’s opening with Mark Wilson, Curator of Collections. The place hasn’t looked this good since Mabel lived here. The transformation includes the renovation of Fletcher Steele’s iconic Blue Steps, one of the most photographed features in 20th-century American landscape design, lined with budding birches planted last summer. Wilson is almost finished with phase two of the restoration, the Afternoon Garden, where each stone was removed and then meticulously reinserted at the exact same location Steele originally intended. Talk about putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, this is stone masonry at its finest. Mending the retaining wall and fixing the fountains of the Chinese Garden is still on hold, but Wilson plans to complete the entire project by the summer of 2016. In the meantime, grab food in the café provided by Red Lion Inn and take in the glorious vista of Monument Mountain.
It was August 5, 1850, when 46-year old Nathaniel Hawthorne met fellow author Herman Melville, 32, on a hike up Monument Mountain. Along with Oliver Wendell Holmes and several others, they brought a wagon loaded with picnic food and champagne to keep the conversation lively. Perched on a ridge, they began to read William Cullen Bryant’s “Monument Mountain,” the story of a young Indian maiden who plunged to her death from the rocky pinnacle when she was forbidden by her Mohican tribe to marry her beloved. When it started to rain, the literary party took to shelter and drink in a recess on the west side of the mountain.
After leaving Naumkeag, I drove 15 minutes south on Route 7 to follow in Hawthorne and Melville’s footsteps and climb the 1,735-foot peak. The hike up, less than 45 minutes, is one of the easiest in the Berkshires—a gradual climb on a well-trodden path through mixed woods of hemlocks, oaks, beech, white pines, red maples, and birches. At a fork, look for a large boulder which commemorates the donation of the park to the Trustees of Reservation in 1899. Here, the trail crawls over rocky ledges to the summit. On this cloudless day, I had vistas of Mt. Everett to the south and the Taconic Range of New York to the west.
Berkshires Regional Director of the Trustees, Joanna Ballantine, who joined me on the hike, shared the news that the Trustees is working out a deal to expand the Monument Mountain property all the way west to the village of Housatonic. This will double the size of the reservation and will include trails that will lead to the summit of Flag Rock. Look for an announcement shortly.
Further south, near the Connecticut border, I made my final stop of the trip at Bartholomew’s Cobble. Walking on the Ledges Trail, the Housatonic River snakes through dairy farms on the left while eroding limestone and quartzite rocks formed the cobble to our right. I took a slight detour at Corbin’s Neck to get a closer view of the river and the cows resting on its banks. Continuing on the Tulip Tree Trail, I strolled uphill through a forest of tall hemlocks before reaching a clearing. At a short summit, there was a bench to sit on and take in the views of Mount Everett and Mount Race.
Then I veered left on the Hal Borland Trail to visit the Ashley House. Built by Colonel John Ashley in 1735, this is the oldest dwelling in Berkshire County. Colonel Ashley was a pioneer, lawyer, judge and patriot who furnished iron and other supplies for the Revolutionary War effort. He would craft the Massachusetts constitution upstairs with his friend Ethan Allan. On tours on weekend days in the summer, you’ll hear the story of Mumbet, a slave of the Ashleys who sued her way to freedom.
For more info, visit the Trustees of Reservations
Steve Jermanok As a columnist for National Geographic Adventure, adventure travel expert at Budget Travel, and regular contributor on outdoor recreation for Outside, Men’s Journal, Health, and Sierra, Steve Jermanok has written more than 1,000 articles on the outdoors.He’s also authored or co-authored 11 books, including Outside Magazine’s Adventure Guide to New England and Men’s Journal’s The Great Life. His latest book is Go Now! Put Your Life on Pause and See the World. He’s currently an adventure travel expert at Away.com and blogs daily at Active Travels.