SAVOY -- Mars burns in the sky like a stray cinder from the campfires we pass on the way back to our tent. Here at Savoy Mountain State Forest, in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts, we are almost 2,000 feet closer to the heavens. And the fires are the only light source diluting the stars.
We awake amid a sea of color; autumn has taken hold of the hillsides. It's the perfect setting for losing ourselves on the back roads that burrow deeply into mountains and ravines as the seasons change hands. What we will find are the roadside treasures that serendipity lays in our path.
While the light is still young and dancing in the mist, a short hike from the campground lands us at South Pond. A beaver swims along the shore a dozen yards away, rippling through reflections of sky and autumnal color. We jump at the sound of a forceful, high-pitched huff, and turn just as two white-tailed deer wheel off into the woods.
Over a short stack of flapjacks and the hundred-mile view at the Whitcomb Summit Cafe on Route 2, we decide it's time to disappear into these gorgeous hills on the first road that tantalizes us.
At the eastern edge of the town of Florida (just after the "Welcome to Florida" sign that faces traffic on Route 2), a road shoots straight up the southern wall of the Cold River ravine. It has no sign, but on the Savoy Mountain trail map we picked up at the campground, it is called Black Brook Road.
It follows the riffling stream until Black Brook drops sharply out of sight. We continue upward on the side of the ravine, feeling as if we are riding high up into the treetops.
We could follow this road forever, but a sign for Tannery Falls lures us onto rough, unpaved Tannery Road. Within minutes, we are on foot, following a trail down into the ravine where Tannery Brook splits, creating two enormous, frothy cascades. The air is scrubbed of all sound but that of water falling from far above.
Continuing along Tannery Road, we follow a sign that points left to Balanced Rock. The road degrades dramatically. Apparently, Mother Nature decided the road would make a better streambed -- and she was right.
At Balanced Rock, two climbers try to scramble up the elephant-sized boulder, which indeed is balancing on a tiny protrusion at its base. There are no amenities here; this is just a simple spot in the woods where the Ice Age deposited its glacial pun.
Back on Tannery Road, the rough ride ends abruptly with a left onto narrow, lazy New State Road, a veritable superhighway after the slow, bumpy ride that had lulled us into 12-mile-an-hour contentment.
After another left on Adams Road, we veer left again, passing up the smoother Center Road, the quicker way to Route 116. The ruts deepen after we swing right onto Bannis Road. The air smells like a mixture of sweet sap, a Christmas wreath, and mud pies. This stretch is being logged, and we are lucky to make it through during an apparent lull in the effort.
About a mile up the road on the left, we come across a strange graveyard in a grove of trees that marks the short-lived family of Orrin and Florinda Tower. Daughters Harriet and Almina lived only to ages 7 and 4, respectively, and the Towers' son, Elansford, "drowned in his father's mill pond in 1854 at 9 years old," according to a white marble marker that lies in pieces among fallen leaves.
The road, in Savoy, ends in a couple of miles, right at the driveway of the Dragon House, where a sign beckons, "Drop in for a spell." So we do.
We wander into a yard filled with intriguing sculptures and a house that would be right at home in "The Lord of the Rings" . . . or "Hansel and Gretel."
"I've been wondering when you would get here," says a calm voice from the upper turret window. We don't hear anything for a minute, and then the door opens. A smiling man appears.
"I'm Roger Davis, the town witch," he says with a warm mix of irony and pride.
We sit outside in chairs with 8-foot-tall backs carved from tree trunks. I ask him when he first realized he was a witch.
"It usually follows when you find that some of the things you think shock other people, such as the belief that religion should include nature," he begins. "Then you meet a group that it doesn't shock, and that shocks you. There's no central dogma, really. The joke goes: If you ask three witches a question, you get eight answers."
His house is ingeniously built from logs and stones harvested from his land. There is no electricity. Water runs in from a spring.
He points to a second-floor nook. "This is where I do past-life regressions. Sometimes it's very dull," he says. "Some people have very dull past lives."
Back out the driveway, the route continues right on Haskins Road, then left on Route 116.
In a little over a mile, a right on River Road leads to Windsor State Forest, where the Windsor Jambs Brook has cut an 80-foot-deep gorge through solid rock. The road to the Jambs is an unmarked left just before the Windsor State Forest campsites. Pass through a cathedral of pines, and then take the second right (follow the "fresh eggs" sign) to the unmarked parking lot immediately on the right. A trail hugs the bank, offering dizzying views of the sheer drop to the frothing water below.
Back on Route 116 in Savoy, continuing east leads to Route 8A North (or left), a winding downhill sweep through some of the most picture-postcard-worthy scenery on the entire route. All the way back to Route 2 in Charlemont, the road is framed by trees billowing like fiery earth-bound cumulus clouds. Even more beckoning side trips radiate from the road like spokes.
This area is rich with tiny back roads to explore, with treasures to be found along the way. Where one road ends, others take up the chase. With a good map, you can wend your way as far as you like off the beaten track and drop in for a spell at the waterfalls, orchards, artisans, and even witches, tucked away along your meandering route.
Clare Innes is a freelance writer who lives in Belmont.