ASHBURNHAM -- As we push our bikes up the side of Mount Hunger, lightening cracks overhead, clouds roll with thunder, and the cold rain gets heavy. I count the seconds from flash to crash and wonder if riding an aluminum bicycle up a mountain during a nor'easter is such a great idea. When we finally emerge from the woods by a sun-blackened barn, it has taken 3 1/2 hours to travel only a few miles. Add a twisted ankle, bleeding shin, and the standard collection of insect bites and, voila! You've got summer adventure.
Maelstrom aside, the Midstate Trail, on which we follow a ridge of small mountains erupting from the surrounding farmland, is quiet and feral. We spend the first few days riding, pushing, and carrying our bikes over what geologists call the Monadnock Plateau. The rainy spring and thus far cool summer have made the panorama of distant hills and farmland only greener.
While the Midstate will not be confused with the Great Divide Trail, which parts the American West from Canada to Mexico, or the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail, winding from Maine to Georgia, it is a solid hike and a great place to train for longer adventures.
Why the Midstate is not more widely known is a mystery. There's no one here this day but us two surly mountain bikers. It is certainly not for lack of craggy vistas, crashing water, lakes, wildlife, or flowers.
The Green Mountain Club and the Worcester chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club are active here, as is the Midstate Trail Committee, which organizes weekly hikes. Henry Thoreau hiked here when it was an Indian path, and Benton MacKaye, architect of the Appalachian Trail, laid it out as the Watatic Open Way in the 1920s. Still, the complete Midstate is relatively new, crossing the narrow part of Massachusetts like a gold chain around a teenage midriff.
The official guidebook says this singular slice of New England runs south from New Hampshire 92 miles through Worcester County. Beginning in Ashburnham, the Midstate climbs the small but stately Mount Watatic, then Mount Hunger and the Crow Hill Ledges on the way to Mount Wachusett, the highest point in the state east of the Berkshires. There, it skirts west of Worcester along the Quabbin Watershed. Finally, it meanders south and east through rural hamlets and lesser hills to the town of Douglas at the Rhode Island border.
While a gem in its own right, the true genius of the Midstate may be that it joins New Hampshire's Wapack Trail and Rhode Island's North-South Trail to create one of the longest walking networks on the East Coast. At 170 miles, the combined trail has to be considered a peer of Vermont's Long Trail (265 miles) and well worth skipping work to trek.
On a morning when the forest is cool and sprinkled with dew, we weave among large and numerous glacial erratics, boulders dropped in place by the last ice age. In the land of the very large, we are stunned by the very small as we nearly run over a patch of tiny, almost fluorescent, orange salamanders. They look as if they've grown out of the ground like a stand of toadstools and move about as quickly. Later, Peter Mirick, a biologist at the state Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, tells me they are ''red efts," apparently the terrestrial life stage of the eastern newt.
Their coloration, he says, acts as a warning.
''Newts are the most toxic vertebrates in the United States," he warns. ''They're not the poison dart frog of South America, but I wouldn't eat one on a bet. It wouldn't kill you, but you'd be heaving for a while."
Red efts may be poisonous, but they're not destroying forests, farmland, and greenspace in Central Massachusetts. Residential development, however, is. In 2003, according to US Census figures, Massachusetts had fewer citizens owning homes than only four other places: California, New York, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia. High housing costs have driven demand for cheap land to the central part of the state. The most recent census indicates Massachusetts is the only state losing population, and some of the remaining population is shifting place. From 2000 to 2003, Suffolk County (which includes Boston), saw a 1.3 percent drop in population, while Norfolk (communities to the south of the city), and Middlesex (the immediate north and west suburbs, including Cambridge) counties saw increases of just 0.6 percent, and 0.4 percent respectively.
During the same period, Worcester County grew 3.4 percent.
Affordable housing, however, comes at a price, one that commuters pay sitting in traffic every day. Development may be just the inevitable nesting of young families, but it is eating away at the rural heart of Massachusetts.
As we cycle, we are constantly surprised by these rugged little mountains and the sheer number of rivers, streams, and lakes here. At one point on a thundering overpass above the Massachusetts Turnpike, we wonder how many drivers in their rush between Boston and the Berkshires know they are missing some of the most beautiful scenery in the state. During our week, we are charmed by the ponds, vernal pools, and miles of stone walls. We meet an old man on an all-terrain vehicle puttering up a hill. We see the state's reservoir system up close. There are valleys of mountain laurel and stone staircases to climb. There are sections we bike where bikes are not allowed, and there are moderately dangerous sections we bike because we are knuckleheads.
The trail is meticulously maintained.
''The AMC gets involved with lobbying and other things," says Marie Auger of the Midstate Trail Committee. ''We keep our mission focused on the trail and maintenance."
The Midstate is generally clear of blowdown, and comes speckled with hundreds if not thousands of easy-to-follow yellow triangles. Our sole complaint is that while ubiquitous blazing is great for the directionally challenged, it puts a serious crimp in one's sense of adventure and renders the good Midstate Trail maps an afterthought.
Except of course, as we round a hill and hear the gnaw of a chainsaw. This clear-cut has left a wide swath devoid of trees and not a blaze to be found. We have no choice but to follow the stumpage.
On the road, by a converted farmhouse, we meet Sally Thoma and Rocky, her arthritic bird dog. Thoma, whose farmland abuts the Midstate, tells us the cut is actually part of a neighbor's forestry management plan.
''We used to get collectors asking if they could dig the fields," she says of her own farm. ''They'd come with metal detectors looking for Revolutionary War buttons and coins."
We tell her we have heard there has been a lot of digging, but not for buttons.
''Yes," she says, laughing. ''They can build a home here for $200,000 that would cost more than a half million in Concord. There's more land, but it's getting gobbled up." Gobbled, in fact, to the tune of 30,000 acres of forest and farmland in the last 20 years, according to figures from the Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission.
''They're moving out from Boston, making Worcester County one of the fastest-growing counties in the country," says Colin Novick of the Greater Worcester Land Trust. ''And only 50 percent of the Midstate Trail is permanently protected. There's a serious chance of it going away unless people pay attention."
Novick says that in the 1970s, the Midstate's founders ''would knock on doors and strike up conversations with landowners. They did it the old way. They just talked to people. Building relationships made it work."
Today, a small army of residents pays attention to these forests, farmlands, and mountaintops. In 2002, a group of private individuals, the Ashburnham and Ashby land trusts, state officials, and several nonprofit corporations plunked down $2.5 million to buy 280 acres on Mount Watatic after the former owners proposed a cell tower on its summit.
Concerns now loom over Mount Hunger, another scenic peak slated for development. Gary Howland, president of the Ashburnham Conservation Trust, says the landowner has given the trust a year to raise money.
By summer's end, near here in Harvard, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics plans to shutter the 30-foot telescope at the Oak Ridge Observatory with which, in 1988, astronomers discovered the first planet beyond our solar system. The last few decades have added thousands of street lamps in Central Massachusetts, and the resulting ground light has literally blotted out the stars. Suburbia, it seems, not only separates us from our neighbors across the street, but our neighbors across the universe as well.
Contact Sam Nejame at email@example.com.