Richmond — Imagine you are big-city dweller coming to the Berkshires to spend time with your friend Nature, yet you don’t want too much schlepping and organizing because that’s what you do in the city. So you have breakfast in Stockbridge and get on a trail to Lenox, where you have a hot shower, dinner, then slide into your cozy hotel bed.
Or you could get nice and dirty as you walk the state, bottom to top, from Mt. Washington to Pownal, Vermont, popping a tent every night.
I learned that such dreams may soon be possible after talking with Berkshire Natural Resources Council (BNRC) President Tad Ames as we walk up the hill at Hollow Fields Reserve. This is one slice – 324 acres – of exquisite farmland, acquired in September and now preserved by BNRC which will fill in a missing connection to BNRC’s vision of a Berkshires trail-walking network “The High Road.”
BNRC just launched a $5 million capital campaign to buy up and conserve more of these “missing pieces” to create trails that will link town and village centers, an idea partly inspired by walking tours like Spain’s Camino de Santiago and England’s Coast to Coast Walk.
Already donors who knew about BNRC’s plans have lined up, committing to $4.25 million. But more is needed to fill in some critical links, which, in some cases, may require easements.
As we stand at the top of Hollow Fields, which will eventually connect to the Taconic Skyline trail, we look out at Yokum Ridge. Ames tells me this plan “embodies everything we’re trying to shoot for: a walkable Berkshires, connecting conservation and community, and finishing the job that’s been going on for more than 100 years.”
BNRC, which protects 21,000 acres in the county, will turn 50 next year, a motivating push for a “clear vision of what we need to do to best serve the Berkshires.” Ames said, when the vision was presented, “we got a uniformly positive response.”
When the concept sparked in 2013, “everyone just lit up,” Ames said. He said BNRC looked at maps of the county and decided to “strategically connect everything together.
“But we had no idea how this was going to get done.”
Ames said a High Road trip would have plenty of options for short or long walks. And for locals, that could mean a short walk on a lunch break, for instance. While the Appalachian Trail is a gem, hikers are trail-bound with equipment for several days before hitting a town. “That’s for the select few,” he said.
Ames said such trail connections would propel hiking in what is considered the “off season” here in the Berkshires: fall and spring. “Hiking then is better anyway—it’s less buggy, and you can see more of the woods.”
“Our natural world is our greatest asset,” he said. “It’s here—we want to take care of it. This makes the connection between people and nature more explicit.”
It’s a “quality of life issue” for the Berkshires, he added.
It also makes a connection to economic development here where it’s sorely needed as population declines and the rural economy is hamstrung. Unspoiled nature and access to it is one way to pull people and businesses into the county and keep people here.
BNRC Director of Land Conservation Narain Schroeder says this preservation and trail work will help the local economy.
“This is a great way for all Berkshire towns to take advantage of conservation work that has been done in the past, and see how this work really does benefit everybody from an outdoor recreation perspective and an economic perspective,” he said. “It ties it all together.”
BNRC founder and longtime environmentalist George Wislocki said the High Road is a bold but critical goal for the Berkshires: “The idea has always been out there,” he said. “Connecting the ridge lines, by and large wild country, and these mellow hills into towns.”
Of the ridge lines in particular, he said, they “remain unsullied except for some conspicuous trophy homes. I lament the trophy homes, and I don’t know what’s worse– the oil and gas industry or trophy home owners—they all seem to get their way in the end.”
He said what Ames and BNRC are doing “is exactly what should be done—to make these hills more welcoming for people to come to the Berkshires.”
Wislocki said surveys indicate visitors come here “because the Berkshires are green, but they end up at restaurants eating green and going to art and music events.”
While he said trails are hard to make – noting how many decades it took to make the Applachian Trail, for instance – he says it can be done. Having worked to create that trail, it’s the little battles that can get in the way, he added.
“When trying to acquire a linear easement, it’s not the lions that get you, it’s the mosquitos—you get everything lined up and then someone says no.”
But he isn’t worried. He says the Council can succeed now since it is growing strong and “assembling wealth.”
“This is important to the Berkshires as an iconic place.”