Zen Mosquitos on the Bench-Cut Trail to Sugarloaf

The Connecticut River gluts flatly into the horizon, viewed from the observation deck atop Mt. Sugarloaf in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Church steeples from small towns freckle the foothills, the spaces between them carpeted under humid shags of exhaling trees. Twelve miles away, the few many-storied buildings of Amherst jut into the air just before the lazy waters of the river dissipate into a beige periphery of translucent smog.

“People have been hiking the trails up to this very spot since before the Civil War,” our site contact, Paul, explains on the first day of our hitch. Paul has a short clipped beard and gray ponytail tucked through the back loop of his baseball cap.

He gestures towards a display on the wall. “Here’s a picture of the family that built the first resort at the summit.” The black and white photo that he indicates portrays a group of rugged, but trim individuals standing around a white paneled, two story house with no porch. The women wear petticoats, jackets, and the top trending millinery. The men are mustachioed and in starched linen suits. One of them wears a stovepipe hat and is holding a telescope.

“Back in the early 1800’s, when this was taken,” Paul continues, “you could see clear into Connecticut from here with a telescope like that. Now,” he shakes his head chagrin at the horizon, “well, maybe on a clear day, if you’re lucky—But it’s still an unforgettable view.”

It is a beautiful view. At the SCA program where I am employed, we work 10 days at a time on separate trail projects throughout the Commonwealth. We call each project a “hitch.”

On this hitch, myself and 5 of my coworkers were sent to reroute an eroded section of the busied Pocumtuck Trail, which runs from the parking lot of the reservation to the summit of Mt. Sugarloaf, with little to no regard for elevation or obstacles.

At 625 ft, I have friends from the West coast, and even some from the Northeast, who would scoff at calling Sugarloaf a “Mountain,” but it’s no pip-squeak.

Mt. Sugarloaf is an old mountain in old country, both in the anthropological sense and the geological. Stories of Native Peoples interacting with the mountain date back to the age when beavers the size of black bears roamed the area. It’s hundreds of millions of years old; an obtuse mound of bedrock and red, loamy soil is all that leads up to butte-like summit. That, and the jungle of trees, with their dense network of roots tangling through the clay.

The old path up Sugarloaf climbed for hundreds of feet at a time, at grades near 100% or more. It was less than a mile, but it was a stiff jaunt. Despite being seasoned by 2 months of trail work already, when we reached the summit on the first day, in our Carhartts and yellow hard hats, the majority of us replenished our Nalgenes at a fountain, only to empty the new contents over our sweaty foreheads.

That was the old fashion way of building trails, an embodiment of the irascible New England spirit, which looks at a cliff hundreds, if not thousands of vertical feet above it and says, “well, I want to get up there, so, hmm… I guess I’ll do some climbing.”

The old method is excellent for the lone bushwhacker or fitness addict, but Mt. Sugarloaf sees tens of thousands of visitors each season. Despite the many stubborn roots functioning as impromptu steps up the gullied trail, a change needed to be made. The new way interpolates a bit more forethought.

Especially with budgets for State and National Parks declining, in conjunction with burgeoning grassroots movements practicing “Go Green and Get Outside,” new trail construction has heightened its focus on sustainable trail structures.

For my group working at Sugarloaf, this means switchbacks, and all the bench cutting we could ever hope for.

Bench-cutting consists of installing a flat surface into the slant of a hillside, which in turn translates to days on days of cutting through the tangled upper layer of roots, down into the soil until, with a rake or McLeod, the flat surface is achieved.

It’s meditative work, and the nebulas of hungry mosquitoes with whom we share our work space make strident efforts to aid us along in our cultivation of Zen.

It’s good work, and in another 20 days I’m happy to say that I will be back, with a new crew, to install lumber steps in the isolated sections of new trail where the topography and bedrock prevented us from leveling it to a sufficiently low grade.

But for now, biting my grub hoe into another cakey layer of earth, I think about all the day hikers who hauled picnic baskets up this same slope two hundred years before I was born. I look up the trail to see our crew leader, Ryan, in a sedulous daze, sloping every cut to a near exact 45 degree angle. Down the trail: PT, Maya, Yasef and Lauren up to their waists in dirt and eyes shining hungrily into the next turn.

I think about that smog past the other end of Amherst. It was an accident that happened, sometime between the day the man in the stovepipe hat hauled up his 50 lb brass telescope up to admire the view, and, today, when my crew cached our tools behind a thicket of hobblebush. Groups of people got together and either didn’t know or didn’t care.

Itself, our trail won’t do anything to take smog out of the air. But, to me, it really doesn’t matter. It’s still an unforgettable view from the top. And, swinging our tools over our shoulders in the humid air, we join the fraternity of humans, past and expansively into the present, who did find out, did care, and did something about it, no matter how modest.

So, I don’t care about the smog, because I do care. And we smile: at the mosquitoes, at breathing in the sticky air, and at the salty beads running from our helmets down around our mouths: that piquancy of an honest day’s work.