The Berkshires | Return to October Mountain
Word in these parts has it that Herman Melville was the one who named October Mountain, the centerpiece of Massachusetts’ largest state forest and the geographic heart of Berkshire County. Leave it to a literary man to get it right. In its eponymous month, the mountain’s line of folded foothills tumbles down from a pinched peak in a mosaic of reds, oranges, and yellows. Nearer at hand, a lazy river goosenecks through an undulating valley speckled with flaming sugar maples and a fringe of crimson sumac. And on this sunny October afternoon, I’ve got all this practically to myself; only a few kayakers sliding their boats into the water share the scene. I head up a dirt road into the highlands, as yellow leaves float down through a tunnel of beeches. Climbing the flanks of the mountain itself, only the occasional cry of a bluejay and the crunch of leaves beneath my feet break the silence.For many visitors, “the Berkshires” means summer—and a straight run down U.S. Route 7, that familiar string connecting the cultural pearls of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Shakespeare & Company, and Tanglewood. Come fall, though, a quieter region emerges, full of its own beauty and creativity—and nowhere is the season more spectacular than along Route 8, the twisting state road that parallels its tamer and more popular counterpart on the other side of Melville’s beloved hills. Now a new generation of artists and artisans are populating these pockets, far from the foliage tour buses.
And that’s exactly where I began my journey early this morning, after a delightful stay at the Topia Inn in Adams. At this self-described “eco B&B,” founded by a dancer and a musician, you’ll find, among other themes, a Zen room with certified sustainable-wood flooring, and organic rice-paper calligraphy over the bed; an Iroquois room, with a deep-shag organic-wool throw carpet and Native American log-drum side tables; and a French room, featuring a decadent silk-upholstered headboard and antique chair.
Everything here is natural, from the bath products to the forced steam used to clean without chemicals. “We wanted to be luxurious and show that you didn’t have to sacrifice to go green,” says co-owner Caryn Heilman, a dancer who performed for a decade at Jacob’s Pillow before settling here. Heilman traveled with her dance company all over the world, but fell in love with the beauty of the Berkshires.
“Most of the time we were in large cities, hermetically sealed in concrete, inside and out,” she says. “Here, it’s connected to the rest of the world artistically, but it’s also naturally remote. You can experience culture in a deeper, more relaxed way and add to your work in ways you wouldn’t have otherwise.”
In the morning, I set out south down Route 8, a winding road that hugs the base of the mountains through tight valleys lined with sugar maples and beech trees. I stop at a farm stand to pick up a half-peck of McIntoshes and admire the scenery with the tangy taste of fall in my mouth.
The mountains here are the oldest in New England—ancient compared with the wilder adolescents of Vermont and New Hampshire—their peaks mostly tamed and worn down over millions of years. But what they lack in grandeur they make up for in a kind of protective intimacy. Theirs is a manageable wildness; often, the hills are more felt than seen, a steady presence that provides more of a portrait than a landscape view of their surroundings. But it’s a landscape no less beautiful in the valleys, full of picturesque red barns and rusting farm equipment, framed by the comforting bulk of the mountains.
About 15 miles past Adams, Route 8 joins Route 9 and heads east toward Dalton. But first, with Melville in mind, I’ll take a short detour west toward Pittsfield, the “Brooklyn of the Berkshires,” the county’s bustling commercial hub that today is reinventing itself as a center of western New England art and culture.
For years here in pockets of the Berkshires, industry went hand in hand with nature, and the area flourished, with mills and factories taking advantage of ample lumber and fast-flowing rivers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Pittsfield, a city whose history has traced the rise and fall of the Industrial Revolution in New England.
The architecture is as impressive as that of any small city in America, all granite and flourishes, even if the community struggled after its main employer, General Electric, all but left in the 1980s. Pittsfield has pinned its renaissance on attracting a creative class of artists and knowledge workers to the region, who come for the culture and stay for the natural beauty. If the new sushi restaurants, wine bars, and art galleries that have opened up downtown are any indication, that strategy is working.
It won’t be the first time that artistic types have found a home in the region. Attracted to the area for its natural beauty, Herman Melville bought a farm near here and reimagined the lines of the hills as the back of a sperm whale. This towering figure of American literature lived in Pittsfield for 13 years, gathering a literary community around him in his house on the city’s southern outskirts, where he finished Moby-Dick.
His home, Arrowhead, is now a history museum—but in some ways a more intimate view of the famous author may be found in the boxy downtown library, grandly called the Berkshire Athenaeum. There in the library’s small Melville Room, I discover the unlikely attraction that’s brought me here: a treasure trove of Melville memorabilia, including, among other items, paddles carried home from his South Seas expeditions; personal items, such as his pencils and his pipe and snuff box; and the desk from his New York home, where he wrote Billy Budd, his last prose work.
On the road again, it’s just a short backtrack to Dalton, where I make my way to Crane & Co., which produced the first paper for U.S. currency, more than 200 years ago. Today it still makes the cotton stock on which our dollars are printed, along with fine stationery. The Crane Museum of Papermaking, open weekdays from June through mid-October, is housed in the former rag room of the company’s Old Stone Mill, on the banks of the mighty Housatonic. Inside, stout oak beams arch overhead and tall windows illumine the floor; cases of 19th-century tools and other exhibits trace the long history of the craft in this valley.
Wending my way down Route 8 into Washington, I head west on back roads, past Ashley Lake and Sandwash Reservoir, deep into October Mountain State Forest and that glorious afternoon of hiking where our story began. After all that rugged exercise amid awe-inspiring natural beauty, it’s no wonder I’m feeling in need of some invigorating creature comforts.
If there’s a clubhouse for this quieter season, it’s the Dream Away Lodge, just down County Road in Becket. As I drive up the flank of Becket Mountain, at the southern end of the state forest, the restaurant seems conjured up as if by magic. One minute, I’m heading up a steep road that rises long enough to make me doubt my GPS; then, out of nowhere, the bright aura of a rickety farmhouse materializes by the roadside, with a splash of Christmas lights over the entrance and a parking lot packed with cars.
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