Saturday, March 3 — the Nor’easter that hammered much of the East Coast with wind, rain, and snow on Friday is mostly over now. At least, the rain has gone, but there’s still a pretty strong wind blowing; I can see the thick, bare branches of trees shuddering and swaying as I look out the kitchen window of my childhood home in Amherst. It’s a little intimidating, but there’s a hint of sun struggling to penetrate the clouds. It looks like a perfectly good day to run.
Running in my hometown no longer stirs up feelings of nostalgia, as it once did. I’ve been back many times over the years, and have been visiting more frequently of late, and the fresh impressions of my recent, middle-aged runs have crowded out older memories. These days, it takes an effort to picture my teenage self, running into South Amherst and Hadley, past dairy farms, tobacco fields, and new malls that sprung up in the 1970s to accommodate Amherst’s growing population.
Amherst and its environs have changed a lot over the past half-century, although it’s still recognizable as the same place where I grew up. Some of the changes have been big and obvious, like the demolition of old structures and the construction of new ones; and some of the changes have been subtle and gradual, like the evolving traffic patterns, the steady turnover of businesses in town, and the re-thinking of public open spaces. One change that’s been especially important to me seems to straddle the categories of sudden and gradual: the conversion of the old railroad line that linked Amherst and Northampton into an 11-mile section of the Central Mass Rail Trail, used by bicycles and pedestrians for recreation and transportation.
Before there was a rail trail, there were railroad tracks. And before the tracks fell idle in the mid-1970s, there were trains – Boston & Maine freight trains rumbling back and forth between Amherst and Northampton bringing building and agricultural products to the Amherst Farmer’s Supply on South Pleasant Street.
While they were still running, the trains would pass within a quarter-mile of my family’s house on Northampton Road. Because the tracks were located in a rail bed that was slightly uphill from our front yard, it was easier to hear the trains than to see them, although I have a dim recollection of being able to see the top half of the box cars, or perhaps just the smoke from the locomotive, as the train made its patient way into or out of town.
In 1974, the rail line shut down for good. It was not a dramatic change; by that time, it was already rare to see a train on the line, and they were probably running only once every month or so. In any case, I had plenty of other things on my mind in 1974. That summer I had become a serious runner, and would end up logging over five hundred miles in a ten-week stretch, exploring longer and longer routes that took me out into distant corners of South Amherst, Hadley, Sunderland, Leverett, and Shutesbury. My legs were my transportation, and I could care less about trains, although I do have memories of occasional, unofficial expeditions along sections of the unused tracks with my teammates on the Cross Country team.
I graduated from Amherst Regional High School in the spring of 1976, and from Reed College in 1982. After college I settled in the Boston area, and fell into a habit of visiting Amherst a few times a year with my young family. By that time I had taken up running again after a hiatus of several years, and so it was natural to run when I was back in my hometown. Strange then, that I don’t remember my first run on the newly constructed rail trail — opened in 1992 — that created a glassy smooth ribbon where once there had been rough tracks.
I do remember that it took me a while – several years, at least — before I even bothered to consider runs on the rail trail. The prospect of logging my miles on a graded, out-and-back course held no fascination for me, especially compared with my beloved routes on back roads and through the countryside. It didn’t occur to me that the rail trial might also offer perspectives worth viewing.
As time went on, and as the rail trail became a weathered fixture in the Amherst landscape, I slowly changed my attitude. I was becoming more weathered, myself, and was less adventurous with runs. Perhaps it was feeling more fragile, or less inclined to set off on runs of uncertain length, but more and more of my Amherst runs incorporated at least a couple of miles on the rail trail’s gentle grade. Running towards South Amherst, I could revisit, almost as a spectator, the back sides of places that had figured in my old high school runs: the football stadium and track at Pratt Field, the baseball and soccer fields of Amherst College, the conservation land behind the college tennis courts, the private land where we were once chased by cows, and the railroad trestle at Mill St. that had been repaired and turned into a respectable bridge. These familiar sights were a comfort, and eventually I developed affection for these simple runs.
I begin my run in no hurry, setting off at a slow jog down Northampton Road towards Hadley. After only a tenth of a mile, I cross at the lights and make my way very deliberately up Snell St., another few hundred yards, until it intersects with the rail trail. Once on the trail, I turn right – West, which is the opposite of my usual direction – and soon pass the 6.5 Mile Marker. I’ve decided to run an out and back into Hadley, the distance to be determined simply by where I feel like turning around.
The first half mile or so is in a heavily wooded area somewhat sheltered from the winds, which are coming from the North and will be blowing across my path for the entre run. Besides the wind, there is another sound in the distance that at first reminds me vaguely of some kind of farm or equipment, like a threshing machine. But that makes no sense; it’s far too early in the year for anyone to be working the land. As I get closer, I realize the “threshing” is the high-pitched cheeping of thousands of birds in the branches of a large stand of trees, adjacent to the trail. I wonder what urgent business has them so animated this early in March, and why they have chosen this spot to hold their convocation. A few minutes later, my running has taken me past the woods, and the staccato sound of their collective commerce is fading behind me.
As the woods thin out, they reveal a landscape of muddy fields in late winter. A warm February and all the rain of the last 24 hours have melted away most of the snow, but there are still patches of white here and there. I search for words to describe the familiar emptiness of these fields. I consider and reject the adjectives “barren,” “bleak,” and “lonely,” all of which fail utterly to capture the rather rough beauty and solitude of dormant fields at the end of winter. Before I left my house, I had joked with my Mom that my favorite runs were on roads where there was nothing much to be seen for miles at a time. That was close to the mark. There’s nothing much happening on the rail trail today, but I am very happy to be running here, generating enough heat through my motion to resist the chill of that North wind, which hasn’t stopped blowing since the wild night before.
The miles go by. Actually, because the half miles are marked on the trail, it would be more accurate to say that the half miles go by, and I am content to run with no hurry to turn around. The paved path crosses South Maple Street and slips quietly behind the busy malls on Route 9. In another ¾ of a mile, the path dips into a tunnel that goes under the highway. I’m less familiar with this stretch, at least until I reach Middle Street, which means I’m a few blocks from the center of Hadley. Four miles from home, it seems like a good place to turn around, so I do. The wind that has been buffeting me on my right side now takes its turn buffeting my left side.
The sky has gotten grayer by the time I pass the birds in the trees, who are still excited each other’s company. There had been patches of sun earlier in the morning, but the clouds have closed in, and everything seems a little more subdued. I finish my run with a little flourish, and after some outdoor stretching, head inside to shower, change, and have lunch with my Mom.
After telling her about my run, and feeling a little guilty for abandoning her for so long, I suggest that we go out for a drive, something to get her out of the house for a bit. “Oh,” she says, “where to?” And I answer carelessly, “Oh, anyplace where there’s nothing much to be seen for miles at a time.”