By Nell Davis, Interpretive Ranger at Monadnock State Park
Oliver Wendell Holmes said “Where we love is home. Home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.” For me, this rings true: home is encapsulated in places I love, specifically natural areas. Working seasonally, my coworkers are constantly rotating in and out of my life, and my main source of stability is the natural world around me. This post will focus on my two most recent outdoor homes, Bear Brook State Park and Monadnock State Park. I have only been at Monadnock a few weeks, so it is just starting to become home, but I was lucky enough to live in Bear Brook from January until the beginning of June.
Phase One: Acquaintance and Exploration
Before I even moved to Bear Brook, I knew that I would be spending my weekends escaping from the constant saturation in community living by heading outdoors. I did not quite anticipate where those hikes would lead, but I started walking the first weekend I arrived. As is typical, I began my exploration with some of the closer trails (Broken Boulder and Lynx, for us). With additional weekends, I worked my way farther afield. By a month in, I was perfectly fine with being slightly lost out by Hall Mountain and Ferret Trails. The surprise view I received over a recently logged area more than made up for any concern I might have had about my whereabouts, and I was starting to feel comfortable in that specific section of the park.
Moving to Monadnock, our first week was set aside for exploration. To me, that meant hiking as much as I possibly could to get to know the mountain, its trails, and the flora and fauna I might encounter. The weather did not quite cooperate with this plan, but I managed to cover a fair amount of mileage and learn a lot about the mountain. I grew up hiking Vermont mountains like Monadnock, so my first ascent here immediately made me feel back at home. The moss-covered stone walls, rolling forested paths, steep rock staircases, and open rock ledges all felt comfortable and familiar, while Monadnock’s specific cultural and natural history presented a fun learning challenge. My second day hiking, I did not even try to summit; I just walked as many little connector trails as possible to get a feel for the less-traveled routes, and I promptly fell in love with a few of the unexpected viewpoints.
Phase Two: Settling In and Testing the Boundaries
By Easter, two of us Americorps members had hiked all the Bear Brook park trails. As I said, I did not anticipate this at all. I am not a hiker who typically aims for a list, but I did want to get to know Bear Brook. At some point in the middle of the spring, as we gained miles and had walked over immediately adjacent trails several times, our weekends became a quest to see as much of the park as possible, all at walking pace. We had some grand adventures along with a few really rough days, and we made some scattered awesome discoveries. I was constantly impressed by the varied nature of Bear Brook’s landscape, and in the middle of this process, I started to really love some of the trails, especially the slightly lesser used ones like Carr Ridge or Hedgehog Ledge. At the same time, I became very comfortable with the area immediately surrounding camp and started to feel out my own “special spots” of refuge.
I have not been at Monadnock long enough to walk any trail more than once or twice, but my settling in process happened so quickly that I almost immediately skipped to testing the boundaries. I tend to be a cautious hiker. Every once in a while, though, I need a reminder that, as much as I may feel safe and comfortable somewhere, things can change quickly, especially outdoors. At Monadnock, that reminder happened on my third day of hiking, when I ended up above treeline on the rock slabs in pouring rain and fog. I made a great decision by choosing to turn around quickly, and I was lucky. That said, I was definitely outside of my comfort zone and not in a good situation. My comfort zone on Monadnock will probably stretch as I travel the trails more often, but I will absolutely keep in mind that my new home is a mountain and is not necessarily a forgiving one.
Phase Three: Home and Familiarity/Caretaking
On a wet, cold Sunday in April, I had a case of cabin fever and really needed to go outdoors. Despite wanting to explore one of our last new trails in Bear Brook, we decided to walk the campground access road instead, since it was cold, wet, and slippery. Much of the snow had melted over the previous week, and several of us had been dismayed by the amount of trash becoming visible. During our 3-mile walk to the gate in pouring rain, we acquired five very full grocery bags of assorted trash, one fully functional broom, and a lot of extra water inside our rain jackets. On our way back up the trail paralleling the road, we gained two more full grocery bags and even more water, mixed with a little sleet. Several people thought we were crazy for choosing to go out and be covered in trash on an already bad weather day, but this is one of my favourite memories from Bear Brook hiking. Uplifting? Clean and comfortable? Maybe not, but I can’t think of a more satisfying way to spend the day than being outdoors in a place I love, pitching in to clean up somewhere that already felt like my own home. The hot chocolate and warm shower afterward didn’t hurt my feelings either.
I am not yet fully at home here in Monadnock, but I know it will happen soon. What has been most fun so far is listening to the stories of those who are at home here. There are the mountain celebrities who come up any time you research the park, but there are also scores of ordinary people who love this place and feel a strong grounding connection to it. My first official day on the mountain, I was lucky enough to meet several of them and to hear their stories. There were the two brothers who grew up hiking Monadnock as Boy Scouts and regaled me with tales of the mountain from 60 years ago; the couple who hiked it once a year, partially just to prove to themselves they still could; and the woman who was hiking one of her favourite trails for the first time in 15 years, reminiscing on what had changed and what was a constant. At the same time, there were the people who had never climbed a mountain before; the college students excited to tell their friends they had managed to summit; and the herd of young teenage boys (with one adventurous adult) encouraging each other up the trail, despite a fear of heights, a bad knee, and some general fatigue all being represented in the group. Hearing these people’s perspectives made me look forward to the tales I will hear all summer – I just hope I can add a few stories of my own to help visitors connect even more deeply with the mountain and all that it can represent.
Something I have loved about Bear Brook and am feeling again at Monadnock is that each person can fall in love with a specific place, story, or area in a state park and feel a strong sense of personal connection to that factor. It doesn’t matter if hundreds before them have had the same affinities; what matters is each personal experience and the memories caught up in those experiences. For me, Bear Brook and Monadnock will always have a spot in my heart as home, long after I have physically moved away and stopped hiking their trails. I love knowing that they will stay essentially the same throughout time as well, in hopes that I have the chance to visit again with my feet and not just my heart.