You never know where an ancient road through reclaimed hilltown forest will lead you, which is one of many reasons I enjoy traipsing through the Franklin hills of my ancestors, be it hunting or just poking around.

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of the latter, chewing into acorns and beechnuts along the way to inspect the meat, picking up an occasional hickory nut, walnut or butternut out of pure curiosity, checking the availability of wild apples, scouring forgotten cemeteries, peering quietly into shaded squaretail pools for subtle movement along the stream bed, tracing the footprints of decayed farmsteads buried beneath a canopy of aristocratic hardwoods. Essentially, what I’m trying to do is get a handle on the status of wild food sources important to deer before moving into the busy bird-hunting season, which will monopolize my precious spare time until the December slugs fly. I’m pretty confident I have it pinned down by now, knowing things will change between now and snowfall, when the gray beech bark will stand out among skeletal hardwood trunks and limbs; but at this point I at least know where the feed is and isn’t, which may or may not be helpful come December.

Overall, it looks like a good year for hard and soft mast, with nuts plentiful on the ridges and apples similarly abundant high and low. Isn’t it funny how the yield of individual apple trees can vary so in the same old orchards? At one highland site I visited recently, on one level there were large, edible apples everywhere, big red ones that could have easily been sold in the Grade A bin at Green Fields Market. Then, on an elevation not 100 yards away in the same ragged fruityard, not an apple anywhere; good, tall, healthy trees, leaves dense, no apples. Although I’m certain there’s a scientific explanation, I don’t know it and feel no overwhelming urge to solve that puzzle just now. So I’ll just make a mental note of where the fruit is and where it isn’t for future reference — near future.

No less fascinating during my country meandering are the long-ago abandoned farms concealed in the densely forested uplands that were stripped bare a century and more ago except for stately tree lines bordering roads and stonewalls. You stand there looking at the massive footprint of a house and its outbuildings, the tidy stonewalls, the quaint, stone-armored cemetery, and wonder who was Malachi Maynard, buried nearby, and why did he come to our western hills from Westborough in 1767? How long did it take him to clear his land? How long after his departure did the forest return? Interesting stuff. Captivating.

Still curious about man and mission after returning home, I performed the cursory research needed to answer my questions, and in the process found a major discrepancy that presented a problem, that being what was true and what was not in the conflicting hard-covered history. How can one native minister remember as a young boy in the 1830s seeing the flames that completely destroyed Maynard’s dwelling house and outbuildings shooting from the windows, then another respected native reverend place Maynard’s descendants residing there in 1867? My guess is that the 1867 remembrance was written from afar by a man who had long ago left his hometown and ”assumed” Maynard descendants were still living where they had when they were his neighbors.

Assumptions like that are not helpful to future generations attempting to stitch together the Maynard legacy. For sure, such misinformation creates a lot of work that a little fact-checking at the time could have eliminated. But in defense of the 19th century historian who wrote it, fact-checking from faraway was no easy task back then, before motorcars, telephones and computers simplified such endeavors.

It’s amazing how well preserved and passable the old roads running between sturdy stonewalls remain; so easy to follow on foot, most still negotiable with narrow, 4-wheel-drive trucks like mine, particularly during the dry summer swelter. I was recently walking such a road with a hunting buddy, no kid, assessing the acorn crop when, out of the blue on our way back to the truck with three energetic spaniels, he asked me a simple question. He wanted to know why the road and others nearby have remained so open with little apparent use. I wasn’t certain I had the answer but gave it my best shot, speculating they were packed hard under a dense, sun-blocking canopy where the soil is rocky, shallow and less than rich. Thus, with limited travel and occasional clearing of inevitable blow-downs, the roads remain open for generations, if not centuries.

Uncertain after returning home that my spontaneous explanation had been on the mark, my cranial wheels started spinning like bald tires in a black mudhole. Isn’t it ironic, I thought, how the same factors that had driven hardscrabble, upland farmers west with the opening of the New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio Valley frontiers were now helping to preserve the long abandoned roads they traveled. With my mental pistons churning at high rpms, I went to my library to research the roads and hardy folks who built them. Not surprisingly, the research led me to my adjacent computer, where I Googled several keywords focused on roads and the towns they traversed. Sure enough, there it was in black and white — a recent court case involving the road we had walked and my friend had questioned me about. Come to find out, it had been approved in 1766 as a highway from Ashfield to Hatfield. That’s right, 1766 — before the incorporation of the two towns sandwiched between the destinations. And think of it: this road that can still be driven with a rusty Volkswagen Bug during the summer months was discontinued before the Civil War. Had such a road been carved through the fertile bottomland three miles east and discontinued during the mid-19th century, not a trace would exist today. But hilltown roads, some originally Native paths, have staying power. Posterity is the beneficiary.

Armed with this new information, I called my buddy before departing for work that night. The conversation went something like this:

You know that road you asked me about today?


Well, guess when it was discontinued?

No clue.

What if I told you 1845?

No way.

Yep, 1845. Can you believe it?

I can’t. Unbelievable!

I too found it incredible, even though I have studied that historic landscape, know it well and actually believe kindred spirits guide me through those woods, leading me to new discoveries relevant to my very being. Now maybe these woods have become more intriguing to my friend. If so, he’ll ponder the historical context from time to time when walking that road, alert, gun in hand, taking the quick route from one stand to another.

As for me, well, it’s just another revelation to harmonize my sense of place and being; all in the course of chasing a passion — actually two of them.

Hunting and history are intricately linked.

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