Sunday, July 11, 2010

PROGRESS KILLED THE PIONEERS

I was looking through one of the hundreds of boxes in my basement the other day and found a 10-page guide to the historic Pioneer Trail in Bear Brook State Park.

Instantly, I was transported back to over 30 years ago, when I first followed the trail. Back then, the naturalist at the park’s nature center, Mrs. Melack, led guided tours and nature hikes on the different trails in the park. In her official state-park uniform and hat, she reminded me of Miss Jane Hathaway on the Beverly Hillbillies when she’d don her bird-watcher’s uniform.

The trail was located at the very end of the road where the nature center, a building that housed a variety of live and preserved plant and animal species native to the area stood, and where the hikers usually gathered for the tours.

As the small group of tourists and I followed Mrs. Melack to the entrance of the trail, which was marked with an attractive wooden sign, she told us to turn around and look at the flat expanse of land we’d just crossed.

“This is an outwash plain formed by streams flowing from the edge of a glacier that covered the area 10,000 years ago,” she said. “The glacial waters sorted and spread the debris, leaving filtered sand to the depth of 60 feet here!”

We stared in awe at the sand, as if it were made of flakes of gold. After all, it wasn’t every day we were able to set foot on 60 feet of 10,000-year-old sand…unless maybe we were on a sand dune at Hampton Beach.

A neatly manicured dirt trail wound its way through the forest. To guide us, just in case we lagged behind and didn’t want to end up getting impaled on a thorn bush or find ourselves up to our knees in poison ivy, the trees along the trail were clearly marked with squares of yellow paint.

As we walked, Mrs. Melack pointed out the variety of plants and trees of interest along the trail. When she pointed to a big patch of juicy wild blueberries, however, she had our undivided attention. We were all set to dive in.

“You may each pick ONE blueberry,” Mrs. Melack said, her tone authoritative. “We do not want to disturb the balance of nature now, do we?”

I didn’t know about the other tourists on the hike, but I sure did. In fact, I wanted to take off my hat and fill it with enough blueberries to make a pie…and maybe a couple dozen blueberry muffins.

Instead, I picked and ate only one berry…well, maybe three. It took me about 10 minutes and a bit of sampling before I located the fattest berry in the patch.

We soon came to a cemetery in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t help but notice that one of the grave markers said simply “Sally” on it. I prayed it wasn’t a sign from above that I shouldn’t have eaten more than one blueberry.

“This is a pre-Civil War cemetery,” Mrs. Melack said. “You will see the last names Johnson and Clark on the stones. They were involved in the construction of the Old Allenstown Meeting House out on Deerfield Road.”

We moved on to an area that once was used as a campsite for girl scouts from 1949 until the 1960s. We then passed an overgrown cellar hole, the only remainder of an old farmhouse where a family named Cate had lived back in the 19th century.

My favorite part of the trail, however, was the steep hill that sloped down to Bear Brook in an area where the brook formed a waterfall that emptied into a deep, wide pool where kids went swimming. It was a picture-perfect area surrounded by shady trees. I could have lingered on the shore forever, especially since it was so cool there, even on a scorching summer day.

Over the years, I walked the Pioneer Trail many times on my own and enjoyed the peacefulness of the brook area, where I’d sit and watch the waterfall while dangling my feet in the icy water. Sometimes I’d take a book and stretch out on the wide banking and read.

A couple years ago, however, after not walking on the trail for quite a while, I decided to return to my favorite spot. What I saw shocked me. The trees all had been cut down. The Pioneer Trail sign was gone. The glacial plain was littered with dismembered trees. And right smack in the middle of it all, the framework for a huge building was being erected, with a construction trailer sitting directly across from it.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Surely, I thought, that in all of the 10,000 acres of land in the state park, another spot, one that didn’t house a pre-Civil War cemetery or a 1949 girl scouts’ campsite could have been found to build on. I was certain that Mrs. Melack, rest her soul, must have been rolling over in her grave.

Within a few months, a sprawling building, the State of NH Department of Resources and Economic Development office and warehouse, complete with a big asphalt parking lot, sat on what had been the glacial plain and the tree-lined entrance to the Pioneer Trail. No evidence whatsoever of the trail remained behind the building.

So after I found the Pioneer Trail brochure the other day, I got a strong urge to head over there and find the cemetery and the waterfall. Surely, I reasoned, they still had to be there somewhere in what was left of the woods.

I parked in the parking lot that formerly had been a green, grassy area and walked over to where the trail once had begun…or at least where I thought it had. All I could see was an overgrown mass of weeds and hay that all but promised an instant case of Lyme disease if I set foot in them.

Even though I desperately wanted to relive my quiet moments of the past down by the water, the thought of coming home with a family of ticks nesting in my socks somehow made the idea a lot less appealing.

But mark my words, I’m going to put on long pants, long sleeves, knee-high boots and a wide-brimmed hat (and I’ll probably need a machete to cut through the underbrush) and go back to find what’s left of the Pioneer Trail.

And if I happen to come across the blueberry patch, I’m going to eat more than just one blueberry.

After all, I’m pretty sure that the balance of nature already has been disrupted over there.