Great Story

Your senses are different when you live in a city. It is something that creeps up on you. You don’t feel much different, but somehow you learn how to sleep in a not-quite-dark room that abuts your building’s parking lot. You can pick up on the sound of a dump truck two blocks away and just know that it’s about to come make a racket on your street. You are an expert at predicting which car is most likely to cut you off (hint: it’s all of them).

These “city senses” were foreign to me when I came back to Boston to start my service year. I had spent three months working for the Appalachian Mountain Club, my current host site, running teen volunteer trail crews in western Massachusetts. For all intents and purposes I lived in the woods for three months. My home was either an 8x10’ canvas tent or a 1-person backpacking tent. It was dark at night. Birds sang, coyotes howled. My commute to work included mud-caked clothes from the day before, medical kits, extra water, food, and tools. We worked with our hands. Teenagers are generally a noisy bunch, but life was overall much quieter.

Although it was a big change, I was excited to start my service with the AMC on Bay Circuit Trail. My first few weeks were jam packed with meet-and-greets and field visits to the BCT. The BCT is a patchwork of towns that all host a section of trail, so there were a lot of dedicated volunteers to meet. I was looking forward to field visits, which usually meant hiking sections of the trail with a point person for that section. Beth, my supervisor, was attending a conference on my second full week of these types of meet-and-greets. She set up a few hikes so I could continue connecting with people involved on the BCT. One of those people was Al.

Al French has been a big name for the BCT since its conception, and he has stayed involved in his retirement. I was to meet him at his home in Andover, MA, at 8:00am on a Wednesday morning.  As I ventured out into morning rush hour, I realized how much my city driving senses had returned to me. I could ponder why Interstate-95 North was a bonafide parking lot (shouldn’t cars be going INTO the city?) while lackadaisically honking at the person that just cut me off after crossing four lanes without a turn signal – and not rear ending him! I watched the minutes tick by as I sat in another traffic jam at the exit for Interstate-93. Why would they make the meeting of the two biggest highways in the state so terrible? Who designed this? I thought as I saw a BMW try to cut the line of stopped cars on the exit ramp. Oh no, he was not cutting the line and sneaking in front of me. I think I actually said, “No, you will wait your turn”, out loud as I closed any potential gap he could get into. I looked in my rear-view mirror at the 18-wheeler behind me and silently rooted for him to join me in this vigilante traffic justice. He heard my calls and made sure this rogue line cutter had to wait his turn. I actually cheered. That’s when I knew I was back in the belly of the Boston beast.

I hastily arrived at Al’s house ten minutes late, profusely apologizing to him for the delay. He smiled, shook my hand, and invited me inside. He offered me breakfast as we sat and chatted by the fire he had going. I mused about how different my scenery had become in such a short amount of time.  Al took me on one his favorite stretches of the BCT. The first question he asked me on our walk caught me off guard: “When someone asks you what this job is, what do you tell them?” I said, “Well, Al, I’m an AmeriCorps member so I tell them that this is not my JOB, it’s SERVICE…” Just kidding. The first time I answered I spit out the small blurb you develop in any job, the standard response to “what do you do?”. He asked me again, and I realized he was urging me to dive deeper. What is this thing I’m doing? What is the Bay Circuit? Why am I here? I was hooked.
Hiking with Al

Al had a wealth of knowledge, stories, and advice to share with me.  I was fascinated, curious, and eager to hear what he had to say. He said he loved to talk to younger people and that’s why he enjoyed running his local outdoor store; he chuckled and said, “The young folks there had to talk to me, they didn’t have a choice.” Mostly, I think he was interested in bridging the age gap that exists in the conservation world.

Al also enthusiastically answered every question I asked him, and his answers always had a tidbit of advice or wisdom. I asked him how many times he had hiked the entire trail. He gave his best guess, and then the conversation turned to something else. A few minutes later he stopped in the middle of the trail and said, “you know, I thought more about how many times I’ve hiked it. I think it was three, my wife and I went together once. You should really get out without your cell phone and go do something like that with someone you love.” It was simple yet powerful.

We neared the end of our walk and stopped at a viewing platform overlooking a large wetland area. Al said he loved this spot because it was a great place to come sit, read a book, eat a sandwich, whatever you wanted to do. I agreed, saying it was nice to have a place to get away from the hubbub of everyday life, noting that technology distracts us so much nowadays that we’re rarely ever truly present. His response was, “Ah, yes, now that’s a good lead-in. I ask all of my grand-kids this – in your opinion, what is the purpose of education?” It caught me off-guard, made me pause and really think. Al had turned a simple meet-and-greet walk into something much more all-encompassing and thought-provoking.
Viewing Platform on the BCT
Our hike ended with a stroll through the Mary A. French Reservation, where he showed me a beautiful bench constructed to memorialize his late wife whom the Reservation is named after. We parted ways at his car; he shook my hand and told me it had been a pleasure. There’s not many times you can actually say “it’s been a pleasure” and truly mean it, but I was happy to say it as a whole truth. Needless to say, it was a much more pleasant drive home.

Molly Higgins
Community Engagement Coordinator – Bay Circuit Trail
MassLIFT AmeriCorps, Appalachian Mountain Club