It’s a hot, bright day up here on the back roads — late spring spilling into summer. I’ve climbed up Henderson Road until the land flattens out into a broad stretch of wood and meadow, and everywhere I walk up here I can hear the sound of a brook close by.
I was reading just this week that people have come to this plateau above the river for hundreds of years, and I can see why. The Hoosic is an easy walk down below, carving its share of the valleys between the broad rivers of the Connecticut and the Mahicannituck (the tidal river rising and falling that Europeans would call the Hudson).
Up here, away from the marsh and the mosquitoes in the valley, the slope eases, and water would have been easy to find when the streams were fresh enough to drink. Mohican families and Nipmuc and Pocumtuc and Wabanaki would have known these fields familiarly, walked here and rested here as a generous place.
As I walk along the brook and turn uphill, I’m trying to imagine how it would have looked when the white oaks that give the road its name still grew here in the early 1700s. Here and there a tall old wolf tree gives a sense of it.
A hundred years later, when Elizabeth Freeman led the way to make this state free, and New York had not yet followed, a new community of families grew here, people who made their way out of enslavement and started again here with what they could carry. They lived here for generations.
They farmed and built houses, played music and built a community, and from what I can see they often had a hard time of it. I was thinking of them as I walked up White Oaks Road, of the family names I know and the many I have not yet learned, and trying to imagine and understand even a morsel, how would it feel to have come so far, through so much, and to be here planting a field on this ground.
They could have walked on up the mountain to pick wild blueberries later in summer. I can see the tiny cups of the flowers against the stems. At the Vermont border, the road turns into dirt — it could have looked this way a century ago — and the Dome trail heads north up the mountain. The swamp azalea are budding, almost open, here a slender bush along the trail and there a thicket farther back in the trees.
Higher up the wild verbena grow thick along the path, and they are just going by. Trillium are wide open in two-tone color. The path rises steadily, but gradually for most of the way. Near the summit it scrambles up a slope and through a real mossy glen and a fir wood. I’m listening to a stirring, rushing sound, thinking surely I’d come too close to the top for running water — more than a hundred miles inland, how can I be hearing the sea?
And then I realize I’m listening to the wind. The trail comes out at last onto a smooth crown of rock almost level with the tops of the trees. You can lie on your back and feel as though you’ve climbed to the top of the world for awhile.
On the way down, some way off the trail, I come across two lady’s slippers in full bloom. I’m thinking how many gifts this mountain keeps offering today, and it’s hard knowing that 250 years ago my forebears cut down all those white oak trees for the wooden sills for their foundations.
How tall and how broad is an old-growth white oak? I hear they can live 400 years or more and measure eight feet solid across at the base, and the branches can stretch as wide as the tree is tall, like a person holding out their arms.