County Line Nissan, in Middlebury, Connecticut, ends all of its ubiquitous radio ads with the slogan “Twenty minutes from everywhere.” This insipid four-word mantra, sometimes recited simply as “T.M.F.E.,” is a telling summation of the way we think about geography in our largely suburban nation: With our places of employment ever more dispersed, we lead archipelagic lives: home is an island, work is another island; the gym, the grocery store, and the bar are all dots on the sea, and the ferry that carries us among them is a car.
I will avoid the debate about whether the driving life is a good one or not. The suburbs and the country have their charms, and I have needed an ambulance or a new mattress enough times to appreciate the utility of the internal combustion engine. But there is something to be said for remembering that what separates Here from There is not minutes, but miles. And each mile is several thousand paces. There is marvelous mystery in the in-between, and at least a day’s worth of pleasure in picking a place twenty (driving) minutes away and walking there. The destination doesn’t even matter. As proof, I offer my own modest adventure: On the first day of spring last year, feeling deeply that strain of claustrophobia brought on by New England winters, some friends and I set out to walk from where we live—Hartford, Connecticut—the equivalent of a half-hour drive up Interstate 91 to to Springfield, Massachusetts.
With all due respect to Springfield, it is not a place most people want to go to in a car, let alone on foot. Once an industrial center of note, it is now to Hartford what Hartford is to New Haven, and what New Haven is to New York: a nearby backwater not worth the trip. So why walk there? Because what separates that city from mine is 26 miles of walking. And best of all, our region’s glorious industrial past and current economic decay have a happy byproduct: Our little cities and sprawling suburbs and struggling farms are knitted together with woods, and through those woods run forgotten train tracks—quiet, leafy pedestrian byways to everywhere. Not as quick as the interstate, but infinitely more enticing.
My three friends and I were definitely the only people with camping backpacks and sleeping bags on the Friday afternoon city bus, and by the time we hopped off at the last stop, five miles north in the town of South Windsor, we were the only people on the bus at all. We walked single file along the shoulder of a state highway, with bland corporate buildings on one side and derelict tobacco farms on the other. After a mile, we turned onto the tracks.
With the road only a quarter mile behind us, the rumble of cars and trucks all but disappeared, and we were in the woods. Every curve in the rails revealed some new landscape: an old scrapyard appeared, then a half-frozen pond fringed with pines, then an illegal dump, then a pair of tobacco sheds picked out against the sky by the setting sun:
As dusk settled in, we came to a hollow ringed with hills and divided by a meandering stream. It was a flat, lightly wooded acre down a short slope from the railway, and with darkness hurrying in, we figured it would do for a campsite. Using fallen branches as brooms, we cleared the snow from a patch of ground and pitched the tent.
It was cold that night, but a campfire helped, as did the reality that a “four-man tent” accommodates four men very very snugly. A nearly full moon and the snow-covered ground made the night woods luminous, and the burbling of the stream could have convinced us that we were deep in the woods, were it not for the fact that we had inadvertently made camp just over the hill from a spot popular with off-road vehicle enthusiasts. We could hear the nearby buzz and buck of four-wheelers late into the night.
With morning light, we got a better sense of our surroundings.
Spying some sort of structure through the trees, we climbed a hill and discovered a rusted, seemingly unused gas pipeline installation.
Approaching the old tower.
Buttons we did not press.
From there, we skirted the hill and found the likely site of the previous night’s off-road vehicle party, complete with all the indications of a fun time: red solo cups, fruity drinks, and discarded underwear.
Only another 19 miles between us and that one really good Cajun restaurant in Springfield.
We spent a while pondering how this old fellow found his way to central Connecticut:
This guy was closer to home:
Farther along, another possible journey presented itself, but we left that for another time:
The view of this old mill on the Scantic River was not one we would have found in a car:
Crossing said river on a derelict railroad bridge did feel a bit perilous, though:
Don’t look down.
Another thing we never would have known if we’d been driving is that the town of East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, after many decades of trying, acquired funding to pull out the rusty old rails and convert the right of way to a walking and biking path. The practical result is that the border between East Longmeadow and neighboring Enfield, Connecticut, is very noticeable:
The tracks end abruptly, just inches from the state line. (You can see my friend Adam in the background, posing for another picture by the stone border marker.) Shortly after that, our walk became appreciably less rugged:
From there, it was just a leisurely few miles through East Longmeadow and Springfield, seeing a few more things we never would have noticed if we’d taken the interstate:
The greatest barber.
We were definitely the dustiest and the most tired patrons of Chef Wayne’s Big Mamou, and again, the only ones with camping backpacks and sleeping bags. We took the bus home.