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Trials of the Appalachian Trail

(Page 4 of 4)

Berton Hewes is even more obstinate about the trail. The retired farmer lives with his son, Gerald, in a custard-colored clapboard house north of town.He owns about 100 acres of wood and pasture land nearby, a slice of which the Park Service hopes to buy.

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"I think this country has learned quite a lot from Hitler," grouses Gerald, leaning over a rusted Caterpillar tractor. "If we're stronger that you are, then we'll take it.

Inside the house, the wiry, bespectacled Berton adds, "It's my land. I bought it and paid for it. If you write that stuff down, people will say I'm crazy -- there's a man who wants to keep his property."

Suddenly Gerald bursts into the room, red-faced."If you talk Appalachian Trail to me, boy, I'm ready to fight," he shouts, fists clenched.

"They said they wanted a little corner of land. You know how much that little corner is? Thirty-five acres."

Berton leans forward. An afternoon sun glints off his sparse silver hair, matted to one side. "That's the whole story -- they want my land," he says. "I was brought up when people was free. They owned their own property. They had rights. If they didn't want to sell it, they didn't have to."

Ultimately, the Park Service holds the final trump card -- condemnation, an option trail planners say they have bent over backward to avoid all along. "We are going to continue to try to work something out -- we don't want to go to court," Steven Golden, the federal agency's Boston-based regional coordinator for the project, says.

Only 7 percent of the properties along the trail have been acquired through condemnation so far, compared with an average of 15 percent.

But why, opponents insist, does the government have to snap up a several-hundred-foot strip of their land to protect something that has existed for years?

The answer, hikers are inclined to reply, lies in the woods itself. On a recent brisk afternoon, wool-hatted Roger Sternberg hoisted his heavy hiking boot over a snowcapped log and trudged on up the side of Moose Mountain.

"You can see why people just love the woods," the sturdy climber said, stopping to swab a damp brow.

Ahead, Thomas Linell, a member of the local conservation commission, was bulling through eight inches of fresh snow on cross-country skis, spouting puffs of steam into a chill air. Fingers of sunlight poked through the snow-cloaked groves of hemlock. Brittle trees creaked with each nudge from a gentle wind.

Like an alert Labrador retriever, Roger abruptly stopped and pointed through a thicket of ash, maple, and birch. "See, over there, I think those are bear claw marks," he said, gesturing toward a stumpish beech tree, where the hungry mammal tried for a dinner of beech nuts.

A few minutes later we emerged from the wood-shrouded trail and onto the 2, 200-foot summit of Moose Mountain. Sternberg slung his backpack down on a granite outcropping and kikced the snow off his wool pants. He offered Tom some honey-spiced tea and frozen raisins. Tom reciprocated with homemade cookies.

"Usually every trail around here is packed down with snowmobiles," the lanky cross-country skier complained. "But it sure is nice today."

Roger stared out over the pasture-quilted landscape and beyond, where the bristly forests capping Shaker Mountain to the southeast and Mt. Kearsarge to the southwest brush gently against a hazy New Hampshire horizon.

"This," Roger said, swinging his arm in a wide arc, "is what the nitty-gritty protection project is all about."