A 'Rookie' New Englander Eyeballs Its Mountains

There are no mountains in Kalamazoo, Mich. That's where I lived until I went away to Michigan State University in East Lansing, which is even flatter.

I've seen mountains all over the world since then. But like so much else I've found since coming to New England seven years ago, the peaks here are a special breed.

A few weeks ago, I stood on Mt. Wachusett in Princeton, Mass., and surveyed New England. Well, central New England.

I could see from one end of Massachusetts to the other - from Mt. Greylock in the state's northwest corner to the Boston skyline in the east. I could see mountains in southern New Hampshire and Vermont, and in northern Connecticut and Rhode Island.

It struck me, as I struggled to keep my balance in what felt like a 60-mile-an-hour winds at the summit, that to do this you needed the proper concatenation of circumstances:

1. A clear day. This may seem obvious, but I've been up there when you couldn't see 100 feet down the mountain.

2. A fairly high mountain. Mt. Wachusett is 2,006 feet, not the highest in Massachusetts, but high enough. (The highest is Greylock at 3,491 feet. New England's mountains may not be the Rockies, but they are real mountains, and not hills as Westerners are wont to so laughingly refer to them.

3. A fairly small state. One of the fun things about New England is that there's so much in such a compact space. If you plan it right, you can drive around in four or five states in about four hours. (On the other hand, if you plan it wrong, you can drive around four or five blocks in Boston in about four hours.)

Still, it's thought-provoking to be able to look 45 miles back to Boston or 65 miles out to Greylock, gaze at all those peaks, and know that not one of them is a volcano. Talk about peace of mind.

Mt. Wachusett, as we all know, is a monadnock. In my dictionary, ''monadnock'' comes right after ''monadism,'' which is the theory that the universe consists of monads, whatever a monad is. Anyway, Webster's says monadnocks are named after Mt. Monadnock, which is in New Hampshire, and which, by the way, I could see just off to the left. (It's 3,165 feet high, and don't confuse it with Pack Monadnock, which is a little over to the right and is 855 feet shorter.) A monadnock is ''an isolated rocky hill or mountain rising above a peneplain.''

And have you ever noticed how many names around here end in ''set?'' Massachusetts. Wachusett. Naragansett. Videocassette.

Well, I looked it up, and set means ''near'' in Algonkian. Massachusetts comes from massa meaning ''great,'' wadchu meaning ''hill,'' and set, ''near'' - or ''near the great hill'' - which, the Encyclopedia Americana says, probably refers to the Blue Hills south of Boston. So maybe Wachusett means ''near the hill.''

Except that it's really a mountain.

Got a mountain near you? Climb it and enjoy the view. You can see what it did for me. Now if I can just figure out what a monad is....

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