An Afternoon in Cloudland: Plane Crashes, Transcendentalists, and Mount Greylock

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The author on the Appalachian Trail

Famed poet-naturalist Henry David Thoreau once stood atop a lookout tower on the highest point in Massachusetts above sea level and described the expanse of the vista using one overarching word: cloudland.

When Thoreau visited the summit of Mount Greylock, protruding 3,491 feet into the sky, the surrounding valleys in the earth far below as well as the scattered communities throughout the landscape were all completely shrouded in mist. Where on a clear day one can see as far as 90 miles in almost all directions, Thoreau was treated instead to an endless display of rolling, hazy clouds.

Wrote Thoreau in 1844,

“As the light increased I discovered around me an ocean of mist which by chance reached up to exactly the base of the tower, and shut out every vestige of the earth, while I was left floating on this fragment of the wreck of the world, on my carved plank in cloudland; a situation which required, no aid from the imagination to render it impressive.”

On our journey to Mount Greylock, the path took us in some of Thoreau’s footsteps before we struck out on the stoic Appalachian Trail, which spans more than 2,000 miles from Maine to Georgia, 90 of which pass through Massachusetts.

Greylock is located in the northwest corner of the state — west of Adams, MA; southwest of North Adams; southeast of Williamstown; east of New Ashford; and north of Cheshire. This geographic area is a melting pot of arts and culture featuring rural farmland, industrial warehouses, renovated factories, quaint college campuses, and one of the largest contemporary art institutions in the United States. Each of these is like the spokes of a wheel, at the hub of which is the mountain.

We attempted Greylock from the north, making our way south from the Notch Gate in North Adams. Here we parked our car, lathered up sunscreen and bug spray, and secured our packs full of food, water, and warm clothing in the fateful chance we’d be subjected to the wrath of the range’s notoriously unstable weather.

Already at this location was a party of cyclists clad in matching neon yellow gear who, after a rousing rendition of whoops and cheers, set off pedalling up the steep, winding, Depression-era road that careens around the mountainside to the very top.

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Depression-era road leading up to the summit of Mount Greylock/ Image via the author

Our route upwards commenced along the Bernard Farm trail, which was traversed by Thoreau but in the opposite direction. This thickly wooded path was sometimes difficult to follow; the trail itself was overgrown, pale blue blazes were sometimes placed on tree trunks and stones that had since fallen down or been overturned, and before long the trail angled sharply up the side of Mount Williams — a respectable climb and the fourth highest peak in the Commonwealth.

The buzzing of bugs and the rustling of brush from energetic critters joined in with the crunching of dead branches and leaves beneath our newly broken-in boots to create a harmonious woodland chorus that pleased the ear. As we ascended, our view of the valley below through the tall and slender tree trunks grew increasingly awesome to the eye. The damp and muddy terrain below made for taking precise steps, the slow pace of which challenged and motivated the mind.

Our setting at this time heavily vegetative and verdant  with occasional outcroppings of ancient, glacier-scarred schist.

As we neared the junction with the Appalachian Trail, we noticed the most peculiar of sightings.

The trail bent around a tree and slanted upward and Mount Williams segued into Mount Fitch. To our immediate right was a large piece of metal that struck us both as the wing of a small airplane. Nowhere else in our line of sight was there any debris or wreckage that could be connected with this assumed tragedy. It was as if someone had purposely dragged it up the side of the mountain and set it down without reason.

It wasn’t long, though, that we encountered the twisted heap of carnage that could only have been the aircraft’s fuselage.

According to the Deerfield Recorder, this crash site is one of three that’s taken place on the slopes abutting Mount Greylock. This particular one is the least known and the least stumbled upon.

In 1988 a single-engine Cessna 172N was carrying three passengers from Rhode Island to Vermont; a 28-year old pilot, and two passengers, one 30- and the other 35-years old, both residents of the Green Mountain State..

I was able to dig up the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Aviation Accident Final Report which states the pilot’s preflight planning and preparation was inadequate, becoming a treacherous liability when storm clouds and fog descended on the Greylock Range essentially blinding the pilot to the outside world.

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A topographic sculpture of the Greylock Range/ Image via the author

Running low on fuel, the pilot began circling a hayfield to prepare for an emergency landing. He made a distress call to the nearest air traffic control, which couldn’t pick up the signal because of the plane’s low altitude, but was relayed by a third-party controller who happened upon the pilot’s same frequency and responded to the call.

It seems there was a miscommunication about the altitude of the surrounding terrain, veiled by characteristically thick vapor, and the pilot was instructed to vector despite flying at this time below minimum vectoring altitude — which, according to the Air Traffic Organization Policy is acceptable if the pilot is climbing to an altitude of 1,000 feet above the obstacle over which he or she intends to fly, in this case a mountain range.

Due to the torrential weather and miscommunication about the nearby elevations, the pilot crashed headlong on Mount Fitch, leaving himself in critical condition and killing his two passengers.

While the NTSB’s analysis indicates that the air traffic controllers “did not adhere to [emergency] procedures in [the] handbook…” and “…took no action to correct the situation…” as they “lacked [training] in handling emergencies” with pilots that fly below the minimum vectoring altitude, the pilot was most at fault.

The probable cause of the crash, in the NTSB’s eyes, was the “pilot’s inadequate preflight planning and improper inflight decisions, he continued to VFR into IFR conditions. The air route traffic control center service was improper.”

Translation: The pilot was ill-prepared for his flight and for inclement weather, and flew his plane as if conditions were pristine instead of relying on instruments in the cockpit. This happened in tandem with subpar air traffic control assistance.

The pilot was essentially a novice, logging just  68 hours of time in the air. To put that in perspective, consider a career pilot, like that of the 2009 emergency Hudson River landing, who’s garnered some 20,000 hours of flight time to his name.

The crash site remains with seemingly no intent to remove it. It’s a sort of hidden testament to those who lost their lives.

For some, like Thoreau, Cloudland can be a dreamlike paradise.

For others, it can be fatal.

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Mount Greylock War Memorial/ Image via the author

Soon the Bernard Farm Trail intersected with the Appalachian Trail (AT) atop Mount Fitch, denoted by its signature white trailblaze. From here the AT takes hikers along the Greylock ridge and, further south, some 1,500 miles of backcountry to Springer Mountain in Northern Georgia.

Sitting atop the backbone of the range, the difficulty level reduced slightly along the AT. The path was wider, the terrain more solid, and the inclines and declines rockier which made it easier to grip with our footing.

Our elevation became such that the trees grew increasingly sparser and our view of the valley below became increasingly visible. Along the base of the Hoosac Range opposite the valley, we saw plots of luscious pastures and rustic households set along the edge of the town of Adams, which was still out of view at the base Greylock.

Ahead was what looked, at first glance, to be a knee-high mound of ice or snow just beside the trail. The bright white color contrasted sharply with the environment’s all encompassing earth tones.

Upon closer examination, we realized it was a large chunk of marble. Among the oak, beech, birch, ash, and maple trees, and accumulations of banal schist, quartzite, and limestone, the marble appeared as out of place a mass of snow would in late May.

The Appalachians are an ancient mountain range, thought by scientists to be among the oldest on Earth. Hundreds of millions of years ago the Eastern United States sat across an ocean-like body of water from the rest of North America. Plate tectonics pushed Western Mass. westward toward the continent, causing a collision between the landmasses and thrusting it beneath the continental terrain, birthing the Greylock Range.

The force of the impact was so great and the pressure so intense, it catalyzed tremendous heat and transformed the range’s dolomite limestone deposits into marble.

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Adams, MA from the summit of Mount Greylock/ Image via the author

From Mount Fitch we descended slightly into the lower contour between it and Greylock before beginning our final ascent. The aforementioned tree types gave way to a boreal setting consisting of spruces and firs, which according to the state marks “the only sub-alpine environment in Massachusetts and southern New England.”

By virtue of its imposing size, our guide from here was the Mount Greylock War Memorial a short distance away on the summit. Built to resemble a lighthouse and acting in that capacity by emitting a powerful beam in the evening, the structure consists of granite quarried out of Quincy, MA and is the latest iteration of a summit tower spanning as far back as the 1830s.

The observatory was first constructed and rebuilt by students of nearby Williams College, “a building of considerable size” according to Thoreau who climbed it observe his cloudland.

Over the years it was improved upon to accommodate visitors while addressing structural deficiencies.

The current 93-foot tall tower was erected in 1933 per an act of the state legislature to not only allow for tourists to climb and observe, but to honor those Massachusetts natives who fought and died in war.

But it hasn’t been without its problems.

According to the Berkshire Eagle, “water infiltration issues prompted a total reconstruction in the 1970s and major repairs in the 1990s.”

In 2013 it was closed again due to lingering water infiltration issues that caused cracks and other deterioration, and in 2015 was closed for renovation work. It’s slated to reopen again to the public this summer.

The Eagle adds that the beacon is so bright at 1.9 million lumens that it can be seen as far as 75 miles away under the right conditions.

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Mount Greylock War Memorial/ Image via the author

The memorial anchors a park at the summit that once consisted of just 400 acres and now sprawls to nearly 13,000 in total.

Adjacent to the memorial is the rustic Bascom Lodge which, like the access roads up and down the mountain, are a consequence of the Great Depression.

The Lodge has been a haven for hikers and various guests since the Civil Conservation Corps, a New Deal initiative of President Franklin Roosevelt’s, built it between 1933 and 1936. Considered one of the “most distinctive and best-preserved CCC resources in Massachusetts,” the Bascom Lodge is composed of rock and timber from the very mountain upon which it sits.

Construction of Bascom was one of roughly 30 projects to take shape in Massachusetts during the Depression, many of which employed about 200 individuals who received uniforms, accommodations, three meals daily, and a $30 monthly wage (about $560 today when accounting for the rate of inflation).

At the center of the Lodge is lobby made welcoming by a communal fireplace with a grand stone hearth surrounded by comfortable leather furniture guests can sink into. Halls spanning from the lobby’s left and right like the wings of a bird contain, respectively, restrooms and staff-only workspace, and a cozy dining room with views to the west of the Taconic Range in nearby New York.

Above the lobby area at the center of the building are the guestrooms; an open area with ten group bunks for thru hikers, two family rooms with a queen bed and bunk bed, and two cozy private rooms with a double bed, one of which we stayed in with southeasterly views of the Cheshire Reservoir and nearby valley towns that at night dotted the landscape like fireflies. As Thoreau observed — and we did too — “The earth beneath had become such a flitting thing of lights and shadows…”

For the literary-minded especially, the summit park is a treasure trove of history and information. Scattered about are stone inscriptions and wayfinders highlighting the various writers who made the pilgrimage to Greylock, including Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and Thoreau.

The highlight, though, is the view to the east which encompasses the valley below and the uninterrupted sights of mountains in neighboring Vermont and as far as New Hampshire.

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Sunset from the summit of Mount Greylock/ image via the author

As the sun began to set behind us, the jagged shadow of the Greylock range began to slowly envelop Adams directly below us at the base of a steep slope, a 1,400-foot descent in the span of a mere two-fifths of a mile.

Falling deeper in the sky, the sun prompted swaths of pink, orange, red against the azure sky. It eventually fell behind New York’s Taconic Range, in between two proximal peaks like a brilliant yellow coin being inserted into a slot.

“The traveller who at present day is content to travel in the good old Asiatic style, neither rushed along by locomotive, nor dragged by a stage-coach; who is willing to enjoy hospitalities at far-scattered farmhouses, instead of paying his bill at an inn; who is not to be frightened by any amount of loneliness, or to be deterred by the roughest roads or the highest hills; such a traveller in the eastern part of Berkshire, Massachusetts, will find ample food for poetic reflection in the singular scenery of a country…”

— Herman Melville, Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile, 1854.

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