July 18 2012 by Jason Fogelson
I amaze even myself sometimes when I'm on a motorcycle trip. After that belly bomb of fried seafood that I ate at Al's Seafood last night, I can hardly believe that I wake up hungry this morning. Must be all that fresh ocean air. Lucky for me, a good hot breakfast is included with my stay at the BEST WESTERN PLUS The Inn at Hampton.
I load the Electra Glide, thumb the engine to life and snick the gear selector into first. Soon, I'm cruising along Interstate 495 -- just for a few miles -- and I cross into Massachusetts for the first time on this trip. In case you're keeping track, that's the sixth state in six days. Cheating a little in this part of the country, but it still counts.
I exit I-495 in Leominster, and continue to ride west on Massachusetts Route 2, which I will follow pretty much all day today.
Massachusetts has a lot in common with New York. It's a big, diverse state that is dominated by a major city that might as well be its own state. Boston is such a vibrant, important city that it's easy to overlook the virtue and beauty of Western Massachusetts, which pretty much starts just past the Boston suburbs. While Boston and the coastal region of the state are compelling, Western Mass is a whole other world: full of natural beauty and varied geography, loaded with culture and art, and eternally fascinating.
My favorite slice of the state is the Mohawk Trail Region, defined by the road that I'm riding today, Route 2. This classy old road will take me into the heart of the Berkshires, following a route that was designed for motoring along at a gentle pace.
The Trail predates Colonial America, originating as a footpath through the woods. As Colonists began to expand throughout the Northeast, the Mohawk Trail became more of a formal trade route. It served as a critical path during the French and Indian Wars of the 18th century, not always to the Colonists' advantage. It remained a reliable route through the Berkshires, and when the time came for automotive travel in the early 20th century, the Mohawk Trail was among the first scenic routes designed for car travel and pure pleasure driving. It has been bypassed for commercial travel by the vigorous Mass Pike (I-90), which runs across the state further south, which has only served to make the Mohawk Trail all the more romantic and nostalgic to travelers. It is especially attractive to motorcyclists, with lots of elevation changes, sweeping curves and dramatic views. It is really one of the best roads in the Northeast.
I ride along until hunger strikes, and stop at the Wagon Wheel Restaurant in Gill. Everything homemade, totally unpretentious and comfortable -- the kind of place where I just love to eat. I have a turkey sandwich, and I soak up the atmosphere of the locals chatting in the dining room. I feel like I've just gotten a taste of what it would be like to live here -- and I like it.
I crank up the Electra Glide again, following the black ribbon of tarmac through the hills. It's impossible to resist the lure of the classic souvenir stands along the Trail for long, so I don't; I stop at the Mohawk Trading Post, distinguished by its 30-foot tall Chief statue out front, and the proportional teepees alongside. The trading post specializes in tourist items, including moccasins, arrowheads and polished stones. I drop a few dollars on a refrigerator magnet (of course) and on a piece of locally made jewelry for my wife. That's the big change from the old days -- the roadside souvenir stands actually sell some items of quality and interest. Glad I stopped in.
I ride on, stopping at a few vistas to admire the long views in the Berkshires. Somehow, I'm riding up at elevation now, and the overlooks provide gorgeous vistas. There's a really sharp hairpin turn in the road in Clarksburg, and a clever proprietor built a restaurant there called the Golden Eagle Restaurant & Lounge. Carved into the side of the hill, it has a glorious view of Adams, North Adams and Williamstown splayed out on the valley floor below. The Golden Eagle is well worth a stop.
North Adams is another town that has done a great job of preserving, restoring and repurposing its old mill buildings along the river. Several of the old mills have been converted to live/work lofts for artists, a great change from the crumbling ruins that they seemed doomed to become a few decades ago. North Adams is also home to MASS MoCa, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, which has made it a magnet for creative types. There's a bit of a hippy-dippy vibe to North Adams, with craft stores and small galleries at every turn.
In Williamstown, I leave the Mohawk Trail and head south on Route 7. Williamstown is the home of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the famous summer theater that was founded by a group of Williams College grads back in 1955. Williamstown has since grown into a world-class annual event, producing new plays, revivals and classics with top Broadway and Hollywood talent every summer, and even serving as an incubator for new work. Many theater fans plan their summer travels around the Williamstown schedule, as the combination of great shows and a great natural setting is tough to beat.
I cruise on south to Pittsfield until I reach the BEST WESTERN Berkshire Hills Inn & Suites. This place is ideally located to serve as a base for exploring the Berkshires. It's just a few miles from Williamstown, a few miles from North Adams, a few miles from Stockbridge and Lenox. There may be more popular towns than Pittsfield for the New England traveler, but few are more centrally located for the culture vulture.
While checking in, I ask the front desk clerk for a dinner recommendation. I'm looking for a local favorite, I explain, and I've got a taste for steak tonight. Without hesitation, my host pulls out a menu for Dakota Steakhouse of Pittsfield, a five-minute ride away from the hotel. Best of all, BEST WESTERN guests get a 10% discount on meals. A delicious "Dakota cut" of prime rib later, I can see why the locals love this place.
I'm back at the hotel now, and I decide to sit out on the back porch for a cigar. Tomorrow is my last day of riding. I have to return the Electra Glide to EagleRider in Queens before they close at 3:00 pm, and I've got 150 miles of unpredictable weekend traffic to cover. That means that I've got to plan my day carefully -- I don't want to get there too early, missing out on attractions I might have seen along the way. I also don't want to loiter along the way, and risk missing my drop off. That would be very costly.
While I ponder the ride, I look out into the meadow behind the hotel, and to the woods beyond. Tiny flickers of light hover above the grass, and I realize that I'm seeing some of the season's first fireflies. A bat swoops overhead, and I look up into the sky. The stars look close enough to touch, and I can clearly identify the Big Dipper. I take a draw on my cigar. I realize that the pressures of tomorrow's ride can wait until tomorrow. I'll just get up a little early, give myself some breathing room, and everything will be fine.
I'm relaxed. I watch the fireflies, and think back to happy days when the summer seemed to stretch on forever.
Miles ridden: 206.8
NEXT: NEW ENGLAND BY MOTORCYCLE, DAY SEVEN: PITTSFIELD, MA TO NEW YORK CITY AND HOME AGAIN