Why do we hike? 

Let’s come back to that, but whatever the reason is, it wasn’t obvious to me in Collis P. Huntington State Park early this month. The drive up had stressed me out. Route 53 was blocked off by a Weston police vehicle, and I got turned around trying to use Route 58 instead. There was a creaking noise coming from underneath my car. I spilt coffee on my jacket. Normally, a few minutes on the trail would banish these little aggravations; but not today. One problem was a lack of preparation. I’d come to hike the Aspetuck Valley Trail (AVT). It leaves from the east side of the park. The parking is on the west side, and I didn’t have a park map to get me over to the trailhead. Then there was the state of the trails. They were covered in hardened snow; slippery here, potholed with fossilized footprints there. It was already after 10 a.m. Even if I found the AVT soon, completing the 11-mile out-and-back hike seemed a tall order. It was very cold. I could pack it in and try again another day.

The trail came down to a lane. I at least had a map of the AVT, and figured this was Hopewell Road, and that it would take me to the trail in ten minutes. And so it would have, except I had to wait for workmen to retrieve a branch they had sawn down and spray it back into the trees as woodchips. The drone of the chipper did nothing for my nerves. I had a decision to make when at last I reached the AVT; follow it back into the park and go home, or head south. The first section south was, according to the map, a mile long. Why not at least do that? So I climbed over plow piles and crunched into the trees. Streams soon appeared in a hollow to my left, black threads in the snow and ice. This was the Aspetuck River, a mile from its source, and 15 from its confluence with the Saugatuck in Westport. “Aspetuck,” they say, meant a “high place” in the Algonquian tongue of the native people who lived hereabouts, perhaps a reference to the 800-foot hills from which the stream emerges.

The trail kept to woods above the hollow, then dropped down to the river and Poverty Hollow Road. Black ducks paddled in the dark waters of the Aspetuck. Across the road, the AVT entered an attractive glade. At the far end of it, I rested on a thick, sawn-up trunk. Hikes don’t always begin when you first set out. Today my hike started here, where the sharp colors of snow, winter scrub and the fringing pines combined with the song of a chickadee and the knocking of woodpeckers to turn a chore into an outing. I made up my mind to walk the next section too, 1.93 miles according to the map. Along the way, the snow crust mostly bore my weight and my boots mostly gripped, but making progress was still harder than on bare dirt or rock. Even so, by the time I reached Goodridge Road across the line in Redding, I’d stopped thinking about going home.

But I did turn around there, 2.3 miles short of the end of the AVT. If I had tried to do those miles  out and back  I’d have felt rushed. I now wanted to savor the afternoon, starting with a nice place for lunch. It turned out to be another log, tucked away in woods very characteristic of Fairfield County  the understory of mountain laurel; the gray wooded ridge in the distance seen through the trunks nearer at hand; tumbledown stone walls. Sun-warmed tree trunks had melted the snow around them into neat circles. The scene was pretty, for sure, but not breathtaking. So why did it feel good to have hiked out here? Was it just the workout, my endorphins winning out over the little aggravations? If that were so, I could presumably get the same effect watching CNN from a treadmill. I think, for hikers, something else comes into play. Let’s call it simplicity. It’s getting away from stimulation, to a place that holds only undemanding things like trees, boulders and a river.

Something did demand my attention on the way home. In 15 years in Connecticut, it was only the second time I had glimpsed this creature. On Poverty Hollow Road it crossed the road in front of me, went into the trees and stopped. I stopped too, and got out of my car to watch this handsome coyote watch me. If you are interested, you can see pictures of him, or her, here.

 

If you go …
PARKING Dodgingtown Rd, off Sunset Hill Rd, Redding CT.
DISTANCE Aspetuck Valley Trail is 5.6 miles one-way, excluding distance in Collis P. Huntington State Park. I walked 9.5 miles – 6.2 roundtrip on AVT plus 3.3 off AVT.
DURATION About 5 hrs. 
MAP AND ROUTE Park map here. Trail map here. I walked the AVT south to Goodridge Rd, and back. 
WHAT TO TAKE  In winter conditions; sturdy boots, trekking poles, abundant layers, warm hats and gloves, food and water. 

 

Rob McWilliams is a local resident. Taking a Hike appears monthly. Contact Rob via his blog or Facebook. He’d love to hear from you.