Twain Twichell Walk

Computer is recovered and sends its thanks to all who wished it well.

Here’s an entry that was supposed to go up last week. Please excuse the length, but this experience could not be condensed into a few words.

It was Saturday, May 30, and I was going to participate in the walk that Mark Twain and his friend the Rev. Joseph Hopkins Twichell took several times a year. My friend and former colleague Steve Courtney has been re-creating the walk for several years and it sounded like it would be recreational, educational, in general a great way to spend a day.

I started out before 7 a.m. with a quick stop for D&D coffee and bagel, then hit the road to Simsbury. The GPS took me off in the wrong direction just past the University of Hartford, but as soon as I turned around, it got me to the parking area at the foot of Heublein Tower with plenty of time to spare for our 8 a.m. departure back to the Mark Twain House in Hartford. There were several cars and trucks in the area already, which I thought was odd. Then a guy in an F-150 pulled up just past my car. He didn’t look like the type to be taking a literary hike, but who am I to judge? He jumped out of his truck and grabbed a firefighter‘s helmet and some serious looking sunglasses. Then a young woman in an old Accord rocked over the curb on the other side, jumped out and covered herself with bug spray. I’m thinking she’s not going on the Twain Twichell walk, either.

Pretty soon Steve pulled up, just behind a ladder truck from the Simsbury fire department. The folks in the pickup trucks consolidated themselves into a few vehicles and went on up the mountain. It was impressive to watch the big truck squeeze through the entrance to the trail. I assume they were going on a training exercise and hope someone was watching the store as the 20 or so folks climbed towers and poked around in the wilderness. Those of us going on the hike gathered, and I drove Steve and three other guys down to the Mark Twain House on Farmington Avenue.

Steve pulled out a fabulous photo of Twichell and Twain and some copies of his books, which I promised to help him sell, he having already autographed my copy. After a bit of a wait for the other 20-odd folk who were scheduled to do the walk, we set off from Nook Farm.

First stop was a gorgeous giant white birch set a few yards back from Woodland Avenue. Steve noted that Twichell wrote about looking at the tree from his house.  While we stood in the shade of the tree, Steve explained the history of the walk that Twichell, pastor of Asylum Hill Congregational Church, took with his close friend Mark Twain. Steve talked about how Twain and Twichell became friends. Instead of trying to re-create Steve’s eloquence, I recommend his book, Joseph Hopkins Twichell. I haven’t read anything in eons that made me feel inferior because of the quality of the writing, but this book did. My complete reaction appears at “A Man for All Seasons,” Feb. 20 and “Family Ties,” Feb. 21.

A few yards farther north, we stopped again in front of a tight board fence where Twichell’s house once stood. Not much to see, but plenty to hear from the dog on the other side of the fence and the cars roaring by a few feet away.

We proceeded from there north to Albany Avenue, Route 44, which was a path for horses and carts in the days that Twain and Twichell walked this way. As soon as we turned the corner I saw North Methodist Episcopal Church where my great-grandmother pledged to contribute 25 cents for the year ending April 1, 1890.  I chased Steve down to tell him that was the church that Twain’s butler, George Griffin, attended and probably where he met my great-grandparents.

That part of Albany Avenue is now the western end of the ghetto, which extends down almost to the Connecticut River. A few spots break up the broken glass, boarded up buildings and graffiti. Among the best is the Artists Collective started 40 years ago by musician and composer Jackie MacLean and his wife Dollie. He worked his magic in the neighborhood and the Collective offers a home to aspiring musicians and a place for the established to jam.

The Twain Twichell group made another stop a block or so farther west to buy lunch. The place is called Scotts’ Jamaican Bakery, and it does an extremely brisk business in meat patties and vegetable patties. They also advertise Duck bread, a circular loaf with a twist on top in the shape of a duck. There were some other rather scary looking breads, one called bulla that three of the women were still munching when the walk ended at about 3:15 that afternoon.

We encountered various North End denizens along this part of the route: an elderly lady whose wrinkles even smiled as her face lit as she greeted us with a cheery “Good morning!” A man of indeterminate age with a large backpack, a Rasta hat and dreads, who was smoking a large hand rolled object that did not smell like a cigarette. We encountered him on the bridge over the railroad tracks, and he seemed to take great pleasure in blowing smoke in our direction. He greeted us with a cordial “Good morning as well. In and around the bakery were a number of workmen dressed in mechanics overalls and painters pants who hustled in to buy lunch. The bakery’s delivery guy returned, sporting long Rasta braids. He was the only one who wasn’t particularly cordial to our group.

The serious part of the walk now began as we crossed the city line into West Hartford, where all turned instantly green and clean. The huge car dealership has been transformed into the Backstage Café, an adjunct of the theater space of the University of Hartford. We turned right at the circus tent, I mean the Universalist Church, and proceeded gradually up hill through an area of old mini estates. Then the sidewalk ended and we began to walk up and down rolling hills into serious money. And into serious traffic whizzing by at 60 in a 45 mph zone. A few people honked and gave us thumbs up.

As we passed a golf course, one of the young men on the hike threatened to sneak in and snatch a golf ball from Missy or Buffy or whoever was playing, something he thought that Mark Twain would approve. After all, the man called golf “a good walk spoiled.” Before the next actual country club, we walked passed private houses that looked like country clubs with huge swimming pools and multiple tennis courts.

This part of the walk passed quickly as I talked to a former lawyer who is now an investment counselor at Merrill Lynch. Prediction: the worst of the slide is over, but things will never return to where they were. A brief chat with the man who came the farthest: Rich from California who edits Marathon Magazine. A young woman who works as a public defender in Manchester who is thoroughly disillusioned with the state of newspapers – and she’s well below the average age of most newspaper readers. Another woman, who looked deceptively young, told me that she had been raising three children, but the youngest was now in college, so she was searching around for a career and in the meantime painting. Plus I had a couple of delightful conversations with Steve about the James family connection to Mark Twain, to Asylum Hill Church, to Atlanta U., and my own connection to the Keene valley.

I also started a talk with the executive director of the Twain House. The staff there is anxious to find a photo of George Griffin. We finished the talk during and after lunch at the 4-H Club in Bloomfield. As we walked in off the road on a really long and very dusty driveway, I was talking to a veterinarian who specializes in treating large animals. She had come from Granby with two of her friends. She complained that many of the farms have “9 to 5” farmers who are absent when she shows up. She gets to the place and isn’t sure what she’s supposed to do, and there’s no one to talk to.

We went past what had obviously once been the farm house where cows now graze in the front yard. We proceeded Up the drive and straight into the barn. The place holds classes for children, so the pens had signs like “rabbits have fur.” We gazed upon goats that were eager to make our acquaintance; sheep that seemed to be more interested in rubbing the itchy part of their recently shorn hides against the posts in their pen; the aforementioned rabbits that were unfazed by the rooster who set up a racket as soon as we walked into the barn and kept it up until we left – or at least until I did. The sawdust aggravated whatever allergic reaction I’d started back around the Hartford city line, and by then my eyes itched probably as much as the poor sheep’s skin.

I saw a sign by the door that said, “Please sanitize your hands when leaving the barn.”  but there was no sanitizer to be found, so I proceeded to the ladies room and scrubbed down before going to lunch, which we ate in a pavilion on the farm grounds. I sat with a couple of people who attend Asylum Hill Church and a woman who was an EMS who had a pedometer with a GPS in it.

After lunch, Steve read from copies of Twain and Twichell’s letters to each other and an account a hike they took in Europe in which a little girl nearly tumbled into a ravine. Twain’s version of course was by far the more dramatic and obviously fictionalized. There was also a rather poignant note of reminiscence about their walk to Bartlett (now Heublein) Tower when they had grown too old to do the walk any more.

We climbed up through a field and departed the 4-H farm via a back gate that opened just enough for one person to squeeze through at a time. Then we walked through some weeds that came up to my waist and we climbed, and climbed, and climbed. Eventually the weeds ended and we were on a narrow path with a chain link fence next to it.

Steve halted everyone and told us to check for ticks and to watch out for a reaction to poison ivy, which we had passed. The latter isn’t a problem for me, but I’ve been inspecting every little itch ever since for a possible tick. Even made Larry check a spot near my ankle that I couldn’t see well because I’d removed my lenses.

The chain link fence separated us from the back of one of the reservoirs along a groomed path that climbed. I walked the rest of the way with a woman who is a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club. I asked if she’d done the trail. “No,” she said, “I don’t camp. I stay in hotels and motels.” But she did tell me a lot about the area. As we walked by the reservoir we were under a great canopy of pine trees and the air was probably 10 degrees cooler than it had been on the sunny hillside at the 4-H camp.

Joyce said that she hikes under the trees at the reservoir when it’s blazing hot elsewhere and that it’s like walking into air conditioning. Having the water right next to the path doesn’t hurt,  either.

After we left the reservoir area, we climbed and climbed and climbed some more. The path was strewn with rocks that screamed out, “We’re going to make you twist your ankle! We’re going to make you fall!” Every so often, we’d come to an area of smooth, flat rocks that were covered with water from the previous night’s downpour. Wet rocks cause one to slip and slide in a different fashion. And then there were the boggy areas. Detours around a stand of trees saved us from landing in squish up to our shoe tops. Note to self: If you do this walk next year, wear hiking boots and long pants instead of Capris and running shoes.

I decided that I was going to remain upright, limbs in tact. Had a little conversation with the Universe saying, “Now look, I’ve got to walk across the front of the Wesleyan chapel tomorrow in front of 300 plus people. I cannot do it on crutches!” The Universe listened, for which I am grateful.

Joyce talked about other walks she’s done with the AMC and other groups. She mentioned a woman on the trail behind us who was walking with two artificial knees. Joyce said she’s slower but she’s going to make it. At one point, we walked under some power lines and she showed me the tiny little entrance to the Metacomet trail, which is practically hidden in the grass on the side of the main trail.

We walked and talked some more, actually talking less when the going got rough and we needed to catch our breaths. A few hundred yards farther up hill we came to a paved road that bisected the trail. I’m going to have to look at a good map to figure out exactly where we were. On the other side of the road we followed the signs for Heublein Tower. We stopped at a pavilion with a great view of the valley below us. I’m sure it’s one of those places where one can see New York, Massachusetts, and probably a bunch more stuff. It was quite windy, but the only sounds were the racket made by the turkey vultures that seemed to be nesting in every surrounding tree and the unpleasant ratt-a-tatt-tatt and blam-blam-blam from the state police firing range.

Steve pointed out an iron post dug into the ground near the pavilion, the only remnant of the building that stood on the site when Twain and Twichell walked this way. At this point I was getting worried because I had an appointment at 4 p.m. miles away from Hartford. It was already 2:30, and we still had to get back to the cars on the other side of the tower and drive back to the Mark Twain House. I skipped the extra 120 steps up to the top of the tower and considered using the ladies room but decided it wasn’t clean enough.

I went down the trail with the veterinarian and her friends. The painter/mom said that we had been misinformed about the distance: the hike was not eight miles as advertised but closer to 11 based on her pedometer. We flew down hill, sometimes not voluntarily. Again the rocks were screaming, “We’re going to get you!” But I ignored their cries. Stopped briefly to look at the hang-gliding launch pad, but from a safe distance. Continued flying down the path.

A cross section of the area greeted us going in the other direction: West Indian families with little kids who covered twice the distance as the adults because they kept darting back and forth, up and down. An Asian family in which the mother asked us pleadingly, “How much farther?” One of the women said, “You’re almost there,” which wasn’t strictly true. A family speaking a language that sounded like it came from Central Europe, but I couldn’t identify what. As we neared the bottom we saw a young couple about to walk in. They were holding hands, and she was wearing flip-flops. We all kind of said OMG, and one of the women I was with said, “He’s going to wind up carrying her before they get to the top!”

We reached the bottom without incident and waited for the rest of the crew to show up. Steve packed five us into his Subaru. Even though we left first, other folks arrived back at the Twain house before we did. I unpacked Steve’s stuff from my car and raced to the appointment, arriving 15 minutes late.

Woke up the next a.m. amazed that I didn’t have any sore muscles, any blisters, in fact no negative effects. I attribute my wellbeing to the massage I got as part of a pedicure and the two Advil I took before bed. Will most certainly do that walk again next year!

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2 Responses to “Twain Twichell Walk”

  1. Mother’s Day Lilacs « Lizr128′s Blog Says:

    […] had the beginning of the Middletown High School invitational today and tomorrow is the Twain-Twichell walk. So here is a picture of the lical bush that perfumes the neighborhood and supplies my […]

  2. Walk Extras « Lizr128′s Blog Says:

    […] annual Twain-Twichell walk had a couple of additions this year. The first was the addition of several pounds in my backpack in […]

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