A walk in the woods
When you begin a trip in rain, there's always the hope things will get better. Eventually.
We started hiking the Ives Trail in something midway between a downpour and the "occasional showers" the weather forecaster had predicted. But this wet spring and summer, the whole state has learned to live with a certain amount of dampness and discomfort. You adapt.
Midway through Terre Haute in Bethel, the steady beat of rain became the predicted occasional showers, then only the residual water dripping off the leaves of trees or the brim of my soaked cap. The trails stayed water-logged but we began to dry off.
Like all good explorers, we were heading west - through the Terre Haute land to Tarrywile Park. It is roughly the first third of the 15-mile Ives Trail.
The newly christened trail - named after the composer Charles Ives - is a 15-mile stretch that takes you through three towns - from Bethel to Danbury to Ridgefield - and an open-space corridor of more than 2,700 acres. It has the potential to link up to thousands of acres to the south.
The trail is now more than a concept, but less than a done deal.
It's been laid out on a map and it had its official opening on June 3. But parts of it remain unlinked to the whole.
Other sections aren't marked with the yellow and red Ives Trails markers - you take it on faith you're walking on the right footpath. There's one place - where the trail crosses the traffic-laden Route 7 - where trying to walk is to invite death.
There are no grand adventures in the trail. But there are the pleasures of walking in a new place, seeing the world from a different height.
And there's hope those pleasures will be here for generations, so that when the streets are more noisy, and the neighborhoods built up on every open lot, there will be this wide green band to first explore.
We began our hike in Bethel, which meant we started in the place that may contain the biggest question mark of all this land: What will happen to Terre Haute?
For the 630-acre, town-owned parcel that straddles the Bethel-Danbury line is the only large block of land on the trail that hasn't been preserved as open space.
Both First Selectman Bob Burke , and his predecessor, Alice Hutchinson , have spoken of the advantages of keeping the land open and linking Terre Haute to the Ives greenway.
But the devil is in the details. And these have only begun to be worked out.
"I hope it will be preserved," said Rob Wallace , co-president of PATH - Preservation Advocates of Terre Haute. "But never say never."
Terre Haute surrounds Bogus Mountain, Mountain Pond and the end of Eureka Reservoir, which supplies water to town residents. The open, densely wooded land - along with being beautiful - acts as a watershed to filter and protect the reservoir's water.
Although much of the land is in Danbury, it's all owned by Bethel. It's zoned "R-80," which means it could be broken into two-acre housing lots. It also borders the Francis J. Clarke Industrial Park in Bethel.
A few years ago, the town leaders proposed building a municipal golf course on the land - both an 18-hole and 9-hole course. Voters rejected that plan. The town has never come up with an alternative.
"What we'd like is a plan," said John O'Neill , who, with Wallace, leads PATH.
Wallace said PATH has no objection to the town adding about 50 acres of Terre Haute to the industrial park, as long as Terre Haute ridge lines and trails get protected.
"We're not opposed to development," he said.
"We've sort of already written that off," O'Neill said. "It's going to be a fact."
But what PATH fears is that the town is faced with the annual financial grind all small towns face today - yearly increases in the cost of operating the town and its schools, plus residents who detest the idea of another tax increase.
Selling Terre Haute could be a quick fix way out of that morass.
Burke, the town's first selectman, acknowledges the value of the land as open space.
"We've talked to The Nature Conservancy about it," he said. "We've also had discussions with the city of Danbury."
Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton said he's asked Bethel to at least preserve the land around the Ives Trail until the town can resolve what it wants to do with all of Terre Haute.
"We'd like them to give people the right to pass and we're willing to work with them on that," Boughton said. "We'd be thrilled if that happened."
But Burke also said the town of Bethel has to consider that Terre Haute is worth millions as marketable property.
"It's not me, it's not the decision of the Board of Selectmen ," he said of Terre Haute's fate. "It's the people of this town who will decide this."
O'Neill said PATH would like the land to be protected by a permanent conservation easement, with the land administered by a group like the Nature Conservancy. At the very least, he said, he hopes the town officially declares Terre Haute a town park and links it to the Ives Trail.
"Then, after 10 years of people using it, you'd have de facto protection," he said.
Wallace said PATH plans to collect signatures to bring the preservation of Terre Haute to town voters. He said the growing awareness of ordinary people about the importance of open space "may be a tipping point" in PATH's favor.
"It's now a mainstream concern," he said.
People can only walk on the land with town permission because of liability issues. O'Neill said PATH gets that permission for group activities. But he also said it's clear individuals use the trails all the time without permission
"As far as I know, no one has ever tried to enforce it," he said of the town policy on Terre Haute.
But it helps to know the territory, Wallace concedes. The actual paths of Terre Haute remain a jumble.
"No matter what, we ought to mark the trails more clearly," he said.
Which means that trying to follow what will be the Ives Trail through Terre Haute, sans guide, is a matter of largely following your nose.
The trail had been marked with pink plastic tape tied to trees and branches for the Ives Trail's official opening on National Trails Day on June 3.
But some of those ribbons have fallen and blown to the ground. When you come to a fork in the trail, you're not sure what that pink marker on the ground means.
And you can go astray. The map of the Ives Trail shows it crossing the Terre Haute lookout. We never got the chance to look out - somewhere, we took a wrong turn and skirted the point.
The deep woods of Terre Haute are wonderful - even in the rain.
Or maybe, they were wonderful because of the rain, the sound of water on the tree leaves, the damp, good smells in the air, and red efts - small, brick-colored newts - sharing the trail. As the rain let up we heard a chickadee singing, as if it was safe to come out.
There was not another human to be seen. That's partially attributable to the time of day - not a lot of people go hiking weekday mornings. That's partially attributable to the rain.
But Terre Haute itself - the need for town permission to walk there, its lack of clearly marked trails - may play a part as well.
"I've been out there on beautiful days and never met anybody," Wallace said.
We were never lost. Just a little uncertain. But then the muddy ruts of all-terrain vehicles began marking the way and we knew we were back in civilization. Then, through the trees, we saw Mountain Pond.
It's a small, beautiful place. And the people who come to visit it have been quite generous in leaving their trash behind as a memento of their visit. Along one section of the trail, it was as if Hansel and Gretel had marked their way through the woods by leaving empty Red Bull cans every 10 feet.
The trail crosses Long Ridge Road and loops behind Eureka Reservoir. There we heard a red-eyed vireo singing. (You never see red-eyed vireos. They like to taunt you, always staying 10 trees away.)
And then, we saw the first yellow-and-red Ives Trail signs, posted on the trees at the northern end of the reservoir - proof we were nearing Tarrywile Park.
After an uphill climb, we left the woods to walk along one of the park's beautiful meadows, with dragonflies flitting from one grass stalk to another. After walking for a couple of hours in the dark green canopy of the woods, the light on the field, even on a gray day, made you open your eyes and look around.
The hayfields yielded to thickets of non-native invasive plants - barberry, multi-flora rose and bittersweet in groves and stands - then to another meadow, where catbirds and sparrows scattered at our arrival, and both a rabbit and deer hopped away.
On one uphill stretch back into the woods, I suddenly realized how tired my legs were. I adopted the "take 10 steps and stop for long breaths" pace of Alpine climbers. And I got to the top.
Then we turned and saw Tarrywile Pond, and knew we were close to our destination - the park's parking lot. We saw the first people of the day - two park workmen - and shouted hello.
The walk took us about three-and-a-half hours, a reasonable pace for one person (me) who is slow of step and occasionally short of breath. But walking back to our cars, I saw the path, marked by Ives Trail signs, leading away toward to the south and west.
It was not supposed to rain tomorrow. Maybe, just occasional showers.
Contact Robert Miller
or at (203) 731-3345.