Boston Still Runs

The jogging path along the Charles River.

The jogging path along the Charles River.

Several years ago, sitting in my then-office in Harvard Square early on a Monday morning, I heard the unmistakable sound of a galloping horse, followed an urgent yell: To arms, to arms, the British are coming! To arms! I poked my head out of the second-story window just in time to see a man in breeches and a tricorn hat fly down Mass Ave, his coattails flapping behind him. It was Patriots’ Day, and “William Dawes” was carrying to Lexington the news of the British regulars’ advance. (Only Samuel Prescott, the least remembered of the three riders that day, actually made it to Concord.) There, the other re-enactors would skirmish beside a village green and a narrow wooden bridge, to commemorate the beginning of the American revolution and the first time colonial farmers organized to spill the blood of their former countrymen.

More blood was spilled yesterday in Boston, but of a very different kind. We don’t know, yet, who planned the Boston Marathon bombings, and so we don’t know why they chose Boston or why they chose Patriots’ Day. Maybe they don’t like our world-class hospitals. Or maybe they hate our 50+ colleges and universities. Maybe it’s our vigorous tech sector that’s gotten their panties in a bunch. Or our ample parkland, our higher-than-average rates of income and education, or our lower-than-average rates of unemployment and obesity. Or maybe they just hate marathons (all those overachieving, obnoxiously fit, irritatingly determined, disgustingly healthy people and the unforgivably supportive people cheering them on) or Patriots’ Day (three cheers for colonial tyranny!).

Please excuse my snark. I think it’s a natural defense mechanism against random violence (apparently — I thankfully don’t have a lot of experience with my city being bombed). But pissed off sarcasm aside, in all earnestness, this city is great. Yes, our subway shuts down too soon. And no, the baked beans really aren’t any good. There was the busing issue, the Great Molasses Flood (indeed, that was a real thing), and for a long time, a lot of really bad sports teams. Our neighborhoods are too segregated and our egos are too large (“The Hub” is short for “The Hub of the Universe” after all). But I’d argue that our egos are big in proportion to our accomplishments. A quick list of greatest hits would have to include: starting the aforementioned Revolution, building America’s first public library, becoming the epicenter of the abolitionist movement, bringing the Industrial Revolution to this country, and (skip ahead a few years) passing universal health care and recognizing the legality of same-sex marriage. For the completists, we could throw in the first medical use of ether and being America’s safest city for pedestrians. You’re welcome.

And yet someone decided to turn the proudest day in Massachusetts, Patriots’ Day and Marathon Monday, into a day of death and dismemberment. As we grapple with this, we want something to do. Some way to get back to normal.

There can be no doubt: in the national spotlight, Boston is once again that City on a Hill, with the eyes of the world upon us. As we have been a leader in so many things, I know we can be a leader in our grief and in our compassion, too. We can rise to this horrifying occasion. As so many stories of heroism and empathy attest, we already have. Even if it’s just going in to work and calmly going about your business, make no mistake, you are one of the helpers. Just as Patriots’ Day eventually became, not a solemn remembrance of the horror of war, but a celebration of democracy, we can turn a grisly day back into a joyful one. It will take time, diligence, and, at times, sheer force of will, but we can do it. It will be its own sort of marathon, one we didn’t sign up for, but we’ll run it anyway.

Today, lacing up my sneakers and feeling like it was the least act of solidarity I could perform, I felt a steely satisfaction seeing the hordes of other runners out today. Many were wearing the brightly colored Boston Athletic Association shirts from races past. Singly or in groups, sneakers rhythmically pounding the banks of the Charles, we nodded at each other as we passed. We jogged by rowing crews on that river, preparing for Boston’s next big international athletic event, the Head of the Charles in October. We jogged by people walking dogs, trees with still-bare branches, a few optimistic forsythia, and flags at half-staff. We ran because it’s what keeps us sane. It’s what we do. It’s who we are.

I know there’s a world of difference between this attack and the deadlier bombings that happen in other cities around the world all too often, and that there’s no comparison between the Boston Marathon bombings and 9/11. But jogging along the Charles today, I couldn’t help but think back to the defiant bumper sticker I saw so often after that terrible day: a picture of the American flag, with its red, white, and blue, and the words THESE COLORS DON’T RUN. I take it as a mark of pride that here in Boston, we still do. And we always will.

Best Gardens of Greater Boston

Daffodils at Tower Hill

Spring in New England is like Dustin Pedroia: short but powerful. As the sap rises in the veins of trees and New Englanders, my countrymen flock to open spaces in shorts and skirts freshly unpacked from winter storage, their Anglo-Saxon legs as white as Lamprey eels, their faces as rapturous as the Pope on Easter.

And then, two weeks later, we start complaining about how hot it is.

But I can think of no better way to spend the precious interlude between dismal winter and steamy summer than enjoying the flowers that will soon be scorched out of existence. So here is my incomplete, unscientific list of a few spots around Boston to take it all in. Please add your own suggestions in the comments!

The Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain. But wait, isn’t an arboretum just full of trees? Yes, yes it is — all kinds of beautiful flowering, budding trees! The Arnold also contains one of my all-time top-ten favorite places in all of New England: a path through 375 lilac plants, covering 180 different species. When they’re in bloom, run, do not walk!. They’re always gone quicker than you think.

The Public Garden, Boston. Boston’s central, formal park isn’t large, but it punches above its weight with gardeners who rotate in new annuals as the season progresses. It’s also (if you didn’t know, and I didn’t) America’s first botanic garden. No spring is complete without a ride on one of the Swan Boats and a peak at the little kids visiting the ducklings.

Mount Auburn Cemetery, Watertown. This historic burying ground helped launch a new movement in America: “rural” cemeteries where the dead could find their final rest among beautifully landscaped grounds. The popularity of such cemeteries helped launch the movement, a few years later, for more public green spaces like the Public Garden and Central Park. However beautiful it is, it’s important to remember that this is a graveyard, so no running, cycling, or dogs are allowed. Be sure to grab a map at the entrance so you can find the graves of New England notables like Henry Wadsworth Longfelow, Winslow Homer, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Buckminster Fuller, and Julia Ward Howe, along with any number of Cabots, Lodges, and Lowells.

Beacon Hill, Boston. Some of the most stunning small gardens I have ever seen are tucked behind the gracious mansions of this gas-lamped hill. But the only way to see them is to cough up $30 for the Beacon Hill Garden Club’s annual “hidden gardens” tour. It’s worth it. It’s generally (always?) the third Thursday in May. Cambridge runs a rival event called the Secret Gardens of Cambridge, but apparently only on even-numbered years. Well, there’s always next year.

Tower Hill Botanic Garden, Boylston. This 132-acre plot is relatively new, as gardens go, having been founded by the Worcester County Horticultural Society in 1986. But it’s well worth a trip west to stretch your legs in their lovely (and well-labeled) grounds.

And one of my favorite “garden walks” is really just walking the Comm Ave/Marlborough Street loop in the Back Bay. On Marlborough, in front of each architectural extravaganza is a tiny postage stamp of a garden, a “bit of ivory, two inches wide,” on which Boston’s remaining brahmins paint their horticultural fantasies. And on Commonwealth, when the magnolias are in bloom, you can’t imagine a finer boulevard.

Please share your favorite gardens (or urban gardens) in the comments!

Convince Bostonians They Like Hiking with These Seven Hikes

Mount Chocorua offers fine views all along the trail.

Mount Chocorua offers fine views all along the trail.

September is by far the best time to go hiking in New England. The bugs are (mostly) dead, the skies are (generally) blue, and the air is just cool and crisp enough that your 3,000-foot ascent is no longer going to turn you into a dehydrated, sweaty mess. It’s the perfect time to climb mountains — and the perfect time to get the uninitiated hooked on hiking.

But many people trying to lure their friends and relations into the joys of hiking make a critical tactical error: they either aim too high, dragging their beloved couch potato on a death march to their favorite spectacular summit, or they aim too low, giving in to the newbie’s requests that the hike not be too distant, too long, or too steep. In the first case, the would-be peakbagger is too traumatized to attempt a second hike (if they even successfully complete the first), and in the second, the outing is too boring to ever inspire them to make the effort again.

So here are my six Goldilocks-perfect, “just right,” hook-a-rookie hikes within 2.5 hours of Boston. (Note: all of these are in New Hampshire; I don’t think there’s much great hiking in Mass or Connecticut within two hours of Boston. But I’m happy to be persuaded otherwise!) I’ve also included recommended eateries, since one way to ruin someone’s first hike is to not feed them enough.

The trail to Lonesome Lake is a crowd-pleaser.

1. Lonesome Lake: 5.2 miles round-trip, elevation gain 1,200 feet, 2 hours from Boston.

A number of attractive and moderately inclined trails lead up to beautiful Lonesome Lake and Lonesome Lake Hut, where you can buy a brownie from the “croo” or just use the restrooms before heading back down the trail. My favorite is the Basin-Cascades Trail, which begins just off of I-93 in Franconia Notch State Park, at a remarkable glacial pothole (the so-called “Basin”) and ascends along Cascade Brook past a number of waterfalls.

Recommended eating: Load up on piping hot flapjacks before you set out at Polly’s Pancake Parlor. Call up to an hour ahead of time to get your names on the waiting list, so you don’t have to delay your hike.

2. Old Bridle Path to Greenleaf Hut: 5.8 miles round-trip, elevation gain 2,450 feet, 2 hours from Boston.

Bridle paths were originally cleared for horses, and so make up some of the more reasonable climbs in the whites. The advantage of this trail, which also leaves from Franconia Notch State Park, is that it will give you ample opportunity to stop and admire the views of the valley below and of the peaks above as you ascend. You can either turn around once you get to Greenleaf Hut or, if your legs aren’t too tired, continue an additional 1.1 miles (and additional 1,000 feet) to the summit of Mt. Lafayette, a 5-thousand footer with spectacular views.

Recommended eating: The food in the Lincoln area is not spectacular, but the Gypsy Cafe is a popular spot for creative and reasonably tasty offerings.

3. Mount Moosilauke: 7.5 miles round-trip, elevation gain 2,450 feet, 2.5 hours from Boston.

They call this mountain “the gentle giant.” Although it’s another five-thousand-footer, the grades are moderate, the trails are wide, there’s a lovely hut at the bottom (Moosilauke Ravine Lodge), and the summit offers one of the finest 360-degree views in New England, as well as an alpine-zone meadow bestrewn with wildflowers. My preferred route is up Gorge Brook to the summit, down the Old Carriage Road (which does what it says on the tin and is quite a nice, wide, gently sloping trail), and back to your starting point via the Snapper Trail.

Recommended eating: Grab some beers and pub fare after the hike at the Woodstock Inn and Brewery in Woodstock, NH.

Fall foliage from the top of Mount Whiteface

Fall foliage from the top of Mount Whiteface

4. Mount Whiteface: 8.4 miles round trip, elevation gain 2,900 feet, 2.5 hours from Boston.

The Blueberry Ledge Trail begins just northwest of the townlet of Wonalancet. To be honest, one of my favorite parts of hiking Whiteface is the drive up through Ashland, Holderness, and Squam Lake to the trailhead. After a beautiful drive past the farms of rural New Hampshire, you find yourself in Ferncroft, park in a field, and head up the trail. You don’t have to wait for the summit of 4,020-foot Whiteface to start enjoying beautiful views of the Granite State’s lakes. The last few feet to the summit is a rocky scramble, but everything before there is straightforward enough (especially if it’s dry).

Recommended eating: Either find any scenic spot to stop on your way from Ferncroft back to Ashland (where there’s a nice Common Man, if that’s your style), or break your trip back down at the Tilt’n Diner in Tilton, NH.

5. The Welch-Dickey Loop Trail, 4.5 miles round-trip, elevation gain 1,650 feet, 2 hours from Boston.

If there’s one downside to the trails on this list so far, it’s that so many of them are out-and-back trails, which can often be frustrating for both new and experienced hikers. The Welch-Dickey Loop is, yes, a loop trail. While you never get very high, you do see great views from the exposed ledges of mounts Welch and Dickey. Just don’t try this in the rain; the ledges get slippery when wet, and there’s not a lot of cover on top either.

Recommended eating: This isn’t a very long hike, so I’d recommend you tell your hunger to hold on and break up the drive by stopping off in Manchester, where you can eat at the fantastic Republic Cafe & Bistro.

6. Mount Monadnock, roughly 4.5 miles round-trip, elevation gain 1,800 feet, 1 hour 15 min from Boston.

You know, there’s nothing wrong with this little mountain. For the proximity to Boston, it almost feels like a “real” hike. You’ve got a nice view at the top, and the drive out along 119 is rather pretty. But the popular White Dot/White Cross loop will be jam-packed on any reasonably temperate weekend day, and I personally find the steep ascent up the White Dot trail somewhat monotonously steep and rocky. But if you want a more serious hike than the Fells, Blue Hills, or Wachusett can offer, and you don’t want to drive over two hours, this is pretty much it. (Even the Berkshires are further than that.)

Recommended eating: Groton, MA has two great spots at opposite ends of the foodie spectrum. If you’re not feeling sweatily unpresentable, splurge on steaks at the Gibbet Hill Grill. If you’re feeling sweaty and broke, get delicious comfort food and ice cream at Johnson’s Drive In.

7. Mount Chocorua: 8.4 miles round-trip, elevation gain 2,700 feet, 2 hours and 30 minutes from Boston.

For the purposes of the calculations above, I’m assuming you’re taking the Piper Trail up to the summit and back. It’s one of the most popular trails in the White Mountains, and you’ll have company — but the 360-degree view at the top is worth it. Photographers also love Chocorua because of its dramatic rocky summit cone and its picturesque location next to a lake. Despite the length of this trail, it’s not a particularly strenuous 8 miles (as far as these mountains go). However, note that the summit is totally exposed, and in bad weather has a nasty habit of attracting lightning. But if the day is clear and sunny, you’ll be rewarded with some of the best views in the Whites.

Recommended eating: Stop in Portsmouth, NH, on the way back for a beer sampler at the Portsmouth Brewery  — and any of the delicious dishes they cook with their beer.

7.5. Zealand Falls Hut: 5.6 miles round-trip, elevation gain 1,300 feet, 3 hours from Boston.

This is quite a long drive from Boston, so I initially bumped it from the list, but it’s a great beginner trail nonetheless: beautiful, but relaxed. A relatively flat (until the very end) walk along Zealand Trail will bring you alongside beaver ponds, through woodlands, over the occasional boardwalk, past wildlife, and up to the Zealand Falls Hut, which itself is situated next to the massive falls. Yes, they’re eponymous. And they’re spectacular.

Recommended eating: Skip 93 and drive back south along NH 16, a scenic highway that will take you past the Moat Mountain Smokehouse and Brewing Co. Get anything with BBQ sauce on it, and be sure to try their beer sampler.

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A quick word on breakfast: if you’re going past Exit 28 on 93 (which you would be for everything except Whiteface, Chocorua, and Monadnock) a great place to stop for coffee and a breakfast sandwich to go is Mad River Coffee Roasters. They roast their own beans on-site, and their egg-and-bagel sandwiches are made fresh to order. It’s a great start to any hike — and the owners are putting up a valiant fight against the Dunkin Donuts that recently opened across the street.

A quick word on safety and fun: Newbies never think they’re going to need *that* much water. They will. Just because you can hike 17 miles doesn’t mean you won’t faint at the end of it and ruin everyone’s day (I learned this the hard way). So make sure you carry at least 2 liters of water (plus a liter of gatorade for longer hikes) and plenty of food. On a recent hike, we each took trail mix, energy bars, a sandwich, a banana, and two hard-boiled eggs, as well as three liters of liquid, and we were in fine fettle on our way down. (There’s also a great bagel-and-sandwich shop in Lincoln if you’re leaving Boston too early to reasonably be able to make yourself a square lunch. It’s called the White Mountain Bagel Co and is right off the highway. I find bagel sandwiches hold up better in the backpack than bread sandwiches do.)

Leave yourself plenty of daylight to get down the mountain, or instead of enjoying your hard-earned beer you’ll be scrambling down in the dark trying to use your dying cell phone as a flashlight.

And don’t wear cotton, if you can help it. Instead, wear wicking athletic gear and bring fleece or wool (which both stay warm when wet) and a good raincoat in case the weather turns.

And regardless of whether it’s your ankle or the weather that turns in your first few minutes on the trail, never, ever say: “Well, we came all this way, we have to hike it.” Not true, actually. The mountains will still be there next year, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with deciding to pack it in and spend a little more time curled up by the fire with your beer and your book.

Hike safe, have fun, and let us know where you end up!