A Great Hike
Living on the Earth, June 13, 1997; A Great Hike
On a beautiful day last week, I walked to the top of West Rock in New Haven with
a group of high school students and their teacher. What a great hike. We found
geological and political history as well as awesome beauty right there in the
city. West Rock Ridge State Park is one of the largest in Connecticut; it
extends from New Haven's Westville section north almost six miles into Hamden.
We crossed Wintergreen Avenue from West Rock Nature Center, the home to our
educational farm and went through the closed parking lot at the park entrance.
That lot has been shut for so long that it's rapidly becoming a forest as the
asphalt surrenders to the pioneer tree and plant species growing in its cracks.
The road to the summit, elegantly designed and built during the Depression, is
also closed. The absence of cars and their noise and smelliness was a rare
pleasure. The lower forest is magnificent with large hardwood trees and lots of
mountain laurel about to burst into flower. Showy lady slippers and columbines
bloom here. We talked about the geological history of West Rock, a mass of
igneous basalt intruded into the surrounding sandstone about 200 million years
ago. We took a trail through the woods and came out near the turn off for
Judge's Cave. More than 300 years ago, Judges Whalley and Goffe, who had signed
a death warrant for the English King, hid from British troops who were chasing
them. The cave is actually the cracks in a large erratic or boulder left there
by the glacier during the last ice age. Nearby, we looked at the grooves in the
exposed bed rock, direct evidence of the direction of the glacier's movement as
it pushed down from the northeast, eventually becoming a one-half mile thick
sheet of ice that covered this region 12,000 years ago.
The trail then climbed slowly along the western edge of the ridge, through trees
dwarfed by thin soil and the harsh environment. Wildflowers and blueberries
bushes abound. Occasionally the trail opens up to reveal a magnificent vista
across West River Valley to the forested hills of Woodbridge, Orange and West
Haven. We appreciated the subtle but effective work done by others on this
We have the park mostly to ourselves. A few walkers and bike riders pass
quickly on. A state employee mows the almost non-existent grass, making a loud
noise and kicking up a cloud of dust from the sparse, low-growing meadows. At
the summit shelter, near the large empty parking lot, another state worker is
repairing the bluestone paving. The noisy gasoline-powered stone saw he's using
keeps us away from the summit, but we find a fantastic rock overlook. We point
out familiar landmarks and follow West River's flow to Long Island Sound. When
the noise of the saw stops, it is quiet at last, and so peaceful. We look out
over New Haven and the Sound to Long Island, the terminal moraine left by the
The mason who was repairing the stones said the state had no money to buy
bluestone to repair this wonderfully sited shelter, so he had to saw the broken
pieces into regular-enough shapes to fill in the missing stones. He shared his
dismay at this state of affairs. I thought about all the elegant work done here
during the Depression, and the meagerness of it's care in these boom times when
the state spends hundreds of millions of dollars to get large foreign
corporations to move here.
Before leaving the summit, we go to the south end, where the view opens up to
include East Rock, the companion to the one we're on, and Sleeping Giant, a
similar geological formation. One of the students, usually a very taciturn
fellow, said he was awestruck by the magnificence of the view.
Our walk down was a little quicker, as we hastened back to the Nature Center to
cook a picnic lunch to satisfy the appetites we'd worked up.
This incredible ecosystem makes a great classroom. Our hike just scratched the
surface of the wonders and lessons it holds. But perhaps the most important
lesson of all is the effects produced on all of us by just walking through such
a magnificent place.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
(C)1997, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491.
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT certified
organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban agriculture
projects in New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford and Norwalk, CT). Their collection
of essays Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful
Future is available from Bill Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14
postpaid. These essays first appeared on WSHU, public radio from Fairfield, CT.
New essays are posted weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing and those since
November 1995 are available there.