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Rhody ramble: A long day’s journey begins with a single (mis)step

April 12

After tramping more than 10 miles over secluded forest paths, along quiet country roads, across a few busy thoroughfares, and now, into a residential neighborhood, the three of us were approaching the home stretch of a long day on the Rhode Island North South Trail.

Suddenly, Maggie Jones stopped short and glanced in my direction.

“OK, when we get to the end of today’s hike, your car will be there, right?”

“Ummm … actually, it will be YOUR car,” I replied.

Maggie, normally unflappable, uttered an unprintable word, which attracted the attention of Phil Plouffe, the third member of our party.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“You’re not going to believe this,” Maggie groaned, “but I left my keys in Steve’s car!”

Said car was more than 10 miles north, where we left it at the start of our hike that morning, after having dropped off Maggie’s car to use as a shuttle. It’s complicated, but for the past couple of weeks, we’ve been using a two-car system to traverse the trail in stages, from north to south.

Full disclosure: I share responsibility for this blunder. Hours earlier, as we were preparing to exit my parked car at a trailhead near Old Snake Hill Road in Glocester, Maggie asked, “Where should I leave my keys?”

Instead of saying something intelligent, such as, “Put them in your pocket,” or, “Zip them in your backpack,” I suggested she place her keys in the front-seat cupholder, and even watched her conceal them with a tissue.

The only innocent one was Phil, but he would be equally stuck until we figured out a way to get back to my car that didn’t involve 10 additional miles of hiking.

While the three of us huddled in the middle of the street, a woman who had been watching from her front yard called over to us.

“Hey! What are you people doing, walking around, when you could be helping me rake leaves!” she complained in mock anger.

A tiny bell went off in my head.

“Madam,” I began, “this is your lucky day …”

A few minutes later, Barbara — she didn’t want to give her last name — was driving me in her car to my vehicle, while Maggie and Phil finished raking her lawn.

Like Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.

This was the third leg of our journey, which had begun on April Fools’ Day at Douglas State Forest, just over the border in Massachusetts. By hiking various distances once or twice a week, our crew, which changes from time to time, hopes to reach Charlestown Beach sometime in May.

We started hiking last week’s section along two miles of road, before crossing busy Route 94 and entering a narrow path leading to the Killingly Pond Management Area. This 396-acres parcel is one of eight state wildlife properties connected by the North South Trail (NST).

Soon we passed a tree trunk adorned with rust-colored growths.

Maggie, director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, identified them as shelves of hemlock polypore (Ganoderma tsugae), also known as Reishi, Lingzhi, or the "mushroom of immortality.” The fungus has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years.

“A daily Ganoderma tea supposedly helps offset the ravages of time and age,” she said, adding that some believe it can help improve agility, memory and intellectual capacity.

Perhaps we should have sampled some at the start of the day.

As we loped along, a pileated woodpecker flitted from tree to tree, its crimson crest almost glowing against the evergreens. A few curious chickadees, titmice and white-breasted nuthatches sang and called, along with a distant red-shouldered hawk.

After passing the remnants of a century-old shingle mill, we came upon a wooden post marked with a carved inscription: “Dedicated to Ginny Leslie.”

Ginny bears the unofficial but well-earned title, Queen of the NST. I had spoken to Ginny on the phone the night before, when she filled me in on the trail’s history:

More than 40 ago, a hiking enthusiast from Cranston named George Ernst presented the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) with a plan to create a path linking the state’s wildlife management areas. The Fish and Wildlife division resisted, claiming that such a trail would attract ATVs and dirt bikes, so the proposal was shelved.

Then, in 1991, when Ginny was working for the DEM, the U.S. National Park Service began advocating for new hiking trails, Ernst’s old plan was dusted off, and she helped organize a band of volunteers.

Teams cleared new paths and established walking routes over roads. Later that year, the first North South Trail Trek took place, in which one group of hikers started from the south, another from the north, and they met in the middle.

Over the next several years, a trail council organized annual hikes of the entire route every spring, shuttling scores of hikers from trailhead to trailhead over a series of weekends.

The COVID pandemic has put a halt to these group outings, but the trail remains open, and Ginny estimated about 100 people a year hike the NST.

Hats off to Queen Ginny and all her loyal subjects.

We ended that day’s 13-mile hike at Borders Farm in Foster, a 200-acre dairy farm on the National Register of Historic Places that is operated by volunteers and a farm manager as part of a trust.

April 18

Maggie, Phil and I set out from Borders Farm and hiked more than 15 miles to Bailey Pond in West Greenwich; Bob Graham joined us at the 1,429-acre Nicholas Farm Management Area in Coventry for the last seven miles.

We witnessed a diverse spectrum of human and animal activities: golfers teeing off at the Foster Country Club; camo-clad hunters leading their dogs through training drills; alpacas, chickens, goats, ducks, guinea hens and an emu clucking, bleating and quacking at funky farms; horseback riders sharing the trail with (illegal) dirt bike riders; fishermen and women casting into quiet ponds while Eastern painted turtles sunned on rocks; and even a trio of northbound hikers — the only other people we’ve met hiking the entire trail.

Along the way, we hugged the sides of busy state highways littered with beer cans and discarded nips, gamboled through pastures, climbed hills, descended into ravines and ambled through pine forests.

I particularly enjoyed tramping alongside the Moosup River, where a torrent of whitewater gushed over a massive stone slab known as Spencer Rock; Maggie was thrilled to stumble upon a large bed of sanguinaria canadensis wildflowers, more commonly called bloodroot. She demonstrated the origin of this name by pinching a root, which caused it to ooze a crimson fluid.

As much as our group has enjoyed hiking the NST, all of us brightened up when, three miles from the end of Sunday’s hike, we passed a sign marking the trail’s midway point. That means we (only) have to hike about 36 more miles to dive in at Blue Shutters Beach. 

More information and maps of the trail may be obtained by sending a self-addressed envelope with 75 cents worth of stamps, along with $2, to NST maps, 27 Post Road, Warwick, RI, 02888-1606.




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