Coast to Coast Trail
by: Brian Bushard
photography by: courtesy of Brian Bushard
There is a Latin phrase, solvitur ambulando, which means “it is solved by walking.” As the fog of COVID-19 settled on the island this year, more and more people found solace in getting out of the house and out of their own heads by taking a little walk. We sent writer Brian Bushard out on a little walk of his own, from the shore on the island’s east end to the shore on its west end.
Yes, my feet are sore. So are my knees, hips and shins. I was expecting that from the get-go. You will be warned about it going in. Today those warnings were turning into a painful reality.
But it’s worth it for the feelings of awe and isolation as you walk across the island, alone, past miles of grasslands, ponds, beaches and rolling hills. That’s what you don’t anticipate.
Nobody tells you about the emotional toll of a full-day hike. Nobody tells you about the sense of gratification as you hit the beach at the other end of the island after nine hours of hiking.
Twenty-four miles earlier I was on the beach at Settler’s Landing on Madaket Harbor. It was just after sunrise. My mind was blank. I took the first step.
The trail is 24 miles long, from Madaket to the end of Hoicks
Hollow Road, just south of Sesachacha Pond. The idea for it came from a cross-island hike the Land Bank organized in October 2019. On that day, 200 people walked the entire length of the island from east to west. The Land Bank, Conservation Foundation, Massachusetts Audubon Society and town this winter agreed to put up new signs along their existing trails designating a permanent route called the Coast to Coast Trail.
The first thing you think of when you set out is just how beautiful Nantucket is. The Coast to Coast Trail takes you through conservation land you’ve seen before – the barn at Sanford Farm, the winding trails of Gardner Farm, the 360-degree view from the top of Altar Rock. It also takes you places you have probably never seen, deep in the Middle Moors or Lost Farm.
About a mile into the walk, two men in athletic clothes and Camelback backpacks ran past me.
“How far are you running?” I asked.
“The whole thing,” one of them said.
This was the beginning of the walk, before the wide-open plains and pitch-pine forests, before the pain kicks in and the fantasies of going home take shape. You’re blind to all of that at the start. Nature has a way of making you optimistic.
What I didn’t know at the time is that the brief chat with those two runners would be my only conversation of the day. For the most part, I’m alone. Just a podcast, a stunning view of the ocean, some birds flying by and the occasional deer. I stop and take a breath. There are no houses in sight.
The open plains turn into a grove of tupelo and scrub oak. Miles go by. The scrub oak turns into pitch-pine forest. The forest opens up again, then turns back into forest where I find a clearing on a hill, and a bench overlooking Miacomet Pond. This is the halfway point. This reassuring thought crosses my mind: If I have to stop for whatever reason – a nagging cramp, a broken leg, inhibiting dehydration – I could call it quits here and be just a short walk from my house.
That was the idea behind the trail, right? It’s free and open all year for anyone trying to either walk a mile or two or challenge themself by walking the whole thing. What’s wrong with simply walking a mile or two anyway?
Part of me keeps harking back to Stephen King’s “The Long Walk,” a novel he wrote in 1979 under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, about a dystopian competition where 100 teenage boys fall one by one as they walk the length of Maine. The winner gets everything he could ever want. The 99 losers collapse on the walk and are killed.
I keep walking.
The forest leads you to Miacomet Avenue, then Surfside Road, Fairgrounds Road, Rugged Road and the State Forest, which is bustling with disc golfers, dogs and joggers.
For a minute, I felt like an outsider in a place I know well. Here’s a part of the island that’s bustling with people, and maybe it’s because they’re some of the only people I’ve seen all day, but it makes me want to take a break and listen.
The sound of people enjoying themselves, or just engaged in a conversation that does not include you but drifts to your ears, can lift your spirits as much as the beautiful vistas.
I keep walking.
The trail crosses Old South Road to the Land Bank’s Hins-
dale Park. There’s another bench up ahead where I take a seat and eat lunch. Pasta and red sauce, with an apple for dessert. Something simple.
A mile or so later, the pitch-pine forest transitions back to scrub oak and tupelo. The firebreak the Nantucket Conservation Foundation carved out through the Middle Moors provides the first view of the harbor.
In another couple miles I’ll pass Altar Rock, a place that’s nearly begging you to stop and rest. There’s a sense of spirituality to it – a 360-degree view of over 9,000 acres of open-space conservation land and cranberry bogs with only a handful of houses in sight.
And poking through it in the distance is Sankaty Head Lighthouse. It means the end is near. Both the images and the promise of finishing the walk make me smile.
I head back down through the moors, into Conservation Foundation, Land Bank and Mass Audubon land.
At this point, it’s been about seven hours since I left Settler’s Landing. In two more hours, I’ll step onto the beach at the end of Hoicks Hollow Road.
The trails around the east end of Barnard Valley Road are a series of peaks and valleys. The peaks give you a clear shot of the island around you. The valleys meander through dense brush where your only sense of direction is by the angle of the sun.
That sun, by now, is almost set.
I fantasize about what I’m going to eat when I get home
(It was ribs). But really there’s nothing I want more than to lie down on a couch with a beer.
For the past few hours I had been wondering if I made a mistake trying to walk the length of the island. But then I reach the beach at Hoicks Hollow Road. I see the waves and the open ocean in front of me. I know it was worth every step. I take off my boots and dip my feet in the water.
Next time I’m bringing someone with me. ///
Brian Bushard is a staff writer for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.