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The Massachusetts Walking Tour: Connecting Communities on Foot–and with Music

I first met Raianne Richards and Mark Mandeville, the founders and leading lights of the Massachusetts Walking Tour, when I joined them and fellow musicians Amy Alvey and Mark Kilianski on the final leg of their trek along the Bay Circuit Trail (BCT) in 2014. That year and the next, they walked different sections of the BCT, which spans an arc of about 230 miles through the outer suburbs of Boston, from Plum Island in the north to Duxbury in the south. In those years, I was covering the same terrain in a series of day hikes on my own mostly solo walk the length of the Bay Circuit Trail.

The members of the Massachusetts Walking Tour on the Bay Circuit Trail, July 3, 2014, starting the last day of their two-week trek that year, from the Silver Lake Sanctuary in Pembroke, through Kingston to the trail’s southern terminus at the ocean in Duxbury. From left to right: Mark Kilianksi, Raianne Richards, Mark Mandeville, Amy Alvey.
Kristen Sykes, the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Coordinator for the Bay Circuit Trail (BCT), and Alan French, founder and long-time chair (now retired) of the Bay Circuit Alliance, on the BCT with the Massachusetts Walking Tour in Kingston MA in 2014.

It was a hot day, as we trekked through the woods, along roads, beside cranberry bogs, and through the streets of Kingston, until arriving at the Jones River Landing Environmental Heritage Center, where the musical hikers would be playing a concert later in the day. Here, they doffed their heavy packs before we walked another mile or so to the BCT’s southern terminus at the ocean at Bay Farm, an 80-acre preserve owned by the town of Duxbury. There, Raianne, Amy, and the two Marks, who had camped out along their trek, enjoyed the opportunity to cool off and clean up with an ocean dip.

At their outdoor concert that evening, before a small, appreciative crowd, the quartet welcomed other local musicians to perform. “The four players then played a set of music, in various combinations, in emulation of the style of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings,” I wrote in my notebook. “They were good musicians, good entertainers, with a relaxed presence, who spoke with sincere passion about the mission of their walking tour.”

The inspired and inspiring idea behind the Tour is to link the arts, the environment, and the people of many Massachusetts communities by traveling on foot, with musical instruments strapped to their backpacks, along the Commonwealth’s trails, bike paths, and roads. Here’s how Mark and Raianne summarize their mission at the Walking Tour’s website:

Since 2010, co-founders Mark Mandeville & Raianne Richards have organized an annual non-profit bipedal concert tour of Massachusetts in support of arts and culture for towns throughout the state. Each free community concert collaborates with local artists, musicians, educational programs, trail managers and land trust groups to highlight both artistic diversity and recreational land use. With each visit, a community has pulled together and taken part in a dialogue which serves to strengthen local investment in the arts.

Before the Covid-19 interrupted their annual summer pedestrian musical tour, they had ambled through more than 100 of the state’s communities and played even more free concerts. This year the Walking Tour hits the trail again for the first time since 2019, to add to their tally of miles, towns, and concerts by following the Appalachian Trail (AT) along a portion of its route through the Berkshires. They will set out on June 17 from Sheffield, ending their trek in North Adams on June 26 (details of their 2022 hikes and concerts here).

Dan Blakeslee, artist

It is fitting that the Walking Tour should return to their mission on the Appalachian Trail (AT) this year, which kicks off the second century of the AT’s history. In was in October of 1921 that another influential Massachusetts conservationist, Benton MacKaye, published his article, “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects.” That article lit a fuse of grassroots activism, igniting a trails and conservation movement that continues to flourish.

“The project is one for a series of recreational communities throughout the Appalachian chain of mountains from New England to Georgia,” MacKaye wrote in 1921, “these to be connected by a walking trail. Its purpose is to establish a base for a more extensive and systematic development of outdoor community life. It is a project in housing and community architecture.”

The project that MacKaye proposed a century ago encompassed what he called “community camps” and “food and forest camps” adjacent to the trail, to provide opportunities for “recreation, recuperation, and employment.” The AT that won popular support and exists today comprises only the two other elements included in his original plan: “shelter camps” and the footpath itself. It’s difficult to visualize the AT as a “project in housing.” But the “community architecture” of which MacKaye wrote comprised not just the physical infrastructure he envisioned, but the social infrastructure of intense and diverse human interconnection that gives meaning to life. In that respect, the Walking Tour’s 2022 Appalachian Trail trek precisely embodies the trail’s spirit and purpose as an example of the “outdoor community life” MacKaye promoted throughout his long life, until his death in 1975 at age 96.

The Appalachian Trail in Massachusetts traverses the state’s highest eminence, 3,489-foot Mount Greylock. The Massachusetts Walking Tour will be playing a concert at the Bascom Lodge, on the mountain’s summit, on the afternoon of June 25. Henry David Thoreau, yet another eminent Massachusetts artist of the outdoors and the author of the influential essay “Walking,” climbed and camped on the summit of Greylock (then called Saddleback) in 1844. He included a detailed, lyrical, somewhat mystical account of that solitary excursion in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (rivers which were not really close to Greylock–but that book was truly a literary grab bag). Crawling from the case of boards from which he’d fashioned a shelter for the night, Thoreau woke to find the valleys below surrounding him in an “ocean of mist”:

All around beneath me was spread for a hundred miles on every side, as far as the eyes could reach, an undulating country of clouds, answering in the varied swell of its surface to the terrestrial world it veiled. It was such a country as we might see in dreams, with all the delights of paradise.

Benton MacKaye, at age 23, climbed Greylock in 1902 with his friend and frequent hiking partner, Horace Hildreth. He didn’t leave an ethereal account comparable to Thoreau’s. Years later, though, in his 1928 book The New Exploration: A Philosophy of Regional Planning, he invoked Thoreau to depict the “the meaning of living” in hopeful terms. “I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship, but a pastime,” MacKaye quoted the Concord saunterer. “Let not to get a living be thy trade, but thy sport.”

“When we remember the goal of living,” MacKaye continued in his own words, “even our work takes on a different character: we seek constantly to diminish the sphere of animal toil and to widen that of art; so that finally work and art and recreation and living will all be one.”

Mark Mandeville and Raianne Richards embody that wholesome, optimistic philosophy of life through their brilliant conception and execution of the Massachusetts Walking Tour. If you have a chance, consider joining them for a day on the trail and an evening of music this June in western Massachusetts. If you can’t get to the Berkshires then, look for them in performance as a duo elsewhere. Their website includes a schedule of upcoming performances as well as a catalog of their recordings.♦