A map fell from a cluttered pile of papers as I tried putting them away. Within an hour I found myself on an unexpected journey. As representations of places near and far, maps beckon with the sweet mystery of precincts unexplored. Brown contour line squiggles indicate elevation, green colors are thick with trees, ribbons and bulges of blue signify rivers and lakes, and veins of red and black roads have an allure that draws me with irresistible magnetism to places both familiar and strange. Sometimes a mere place name captivates me, and on a clear, cold day before the recent snowfalls I found myself hiking several miles to Rome Spare Outlook, a location whose lettering stood out as I picked up the map.
The name “Rome Spare” intrigued me. It seemed an oxymoron. “Rome” implied opulence while “spare” seemed to suggest something skimpy or limited. What sort of view would I find from a place with such a conflicted moniker? Could the name be a corruption of “Roman spear,” perhaps commemorating a sharp, lightening blasted tree that once stood like an ancient lance? A quick Google search before I headed out left my curiosity unrequited. I found a 1509 painting by Luca Signorelli illustrating Coriolanus being persuaded to spare Rome. Another link led me to the New Testament where in Romans 8:32 it states that God did not spare his son. There were also ads for spare room rentals in Rome, Italy. Connections here seemed unlikely.
Via two side paths connecting to the 79 mile blue-blazed Tunxis Trail maintained by volunteers of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, I made my way through a bumpy and boney landscape. The woods were dominated by red oak with rocky islands of chestnut oak and pockets of pine and hemlock while thickets of glossy-leaved mountain laurel often shimmered beneath them. Turkeys had scratched the humus looking for acorns, tearing up the collage of bronzed leaves that paved the forest floor. Acrobatic squirrels performed in the trees, scolding me with frequent churring as they raced around. Occasionally I found small middens of pinecone scales they had left behind. Clutches of chickadees gossiped in their “dee-dee-dee” rhythm as if enjoying a coffee klatch.
After consulting old timers and paging through Laura and Guy Waterman’s epic Forest and Craig: A History of Hiking, Trail Blazing, and Adventure in the Northeast Mountains, I learned that the Outlook was named for Romeyn A. Spare, a mid twentieth century resident of Bristol, Connecticut who was also a patent attorney for the New Departures Division of General Motors. He joined the Appalachian Mountain Club in 1925 to “do a bit of walking but . . . was bitten by the trail-making bug, . . . gave up golf and yachting and the other dignified pastimes” of his peers “and dedicated his extraordinary vitality for the next thirty years to trail work.” One of his compatriots said that “he ate, slept, and dreamed trails.”
The trail rose and descended mica spangled ledges that glittered like the Milky Way and wound around rough-edged, shallow swampy pools partially covered by thin cellophane skims of ice. Deer prints were common in these low places where sand and muck collected. Rotting columns of long dead trees carved with woodpecker holes and carpenter ant galleries recalled elaborate totem poles. The forest floor, nutty brown with last year’s oak leaves, was mottled with ever shifting light and shadow as clouds played hide-and-seek with the sun.
Rome Spare was among a few men who, in the late 1920s, came up with the idea for Connecticut’s blue-blazed trail system that now extends well over 800 miles, almost the round trip distance from Boston to Washington. He created the Tunxis Trail and its tributaries, on one of which I was now walking. He is said to have gone out nearly every other night “scouting through woodlands and meadows, over old cart paths and wood roads, beside brooks and along ledges, toiling and clearing.” He earned the sobriquet Baron von Tunxis, “a title expressive of the feudal sway” he held over the trail. Between 1946 and 1960 he served as the Forest and Park Association’s Trails Committee chairman, overseeing the statewide system that makes the natural world easily accessible on whims such as mine.
My legs were tired but the cadence of walking left my body feeling loose as I emerged from a dark hemlock grove and stepped onto the sun-washed, sparkling gray ledge at Rome Spare Outlook. Backed by wizened pines and oaks, spacious views beckoned north and west. Below was a valley thick with soft needled white pine. Rugged slopes rose in rocky outcrops covered with tangled hardwoods. Although I could hear the whoosh of traffic from a nearby state highway, few structures were visible and only in the distance. It was an inspiriting prospect, especially for such a long settled area not far from big cities. Delighted that I’d found and explored the ledge, I determined to uncover the enigma of its name.
I still don’t know if the outlook that bears his name was a favorite of Romeyn Spare or was christened merely as an honorific to memorialize his extraordinary achievement as a trail builder. Regardless, for me this uneven, cragged landscape now bears a human as well as a natural story. Once again I found that a name on a map is not just a convenience for distinguishing one place from another, but a way of infusing meaning into the very bedrock. We can become as wonderfully lost in such designations as we can become lost in the marvels of the woods. It’s a way of finding ourselves.