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The Oregon Trail

Gardner

About 10 miles east of I-91, Route 2 crosses high over the Connecticut River atop the huge art deco French King Bridge, giving grand views over the surrounding landscape. From here east, the route becomes a mini freeway as it launches into a 40-mile stretch of almost nothing but forest; though nearly unimaginable today, some two-thirds of the landscape you see out your windows was totally deforested in the early 1800s. After some 150 years, that statistic has been reversed, although much of the forest along this stretch is relatively young, having grown up since a devastating hurricane in 1938 blew down nearly every pine tree in its path.

For most of the way across this part of central Massachusetts, the older two-lane alignment of the Mohawk Trail (Route 2) is still in use as Route 2A, running through a series of small towns like Orange, Athol, Templeton, and Gardner (pop. 20,430), which was once one of the busiest chair-making centers in the United States. The area’s industrial history is remembered by the town’s pride and joy, the onetime World’s Largest Chair, which sits on the front lawn of Gardner’s Elm Street elementary school.

Leominster

As you approach the Tri-Town area of Leominster (pronounced “LEH-min-ster”), Fitchburg, and Lunenburg, rooftops begin to supplant treetops and Boston radio stations crowd the dial. Although “The Hub” is still some 30 miles away, its gravitational attraction seems to compel a majority of cars to exceed the speed limit. If you already know that you would rather walk barefoot over hot coals than be caught driving in Boston, you can start looking for accommodations now, as you are within the sphere of the MBTA Commuter Rail service (617/222-3200) to downtown. Purely by way of an example, the 90-minute journey from end-of-the-line Fitchburg to Boston’s North Station, made 10 times daily on weekdays, five times daily on weekends, costs around $22 round-trip—equivalent to a couple of hours’ parking in most Boston lots.

Accommodations here, along I-495 on the perimeter of the Boston metropolitan area, are largely geared toward business travelers, though the aptly named Friendly Crossways Hostel (247 Littleton County Rd., 978/456-9386), just north of the Route 2/I-495 junction in the hamlet (not the college) of Harvard, has HI-approved dorm beds and a few private rooms.

Practicalities aside, one positive reason to spend time out here is the presence of Fruitlands Museum (102 Prospect Hill Rd., 978/456-3924, Wed.-Mon. Apr.-Nov., $14), a 210-acre indoor-outdoor art center. Spiritual heir to the historic Utopian colony that started (and failed) here in 1843, Fruitlands now houses the Harvard College museum of American arts and crafts, Native American lifeways, and Shaker design.

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