Honoring the ‘Trail Lady’

I went hiking with my daughter Molly the day after Thanksgiving on the Beau Bridges Trail, my favorite of the 22 miles of trails in the Mount Tom State Reservation. I hike it often with my dog Lipton because we both enjoy Cascade Brook, which runs alongside the worn, winding path. I love the views of the water and enjoy crossing the seven bridges that span the stream. Lipton appreciates the opportunity to swim and get a drink.

Friday, I choose this hike for Molly and me, not simply to take in the sights but to pay homage to Kathryn “Kay” Burnett, a legacy in the Valley’s outdoors world who I learned about last Tuesday. Kay, it turns out, built the bridges that I like crossing over.

Kay died last May, and she was featured in a front-page article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette because she once again proved her dedication to land conservation by earmarking a half million dollars from her estate to two organizations—$250,000 each to the Kestrel Land Trust in Amherst and the Franklin Land Trust in Shelburne Falls.

I read every word of the piece written by Scott Merzbach, and that’s how I came to know that it was Kay who built the bridges on my favorite trail. According to Scott, she built them in the garage of her Northampton home before hiking them up the mountain. The photo of her, which I’ve reused here, shows Kay hiking a trail with wood pieces strapped to her back. It’s an image that communicates her strength and independence as well as grace and generosity.

Known as the Trail Lady—Kay spent her career cataloging music at Smith College’s Josten Performing Arts Library. The work she did blazing and maintaining trails in the region was done in her spare time.

A colleague of Kay’s was quoted in Scott’s article as saying that Kay believed that woodland trails are essential for connecting people to the land. It is such a simple statement, but it’s so true and so important. It’s life-giving to take the time to wander in nature, to inhale the smell of a bed of oak leaves on the forest floor, to watch wildlife scamper around, to listen to the trickle of a stream and its waters as it passes you by.

As we walked last Friday, Molly and I spent time in silence, thinking our own thoughts, expressing our own gratitude, and we also kept coming back around to telling the story of Kay, marveling at the feat of her work and making note that it was because of her that we were crossing over the waters.

For me, Kay is now yet another Valley icon. She is someone I expressed gratitude for over the Thanksgiving day holiday—along with my family, friends, neighbors, and this beautiful, intelligent, and kind Pioneer Valley, which has been my home since 1985.

Kay, like the trails she loved, will help continue to keep me connected to the joy of the outdoors. I will make sure to remember Kay each time I walk in the woods—whether I’m on the Beau Bridges Trail, the K.B. Trail that is named for her, or on any path, anywhere.

I will remember the trail of benevolence that she left behind.

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