We headed south on 116, windows down, bound for Mount Holyoke. The woods in Hadley were a blaze of color, vibrant shades of red, yellow, orange. We took a quick tour past the imposing Gothic Revival buildings, immense lawns (the school sits on 800 acres), and the lake, and got back in the car.
One of the things I like best about western Massachusetts is how easy it is to find your way to the center of every town and then out again into the countryside. We drove into Northampton and parked at the main entrance to Smith College and its expansive riverside campus, the most beautiful we'd seen. Its white clapboard buildings, mixed in among the brick and mortar, made the school seem more approachable. And Northampton is my idea of a perfect college town: not too small, and diverse enough to provide a dose of the real world.
From Northampton, we headed west on Route 9 through a river valley that kept growing steeper and narrower until its dense woods blocked out the sun. At Cummington, we pulled into the Old Creamery, an antiquated general store, for cones of Bart's homemade ice cream.
We had planned to continue west on Route 9, but the woman running the store suggested a detour through West Cummington along River Road–a side trip that led us to Route 8 and into North Adams. This former mill town is now the unlikely site of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), a 19th-century factory that has been transformed into a huge contemporary visual and performing arts center.
Since my college days, Williamstown has gained fame for its summer theater festival and museums, and it's now one of the Berkshires' biggest tourist destinations. Just behind the Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute, on Route 2, there's a well-marked trail that leads up through the woods and into the sunlight atop Stone Hill. From our vantage point just southwest of the college, we had an unobstructed view (framed by the imposing mountains of Vermont to the north) of what looked like a storybook campus. Only a few miles away, I knew, there were shopping malls and highways.
The next morning, we rode through a frosty haze to Spring Street, Williamswn's main drag. While ideal for a lazy weekend morning, the funky shops and used bookshops that I loved in Amherst were missing, and the lattes and muffins weren't half as good as Rao's. Still, hearing my mother's voice echoing in my head ("It's not just pretty–it's smart and cultured, too"), I tried to love it, or at least like it. But all that came to mind was, Perhaps I should have gone to Amherst.