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NEW ENGLAND

In Williamstown, Mass., summertime is superb.

The leaf peepers have it all wrong. It's in the full bloom of summer that western Massachusetts really shines.

July 12, 2009|Susan Spano

WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS. — In the cold, dark, dead of winter, when my thoughts turn to summer, I think of it in New England. I think of still nights with plenty of stars and the conversation of cicadas, the Boston Pops at Tanglewood, swimming in a lake, Friendly's ice cream and sweet corn on the cob.

Much has been made of New England's colorful falls, but my cup is filled by its deep green summers.

I carry memories of them from when I worked at a summer stock theater in western Massachusetts in my college years. The theater where I learned my lines has closed. But the rounded old mountains are still here, so last month I returned to the Berkshires to spend a few summer days in Williamstown.

This was my first visit to Williamstown, a bit off the beaten track compared with other Berkshire towns, such as Lenox and Stockbridge. Williamstown is 40 miles from the nearest superhighway, reached along winding country roads dotted with classic New England barns and covered bridges. But it took me less than three hours to drive here from Boston to Springfield on Interstate 90 and then north toward Vermont on Interstate 91.

Right away I could tell I was in Massachusetts because everyone sounded like Tom and Ray Magliozzi, of National Public Radio's "Car Talk."

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has many idiosyncrasies: You buy beer in a package store. If you want a milkshake, you order a frappe, and in the western part of the state, at least, submarine sandwiches are grinders.

At Greenfield, I turned onto Massachusetts 2, the old Mohawk Trail, blazed by Native Americans and used by Colonial-era pioneers. It roughly follows the Deerfield River northwest past placid New England hamlets -- Shelburne Falls, home of the Yale lock, and Charlemont with its Big Indian souvenir shop, a relic of the 1930s.

Soon the road started to climb into the mountains, cresting at 2,240-foot Whitcomb Summit and rounding a hairpin curve where the view opens over the town of North Adams.

Beyond it, Williamstown lies in the hills underneath Mt. Greylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts. I'm told that on a clear day you can see New York's Hudson River Valley from its 3,491-foot summit.

Henry David Thoreau liked to sit up here, looking over the roofs of Williamstown and its ivy-clad college, founded by New England Congregationalists in 1791. "It would be no small advantage if every college were thus located at the base of a mountain," he wrote.

Ephraim Williams, a colonel in the Massachusetts militia, gave his name to the town, college and students who call themselves Ephs. He died in 1755, leaving his fortune to start a free school in a western Massachusetts community that would change its name to Williams. West Hoosac stepped forward and got the school, now known as Williams College.

As soon as I arrived, I checked into the Orchards Hotel on the eastern side of town where I got a room the size of a suite for $140. There are less expensive lodging options too, including mom-and-pop motels that keep shipshape for alumni and parents.

Then I took a look around, which didn't take long. Williamstown has one stoplight on Main Street, a public library, a white-steepled Congregational church and a Civil War monument. The business district on Spring Street boasts a pharmacy, deli, bank, post office and movie theater. Its Starbucks is Tunnel City Coffee.

Down the street I found the campus store selling, among other things, T-shirts that reflect the longtime rivalry between Williams and Amherst in nearby Pioneer Valley. One shirt said, "Friends don't let friends go to Amherst College."

Together with Wesleyan in Connecticut, Williams and Amherst are part of the Little Three sports conference founded in the 1920s, their answer to the Harvard-Princeton-Yale Big Three. The root of the Williams-Amherst rivalry dates to 1821, when a group of faculty and students abandoned Williams to start Amherst, which left the little college in the mountains on the brink of closing.

It managed to survive quite handily, I discovered while reading brochures in the Bascom Hall admissions office a few blocks west of Spring Street. Williams now has 2,000 undergraduates (a quarter of the population) and a teacher-student ratio of 1 to 7. It costs about $50,000 a year, including room and board, but half the students receive financial aid. Williams' endowment is said to be valued at $1.9 billion, among the largest in the U.S.

Campus tours weren't offered when I was there the week between finals and graduation. So I set out to see the college on my own, though it had turned into a rainy afternoon, with black clouds casting shadows on freshly mown campus lawns.

At a crosswalk on Main Street, which bisects the campus, I saw a group of pink-cheeked students heading into the mountains, carrying backpacks and sleeping bags.

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