On a recent April Saturday afternoon I set out in the company of my brother Kirt, my cousin Dean, and Dean’s wife Jean, to climb the mountain ridge that we call the “Three Notches.” We wanted to follow the paths our ancestors used long ago, and we also hoped to find some marks left on a rock at the highest point of the ridge.
In a 1944 letter to his future wife Betty, my mother’s cousin, Austin Norton wrote:
“When I was a kid I used to be crazy to go out to Mother’s home [his mother was my great-aunt Ellen, my grandfather Ellsworth’s sister] and help them hay and milk. I would ride my bicycle out there every Saturday just to get in the way and watch. That must be a satisfying way of life, farming I mean…There is a range of hills beyond the farm which we love to climb for a picnic lunch…Our favorite spot on the range is called “Three Notches,” and on the highest notch, Mother’s dad [my great-grandfather William E. Hall] has his name chipped into the rock. That’s the highest point of land in Wallingford and you can see for miles around, Long Island Sound on one side and Hartford, the capital on the other.” – Austin Hart Norton
Since last March, when we first heard about the carving, my brother and I were, as Austin put it, “crazy” to go search for it. These mountains (which in Alaska would be called hills) are part of the trap-rock Metacomet Ridge that stretches from New Haven, Connecticut to the Vermont-Massachusetts border. We decided to start our hike at the south end of Fowler Mountain, just east of Whirlwind Hill, and follow the Mettabesett trail to the base of the first of the three peaks. When I asked my brother how far a walk this would be he said “Not that far.”
My brother had never climbed the “Three Notches.” He’d ridden a horse on Fowler Mountain back in the 1970’s when the old cabin used to be there. Dean had gone more recently, and agreed to guide us on this sunny, windy afternoon.
Determined to go on this hike despite a bad cold and a worse fear of ticks, I sprayed myself with a ridiculous amount of “Deep Woods Off” and hoped for the best. The trail, although steep and treacherous in places with loose rocks and branches hidden under deep layers of leaves, was wide and sun-dappled and easy to follow.
I was thrilled to come upon patch after patch of wildflowers.
First were the adder’s tongues –
Then rue anemone and bloodroot –
And just as I was telling Jean about hepaticas and how hard they were to find these days, I looked down and saw a small army of the bright little flowers popping out from under brown leaves. Joy!
A cabin used to stand somewhere on the ridge of Fowler Mountain. My brother and Dean looked for signs of this former refuge, but there wasn’t enough time for a thorough search. This was proving to be a much longer walk than I had planned on, and “not that far” had begun to seem like wishful thinking. I could see on my phone map we were still a long way from the Three Notches.
But at the end of Fowler Mountain we came across an old marker for the George Washington Trail. Although the plaque itself was gone (most of the metal plaques on these markers have long ago been spirited away by vandals), the post was enough to show us the place where our first president and our early Hall ancestors crossed the Metacomet Ridge on their way from Wallingford to Durham. It ran perpendicular to our trail up the ridge, and someday we’d like to explore it more thoroughly.
Ahead of us was another steep incline, which I hoped was the ascent to the first notch, but in a “Bear Goes over the Mountain” scenario, we found yet an even steeper climb on the other side. I was ready to quit, but Dean prodded, “Come on Carol – It’s worth it.”
It WAS worth it. The view was spectacular. To our left we could see Whirlwind Hill and the view beyond to New Haven and Long Island Sound. To the right we looked at Meriden, Hartford, and on toward Massachusetts.
And then my brother said, “Here’s the name!” He found our treasure. On an outcropping of rock overlooking the Ulbrich Reservoir, were letters and numbers carved into the rock’s surface.
My great-grandfather’s name, W. E Hall, was still there – a one-hundred and thirty-year-old memento of his wish to be immortalized on this spot. The carved date of 1874 indicates he was probably thirty-seven years old when he chipped away at the hard rock.
Happy and satisfied with our findings, we took photos of each other before beginning the long trek back to our car.
It was so quiet up there – a peaceful solitude that’s hard to find these days. We could understand why this spot was a favorite for our relatives, and we plan to go back whenever we can. It cheers me now to have a focus for those mountains beyond Whirlwind Hill. The distant view is more meaningful because of knowing where to look – at a spot on that high windy rock where part of my family history is set in stone.