Getting lost in Dogtown

Dogtown, nestled between Gloucester & Rockport on Cape Ann here in Massachusetts, is a magical nook just outside of the bustling highway, Route 128. It was first known as the Common Settlement in 1693 when settled by English millers and farmers. Close enough to the water to thrive but far enough to be safe from pirates, the community flourished for a century.  80-100 families made this rocky wooded area their home until just after the American Revolution.  When Gloucester revived its fishing industry after the Revolution, families moved closer to the water and even the meeting house location was reestablished. The small wooden homes were abandoned.

Over time, the dogs who lived with the widows of men lost to sea and the war, were left behind, became feral, and overcame the land – one legend says this is when and why the name was changed to Dogtown but not much historical evidence proves this.

The empty buildings weren’t torn down until the early 1900s.  In the 1800s, they began to attract drifters looking for shelter in the extreme changes of New England weather. Charles E. Mann – Gloucester Daily Times Editor who documented the history of Dogtown in the 1890s – suggested that because there were no documented stories of feral dogs in the area, perhaps the name change was because the women dressed like men, men did housework, and witches thrived on the land. Truth be told, I’m not sure I follow his logic, but I love this theory.

When I arrived at Dogtown yesterday, I wasn’t in a great mindset. My anxiety and depression comes in waves. Thankfully most days now I’m feeling “good”. I can recognize the low moments or anxious moments and know that they are only temporary.  My trip to Dogtown was planned a week or so ago with some friends, but at the last minute I ended up heading out on my own. Honestly, I didn’t really want to go. I wanted to curl up and sit on my couch with Poe the Greyhound and do nothing – just like I did the day before as a cold, heavy, late fall rain poured down outside, rapping on the windows and causing me to turn inward. Instead, I forced myself to get dressed and braid my hair – small self-care steps that help me climb out of the gloom of depressive moments. I hopped in my car and headed North.

After finding myself turned around and at the wrong place twice, I found my way to the Cherry Street entrance of Dogtown. When I hike I prefer to just wander – follow the trails and find my way back to them if I get of track. Most of the trails here in Essex County are well marked and well cared for so I don’t often become lost for more than a moment or two.

This was not the case in Dogtown.

As I walked up Dogtown Road I saw a sign for trail “G”, and as my last name starts with a G I figured this was a great place to start. As I wandered down the trail, I found much of the path covered in water. This was unsurprising because of the heavy rains from the day before and I was wearing my vegan Docs, so I kept going. And going. And going. I found myself getting lost in the woods, which I love to do. The trees wrestling against the cold wind. The streams on the path gurgling. The quiet of being away from urban life in Salem. Heaven.

Seemingly abruptly, but really after a half hour, I looked up and realized the path I was on had ended. It seems I’d somehow come off the path and was in fact following a stream that lets out into the Babson Reservation. Confused, I looked around and realized I was quite lost. There was no path in view, and I’d become soaked from hopping through and over the burbling stream. I, thankfully, always bring my phone when I wander in the woods, so turned it on and pulled up a map.

Eek. I was even more off the trail than I’d thought. 3D view showed me where Dogtown Road was (beyond a LOT of trees), so I tucked my phone back in my pocket and I began heading in that direction. As I was walking I realized then how quiet everything was – there were no birds, no squirrels.  I’d stepped far enough from the Reservoir that I couldn’t hear the streams any longer.  Besides my boots crushing the dried and dying leaves below, the only sound I could hear was the howling of the wind – bending and cracking the tallest branches of the tallest trees as it gushed by. Not one to become easily frightened, I kept going.

As I pushed through the brush and the fallen leaves, I noticed boulders all around. Some were giant and blocking my path so I had to backtrack to find a way around them. Bittersweet stuck to my clothes, and hat, and face, and hair every ten steps or so, again causing me to backtrack in hopes of finding ways around it. My legs have cuts all over them from the thorny vines.

I pulled my phone out again and checked the map. I’d backtracked too much. I swear I was walking toward the road, even with the backtracking, but I was even further from my destination than I was when I was at the Reservoir. In my witchy-crunchy way, I couldn’t help but wonder if the bittersweet was holding me there, in the forest. Reminding me of the lure of nature, the way fresh air can be so healing.  Pausing for a moment to take it all in, I took breathed in and out slowly, thanked nature for this reminder, and began my trek again.

I won’t bore you with all of my tangles in the bittersweet, all of my climbing over, between, and around boulders, and the time I thought a pile of leaves were on sturdy ground but were actually covering a hole between two boulders that was full of water.  It took me almost an hour to find my way back to the road. I couldn’t keep my phone out because of all of the climbing, but I did check it each time it was safe.  I know this sounds impossible, but it felt like a time warp in which I kept moving but not actually making progress.  It was frightening and wonderful at the same time.

You can imagine my relief when I found Dogtown Road again. Before starting my trek again, I googled “Dogtown maps” and the first search noted that one would be “foolhardy” to wander Dogtown without a map. Rolling my eyes, I found my way back to the parking area, took a photo of the map on the way-finding sign, and began walking up Dogtown Road – skipping trail G this time.

The sun was shining warmly and, though it was 32*, I was warm from finding my way back from the reservoir to the road. After a few minutes of walking, I paused again to adjust my scarf and to take in the nature around me.  I looked forward at the path. As I did I began thinking about the English settlers who came to the area now known as Essex County. How many were lost in the woods as I just was? How frightened were they when sun set and nocturnal animals, unfamiliar to them, began roaming? I laughed at myself thinking how grateful I was for them that bittersweet isn’t native to Massachusetts and that the human-made Babson Reservoir wasn’t in existence yet. I tucked my scarf, which kept coming undone, back into my jacket thought to begin my journey again.

As I did, I had a feeling I wasn’t alone. I know this shouldn’t come as a surprise – Dogtown is public land and is well-known among locals. I paused to listen, head still looking down at my scarf. Seemingly unprompted, I had chills. I forced myself to look up. And I saw it.

I saw a human sized figure – completely white or light grey – moving from the right side of the path to the left right in front of me.

I felt frozen in time and place. Could it have been a bird? Maybe. But I didn’t hear any birds; didn’t see any. And, what kind of giant white bird makes no noise as it travels across a path full of leaves and surrounded by trees?  It most definitely wasn’t a person – the crunch of fallen New England leaves are a sure sound this time of year when wandering in the woods. What was it?

I decided to keep going and wandered further up Dogtown Road. I paused to visit some of the cellar holes, marked with numbered boulders which can be matched up to a map indicating who lived in house that previously existed at the location. At number 18 I stepped into the hole and tried to imagine a house around me. My chills returned and my stomach turned so I got back on the trail.

Too soon, it was time to turn back – my hour trip lost in the bittersweet and the woods took up much of my time for exploring. I turned back and thought about all I’d experienced. Seemingly after no time at all, I arrived back at the fence blocking cars from driving up the road. As I approached, a City truck was arriving. I stepped to the side to stay out of their way. The passenger looked up suddenly and gasped – I’d startled him.

“You blend into the woods!” he laughed as I walked by.  I smiled at him and kept going.

When I got home, I shared on Instagram that I had gone to Dogtown. In response I received several messages from people who had gone and who had become so lost they will never return.  One person messaged me to mention she saw I was headed to Dogtown and had inspired her to want to learn more about Thomasine (Tammy) Younger – the Queen of Witches.  I had to look Tammy up (I know, you’d think I’d done a lot of research before my trip, but that’s not my jam.) Tammy lived in Dogtown in the late 1700 and early 1800s.  She collected “tariffs” from anyone passing by her home on Fox Hill, harassing oxen drivers until they complied. It was rumored that if you didn’t pay up, her spirit would spill wood from your cart or cause the woods to turn your cart right over. Tammy had two long teeth interfering with her ability to eat, and causing her to become even more of an outcast. When she died, a family named Hodgkins built her coffin, but refused to keep the coffin in the shop because they felt her spirit was in the coffin well before her body was. Some believed she never actually died.

This morning, as I began writing this post, I pulled up several maps of the area to try to sort out where I was lost and how I can avoid doing that next time I visit.  Curious, I looked for Tammy’s home.  Tammy’s home is near the Reservoir – the Reservoir where I ended up when I felt the woods luring me off track.

Dogtown Map – Charles E. Mann (1890s)
Harper Magazine 1919-1920 – The Place of Witches (Dogtown)
View from Dogtown Road
Me taking a photo Way-finding Sign at Dogtown so as to not get lost on Trail G again
Gate to Dogtown Road
17 Dogtown Road
Bubbling Brook in Dogtown

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