IN THE HILLS of western Massachusetts, we have "borners" and regular people. I was born in Pittsfield, the county seat, a city of 51,000. But when I married and moved to the adjacent town of Richmond, which contains only 1,600 inhabitants, I lost my "borner" status and had to sit quiet for 15 years at town meetings before it was proper to speak. When you move over a line in these parts, you cross more than a border.
Once you've been part of Berkshire County, however, you don't mind paying the price, whether it be as a native son plunked down forever or just a tourist passing through.
I have hiked, driven and flown over the 947 square miles of Berkshire County innumerable times, and yet hardly a day goes by, whatever the season, that the rolling hills and gentle valleys don't conspire to catch me by surprise. My wife and I have a stock phrase to cover a sudden vista that smacks us in the soul as we are driving or hiking or watching the blood-red sun sink into the purple hills.
"If this were France," one or the other says, "you'd faint dead away."
The Berkshires are a wild combination of mountain greenery and major industry. The General Electric company employs some 8,000 of the inhabitants at its plant in Pittsfield. There they manufacture very large transformers and missile guidance systems. Ten minutes from the plant, most people are home. Fifteen minutes from the factory, they can be as isolated as the deer that run through the 95,919 acres preserved in the county's 23 state parks and forests.
In summer, the tourists come to walk or camp in these woods or swim in the area's 78 lakes or ponds. In fall they come to watch the leaves turn brilliant reds and yellows and fall to the ground to make the most gorgeous carpets this side of Persia.
In winter, the landscape offers cross-country skiing or snowshoeing or ice skating. Nature is all Yankee in the Berkshires; nothing is wasted; the same places serve all seasons.
Spring? Did you ask about spring? There is no spring in the Berkshires. They say we had one day of it once, and a glorious day it was, but that was before my time and I only remember what my grandmother told me.
Summer, of course, is the busiest time, and the most crowded, but also the most fun. Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is the nucleus around which the other activities whirl, and the 210-acre estate that overlooks Stockbridge Bowl contains the 6,000-seat Shed, which has remarkable acoustics, and a lawn large enough to accommodate the many thousands who wish to hear the classics (or, for one week in August, the most contemporary music written). Picnicking on See BERKSHIRES, E3, Col. 1 The Berkshires BERKSHIRES, From E1 the lawn at Tanglewood while conductor Seiji Ozawa leads his demons through Beethoven or Brahms or Stravinsky or Wagner feeds more than the taste buds.
The Tanglewood highlights in the coming months include Ozawa conducting Beethoven's "Fidelio" on Aug. 21 with an international cast of singers; John Williams doing an evening of the Boston Pops (with fireworks) on Aug. 24; and Tanglewood on Parade on Aug. 27, featuring a full day of musical events.
Nathaniel Hawthorne gave Tanglewood its name while he rented the small house on the estate in 1850 as he wrote "The House of Seven Gables." Just down the road in Pittsfield, Herman Melville was working on a tune he called "Moby-Dick" or "The White Whale." Hawthorne was so shy and Melville so frenetic that the closeness became unstuck.
There is a local legend that another literary friend of the two, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, would treat Melville for his migraine headaches. But he never could find anything physically wrong, and he always gave the same advice as he was about to leave.
"Go boating on the river," he would say as he opened the door. "The best tonic for you, Herman, is the Housatonic."
In addition to the major musical events at Tanglewood, there are also several smaller organizations that specialize in chamber concerts during the season.
For those who prefer drama, the Williamstown Theatre Festival puts the likes of Frank Langella, Austin Pendleton, Blythe Danner, Karen Allen and Christopher Reeve onstage in William's College's jewel of a theater, while the Berkshire Theatre Festival performs American plays in Stockbridge.
Under artistic director Nikos Psacharopoulos for the past 26 years, the Williamstown Theatre has established a reputation for mounting works no other regional theater would dare. This season began with a two-night play collage embracing all the works of Tennessee Williams, with the playwright on hand for twin opening nights. In August, Williamstown's playbill offers Pinero's "Trelawney of the Wells" and Gorky's "Enemies."
The Berkshire Theatre Festival, under artistic director Josephine Abady, will be doing "A Thousand Clowns" and a new work titled "The Palace of Amateurs" in August.
Both theaters have several auxiliary showcases during the week, including new plays by second companies, cabarets in local restaurants and Sunday special events featuring leading actors doing things they can't do anywhere else.
In the town of Lenox, Shakespeare & Company is a combination performing and training group. Situated at The Mount, an estate built by novelist Edith Wharton at the height of her fame, the company performs in an outdoor arena that could be a park in the forest of Arden. This year's production, running through Aug. 29, is "Macbeth." Bring insect repellent.
Those desiring something a little more adventurous in theater should investigate the Lenox Arts Center/Music Theater Group, which presents four works in Citizens Hall in the village of Interlaken each summer and four in New York City the rest of the year. In August they will be presenting "Combinations" by Ishmael Reed, Carman Moore and Colleen McElroy, and "Four Songs on Texts of Joyce" by David del Tredici. This is music-theater as you have never seen it, but will probably want to see again.
Dance lovers will know of the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, which was established in 1930 by the late Ted Shawn and became the mecca of all the dance greats of this country. The schedule this summer includes Elisa Monte Aug. 10-14, Metropolitan Opera Ballet Aug. 17-21, the Clive Thompson Dance Company Aug. 24-28, and Maria Benitez Estampa Flamenca Sept. 2-5.
When it rains in the Berkshires, the best thing is to just stand there and let the acid clean your pores. But if you want to go inside and be amused, entertained or enthralled, there are all kinds of places available.
The grandest is the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, a marble receptacle for some of the finest Impressionist paintings in the world, as well as major collections of prints, drawings, silver and porcelain and prime examples of American and European paintings from the 14th through the 19th centuries, including 30 Renoirs.
The donor of all this was a grandson of Edward Clark, an 1831 graduate of Williams College, who was smart enough to become partners with Isaac Singer, inventor of the sewing machine.
Or you can visit Hancock Shaker Village on Rte. 20, five miles west of Pittsfield, which is nicer in sunshine but adaptable to a change in the weather. The village has 20 restored buildings of the Shaker community that lived there from 1790 to 1960, and the ingenuity of the Shakers is everywhere apparent. Their round stone barn is about as beautiful an example of usefulness as can be found anywhere.
Or take an hour to visit Arrowhead in Pittsfield where Herman Melville lived in a furor for a dozen years while writing "Moby-Dick." The Berkshire County Historical Society has restored the house as closely as possible to Melville's own time, the famous chimney is still intact, and some family belongings have made their way back. Stockbridge has Chesterwood, former summer home of Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), the man who sculpted the Concord Minuteman and the Lincoln Memorial. Tours are available of the studio where models of the famous statues show you how the sculptor changed his mind along the way. A lengthy nature trail laid out by the sculptor is also open to the public.
Not many people miss the Norman Rockwell Museum on Main Street in Stockbridge, not far from where the famous illustrator lived for many years before his death in 1978. Many Saturday Evening Post cover originals adorn the walls, as well as other paintings, and sometimes on the streets of Stockbridge you will see someone who looks like one of Rockwell's models. It probably is.
Special events abound in the Berkshire summer because that is the only time you can be sure of getting from one place to another without getting stuck in the snow or sliding off the road on the ice.
On Aug. 21 and 22, for instance, the seventh annual balloonfest will be held on the Cummington Farm on South Road, Cummington. It is something to come up over a hill and suddenly see the colorful balloons rising in the morning mist. (The mist descends on the Berkshires in August--bring sweaters for evenings.) There are also professional sky diving exhibitions and a craft fair and, in mid-September, the Josh Billings RunAground, a canoe/bike/running race with some 500 teams from all over. In November, the balloon people put on a wild game dinner that not only features "basic coon and hound variety of meats," but also at times, lion, buffalo and the like.?
All you need is hunger and a stomach of iron for the annual Ethnic Fair on Aug. 22, when people in the costumes of their forebears not only dance but serve up every kind of native food imaginable from stands, wagons, benches and even their hands.
And that brings me to a noteworthy point. There are more good restaurants in Berkshire County than any other non-metropolitan area in the United States. It is difficult to say why there are so many good ones in this particular area of Western Massachusetts. There is no great culinary heritage that has come down since the first settlers arrived in the early 1700s.
My own deduction is that something in the air of Berkshire County triggers the appetite. The people who settled here and those who come to visit are continually hungry and always seeking something more to eat. If there is anything that Nature abhors, it is an empty stomach, and the natives keep opening more and more restaurants in the attempt to fill it.
Some of Berkshire's restaurants are like those anywhere else in the United States. But we also have many that are special in unique and interesting ways. I am not contending that they are the equal of the three-star restaurants of France or the top echelon of New York. The sauces in Berkshire County are still related to gravy. But they are so far superior to the feeding places of any other resort area that it is worth the trip alone to taste the difference.
Let me mention just a few of my personal favorites:
The Springs Restaurant and Motor Inn on Rte. 7 in New Ashford (413--458-3465) has been run by the Grosso family for more than 50 years, and their love of good food is such that they want everybody to eat as well as they do. Many of the best chefs in Berkshire County trained under the Grossos' exacting demands, and each year they strive to find something new while keeping the quality of the old. Their cuisine is the ubiquitous "continental," and meat, fish and fowl are all prepared with style and served with grace.
A bit to the north in Williamstown is Le Country Restaurant (413-458-4000), whose specialty is breast of chicken divan, and I would also recommend the fish entre'es for dinner, plus the saute'ed chicken livers for lunch.
In the same town, on Rte. 2, is the Four Aces Restaurant (413-458-5436), where the cooking is excellent in all respects. Chef-owner Michael Haddad, whose baked stuffed lobster is marvelous and prime ribs gargantuan, also makes a Lebanese specialty called mikluta, a giant omelet with sauteed sausage and pepperoni and fresh vegetables and herbs and spices. It's served with warm pita and satisfies the soul as much as the tummy.
To my taste, the best restaurant within Pittsfield's confines is the Coach Lite (413--499-1523) on Rte. 20, the highway to Albany, N.Y., on the outskirts of town. Chef-owner Paul Bock delights in whipping up little appetizers with as many as three sauces working on the same stuffed cre pes.
And if you must have that bagel in Pittsfield, Samel's Deli (413--442-5927) at Elm Street turns out new batches every hour or so. Benny Samel's homemade soups, combined with chunky ends of rye bread, can keep you going for a whole day.
To the south, in Lenox, the Candlelight Inn (413--637-1555) has a way with baby rack of lamb, veal and fresh fish that is most appetizing. Chef-owner Jimmy DeMayo also does his own baking, using strawberries with architectural splendor.
For a lighter meal in Lenox, try the open-air deck at the Ganesh Cafe (413--637-1341) at 90 Church St., which features several Indian dishes that are as tasty as they are spicy.
The main street of the town of Stockbridge is dominated by the Red Lion Inn (413--298-5545), which has housed many celebrities in the past century and which has always fed them sumptuously. The Red Lion specializes in traditional American fare, which is done well, and they serve real, deep-dish apple pie and Indian pudding for dessert. Gentlemen are required to wear jackets for dinner.
The tiny town of West Stockbridge has two superior restaurants that are continents apart but which have something in common. Le Petit Pois (413-232-7770) provides excellent French provincial cuisine cooked by a Colombian chef, while the Orient Express (413--232-4204) has Vietnamese cooking, an exciting combination of the French and the Oriental.
Two other restaurants that bear looking into are The Inn at Huntington (413-667-8868) on Rte. 112 in Huntington, whose steak au poivre is the best I have eaten anywhere in the world, and Sebastian's on Rte. 23 in South Egremont, where the homemade pasta courses are ambrosial.
Dining in Berkshire County at the better restaurants is not inexpensive, ranging from $15 to $45 per person, depending on choice of appetizers, desserts, wines and drinks. Wine tends to be overpriced in most places for not that much quality, but carafes of good Californian and French or Italian country wines are quite satisfactory.
Accommodations can also be fairly expensive during the Tanglewood season, double rooms in motels ranging from the mid-$40 range to just under $100. Several estates have been converted into plush country hotels, and prices at these range from $125 a night to $325 for a luxurious two-bedroom suite. The irony is that when Lena Horne wanted to rent one of these for her two-night performance at Tanglewood, it had already been booked by some mogul attending the concert, and she was forced to accept a lesser lodging.
But money should be no object when visiting the Berkshire Hills. The new Michelin Green Guide gave the area three stars, its highest ranking, and the French are no fools when it comes to eating and sleeping.
For further information on the Berkshires and a vacation guidebook to rooms, restaurants, public campgrounds (which are quite reasonable), tours, camps, art galleries and recreation, write The Berkshire Vacation Bureau, 20 Elm St., Pittsfield, Mass. 01201; or call them at 413-443-9186.