Q&A with Madeline Bilis, author of ‘50 Hikes in Eastern Massachusetts’
Dudley native Madeline Bilis, 25, grew up visiting Wellfleet every summer with her family, then later exploring the Boston region’s natural areas when she was a student at Emerson College (she graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism). Her interest in history and geography, along with an editorial position at Boston Magazine that included a travel beat, cemented Bilis’s knowledge of the Bay State.
When an editor from The Countryman Press contacted Bilis in 2017 about writing an Eastern Massachusetts component to its Explorer’s 50 Hikes series, she had only one hesitation. “I don’t actually have a car, but I had a friend who agreed we could do a lot of this together and he would drive, and other friends helped as well.”
Her pals came through, and “50 Hikes in Eastern Massachusetts” ($22.95) comes out on Aug. 20. Bilis, who recently moved to New York City to take an editing position at Travel + Leisure, will appear at a launch event at Brookline Booksmith on Aug. 22. Below are edited excerpts from a phone interview with Bilis.
Q. Tell us about your research. How did you decide what to include, how long did you spend on the book, and how many miles did you cover?
A. I made a very large spreadsheet of hikes I was interested in and then started reading reviews about them and looking for a variety. I spent late 2017 until spring 2018 on research, then started hiking in April and managed to squeeze them all in by late fall, hiking and walking over 160 miles. Some weekends I did up to five hikes and on weekdays I’d wake up at 5 a.m. to write a chapter before going to work.
Q. Eastern Massachusetts isn’t known as hiking heaven. Were some people incredulous?
A. A lot of people asked me, “Are there even 50 hikes in Eastern Mass.?” And I’d say, even more than that. It’s true that Eastern Mass. doesn’t have incredibly challenging hikes — it’s largely trails that are flat and easy, but also very beautiful. There are also medium treks through woods, and a few that have good elevations.
Q. What would be a typical research day and what did you carry?
A. I had a lightweight backpack always ready to go. I’d carry my DSLR camera around my neck while often holding my phone for photos for my Instagram account (www.instagram.com/50hikes
easternmass/). I took about 100 photos for each hike. I’d also have a notebook and pen, lots of extra pens, water, snacks, sunscreen and bug spray. And my trusty Red Sox hat if I wasn’t already wearing it. I also used apps that track distance and GPS coordinates. Sometimes I could scribble notes while walking, or I’d have to stop every 15 minutes to make notes.
Q. You’d already spent a lot of time on the Cape. What places ended up in your book and what do you like about them?
A. One is the Nauset Marsh Trail, which I did with my mother. The photo of it ended up on the cover, which she was very excited about. It’s connected to Salt Pond, one of the Cape’s many kettle ponds. There’s also the Great Island Trail in Wellfleet, part of Cape Cod National Seashore. I’m going to go ahead and call it my favorite. It’s a 7-mile hike along the coast and through some pitch pines and it’s extremely beautiful. If you go early in the morning, you won’t encounter another living soul.
Q. What’s one of your favorite walks closer to Boston?
A. Noanet Woodlands in Dover is easy to get to. The hiking is moderate, not super challenging, but once you head up to Noanet Peak you reach this rocky ledge and you get sweeping views of the Boston skyline and Greater Boston. It’s really beautiful, especially in the fall. I feel like it’s sort of overlooked by people in city, who are more likely to go to the Blue Hills and Middlesex Fells. Those places are great, too, and I include them, but I also like to share the hidden gems. Noanet is part of the Trustees of Reservations. If we’re listing favorite land conservation organizations, that’s mine. They have more than 100 properties around the state.
Q. What are some other lesser-known spots?
A. I’d say the Boston Harbor Islands. I think a lot of Bostonians forget about them. I wrote about Peddocks and Lovells islands, which are lesser known because you have to take two ferries to get to them. When you’re hiking and you come to a view of the skyline, it feels surprising because you feel worlds away from the city.
Q. What sites satisfied the history buff in you?
A. I was fascinated that the Civilian Conservation Corps had done so much building in the state parks. I also really loved the stone walls, which are everywhere. You see them deep in woods off the trail and also lining trails. They make you think about the people who lived these rich lives on the land, and now you’re here.
Q. Now that you’re based in New York, do you miss living closer to the outdoors in Boston?
A. After the book I decided to take the next step in my career and give New York a chance. Travel + Leisure was the pinnacle, so that’s pretty exciting. But, yes, I do miss the quick access to the outdoors. And of course it’s sort of a funny time to be promoting a book on Massachusetts from my apartment in Brooklyn. But I’m exploring lots of things here, so that’s fun, too.