Have you thought about moving out of your city or large urban area but don’t want to give up all the cultural opportunities at your fingertips, the diversity of the population, or just the stimulation and excitement of having so many choices of things to do? Or do you think about what you’d lose if you left your tranquil rural area with its opportunities for being right in the thick of the natural world surrounded by lovely views? All of us but one at PVCC, found those valued features when we came to Amherst and the Pioneer Valley, leaving the traffic, crowding, and long commutes behind. That one person, the exception, is a native of Amherst and he left but came back.
The two industries of the area are education and agriculture which provide the stimulus for employment, leisure activities, and the tranquil surroundings. Within a ten-mile radius there is a large research-driven university and four top private colleges and the consortium, Five Colleges, Inc. It provides the glue and the creativity to build on the strengths of all five institutions, optimizing the offerings of each school and making them available to students at any of the five. You’ll find that your choices for all sorts of activities, from concerts to theater to lectures by prominent authorities in every field are vast because of them. Sports fans from Frisbee to lacrosse to basketball can find a team to cheer for.
Education isn’t limited to the five colleges. In addition to good school systems, you have the choice of charter schools focusing on the performing arts and Chinese language immersion to Learning in Retirement, a Five College program offering seniors peer-taught workshops/classes in a wide range of subjects. Book groups abound, writing workshops proliferate, and if you go to one of the frequent poetry readings, don’t count on being able to walk in at the last minute and find a seat. Writers and artists seem to be attracted to the area and give us a special patina of connection to the creative world.
Much of the farmland that provides so much open space in Amherst is maintained with preservation restrictions, contributing to around 20+% of conservation land, one of the highest in the state. Amherst was in the forefront of the locavore movement and you have your choice of farmers markets—year round now—in addition to farm share opportunities that range from fruits to greens in winter to full summer produce. All this open space is crisscrossed with hiking trails named after local residents, including Robert Frost, that travels the length of town. Amherst sits on the M&M Trail that starts at Lake Metacomet in Connecticut and ends at Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire. It was laid out by Walter Banfield, a local naturalist and character, and follows ridges all across the state. We border the valley of the Connecticut River, which is fed by numerous navigable streams perfect for canoeing and kayaking. The community itself is located between a town golf course, conservation land, and Puffer’s Pond, the local swimming hole.
Amherst is loyal to its home-grown businesses; North Pleasant Street has a couple of low-volume chain outlets, but the local coffee shops are where the action is. Hastings Store, opposite the Town Common, is where you can open an account and buy your office supplies, newspapers, and any number of other things at a competitive discount, and I’m guessing that there aren’t too many college towns where MacDonald’s left after several months. Few fast food places survive next door to Antonio’s.
Amherst is a small town even though its population is spiked by the student bodies. It offers participation in local politics through Representative Town Meeting and membership in 50-some town committees. For good reason, the unofficial motto for the town is “Amherst, where only the H is silent.” The politics of the whole area is Liberal-Progressive. It makes for little political controversy but, according to some, could stand some diversity of political opinion to match the diversity of cultures, lest we become too self-satisfied with the Happy Valley. Nevertheless, you can look up from almost any spot in town and see the hills in the distance, run into people you know at the grocery store or library, and decide at the last minute to take in the latest documentary or art house film at Amherst Cinema. I think I’ll stay.