G.O. New York City

Posted on February 17, 2012


G.O. NYC  (Get Outdoors NYC)

You sell your car and move to a big city, and after a few months, you end up feeling a little bit… trapped? Trapped maybe isn’t the perfect word, but even 19,000 restaurants and the most culturally bustling city in America can’t provide everything that the heart and mind need. Namely, all these people don’t leave much room for space.

It is a deep belief of mine that when my mind and soul have the space to roam, the literal space of solitary landscapes, and the figurative space of a mental wilderness, there is a healing process. Even if you can only get out and walk for an afternoon, there is possibility for transformation. You allow everything to slow down a little bit — all that mental babble can move from a raging  river to a meandering creek — and you invite the space of something larger than yourself to enter.

Many true nature writers have talked about how the contemporary psychosis of our times can be related to the flight to the cities – that our problems and anxieties are induced by the speed, proximity to others and urgency that we place on our actions. The list goes on, but I wonder about all the layers of this worry, and what it would do to alleviate some of that stress with a simple walk in the woods.

Yes, the wilderness, even a suburban one, can be a scary place. Are there bears at Bear Mountain? Snakes under the rocks? What about the reported terrorists that fled to the edge of town?

Last week, I jumped on the train, because I sold (read: donated) the car, and got outdoors in NYC, without my own wheels. I used the wheels of Metro-North and took a train to the Peekskill station, happily content in the mid-morning having sat with a book and a cup of tea on the leisurely ride. How I love trains more than planes, and definitely more than automobiles these days (but still not as much as a bike).

I started walking, with the vision of Bear Mountain Bridge way off the horizon, looming over the Hudson River, connecting me to my chosen  destination for the day, with no apparent reason.

Before heading all the way out into the wild, I stopped a woman in the parking lot of the station and asked her how far away Bear Mountain was. She gave me a funny look, with my backpack and “mountain man” gear on, and said, “Walking?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, ready to take the day by the horns.

“Far. You can take a cab. It’s about fifteen minutes by cab.”

I confirmed my direction, not having packed a map, or a compass, or a first aide kit… or any of those things that my Wilderness Class taught me. I was a rookie again, having been nearly fully citified, my body almost turning into a piece of concrete, but like a gargoyle cracking the outer layer, I set out, right into the next parking lot.

It seemed there was no easy way to get wherever I was going. Sure, the Hudson River was right there, but the nice train people had put up a fence with those fancy spiraled barbed wires atop to prevent any freeloaders from catching a ride. I walked near the fenceline, floating in and out of side streets, until I came to my first dead end, which I skirted around and miraculously was in a small city park. Much better. Then the city park path abruptly ended, and there was a large bay of water to cross – route 1 was to hit up the railroad path, route 2 was to climb up a steep bank about forty feet and emerge on a bridge with a narrow pedestrian path. I chose #2, not wanting to ever deal with any employee of the rail service, who all had forearms bigger than my legs. My head  popped up onto the bridge, little burrs and sticks grabbing onto my cap and jacket, and off I continued. I was simply a man walking along the side of the road, albeit a road with a minimal shoulder, and really, where was I going?

A police officer slowed way down at a traffic circle, gave me a nice long stare, and figured I looked normal enough, so sped off. I came to a fork in the road, leaving the main highway that would eventually take me to Bear Mountain, and heading into a little town that said something about power supply for a certain district. It was a veritable wasteland. Mounds of dug up minerals and at least fifty rusty school buses lined the river in this section. More No Trespassing signs randomly nailed to trees and posts appeared. The road I was walking dead-ended again into a manufactured plant of sorts that looked abandoned for all intensive purposes, except for the three shiny Ford trucks and the backhoe on the side of the hill. I took a risk and moved across the large lot, really hoping for the cover of the woods without a call from a loudspeaker or a shotgun blast for discovering some illicit drug circle or something. I made it, to the edge of the woods. Oh, what a great feeling to finally step off the deep ruts of civilization and into a steep climb. There even looked to be an old commuter path for deer or some other large species that I followed, for about five minutes, before realizing I was on inhabited private property, of a gigantic mansion, I mean gigantic. I played it cool, not really knowing what the hell else to do, and just kept walking along the backside of the property, about fifty feet from their house. The property, of course, stopped at a cliff edge that was  about thirty vertical feet down to the river, so I had no choice but to walk toward the house and up their driveway. I was so close, sneaking by the men working on the roof, resigning myself to head back to the more crowded road, already losing the woods. I’d walked nearly three miles, and my boots spent about five minutes hearing the crunch of leaf.

A man emerged from the security booth that only the really wealthy have.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

“I am walking to Bear Mountain. Sorry. A woman from the train station told me to follow the river, and the trail sort of ended,” I said, dripping a little bit of sweat, smiling my best, most reassuring smile.

“Where did you come from?” he wondered, looking a little confused as to how I had even gotten on the property in the first place.

“Oh, I was just came through the woods, and all the sudden I was here. There is supposed to be a trail around here somewhere.”

“There’s no trail here. This is private property. There is a little brown sign about 500 feet up the road. Please leave the property now.”

A little brown sign is good. It normally means something by the regulators of forests, parks and land without people. Sure enough, there was a hut with a little brown sign, and finally a topographic map so I could see if there were actually any legit trails in the woods. Yes, Camp Smith trail, the one I had read about. This would get me to my destination, albeit with a description of being the most strenuous and rugged trail in this area. Perfect. Alone. Two water bottles, a PBJ and a hard boiled egg, and a steep ass climb. Here is how the trail  welcomes you:

This is what happens if you leave the trail. Ka-boom!

I began the climb, leaving the road, the private property, reminded every fifty feet to stay on my side of the trail. To the right was the Camp Smith army base, with live rifle fire, live mines, and future defenders of capitalism in training. On my left, it warned, I should not step either, for fear of dislodging one of the large boulders and causing an avalanche onto the helpless cars that drove the road below. I walked the straight and narrow, following the blue blazes on trees and rocks that the amazing Appalachian Mountain Conservancy takes their time to maintain so that random people can find their way. The  trail was not heavily trod, and indiscernible many times, and had it not been for the blazes, a lost man I might have been (not truly lost, I always knew where the river was). It was cold, snow expected, but by the time I got to the first viewpoint I stripped down to just a t-shirt, already soaked through from the ascent. I walked, and thanked the powers for creating all this land, and cursed myself for cramming like a sardine into a little box in the city, and did what I always do, and fell into the rhythm of the trail, of walking solo, and just focused on each rock, each snap of branch, each breath, regulating the body and checking in on every part of my being, calculating what I would do should an animal attack (a constant thought to the weakened mind that hasn’t been on the trail, a mistrust of the natural world, knowing I seemed an invader rather than a regular), what I would do if a military man suddenly emerged with one of the aforementioned live rifles. I was pretty sure I’d rather face an animal than an army man, even though I could talk reason to the army man, I could handle a battle with an animal better. A few more miles up the trail, still steadily contouring up and down the tributaries to the Hudson, I sprained my ankle, rolling it perpendicular to the ground, and almost stumbled forward. These are the moments when I think of the stress I must’ve put my mom through in my younger days when I had the brashness to just disappear, without much notice, for awhile into some foreign place. Carefully, because it was steep, and there were hundreds of rocks on the trail, I moved forward. Pain, shooting, but bearable, tightening the lace, and off. This pain better than the anguish of sitting indoors all day.

I continued my walk, to save wary eyes from reading if you have even made it this far. About ten miles in total, in woods, back to the road to cross the Bear Mt. Bridge (scary as hell for a man with fear of heights to cross a wide space with a narrow pedestrian shoulder and waist high railing, shivers still) and made it to Bear Mt. and hiked the woods around there. Finally, a few hours from the train, not wanting to face the return on the same path, I called a cab, which you can really only do in New York, even hours outside the city, and headed back to another train station, upriver. The distance that had taken five hours to hike was covered in about ten minutes by vehicle, but how boring, just sitting and looking out the window. How much better to be alive in the world with each footfall.

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