July 24, 2009

The Long Path to Sleep

I always seem to be posting at night, but usually that's because I've had a full day. There's something really satisfying about that feeling right before bed, when you've exerted your body and challenged your mind.

Between the driving and the hiking, my synapses were firing on all cylinders in the desert, and my reflexes were sharp and quick. Yet, at the end of the day, out of pure exhaustion, my body was able to relax. I've missed that feeling since returning to New York, where liquor induces sleep and the body only gives out when absolutely necessary. Even after walking miles in Prospect Park and to and from Randall's Island, I haven't been able to work my body into submission. That is, until today.

I hiked the wonderful and wondrous Palisades Interstate Park today, travelling an hour and a half on a bus-train-bus there and back. And not only did I hike the rocky shore, the steep ridges and the dizzying cliffs, but I hiked seven miles of them. My eyes can barely stay open as I write, and my legs can hardly bear the weight of the laptop upon them. And it feels good.

When Michelle heard what I'd done today, she stammered, "And I suppose that means" I gasped and sputtered, "If that's what you"

Not all of the seven miles were fun per se, but the entire experience - finding my way there, navigating the trails, spotting butterflies and two blue jays - was fulfilling. Even though I was alone (save for lots of gnats, a fluorescent green bald caterpillar, and one small snake), I felt whole, purposeful, and competent. Using the brain on a hike is so different than using it to solve simple math problems or remember a bit of history or employ correct grammar. Conjuring some kind of survivalist savvy, especially for a city girl like me, is real intellectual work, and far more gratifying than figuring out how-do-I-get-this-person-to-stop-talking-behind-my-back or how-do-I-talk-behind-this-person's-back-to-turn-others-against-them. After all this, I can't quite imagine placing my brain back in an office, where the biggest challenges are interpersonal and political.

After all, an explorer must explore.

To be honest, although the land itself presented quite a challenge - not only in distance but also in terrain - the hike itself was easy to follow, very well marked, and relatively well-maintained. Since it was my first time in the park (which follows the Jersey side of the Hudson River, just east of the Palisades Parkway), I followed the path precisely as The New York Times had recommended: starting in Englewood Cliffs, NJ on Palisades Avenue, descending down to the Shore Trail, and then cutting up and over to the Long Path (though I didn't make it as far as the Women's Federation Monument).

Along the way, I saw a few people: a couple walking their dog, two bicyclists taking a break on the beach, and a Chinese woman crammed into the bushes about as far as her pants were crammed into her tube socks. As she heard me approaching she straightened up, hoisting her bag of picked berries. I greeted her and she responded in a thick accent, "Water. Over."

I'd already had to take one high tide detour off the Shore Trail so I immediately acknowledged, "Oh, it's flooded?"

"Yeah yeah."

"Hmmmm, ok," I said as I peered behind her. I decided to keep walking and check it out for myself.

A couple yards of the trail were flooded, with a gentle tide coming in from the Hudson, but it didn't look too bad. I surveyed the flood, looking for rocks big enough to hop along in my sneakers, but they were too few and far apart. Between them lie smaller, smooth rocks - almost gravel - and a red silt, covering any trace of sand. It didn't look too daunting, so I put my bottle, camera and map into my backpack, kicked off my sneakers, peeled off my socks, and started tip-toeing my way through the flood.

It wasn't that far, but it took forever, placing each step carefully on a flat rock when I could, trying not to slip. Occasionally, I'd step flat down on the river bed between the bigger rocks, and immediately feel the pangs of irregularly-shaped stones in my foot's arch. I tried to walk on the balls of my feet as much as possible, but it was unsteady with the waves coming in and nothing to hold onto. All the while I just kept wishing, "Please let this be the only flooded part." I did not want to have to turn back.

I made it to the other side of the flood, brushed the silt off the bottoms of my feet, and slipped them back into socks and shoes, not noticing if they were wet inside. As the trail wove in and out along the shore, alternating between rock and grass, damp dirt and impacted sand, across streams and brooks and past an old beach resort, I felt really good and energetic - until about the halfway point. Hunger pangs and a diminishing water supply started to concern me, not knowing how far I'd gone or how much farther I needed to go, and facing an impossible scramble up a cliff to get to the Henry Hudson Parkway (though I could hear cars and bikes whizzing by).

Ruins along the Shore Trail

Despite my fatigue, and the fact that I don't think I've ever walked that far before in my life, I insisted that I proceed and persist, knowing that the Long Trail promised some empty shells of old estates that are being devoured by the forest as we speak. I discovered three of them by following mysterious stone paths and staircases that seemed to lead nowhere, until a hulking structure would appear seemingly out of nowhere from the forest floor. There once were a total of 15 homes along "Millionaire's Row," perhaps still more remaining than the three stone foundations I saw, but I gave up on the trail and took the first exit west to Route 9W that I could for the bus back home.

Cliff Dale mansion, built 1911 (The Long Path)

It's no surprise that this stretch of the Palisades would attract me: it's yet another failed resort area, this one foiled by the construction of the George Washington Bridge which put ferry service across the river (and onto the beaches) out of commission. And, in another familiar twist, industrial runoff raised concerns about the safety and cleanliness of the Hudson River water, until swimming was altogether banned (and still is). The towns that thrived on summer recreation were wiped out. Mansions built in the 1910s were bought twenty years later and razed to open up views of the Palisades. Their stone foundations - much like the stone stairwell that I climbed down to enter the park - are all that remain. As the years pass, the forest green is gobbling up these old structures, covering them in vines and fallen trees and grass and dead leaves.

So my hike today was a bit of a treasure hunt as well as an endurance test. And the best part is, I know that there are more treasures to be seen, giving me plenty of reason to go back.

But for today, I can sleep, satisfied.

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