August 02, 2009

The Bronx Redeems Itself

Split Rock bridle path trestle, full of swallow nests

"You guys wanted adventure..." Eric taunted us as he hopped across the bog that the bridle path had turned into. I was back in the Bronx, finally immersed in nature after a way-too-urban trek to the Greenway two weeks before.

We were on our way to Split Rock in Pelham Bay Park, a boulder that had been split by a glacier 10,000 years ago. We'd tried to find the actual hiking trail to no avail, so we took the bridle path instead, under advisement from two riders we passed along the way.

"It'll be too overgrown to see," said the woman we first encountered. Her light gray, spotted horse was a little jumpy and kept walking in circles as she tried to chat with us. "It's a nice walk up there, but it's wet from the storm last night. Just watch out for the mud."

We conferred and decided to take this trail as planned. Famous last words: how bad can it be?

Another rider stopped to chat after passing us twice, on his way up the path and back. He was a bonafide cowboy, with jeans, boots, and hat and white hair prickling out from his chin and lips. "There's a tree down up there blocking the path," he warned. "I can't get around it on my horse but you guys can probably get under it. I'm going to go get my machete to try to clear it."

Now this was adventure! Who knew that such people hung out in the Bronx?

We trudged up the path to the downed tree, which wasn't too bad to get under, but it was only the first of many obstacles we would face on our four-hour saga in the city's largest park.

The cowboy had also warned us that we might encounter a gate - something else he wouldn't be able to get around on his horse, "But you guys probably can. Don't worry, I won't tell anyone," and we all laughed. When we got to the gate, we realized it was a tall, padlocked chain link fence erected for the continuing reconstruction of the bridle path. Eric poked around the side til he found some orange construction netting that had been torn down, making a path for our entry.

Closed bridle path

The closed portion, lined with more of that orange netting, was actually easier to walk on. It was dry, gravelly, and out in the open air with the sun beating down on us. We soon came upon another gate, but this time there was no way around it. Like a true urban explorer, Eric wrapped his fingers around the chain link and pulled the fence up, leaving just enough room for me to do a crab-walk under. Once on the other side, I pulled the fence towards me to allow Edith and Eric under, and as we plodded forward, the bridle path once again became dark, drippy and a little bit drowned.

Like any odyssey, there were a number of challenges that we would meet along the way, although after the two horse riders and after diverting away from the bike path, we soon stopped encountering people altogether. We were never "in the middle of nowhere" - the path follows to the west of the golf course, and to the east of the Hutchinson River Parkway - but when we reached a flooded bridge to cross over the active railroad tracks, we felt very alone.

Flooded railroad bridge

Given my experience at the Palisades Interstate Park last week, my first instinct was to strip shoes and socks and just walk through, but this wasn't an active waterway. The water was still under the buzz of dozens of dragonflies and damselflies, in a rainbow of colors and patterns from black-and-white striped to blue to spotted wings. Concerned that the water might be stagnant and carrying any number of diseases or creatures to feast on our feet, we looked for another way out. Turning back was not an option, but to the left of the bridge lie a steep drop that might bring us back to the Hutch, but probably not across the tracks. To the right, the chain link fence separating us from the golf course was rusted, dismantled in one spot and rose above the ground in another spot - certainly enough room for us to squeeze through. But on a bright, sunny day, the golf course was busy, and we couldn't imagine tumbling out onto it without a clear sense of where to go next.

Back to the flooded bridge. We guessed that if the storm the night before had been strong enough to bring a tree down, it probably had released enough rain to flood the bridge, which was several inches deep in water and mud. Eric tipped a bare foot in and let out a groan. "Cold?" I asked. "No," he said, "HOT."

I stripped off my shoes and socks and stepped carefully in, my foot sinking into a couple inches of mud under the water. It was warm like bathwater, heated by the sun with no tree canopy above (unlike most of the trail). I wanted to run across it but it was too gravelly underneath, so I placed down one careful foot at a time, hoping the water hadn't weakened the bridge. On the other side, Eric sacrificed his white undershirt so we could dry our feet off enough to put them back into sneakers and boots.

"I actually feel a great sense of accomplishment," I announced, and Eric agreed. After all we'd already overcome, we couldn't imagine what other perils our hike might hold in store for us.

After more muddy trudging, the path let out onto a paved opening, and we found ourselves along an inlet of Long Island Sound. We climbed down to the shore for a break, smelling the ocean and spotting an egret. I still couldn't believe we were in the Bronx. Sitting on a rock, I declared, "Something just spit on me," and examined the muddy streak running up my leg. Peering down onto the shell-laden shore, I realized that we were not alone. I found two snails slowly moving towards each other. Amongst all the empty shells that had washed ashore, Eric found one with a mussel still in it, smiling up at him. Edith crouched down, and then with a "Whoa!" announced a geyser down the shoreline. As we departed, we disturbed two hermit crabs which quickly retreated under their respective rocks.

At this point, we should have counted our blessings, and called it a day. Instead, we got back on the bridle path towards the Bartow-Pell Mansion.

The mud we'd encountered up to this point had been merely an appetizer to the course we were about to be fed. I already had one caked sneaker whose muddy encasement was leaking into my sock, but by the time I made it through the next section, I had two soaked feet, a back covered in mosquitoes, and twig scratches all along my arms and legs. We'd been walking pretty gingerly through the woods up to this point, careful of poison ivy and Lyme disease-toting ticks, but on this part of the path, we had no choice. Wishing we had the cowboy's machete with us, we plowed our way through complete overgrowth and full-on muddy flood.

Exclamations like "Oh God" and "Ugh!" had become so commonplace that we'd stopped asking each other if we were OK. A few times, Eric and I thought the mud had finally gotten the best of us, grabbing onto our feet with the suction of quicksand and not letting go. But we always got through it. We hit one totally flooded section, and Eric, undeterred as usual, made his way through it in his hiking boots relatively unscathed, but Edith and I were ready to turn back. We sent him a little farther down as a scout, shouting questions like "What do you see down there?" as though we were in a cave or on an alien planet. Eric, who sounded like he was really far down the path, called back to us, "I think we can get through..." so Edith and I, doubtful but with no choice, crossed the moat.

The path finally released us at the mansion, but we were too tired and harried to explore anymore, so we made a pit stop at the Golf House and then caught the #45 bus back to the subway in the nick of time.

I never had the chance to get lost in the woods as a kid - getting lost is still one of my bigger fears - so once again, I am making up for lost time in a big way. Throughout the day yesterday, though, I wasn't afraid once. And I kept feeling so glad that I had two fellow adventurers to share the saga with. Yes, we wanted adventure, and we certainly got it. Despite the numerous placed in our way by man and nature, we faced nothing that was insurmountable or impassable.

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