September 02, 2009

A Liberated Walk

Liberty Walk
I've been reticent to leave my apartment, much less go exploring on my own, since getting grabbed in the park a couple weeks ago. But with back-to-school weather setting in, bright sunny days with a cool breeze, I just couldn't stay inside any longer. So yesterday I hooked my pepper spray onto my keychain, packed a liter of water, grabbed my camera and headed to Liberty State Park.

Most New Yorkers probably have only been to Liberty for the All Points West outdoor concert festival (or, as it became known this year because of the rain, "All Points Mess"). Tourists may recognize it as the land directly across from Ellis Island, and in fact connected by a small bridge that's supposedly only for construction and emergency vehicles. Liberty State Park is also close to Liberty Island and offers staggering views of both Miss Liberty herself as well as the Manhattan skyline and harbor. New Jersey families visit for Liberty Science Center and some open parkland.

So what's a Manhattanite like me doing there? I was primarily attracted to the two-mile Liberty Walk along the Jersey side of the Hudson, one of the completed stretches of the planned walkway that would extend from Bayonne to Bergen or, perhaps, beyond. Knowing that it would be bright and open, and not that remote, I figured it would be a good way to get some exercise somewhere I would probably not have to actually use the pepper spray.

Since I've been exploring the farthest reaches of New York City over the last month and a half, getting there didn't seem too daunting. A fifteen minute walk through Madison Square Park to the 23rd Street PATH station, four stops to Hoboken, switch to the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail station, buy $1.90 ticket while train pulls away without me, validate ticket, read about railyards on historical marker while waiting for next train, light rail arrives and drops me off at Liberty State Park station.

I arrive at Liberty State Park station, but I don't see a park. I see a Park-and-Ride, but no park. I follow signs to Liberty Science Center which is at least near the park, under a bridge, past a couple scientific public art installations, and across another big parking lot to the huge science center. I consider going in, but unlike most museums, the front entrance bears no signage touting their current programs or installations - only a sign warning visitors not to enter the building with any weapons. Remembering my pepper spray, I sniff at the door and head to the map of the park.

I don't see anything but the science center and the parking lot. I cannot see the Statue of Liberty or the Manhattan skyline or boats or water or bike paths or walking trails or anything. There are signs for the Holland Tunnel and the New Jersey Turnpike, and two busy streets. I keep looking up at my surroundings and back at the map, and they're not quite meshing. The star indicating where I am doesn't seem to be where I actually am. The shuttle bus, which runs every 20-40 minutes, is nowhere in sight. Impatient as I am, I set a course to walk down one of the roads towards one end of the Liberty Walk so I can at least see something.

I turn right down Philip Street and walk along the side of the road, weeds scraping my legs, traffic rumbling by making me shake and wince. I pass a police car pound and enter an area that's clearly private land and not state park, as I spot more and more trucks that appear to be making deliveries. Buses pass me and I assume they're the park shuttle bus, meaning I'm going in the right direction, but when I reach an intersection that opens up and gives me a glimpse of the skyline, it appears that I've been walking farther away from the shoreline than towards it. I could keep going, turn left down a truck-lined street, or go into the building I am now facing, put away the pepper spray, swallow my pride, and say...

"I'm lost." The receptionist looks up at me with big eyes.

"Oh, where are you trying to go?" she asks, wondering how I had wandered into the offices of Diversified Global Graphics Group in my light blue t-shirt, yoga pants, and sneakers.

"I just am trying to find...the water. The ferries? Anything like that."

"You want the Statue of Liberty?" Her question seems leading, as though she was really asking, "Are you a tourist?"

After a "yeah, sure, whatever" from me, she then asks if I am driving.

Sigh. "No, I'm walking."

"Oh... Are you alone?"

Sigh. "Yeah, but I'm fine, really." I don't believe myself but she seems to believe me.

She then sent me back to Liberty Science Center and told me to walk, like, behind it and look for the boats. "But it's kind of far..."

I assure her that I had already walked it once, and that I could walk it again. I thank her and exit as quickly as I can, out of embarrassment, out of frustration, and out of determination.

More walking on road shoulder, now a bicyclist or two, no more buses, I get back to Liberty Science Center more quickly than I expect, but upon my return, I still don't see any walking trails or even sidewalks. But I do see the skyline closer than it was before, and I think I spot the tips of some sails so I climb a lush, green hill behind the science center that opens up into, finally, parkland. Some satisfaction.

I spend the next hour or so looking for the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal, the semi-restored train station, and find it by the old ferry slips whose gates are chained shut. Far from being remote, this part of New Jersey is surprisingly close to Manhattan, where the Hudson narrows (thanks to the landfill that created Battery Park and much of Lower Manhattan's west side) before it spills out into Upper New York Bay. Still, the skyline looks surprisingly small. Maybe I've seen it too many times, from too many boat and ferry rides, from too many harbor islands and boroughs. A slight shift across state lines and it just looks...smaller.

ferry slips

I shift my gaze from the ferry slips to the CRRNJ depot, whose restored front lobby now serves as the ferry terminal. Looming in the back, 1860s-era train platforms are rusting, peeling, overgrown and gated. I press my face against chainlink, trying to focus my eyes to the dark abandoned trackage lit only by late afternoon beams of sunlight. Unfortunately, since I wasn't taking the ferry and my pepper spray would most certainly not pass the "airport-style security" measures the signs warned me of, that was as close as I could get. But I could see that the platform numbers are still lit up, announcing service to Point Pleasant and the Monmouth Race Track that has long since ceased.

As the afternoon wears on, my snooping must become more suspicious because I am greeted with "Can I help you?" when I walk up a platform to take a peek into some old train cars that are permanently parked outside the station.

"Oh, am I not allowed up here?" I ask, innocently, rehearsed.

When she tells me I wasn't, I apologize but note that the platform was not closed off and no signage indicated that I wasn't supposed to be there. At this point I've got only a few more minutes of picture-taking and eyeball-straining through chainlink before the shuttle bus arrives anyway.

I hear the cheers of my fellow bus-riders and I see the shuttle banking a curve towards us, marking the end of my day. After all the walking I'd done, I'd resigned myself to shuttling it back to the light rail station, understanding now why the shuttle was so necessary, and wishing that this train depot could take me deeper into Jersey, farther away from the city skyline, whisking me into a different time, some parallel universe where I don't have to be alone and I don't have to worry about being alone.

CRRNJ terminal

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