The Big Walk

The posts below describe The Big Walk – from Grand Central Terminal to Old Lyme, CT – in sequential order.

These posts differ slightly from the ones I wrote each day after walking for six or seven hours. I have cleaned up the typos, added a few interesting details, and cut a bit here and there to make the original posts fit more smoothly into one continuous narrative.

 

Day One (7/26/14)

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Walid, yours truly and Vinny

Vinny, Walid and I had a great day today. We walked from Grand Central Terminal to my home in southern Westchester County – roughly 18 miles by the circuitous route that we followed through midtown, Harlem, the neighborhoods of northwestern Manhattan and the central and northeastern sections of the Bronx.

Everything worked. The weather was perfect – slightly overcast and 80ish. The people we saw on the streets were uniformly either pleasant or uninterested in our presence; none of us ever felt out of place or even remotely threatened. Each of us had only slight physical discomforts from the hours of walking.

After passing through midtown’s office canyons, we followed Fifth Avenue along Central Park – an elegant and happy Saturday morning scene. Entering Harlem, we stopped for a picture at the present Harlem Academy site at 111th Street, made our way westward, then turned north to 144th and St. Nicholas Avenue, where the school’s permanent home will be built; there we posed for another picture. After following St. Nicholas and Broadway north, we turned east and weaved our ways through the vibrant street scenes along 207th Street and, crossing into the Bronx, Fordham Road. The crowds were neither rich nor obviously poor; most were out doing errands.

We turned back south briefly at Arthur Avenue – Vinny’s suggestion – and found an Italian restaurant for lunch. Arthur Avenue is a place out of time: an overwhelmingly Italian-American oasis in a sea of neighborhoods dominated by other, and mixed, ethnicities. It is famous for its food.

After lunch we walked along the road that passes between Fordham University’s campus and a park, to our left, and the Botanical Garden, to our right: all were in full bloom; this stretch of green ended abruptly as we passed under the Bronx River Parkway and re-entered a crowded, noisy stretch of Allerton Avenue leading to the Post Road.

Turning north on the Post Road we found ourselves on the day’s saddest stretch. Used car dealerships, car repair shops and truckers’ motels lend a slight sense of desolation to the area for three or four miles. But even there, there were signs of improvement: a new condo development here, funny little stores there. I got a kick out of one with the name Mom and Pop’s Electronics. For real?

Going from the Bronx into southern Westchester by foot was slightly surreal. We crossed under the Hutchinson River Parkway, and it was like we had passed through an invisible curtain: all of a sudden we were in a quiet, suburban neighborhood not far from my home. Vinny and Walid both commented that as we entered the suburbs, the dull roar of white noise in the city abated abruptly; suddenly, we heard birds and saw children playing on well-kept lawns.

I have to say that although it was pleasant to enter the suburbs, in all the years during which I have lived and worked here, I have never loved New York City as much as I did today. It is a kaleidoscope of colors and sounds, and it seemed a very happy place. Perhaps it was the company of good friends of long standing; perhaps it was the pleasant weather and low-pressure, interesting journey; perhaps it was because we were fortunate in our choice of routes; but today was a day in which nearly everything seemed better than I had expected.

 

Day Two (7/27/14)

Today’s walk was longer, hotter, hillier and harder than yesterday’s.

Vinny, Walid and I left Pelham at eight. The air was warm and humid from an after-dawn sprinkle that seemed to have also dampened our moods. It would remain sticky throughout the day, with temperatures rising to the upper eighties. Unlike yesterday (when I was, after all, effectively on a one-day walk from Grand Central to my home), today I was carrying a backpack with clothing, electronics and sundry items for the remaining five days of the journey. The warmth, humidity and backpack conspired to make the day’s walk considerably less comfortable for me, right from the start.

Yesterday’s effervescent banter was supplanted by quieter and more occasional talk, and contemplation of the day ahead. Each of us was already feeling leftover aches and pains.

Most of the morning was spent following the Post Road northeast through Westchester County. Sunday morning traffic was light even on that normally busy thoroughfare, so the contrast between yesterday’s boisterous city and today’s placid suburbs seemed like a chasm: to a greater degree than would usually be the case, they seemed like different, almost unconnected worlds. In Rye, just after we walked by a mile or so of greenery, a deer casually crossed the road. We hadn’t seen a lot of deer in the city.

We crossed the state line shortly before noon; a couple of miles later (all hills, by the way), we were treated to another remarkable sight. Just outside of downtown Greenwich, over the distance of about a half mile, we saw car dealerships for Maserati, Ferrari, Bugatti, Porsche, Rolls Royce, Bentley, Aston Martin, Mercedes, BMW and Audi.

Vinny left us for good, as planned, in downtown Greenwich. Sorry to see him go, but a solid effort on his part. There aren’t many other school heads who will walk from GCT to Greenwich, even with a couple of friends. Ok, probably none.

Notwithstanding downtown Greenwich’s elegance, the best Walid and I could do for a much-needed midday meal, given that we were quite unwilling to lengthen our journey by venturing off the Post Road, and too grubby for white tablecloth restaurants, turned out to be Starbucks sandwiches, a considerable comedown from Saturday’s delicious Italian repast on Arthur Avenue. We were sore and tired with five miles to go. In fact, Walid’s ankle was in serious pain, getting worse. After Starbucks, we stopped at a running store so he could buy an ankle brace, which helped somewhat.

The last miles of the day were slower, hotter, and less comfortable than we might have liked. Stamford is an abrupt change after Greenwich in every way, but we were paying too much attention to Walid’s ankle and my feet, respectively, to be making sharp observations of our surroundings.

The bloom is off the rose, ok, but we did feel a quiet satisfaction in making it to the hotel. Of course, Walid is now on his way back to Chicago, and I have four days to go. I will miss Walid, he was great company, even while hurting. But I will not be alone tomorrow: my friend Stan is planning on joining me for the walk to Fairfield.

 

Day Three (7/28/14)

Stan joined me at about 7:40 AM, fresh off a train from Manhattan. He had kindly offered to join for what I fully expected to be the least interesting day of The Big Walk – a 22 mile trek from Stamford to Fairfield along the Post Road. I knew that between these points, most of Route 1 is an endless row of malls, car dealerships and outlet stores, interrupted only briefly by three pretty little villages.

Outside of those villages, we weaved awkwardly from one side of the road to the other, trying to find the sidewalks that seemed almost pointless. The sidewalks were not at all pointless to us, you understand – they provided safety – but we were literally the only pedestrians alongside a great river of automotive traffic, so it was hard to see the sidewalks as providing much general utility.

For one long stretch in Norwalk, the only side of the road that had a sidewalk was the south side (the Post Road runs east/west in this area). Perhaps a hundred yards farther to our south as we walked was Route 95 – the East Coast’s great river of commerce, to which the Post Road is a mere tributary. So to our right were six lanes of cars and trucks, to our left four. But on the far side of those four lanes were malls and outlet stores with parking lots the size of small bays or large coves. The impersonality of the whole scene was equaled only by the astonishing level of – mostly – white noise.

Stan and I were unlikely pilgrims along that desolate stretch, but not unhappy ones. We chatted amiably, enjoying the oddball nature of our quest. The weather was much more pleasant today, which surely helped, and neither of us was experiencing much physical discomfort. For the record, though, I will always love Moleskin, which wholly relieved my feet from otherwise incipient blistering.

When we got to the expected end of today’s journey, we took one look at the inn I had booked, and decided that I needed to find alternative lodgings. I am not prissy about where I sleep, and sometimes happily camp in the wild, but the family fighting loudly out front, and the building’s general state of disrepair, seemed to indicate that I could do better. And, at the expense of going off course, lengthening today’s and tomorrow’s trips to 24 miles each, I did.

In fact, the turn that we took off Route 1 to find another inn revealed a neighborhood that was as quiet, neighborly and pretty as the Post Road is the opposite. I felt like we had left an inhumane moonscape, turned a corner, and found ourselves in a small town where Leave it to Beaver might have been filmed. Probably, we had been walking by such neighborhoods all day long, wholly unaware of their presence.

Tomorrow should be most interesting: Bridgeport and New Haven. I expect to be alone through Bridgeport, but might be joined by friends for the entry into New Haven. I am looking forward to both segments.

 

Day Four (7/29/14)

Bridgeport was every bit as interesting a change as I expected.

I left the land of the Haskells behind after a half an hour or so of walking; once again, the transition was as abrupt as my turn onto Route 130, the less busy, more direct route that I had chosen this morning in preference to the Post Road. With the manicured lawns of suburbia behind, I passed through a transitional area of small, locally-owned shops: nail salons, restaurants advertising happy hour specials, inexpensive antique shops, that sort of thing.

After another half hour of walking, I found myself in a solidly African-American neighborhood. Since leaving the Bronx, Hispanic-Americans had been far more in evidence on my journey than African-Americans. This neighborhood was very, very quiet while I passed through at about 9:00 AM. Rows of Victorian homes in various states of repair or disrepair were interspersed with churches, housing developments, addiction services facilities and a masjid. Several roads were named after bishops of local churches.

I didn’t feel at all unsafe – I was greeted by one man roughly my age, wearing a crucifix pendant, and by a woman who, because I was wearing a Harlem Academy shirt, asked whether I had attended HA. Others went about their business paying no attention to the white guy with the backpack. It occurred to me, though, as I passed out of that neighborhood and into the city’s downtown, that I hadn’t seen a white woman in miles and miles.

After leaving the small city center, the chosen route had me walking alongside and under the pylons for the elevated Route 95, Bonfire of the Vanities -style, except for the fact that I was on foot. I’ll admit to having been a little nervous when, in a particularly desolate area, I was gradually approached from afar by a tall young black man, head covered in a hoodie (in eighty-plus degree heat). To my relief, he crossed the street, seemingly to avoid me. Perhaps I was the unknown and unpredictable stranger in that place.

Thereafter, I passed through a long, depressing residential section, with abandoned factories and burned out homes interspersed among the housing projects and other abodes. Here, again, though, most of the inhabited homes showed signs of care – a tiny, freshly cut lawn here, maybe some flowers in the window there.

At length I emerged from terra incognito and rejoined Route 1 in Stratford. It led me to Milford, which briefly looked like the villages closer to New York, until the route reverted to its service road character just outside of town.

For long, long stretches of the Post Road in Milford and Orange, the highway had the same character it had shown while Stan and I walked between the highways yesterday: a great river of automobiles flowing past endless malls and outlet stores. What had seemed novel and almost charming yesterday seemed less so today, though, especially because in Orange the sidewalk disappeared entirely, forcing me to walk in the road, at the extreme edge, facing oncoming traffic. The only upside of this situation was that the two friends who had considered joining me for the afternoon had been unable to come; it would have been impossible to speak with them as I had with Vinny, Walid and Stan.

At length, I entered New Haven, passing through another sadly rundown neighborhood, in the midst of which I saw what at first I thought was another civil war statue, but it, though fabulous, turned out to be of the revolutionary war, so it doesn’t go in the collection of photos that I’ll share when the trek is over. Sitting exhaustedly by the statue was a man of perhaps 60, an African immigrant, judging by his accent. His attire – a suit – recalled better days and higher aspirations. With a voice that told of alcohol, he wished me a good morning in a courtly manner. “Good afternoon,” I responded with a wry smile. “Oh yes, good afternoon,” he sheepishly responded.

From there, it was only a couple of miles to my hotel, for which I was very grateful, as I am a very, very tired (and sore) teddy bear. I had hoped that by now I would be over all that, but I am not, so in that regard I hope tomorrow is more like yesterday than today.

As a final note for the day: one thing I noticed today is that virtually every single man I saw on the sidewalks (excepting only the few who were dashing from cars to stores or vice versa) had facial hair. Having not shaved since Friday, I am beginning to look a little scruffy; perhaps that’s why I seemed to fit right in.

 

Day Five (7/30/14)

I awakened at 4:30 this morning, thinking I might have to abandon. My knees felt like rusty hinges; even walking to the bathroom hurt like hell.

I have felt that pain before, on and after hikes on the Appalachian Trail. After returning from a three day hike in the mountains two years ago, I couldn’t walk without considerable pain for two weeks. That time, I suppressed the knee pain through the aggressive use of Advil while hiking, only to pay for it later; I had not expected to need chemical help while walking on – comparatively – level, and completely smooth, roads.

Generally I eschew pills, so yesterday, as my body started to ache, in about Milford, I made a conscious decision not to stop for Advil. Instead, I reached for an older remedy, two glasses of wine with lunch, which seemed to help at the time. When I awakened in pain this morning I went straight for the Advil, which worked its more specific magic promptly. I will use it again tomorrow; whether I will have post-hike pain similar to the last time I used it, I don’t know. In any event, my knees were fine today.

I left New Haven at 8:00, accompanied by Cait, a friend whose husband Aidan runs another nonprofit that I support – The Connecticut Cycling Advancement Program (http://cyclingadvancement.com/), which is organizing youth cycling in Connecticut. The two of them live in New Haven and had treated a zombie-like me to a fine dinner last night, not that I was in any condition to savor it.

New Haven and East Haven were the last urban and near-urban sections of the trip. Cait and I left the city through a no-mans land alongside Route 95, then traversed a pleasant neighborhood alongside first one side, then the other, of the Quinnipiac River, as we wended our way north by northeast. In East Haven, on the eastern side of the river, the road featured lovely old 19th century homes lining the river.

We turned east again on Foxon Road, and immediately found the surroundings quite different. That road, aka Route 80, begins as a service road on a smaller scale than the Post Road, and takes on a more rural feel than I had previously seen on this trip after a mile or two. The weather was perfect; Cait and I trudged along, chatting happily. At length, turning south on Route 22, we entered a different kind of neighborhood: suburban/residential, but with no sidewalks and a distinctly rural feel.

When we reached the Post Road, Cait took her leave (she had left a car there) and I found a restaurant by the side of the road. The food was good but the service was slow: the wait staff was preoccupied by a luncheon meeting of local Rotarians celebrating somebody’s birthday. You can’t make this stuff up.

Before going any farther I should let you know that I love this part of Connecticut. It has an understated beauty that I find very comfortable, indeed comforting. Even the mighty Post Road is tamed here: what was a raucous, rushing river west of New Haven becomes more of a busy brook to the east. It’s a mere two lane road here, and soon after Cait’s departure it was occasionally bounded on both sides by patches of forest. Where there were no trees, often as not there were homes of truly ancient heritage – this was one of the earliest-settled parts of the country, and many eighteenth and even a few seventeenth century homes remain. We saw one cellar with a plaque on the door announcing that it had housed fugitives later beheaded for having participated in the 1649 regicide of Charles II.

My friend John joined me after lunch for the last ten miles to Madison, and showed me two great civil war statues that I would otherwise have missed. At present, I am a guest at his home; he will also accompany me tomorrow for the final leg of this journey.

So: another great day. Tomorrow, to home, hearth and lady love.

 

Journey’s End (7/31/14)

Once it became clear that Advil could deaden my knee pain and that the weather would remain essentially perfect, I fully expected today to be delightful – as with the the journey’s first day, I would be passing through familiar territory with great companionship.

John and I left his home at 7:00 AM, heading east along the beautiful Madison shoreline. For the first time on the journey, I had put on a slim, gold watch that I customarily wear; it passes for modest in the office, but I had thought it unwise to wear any gold at all in the unfamiliar territory that I had been passing through. I mentioned wearing it to John; he laughed and said that if we were accosted, he would tell the thief’s mother.

The last 18 miles of the journey took us along the north shore of Long Island Sound, between Madison and Old Lyme. We were not often directly on the shore, but we were never far from it: a faint whiff of fresh salty air hung over the shoreline towns the whole way. We had occasional glimpses of the Sound and more frequent sightings of tidal rivers and streams flowing through marshes overflowing with impassible, eight foot high sea grasses. Nature’s beauty was ever-more in evidence.

I know the shoreline towns well from innumerable bicycling expeditions through the area, so today’s walk did not reveal many visual surprises. In spite of my familiarity with the region, though, John was able to show me two civil war memorials that I wouldn’t have found in his absence: a statue in a cemetery in Clinton and an inscribed stone in a cemetery in Old Saybrook.

Beyond reiterating how much I like the shoreline towns east of New Haven, I don’t think there’s much to add about today’s walk. But because today concludes The Big Walk, I thought I would pass along some general observations:

First, an offbeat observation: by far the most common non-commercial signs en route were little ones proclaiming The Episcopal Church Welcomes You, near most town centers. Why does the Episcopal Church (of which, coincidentally, I am a member) advertise, while other denominations do not? (Certain individual churches advertise – generally African-American ones, on billboards – but as best I can tell, other big denominations don’t). In any event, the advertising doesn’t seem to be working: the Episcopal Church has been losing market share/congregants for generations.

My sociological take-always from the Walk were generally in line with what I had expected to find. There are many, many sub-cultures between Grand Central Terminal and Old Lyme, Connecticut. Ours is really quite a small region – it would fit into a tiny corner of Texas – and walkable, as we have seen, but it contains entire worlds that seem to have nothing to do with one another. Turning a corner can transport us from one to another and back again. We are neighbors, but sometimes none too conscious of the fact.

My quest for civil war statues may seem unrelated to the other observations along the way, or to my use of The Big Walk to promote awareness of, and raise funds for, Harlem Academy, but they are all of a piece. If we see ourselves first and foremost as members of separate sub-cultures rather than as Americans, we are in trouble; and where that leads is to division – perhaps violent division.

We may be rich and live in gated communities, or poor and live in rough places, but if America ceases being a place where opportunity beckons all, and hard work, brains and pluck are rewarded, we will have lost one of the truly essential ties that binds us. That is where Harlem Academy comes in: for me, it’s a great example of Americans coming together voluntarily to help other Americans, thereby upholding the vision of freedom and opportunity for all that defines us as one people, not a collection of many peoples in eternal, group-based competition, each with the others.

A final, more personal observation: I loved walking with friends. A seven hour walk, side by side, electronics down, is a chance to converse freely and at great length, unheard-of in our day to day lives. With each of my temporary companions, I emerged with a deeper sense of who they are, what’s on their minds, and how fond I am of them. Even our silences were precious. As time has seemed to move at an ever-faster pace, with all our gadgets, devices and distractions, I am afraid that we have been losing the art of truly personal communication. I rediscovered some of it on this trip, and it was wonderful.

Thank you for your interest, and for your support of HA.

TBW

John and yours truly, Journey’s End.

 

Civil War Memorials Seen on the Big Walk  (8/1/14)

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New Rochelle, NY

 

 

Port Chester, NYw4

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Greenwich, CT

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Guilford, CT

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Madison, CT

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Clinton, CT

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Clinton, CT (Inscription)

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Old Saybrook, CT

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