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August 2000

New York’s Long Path: Winning The Rat Race

Even when you're trapped in the nation's most crowded metropolis, backwoods relief is only a short hike down a Long Path.

Summer in the city, and I’d scream for an hour if it didn’t mean filling my lungs with a potentially fatal dose of smog. A thick, brown blanket of ozone hangs in the 95°F heat, replenished continuously by smoke-belching trucks whose rumble and clatter lay down the percussion for a street symphony of honking horns, howling cabbies, and too many radios blaring hip-hop anthems of death and destruction.

The cacophony outside is rivaled only by the noise upstairs, where a chorus of complaints jackhammers through my skull: “Jon, that deadline is tomorrow.” “You better call so-and-so, he’s peeved about such-and-such.” “Daddy, daddy, the VCR ate my Scooby tape!” “Hey motherf***er, you drive like a Sunday School teacher!”

Life in the big city, with its speed and stress and sensory overload, is making me nuts. I know this because I’ve been dreaming in Windows 98 again.

Over on Wall Street, my buddy James is trapped behind a five-screen bank of blinking, buzzing computers, brokering $80 million deals from the 33rd floor of a hermetically sealed skyscraper, his wallet and waist growing fatter with every 75-hour week. He’s my best friend and longtime hiking partner, but lately we’ve been too busy to get on the trail together. Like most folks with families and full-time jobs, we teeter along on the brink of internal combustion, inelegantly balancing work tasks and home-front responsibilities. Then come the dog days of summer, and the rat race threatens to squeeze the very life out of us. We need to get out of the city, and fast.

Our first thought is to fly west, to find solace high in the Rockies or paddle a wild river in Canada. Any self-respecting wilderness lover who lives near a city, whether it’s Chicago or Louisville or Boise, continually feels this urge. But hopping a plane isn’t always the easiest or cheapest proposition, so we decide to stay local and hike trails near New York. If we can manage to find decent backcountry near the Big Apple, there’s hope for everyone.

Our escape route is the Long Path, a 329-mile trail that runs from the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge (GWB) north along the Palisades escarpment into the heart of southern New York’s remaining wilderness-Harriman State Park, the Shawangunk Mountains, and Catskill Park-before terminating a few dozen miles short of the Adirondack Mountains.

Conceived in the 1930s as an unmarked “trail-less trail” for map and compass-wielding bushwhackers, the Long Path these days isn’t the wildest backcountry route around. Southern sections snake through Big Apple bedroom communities, long stretches follow road that skirts private landholdings, and upstate portions meander across semicultivated rural landscapes.

Even so, the trail still offers some of the best backpacking in the Northeast, as anyone who’s completed the high peaks traverse of Catskill giants Slide, Wittenberg, and Cornell can attest. This rugged hike is just one of several weekend to weeklong outings nearby where you can still get lost, literally and figuratively, where the mesmerizing sights and smells of a birch forest on a blue autumn day can divert your attention from the trail and any work worries that try to encroach. (See page 74 for a description of this hike and other recommended Long Path hikes.) The Long Path is also plenty wild enough to soothe our nature-starved souls, from the first trickle of water over mossy rock to the claw marks I’ll spot on a shelter in the Catskills.

First, though, we must negotiate the mean streets between James’s apartment in Greenwich Village and 181st Street in the Bronx, where we’ll step onto the GWB and begin our walk across the Hudson River.

Armed with a dozen Krispy Kremes and two subway tokens, James and I shoulder our packs for the short hike down Broadway to an uptown station. We pass a few scraggly, soot-splattered trees, hurdle oil-slicked puddles, and chuckle as a pigeon smart-bombs a high-heeled businesswoman slowly navigating a gridlocked intersection. We watch one of New York’s finest roust a wino from the doorway of a granite high-rise that shades a full block of man-made canyon.

On the subway platform, an albino rat the size of a Chihuahua devours a half-eaten ice cream sandwich and its wrapper before scurrying down the tracks at the train’s screeching approach. Having served 2 years hard time in the Big Apple, I’m unmoved by such scenes. Ditto for James. But the “wildlife” sighting sparks a game of “scariest subway tales” that entertains us all the way to 125th Street, where in classic New York fashion we switch to “grossest subway barf stories.”

The Bronx proves uneventful, and halfway across the GWB, we feel for the first time in days a breeze that doesn’t carry tangible airborne particulates. As we sit to snack on crullers, a peregrine falcon returns to its roost on a steel girder high above us. James encourages me to use the spectacle as a metaphor for our transition from city to forest, from machine to garden. I promise I will.

We start moving again as the sun begins to bake us, marching fast to work off doughnut calories and reach the cool shelter of the forest. We reach the end of the bridge, pick out the Long Path’s distinctive canary blue blazes, and soon we’re in the kind of quiet, green world we’ve shared often over the years. Clambering over the first blowdown, dropping down an eroded drainage, we feel the kinks loosen in our lethargic, office-atrophied muscles. Here and there, untamed vegetation girdles the trail, eager to erase the brown scar we follow north.

Over that long weekend on the Long Path (and during many subsequent outings), James and I find what we seek: scenery, fresh air, stars, harmony. Stretching our legs on rocky trails, feeling a pack’s weight settle on our hips, coaxing a flame from a balky stove to prepare a feast of mac ‘n’ cheese-these things help us recover a rhythm more attuned to sunrise and sunset, more concerned with uphill and downhill.

We feel our lives coming back into balance as we ramble through the open forests of the southern Catskills and clamber over Harriman’s granite ledges. Each section of trail holds delights not described in any guidebook. The spectacular Shawangunk ridgeline, with its panoramic views of the Hudson Valley, awakens eyes unaccustomed to looking up and out across wide expanses. But we’re just as taken with low-lying blueberry bushes that yield a fine late-summer crop.

While crossing the rugged 4-mile, 8,000-foot elevation exercise where the Long Path climbs Sugarloaf and Twin Mountains in the northern Catskills, I hear fragments of a familiar tune drifting down from above. James is singing softly as he scrambles ahead of me, the words an indecipherable mumble, but I smile because I know he’s happy. This is a guy who plays five instruments, but rarely even whistles or hums, much less breaks into song.

“‘Woodstock,'” he says as we catch our breath after scrambling up a steep, narrow crack. “Which is funny, because I always laughed at the lyrics. There’s this hippie, pothead, peace-love-and-understanding thing going on that sounds so naive…

I came upon a child of God…

I asked him where are you going, this he told me…

I’ll camp out on the land…

set my soul free…

We are star dust, we are golden and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

“But when you’re in the woods on a day like this, it suddenly seems so simple, so true. You know that summer is never gonna end and you feel like you could just keep on hiking from here to Timbuktu. The beauty is that it doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.” He shrugs, then chuckles, “I bet Joni did some hiking in her time,” referring to the song’s composer.

By late afternoon, our legs are spent and we’re running low on water. Then a momma and baby porcupine shamble around the corner. They chatter at us like frumpy old maids, nibble some leaves, then scurry away, their bumbling gait rejuvenating us for the last miles to camp. That night, I sleep more soundly than I have in months, despite a bed that’s lumpier than the pancake batter I mix up for breakfast.

The Long Path ultimately takes us far away from the belligerent din of city life, but something happens on the way to that bucolic backcountry experience where all worries fall by the wayside. We relax, breathe deeply, and feel the knots loosen in our shoulders, but the city still creeps out from our subconscious at odd moments, thoughts of projects and deadlines surfacing like flashbacks to a war or bad trip we’ll never completely escape.

My favorite section of the Long Path is the 20-mile ridge-walk from Kaaterskill Cove to Windham High Peak in the northern Catskills. Here, the trail tiptoes along the majestic Catskill Escarpment, a 2,000-foot wall with pastoral views made famous by Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, and other artists of the Hudson River School. If you squint just right, the landscapes they painted a century ago look remarkably unchanged, give or take a little asphalt.

Late in the summer, on a return trip, we climb above the humidity to hike this mostly deserted stretch of trail, pausing to watch heat-addled mosquitoes dance drunkenly in curtains of light or to step around elaborate spiderwebs spanning the trail. The soft crunch of dry twigs and last fall’s leaves mingles with the rustle of drought-parched grass and the chirp and chatter of birds and squirrels already hoarding food against winter.

At North Lake, we dip our toes, then legs, and finally whole bodies in water so sharp and cold our brains freeze like we’ve eaten too much ice cream too fast. Soon we’re splashing and diving in the murky green water, laughing like carefree Cub Scouts all over again. Then we’re kids back home in Ohio, gulping hard before shoving a small hand under a crawdad rock, not knowing if something down there with teeth or claws might nip at a finger or toe or worse-the hint of unknown danger making us alert and excited.

Bottles filled and bodies dried in the sun, James and I continue north, ascending over gentle ledges past Artist Rock, Sunset Rock, Newman Ledge, and North Point, all with sweeping vistas of the Hudson River Valley, forest and farmland in the foreground, the Taconics of western Massachusetts just visible on the horizon. Already our legs are caked with trail dust and our shirts soaked with sweat, but the swim has washed away that part of us that worries about dirt and grime and our own foul fragrances.

Once atop the Escarpment, the Long Path winds through forests of red spruce, white pine, pitch pine, balsam, and hemlock, alternating between dense, tunnel-like copses and airy glades. Between North Point and Windham High Peak, it dips sharply into several notches where side trails lead to springs or distant trailheads, but mostly the path stays high, climbing to 3,940 feet on Blackhead Mountain.

We shrug off our packs near the summit of Blackhead, silent, tasting the intense sweet flavor of spruce and the clear blue quiet of a cloudless summer day. It’s been hours since we’ve seen another hiker, a rarity on the East Coast. Savoring a moment of perfect peace, we step away from the world below, released from real time into a dreamy parallel universe where family obligations and job stress don’t exist, where the rattle and hum of modern life don’t cloud the senses or reduce human experience to a punch-the-clock routine of eat-work-sleep-repeat. This is what we came for: great views, vigorous exercise, and above all, a few moments of serenity in places of overpowering beauty.

Minutes or hours later-we’re not sure-a red-shouldered hawk rises on a thermal up the great wall, trailed by sounds from the valley below. Our trance is broken by the distant guttural bark of a downshifting 18-wheeler and the wail of a large dog. An almost imperceptible shift in odors reminds us that you’re never far from landfill in the Lower 48.

Our eyes scan east toward the thruway and we soon spot car roofs glinting through the lowland haze. Unbidden, our brains race south with the traffic and remember deals and deadlines and neglected household tasks. I’m suddenly in two places at once: in the country, sprawled on a bed of needles, and back in town, counting unread e-mails and wondering if my landlord has noticed that I haven’t mowed the lawn in 3 weeks.

A sentimental part of me would like to think I could check my workaday worries at the trailhead. But I’ve learned that you can’t completely shut down the daily grind. Our escape from New York is briefer than these days we spend in the Catskills, and briefer than any of the dozen weekends we spend exploring more than half of the Long Path’s 329 miles. Still, the backcountry has a salutary effect that lasts longer than many marriages, and after our hike we plunge back into life with new energy and inner calm.

Weeks and months later we return in desk-bound daydreams to the Long Path’s open ridges and green corridors, and especially to those redemptive scenes of simple beauty, those blissful moments when the scent of spruce elbowed aside all worries and plugged us into a wilderness current. These moments may be small, but if they’re available so close to New York City, they can’t be too far from any place you or I will ever live. So go find your own long path back to the garden, one that will deliver a few moments this good. When you do, you’ll have made a successful escape.

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