Poles? Check. Pack? Check. IPA? Check. Metrocard? Checking for this item was something new.
For some context, my year and a half of country living is being interrupted by this year of teaching back in the city. I plan on making the move full-time upstate this summer, but my intuition told me to go back to the city for one more year.
I don’t know how to express to people how hard this is. Being upstate was so transformative. In the city you always have to be on guard. If you appear weak, whether it’s walking down the street or standing in front of a classroom, then you’re a target. It’s constant vigilance and anticipation.
When you meditate, you practice stillness and silence. You silence the internal voice inside your head that comments on EVERYTHING, the worry thoughts about the future, the anxiety. You take deep breaths that slow your heart rate and calm your racing mind. And when your thoughts subside and your heart rate slows, you find a state of being that feels open and “receiving,” for lack of a better word. I’ve found that the more you access this state, the more you feel synchronicity, purpose, and happiness in life.
Well, the city doesn’t allow for that state of being very easily or deeply, but the country does. It’s hard to silence your inner thinking when you have to be on high alert. So aside from missing the daily skiing and hiking, I also miss this state of being with ease, the sense that I’m in tune with something greater than earthly concerns, and the feeling that I’m being guided toward a new mission in life. This is probably the best that I’m able to express why my grief is so profound right now. It’s like losing access to your higher self.
To top this off, my colleagues have been making comments to the effect of, “Back to the real world. Your days of beer and skiing are over.” I know they’re teasing, but it’s definitely hitting a nerve. However, it’s only making me more determined to live as similarly to my country lifestyle as possible.
This week, a perfect synchronicity happened: my girlfriend decided we should start section hiking the Long Path Trail, Harvey asked me to write about an adventure, and my colleagues’ comments galvanized me to get out there and hike.
Section 1 of the Long Path starts on 175th street in Manhattan and ends at the Lamont-Doherty Observatory in Palisades, New York, with a distance of about 14 miles. It was so novel to me to get dressed up in my hiking gear for a hike that legitimately starts in NYC. What a clashing of two worlds that serves as a perfect metaphor for my life at the moment. It made me wonder if this hike would give me insight into how well I could navigate the longing for nature, stillness, and solitude while in the midst of concrete, crowds, and constant motion.
The subway ride had me excited at the prospect of finding balance. There are some perks to this. If you forget your snacks, you can always purchase Famous Amos cookies and Welch’s Fruit Snacks from a kid on the train who “ain’t out here selling these candies for no basketball team” but trying to “keep off the streets.”
We got off at 175th and Deborah was really excited to take pictures in front of the subway sign. I knew I already looked peculiar with my poles and IPA in the holster of my pack. Deborah saw the reluctance and said, “You’re afraid of looking like a tourist, aren’t you?” Bingo! But I took the pictures anyway.
The hike proceeded to the pedestrian walkway of the George Washington Bridge as the sun set over the Hudson River. It was very pretty, and prior to last year, I think I would’ve been more impressed by the beauty. But it pales in comparison to sunsets from my beloved Catskills mountaintops. The walkway is heavily trafficked with cyclists so you have to be aware of where you are walking, lest you get run over. Also, you have cars and trucks zooming past, which makes it hard to achieve that zen I’m used to while hiking. However, I couldn’t have imagined timing the walk over the bridge better. We really did see the glory of sunset in NYC.
After the bridge we followed the signs for the Long Path detour. It took us past some restaurants and into a park via the Carpenter’s Trail. Much of section 1 goes along the Palisades Parkway and travels through parks and parking areas. It is a flat 14.1 mile walk, but it’s hard to feel like you’re hiking. You don’t feel solitude and absorbed in nature because there’s a constant whizzing of cars going past you. Furthermore, you have to be wary at all times.
I truly felt we could get assaulted at some point, as the trail is concealed enough to provide good cover for illicit activities, but close enough to civilization to be accessible. I could imagine our dads lecturing us if they knew what we were doing. They would be right to do so too. There’s no getting lost in your thoughts, only hoping you don’t bump into anyone who will give you trouble. We passed at least one gentleman who said something creepy and then kept going.
There were a lot of roots and rocks, and some good views of the city and Yonkers on our right. I was tired from work so, eventually, my mindset shifted from inspired to “I just want this over with.” I turned kind of quiet and cranky (poor Deb), so I just focused on not tripping and walking as fast as I could.
There were moments where we had to figure out where the trail continued. It can be a bit frustrating in the dark when you’re itching to finish, but we figured it out. When we finally reached the Observatory and got picked up by Deborah’s brother at around 1 am, I was cold and exhausted. All I wanted to do was get into bed.
Despite this, I was really glad that we started the Long Path. Deb has a calling to do this and it felt productive to start something on her bucket list. It also felt empowering to be able to say I hiked after work during the week, like I had become accustomed to last year. But, it’s just not the same experience. If anything, I think this hike emphasized the inability to mix the two worlds in a way that feels satisfactory and authentic. It’s like eating an apple when you crave a chocolate cake. Granted, apples are delicious, but when you have the craving for something else, it’s only a reminder that nothing will truly satisfy you except the thing you desire.
I guess just like the Long Path meanders its way from NYC to Albany, I’m literally and figuratively going to be working my way up and back to where my heart is in the Catskill mountains. I know this grief is necessary right now. Sometimes you need to be really uncomfortable in life in order to find the motivation to change.
Julie McGuire is a high school English teacher who revels in exploring the Catskills and the world on skis and on foot.