(Title with all respect to Fats Domino.)
When I was thirty years younger and, let’s say for the sake of argument, thirty pounds lighter, my feet were my second favorite part of my body. I loved to walk. Whenever possible while traveling, I chose the solitude of travel by foot. It seemed like the most relaxed way to get acquainted with a locale – its people, its architecture, its atmosphere. I put imitation leather to pavement everywhere from Amsterdam to Albuquerque. One day in San Francisco, I walked from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Castro and back, with side trips included and loved every minute. The next morning, my feet were swollen as big as my fat head, and while I elevated my feet and curled up in the hotel bed with a book, I learned a lesson about pacing oneself.
Unfortunately, I married a woman with bad feet who always has a bad reaction like that to extended time on her feet. Our travel plans take her limitation into account. As a result, I do much less walking today.
I still enjoy the theory of walking, and my eyes will always wander to a book about walking tours. When I hear about someone walking from one end of the United States to the other, I go into a reverie, or as much of one as I can with my right hand clutching a longneck and my left jammed into a bag of Doritos.
My favorite book is Bill Bryson’s laugh-out-loud hilarious A Walk in the Woods, about his own misbegotten middle-aged attempt to walk the entire 2,174-miles of the Appalachian Trail:
Nearly everyone I talked to had some gruesome story involving a guileless acquaintance who had gone off hiking the trail with high hopes and new boots and come stumbling back two days later with a bobcat attached to his head or dripping blood from an armless sleeve and whispering in a hoarse voice, “Bear!” before sinking into a troubled unconsciousness.
I’m proud to say I’ve walked part of the Appalachian Trail. And by “part of,” I mean “one mile.” Or two miles, technically, since it was round-trip.
The Trail crosses a highway about 45 minutes north of my home. One day several summers back, I drove my air-conditioned car to the barely marked entrance, walked for about 30-45 minutes and then, 1,500 miles before reaching Georgia, turned around and returned to my air-conditioned car. I was what Bryson dubbed a “Reebok hiker.”
Bears were not a threat, though the steep hill on the left of the Trail made me realize that if I were attacked by a bear, it would be months before they’d find my body. Instead, my problem was that my perspiration was to the local bugs what the Good Humor truck bell was to little children.
Once I was on the Trail, however, I was amazed at how quickly I forgot that I was only steps from a four-lane highway. I only encountered one other person. The only sounds were the occasional bird flying overhead, and the occasional breeze rustling the leaves. (Oh, and the skeeters.) The tall trees towering over my head had been there for centuries, and would probably be there for centuries after I’m gone. The dirt, grass and rocks under my feet had been trod upon by Native Americans before Columbus traded chicken pox and typhus for wampum. It made me appreciate my own insignificance in the natural world. I began to understand why rural people tend to be more God-fearing.
Lately, I’ve begun walking more out of necessity. With my daughter using my car to work the 7:00 a.m. shift at her café and my wife no longer able to telecommute, I’ve spent many days without transportation except my own hooves. Walking to the bank, pharmacy, supermarket and coffeehouse has reawakened my love of walking.
This past Friday, it was a perfect day in New York – sunny, cloudless sky, temperature around 60 – and I decided to knock an item off my bucket list by walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge played an important role in evacuating Manhattan during the 9/11 attacks and many used it to get home during the blackouts. Its suspension is iconic, and being a lifetime resident of the New York area, I knew that the Bridge provided picture-perfect views of the Manhattan skyline. I don’t know why I’ve never done it before – wait, I do know why, it’s because I never had a reason to go to Brooklyn.
I decided to make a day of it. I rarely go into New York City anymore, and when I do, it’s a culture shock – incessant noise, mobs of people; it’s like bringing up all of your bookmarked websites at once, as well as many you avoid.
In the morning, I walked to the train station, about a 20-minute hike, and sat on the platform’s one bench, reading my Kindle. (By coincidence, I was reading a book of essays on the New York Yankees, not realizing that I was going to be sharing the train with dozens of fans headed to the Stadium for the home opener.) I felt a cool breeze off the Hudson River, and waited peacefully for the Manhattan-bound train that would arrive in thirty minutes.
Or, it was peaceful until I heard his voice, shouting business instructions and comments into his cell phone as he approached. Sure enough, the yutz plopped his ass down right next to me, continuing to jabber as I tried in vain to ignore him and continue reading. Finally, I got up and walked down to the other end of the platform; better to stand and read in peace than to sit and endure any more blather about “parameter restraints.”
I took the 2 train to Clark Street, the first station in Brooklyn and the closest to the Bridge pedestrian pathway. However, I wasn’t headed for the pathway; first, I wanted to explore the area called DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass). I walked to the park between the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge.
I wanted to grab a slice of pizza at Grimaldi’s, but the line looked to be half a block. Instead I made my foodie daughter envious by stopping at Jacques Torres Chocolate, where I prepared for my hike by downing a cup of hot chocolate and a chocolate chip cookie as large as a Frisbee.
Finally, I ascended the stairway to the bridge’s pedestrian pathway. It turned out that, purely as exercise, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge is nothing to speak of. Even allowing for picture-taking stops, it took less than thirty minutes for me to haul my lard ass from one borough to the other, meaning almost anyone ambulatory should have no trouble.
The view, however, is wonderful and the atmosphere collegial. The cars rumble by below you, while you share the path with joggers and cyclists. Half the walkers looked intent on getting from Point A to Point B, while the rest were, like me, just looking to enjoy themselves. As I descended the ramp to the Manhattan side, right near City Hall, I wondered how many New York City mayors had ever taken that stroll. (According to Wikipedia, Koch and Bloomberg did, during transit strikes.)
Returning home, I remembered that I have always wanted to walk part of the Croton Aqueduct, which passes near my home. Come to think of it, I’ve never toured Harlem. Nor have I eaten a pastrami on rye at Katz’s Deli or visited Louis Armstrong’s old home in Queens or patronized Coney Island. Looks like I’ll be busy this summer.