Circumnavigating Manhattan on Foot

It’s 12:03a.m. and I’m staggering into a yellow cab by Battery Park, shivering despite the warmth of the July night.  Sitting down in the cab is a relief, but when I get up and out again 20 minutes later, I realize the extent of the damage I’ve done to myself.  Resting allowed my body time to bruise.  I can’t quite stand upright.  I can’t take a full stride.  I can manage only an achy, old-man’s shuffle.  My building’s night doorman, Trevor, eyes my approach.  He asks what’s wrong.  I say, “I just walked 32 miles around the Island of Manhattan.”  

Trevor frowns, imagining it—Manhattan, the Island of.  The Big Apple, eaten whole.  He looks at me with an uncertain mix of curiosity, pity, and not a little distaste.  He says: 

 “Why?”

A fine question, asked of me by many people before and after the trek, and asked repeatedly during it by my companions.  My answers vary.

“Why do people climb mountains?” I say. 

“Why,” I say, “did mankind rocket to the moon?”

I could of course answer straightforwardly: this walk is a way to see parts of the city few residents and fewer tourists ever see, and it is a stunt, an endurance challenge miles longer than a marathon but doable without training.  I could answer romantically, too, and say it’s a way to see past the city to the island beneath it, to all the wilderness still there to behold, swimming in the water and sprouting from under concrete edges.   

“I don’t know,” is what I actually say, to Trevor.  “It was a thing to do.”

fishing in battery park. who knew.

fishing in battery park. who knew.

Sixteen hours earlier, it is a thing still to be done, as my fellow walkers and I sleepily gather at the southern tip of the island.  We plan to walk up the West Side and down the East.  You get the most shade this way, and if you’re lucky you might stumble upon an early-morning fisherman with an unusual catch.  We find a man with two sharks freshly caught from the Hudson.  The sharks are alive, each one the length of an arm.  Their teeth are brightly bloody from the fisherman’s hook, and their still-wet tails slap the concrete.  My jaw forms a cliché, hung open in disbelief.  Who knew Manhattan had sharks?  I scan the grey waters of the Upper Bay.  What else is out there, circling the Statue of Liberty?  Whales?  Kraken?  The fisherman doesn’t speak English but Persephone, one of my fellow walkers, interprets from his Mandarin.  “You’re not reporters,” he says, “are you?”

The West Side, all the way up through its northern tip, is lined with beautifully manicured parks and a ribbon of bike- and footpaths to connect them.  We detour into tiny Teardrop Park, the first of many hidden gems we’ll pass today, and I slide down its outsized, 30-foot slide.  I reckon it’s important to get this sort of thing in while I still have the energy to mount steps.  A few miles north, in sight of kayakers paddling the Hudson, I buy an elaborately crunchy ice cream bar.  This walk is sunny and smells of the sea, and makes for a fine excuse to act like a child at the beach.

It’s been ten miles by the time we get to Fairway Supermarket on 132nd Street.  We’ve now walked much of Riverside Park, with its ball courts and dog runs actively used, and its bursts of wildflowers colored a startlingly vivid lavender.  The spring in our steps has faded.  We’d considered trudging up the curving paths and stairs to Grant’s Tomb a few blocks south, but Fairway exerted the stronger and more practical pull: it sits immediately besides and level with the footpath, and it has food, and restrooms.  To boot, while Fairway cannot match the Tomb’s classical, columned grandeur, it may yet qualify as a bona-fide tourist destination for its 10,000-square-foot Cold Room, which is full of meat and seafood and, if it’s a hot day and you need to cool off quickly, you. 

Onwards!  The Hudson River Greenway will lead us up to and past the George Washington Bridge, with the famously red Jeffrey’s Hook Lighthouse at its base.  But along the way, walking the riverbank at the edge of Harlem’s Hamilton Heights, we happen across a handful of Latin food carts.  I know from prior visits I can find a woman here who’ll cleave me a cow’s heart and deep fry it, lightly salt it and platter it—mucky yellow arteries and all—besides yam fries and plantain chips.  The scent of these carts carries that temptation and is difficult to ignore, but we’re loaded with snacks from Fairway and we pass by without a taste.

Over on the East Side we find another Harlem highlight: helados, the flavored ices sold by pushcart vendors.  There’s no continuous greenway on this side of the island, so the walk south frequently passes through the gridded city.  We pass one vendor with a massive block of ice cradled in a supermarket cart, to be shaved by hand and drenched in homemade syrups.  Another serves ices from Delicioso Coco Helado of the Bronx, whose consistencies are not far from those of sorbet.  I get three flavors expertly heaped into a Dixie Cup, the sort a dentist might give you for mouthwash—pineapple and lime and mango.  The first taste is a tart, sugary wonder.  I stand for a moment in awe, imagining that East Village restaurants, 175 blocks south of me, could label such ices artisanal and sell them with indecent markups.  Here, they cost $1.

¡HELADos!

¡HELADos!

But let me rewind this trip a few miles and bring it back to Inwood, the neighborhood at the northern tip of the island, where a critically important question awaits: to brunch, or not to brunch?

Every time you stop to rest it gets harder to start again, but Inwood is the symbolic halfway point of the journey and makes for the day’s best place to rest, take stock, and eat.

The neighborhood is dominated by Inwood Hill Park, whose 200 acres are in turn dominated by old-growth forest, unlogged since the Revolutionary War and left mostly untouched by The Department of Parks & Recreation.  Standing at the Park’s edge and peering down a shadowed path leaves me to wonder: if the bay at the southern tip of the island surprised us with sharks, what might this forest at the northern tip surprise us with?  Wolves?  Bears?

Alas, no—the forest harbors raccoons and woodpeckers, and down in the salt marsh, the last natural marsh on the island, you might find yourself a mollusk.  Nothing to sneeze at, this wilderness hidden in plain sight on the edge of the city, but my companions and I have opted to learn about it secondhand—we’re looking at our smartphones from our seats at the Indian Road Café.

A window seat here affords an expansive view of the Spuyten Duyvil Creek, the confluence of the Hudson and Harlem Rivers which separates Manhattan Island from the Bronx.  The food here, usually excellent, is hit or miss today—the eggs fluffy, the fries charred—but the space is welcoming, oaky and bright, and a piano player plinks out a steady medley of standards (I note a particularly lively version of Dream a Little Dream of Me.)  We’re short on time so we skip dessert, but I do finish off a pint of beer before we go.  As far as decisions go, ordering a beer today of all days was questionable.  I enjoyed it, but it’s not what I’d usually call a good idea.

That sentiment might sum up the entire day, come to think of it.

32 miles.

32 miles.

Outside the Café, we change socks.  Yume, a world-class hiker, had suggested we bring spares, and when we strip off our worn socks and put on the fresh ones, our sighs are low, and satisfied, and almost indecent. 

Refreshed, we walk up to Broadway and 9th Ave, to what is effectively 221st Street and the northern-most intersection on the island.  It’s been 15 miles, and we’re looking past the Broadway Bridge to the mainland, little more than a block’s length away.  We pat ourselves on the back for persevering, raise our arms in triumph, and then lower them as we recall we have 17 miles to go.

“Why are we doing this again?”  No one knows.  The question is asked, not answered.  Before I know it I am relieving myself in sight of Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s official residence.  New York City’s got a lot of things figured out, but restrooms along its perimeter is not one of them.  They were plentiful on the West Side, but here, on the East, they are distressingly scarce.

We’ve walked past rail yards and elevated trains, to get down here; past the Crack Is Wack mural, a well-preserved reminder of the 80s drug epidemic, now a standout spot for a photo op; and we’ve walked through Highbridge Park, home to Swindler Cove, the very definition of a hidden gem with its beautifully framed boat house and its beach—its beach!—teeny and pebbly but inviting, a handful of couples reclining there in the golden light of a late summer afternoon.  We’ve jaywalked a tributary of the Harlem River Drive, where a police officer gave us a look of grave disapproval before driving away, a look that very clearly said, You are going to die crossing this highway, and I refuse to be the officer who fills out that paperwork.  And we walked the ends of the avenues.  I’d never considered the avenues as even having ends, before.  Downtown, they are mighty roadways pressed by ceaseless traffic, and while they might be cut off at Houston Street, they seem otherwise to be never-ending and absolute.  Walking south along the east edge of the island, however, we see the humble truth.  Fifth Ave is a little nub of pavement that disappears into 143rd Street.  Park Ave’s eight lanes trickle down to just a one-way pair, an unpretentious offshoot of another avenue.

The point of which escapes me.  We were talking restrooms, weren’t we?  A tedious subject, but increasingly urgent to us three trekkers.  We descend upon the first one we see, a bit past 90th Street, only to be frustrated with a demoralizing realization—

Public restrooms have all closed for the evening. 

Why do you think I’m peeing in sight of the mayor’s mansion?  It’s not a political statement.  It’s merely desperation.

We walk past Midtown, past the United Nations, past ferry landings.  The sunset flares gold and crimson on the other side of the island, visible through the skyscraper chasms formed between city blocks, but we are too tired to care.  27 miles in, our focus rests heavily, you might even say solely, on our swelling, sausage-fingered feet.  And now disaster strikes—a sausage bursts.

I take a step and feel the mushiest of crunches underfoot, followed by a sharp pain.  Removing my right shoe and sock reveals a blister spanning the bottom dome of my pinky like a murky little ice cap.  Bandaging the toe only makes it worse, adding painful pressure.  I can’t take another step.  This is serious.

I thought I’d come prepared for this walk.  The list of things to bring was an exercise in common sense, though one could argue that planning this walk in the first place is proof one lacks very much of that.  I’d brought sunblock and that blessed change of socks, and a small portable battery for my phone.  I’d brought Band-Aids.  None of these will help me drain a blister. 

Yume offers me a pen, claiming it is “actually very sharp.”  I also have squeaky craft scissors I’d brought for cutting moleskin.  They are 20-years-old and look it, so I opt for the pen, dabbing its tip with hand sanitizer brought by Persephone.  This will have to pass for sterilization as far as this exercise in impromptu street podiatry goes. 

Stabbing a pen at my toe succeeds only in bruising it further, so I turn reluctantly to the craft scissors.  Stabbing these at my toe similarly fails to help.  With people on the waterfront slowing around us and curious, I turn to my last resort: I bring my toe to my teeth, and take a precision bite.

Blister drained and bandaged, shoe back on, I take a ginger step and—

Oh, the pain!  The agony!

“You guys,” I say, disbelief dawning over my voice, “I don’t think I can make it.”

Can this be happening, I wonder?  Can I really have walked all this way only to be forced, by my humble anatomy, to quit?  Whatever this day is or is to become, stopping now will render it void.  It’ll be like I’d never even started!  Envy and bitterness flare inside me at the thought that Yume and Persephone might finish this walk while I sit at home, alone, suffering meaningless foot pain.

I limp to the curb of Avenue C in a daze, and I hold out a hand to hail a cab.  But then I hesitate.  There are times when it is wise to quit, and this may well be one of them, but who said I’m wise?  I’m here, aren’t I?  A cab slows, but I wave it away.  “We’re going to do this right,” I declare, and start limping down the Avenue.  Pain or no pain, I refuse to yield to my pinky toe.  I am a man, goddamnit.  It is a toe.  I will not be dictated to by a toe.

The question why is asked more and more frequently now—“why are we doing this!?”—but we still have no answers to give.  We have only progress to make.  We mollify our suffering with a hasty purchase of Fig Newtons.

my toe's woes (illustration Not precisely accurate)

my toe's woes
(illustration Not precisely accurate)

If it were light out, we’d walk down East River Park, then take the footpath to the Financial District and back to Battery Park.  It’s well after sunset, however, so we stick to the streets.  I remember Chinatown in flashes, as if I walked it in a fever.  Closet-sized market stalls on East Broadway, and a salon whose stylishly coiffed young workers are gathered round a table, maybe sipping green tea and smiling, maybe counting tips.  It’s difficult to slow down and notice details now that we’re so close to the end.  What had started out as a journey of sights and discovery, of slides and ice pops, has long since degenerated into a grisly farce, a thoughtless endurance challenge.  Returning to the waterside, we round the island’s southern tip in silence, then re-enter Battery Park in a shamble, dilapidated ships hauled into port by the tugboats of our resolve.  

Naturally I suggest a nightcap: The Dead Rabbit is only a minute’s walk away, and I know its downstairs to be a congenial pub, while its upstairs is amongst the finest cocktail lounges in the city.  A peek upstairs and we’ll know our day is done: $14 cocktails will mean we’ve returned to Manhattan, leaving Manhattan Island all around us and yet somehow far, far behind.

Yume and Persephone look at me like I’ve lost my mind.  And maybe I have—walking 32 miles makes me feel a little tipsy even without that drink.  We’re resting on the broad steps of the Museum of the American Indian, whose Beaux-Arts columns are topped with the face of Mercury, the Roman god of travelers.  If only we’d had his winged sandals!  The question is raised again—the question: why—but its undercurrent has changed.  Tiredness and irritation have given way to pride.  There’s a sense of accomplishment between us, and it swells along with our feet even as it is confused by this question we cannot seem to answer.  It is as if our achiness is itself the answer, or at the very least is some kind of proof.  Proof of something accomplished.  Proof which we cannot explain, but which we can very definitely feel.

We linger on the steps a while, enumerating our pains and saying our goodbyes, and it occurs to me there may not be a good answer to the question why, or in any case no answer easily articulated in words.  But I reckon everyone will feel an answer, and will know it when they do.  And if you read the words “circumnavigating Manhattan on foot” and think, Yes!, then you are probably like me, like my companions: you are probably the right kind—the finest kind—of idiot adventurer, and you too will someday walk this walk, and you too will feel the answer why.

overgrown