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Pandora’s box. Imagine a giant hand flipping the city upside down and shaking hard. These are the strange images that might fall off at random.
Pandora’s box. Imagine a giant hand flipping the city upside down and shaking hard. These are the strange images that might fall off at random.
In a daring attempt to tear New England and the Canadian Atlantic Provinces off from the bulk of our North American continent, the Hudson River is born in the New York Harbor at the bottom of Long Island and immediately leaves New Jersey behind, slicing her way due north through a self-named valley and into the Adirondack mountains, in a mad dash towards the Champlain Lake and Saint Lawrence River.
It will not succeed any time soon. Our continent spent millions of years face-lifting itself and is not yet willing to let go of its beautiful Eastern Seaboard.
For those of you thinking I’ve got it all wrong – it’s the other way around, the river is born far to the north and descends into NYC - you’re right. And yet it is almost impossible to think of a river such as the Hudson not originating in New York City, center of the universe and source of All Things Great, as everyone knows it here. It’s as though the river flowed upwards in search of her own roots, and this actually isn’t so far-fetched because she remains tidal far inland, seemingly indecisive and flowing back and forth in a nautical yo-yo.
There is an English train that runs between,
Grand Central here and Poughkeepsie-ville,
And at the dead of night the whistle blows,
And people hear she’s running still.
That train isn’t filled with Chris de Burgh’s souls of the dead but with the very much alive commuters who live along the eastern bank of the Hudson Valley. Them, and hikers. Because you see, a mere hour away from the bustling Big Apple lie beautiful trails that crisscross their way up small mountains in a park called Hudson Highlands.
And while Amtrak’s train to Montreal cruises right along on the way to Canada, the park had until now managed to stay under my radar. So last week, following a lead from our good friends Deb and Jim, I rode the subway to Grand Central, barely caught my Metro North train as the doors were closing – I had lingered a few minutes too long in the station buying flan pâtissier and a coffee – and headed off the Manhattan island along with a mixed crowd.
For a backpack, I had my photo bag and all lenses. For trail food, two slices of flan. A bottle of water. My phone with a topo map. A flash light – one never knows. Sharp blades. The Asus tablet for turning the train into an office. Curiosity cranked to the max.
I hopped off the train in Cold Spring, some 80 kilometers from home as the crow flies. Many hikers were also getting off there, most glancing around them with hesitant looks. It would seem the area had been off their radar too. Bear Mountain rose to the west, very close across the narrowed down Hudson.
To the northeast, just above town, was a bulky forested shape, its left flank showing the scar of an old quarry, not unlike the gaping wound left into the flank of a fish by a shark bite. The summit is called Bull Mountain and tops the surrounding ridges at 1400 feet above sea level. That’s where I was headed.
I walked off the open-air station into the small town, found a tiny tourist office and inquired about a trail map. A pleasant older lady gave me directions through a few blocks of city streets, down a quarter of a mile of road 9D and into a small parking lot where I was told I would find a wooden box containing maps.
As I approached the box, a healthy looking Asian lady in serious hiking apparel (including two telescopic poles) waved at me and said with a strong accent: “You’ hiker?” Unsure of the importance of my reply, I opted for a neutral answer: “Not yet here.” She seemed to read between the lines and signaled me to come closer. “You know the trails?” she asked again. “No,” I said, “I was going to grab a map.”
“Take this,” she ordered handing me a ziplock bag with a few maps, “I just found here behind this rock.” “But the box,” I hesitated.
I opened said box expecting it to be empty, but it was filled with what appeared to be black and white copies of a very simple hand-drawn map folded in three. “No,” she replied categorically, “that’ shit.”
She bossily made me unfold the content of her ziplock. Inside was a very nice color topographic map set. I took out two maps, unfolded them. “Not this one,” she said twice as I was showing her the maps. There were three sections covering the entire park and as it turns out, the important one was missing. Whoever had lost these had kept the key document. “You no worry,” said the lady reassuringly. “You stay on white trail, and look ahead far for markers so no lose path.” I thanked her and was on my way.
I had indeed planned on following the white trail to the summit, as per web reviews. Trails were well marked with the usual color plastic discs. White initially climbed in a “Z” fashion under a thick tree canopy which for some odd reason reminded me of the approach hike to the Lions in BC. Eventually I emerged into the quarry bowl and was met by an annoyed man who walked up to me and asked: “Do you know where the white is? I’ve been going in circles in here for a half-hour and can’t seem to find my way up.” I did not know and didn’t yet care as I was setting up for a few pictures of the sunny but contrast-y amphitheater, so he launched back into his quest and disappeared.
When the time came to follow him, I found a narrow path that climbed clockwise around the upper rim and steepened greatly. The white markers were still present so I pushed up. Silence and calm were nearly perfect, only broken by the long blow of train whistles far down below. The air was a bit chilly but not cold enough for me to keep a jacket on while climbing, and having made the mistake of wearing a cotton t-shirt I ended up with a soaked back that forced me to dress and undress repeatedly, as I chilled and warmed up. This would cost me a cold the following week.
It was early October and timid colors had not begun their Fall symphony. The woods were still rather green and lush, and mushrooms few and apart. My trail climbed steadily above the quarry and further followed the ridge upward, rarely venturing far into the forest. After maybe an hour and a half, having wasted much time in the wild looking for ‘shrooms, I discovered a nice rocky clearing with a view south and switched to a wide-angle lens for panoramic shots.
Soon thereafter, I arrived at what appeared to be a sub-summit outcropping. I walked out of the trees carelessly onto another patch of rocks, only to realize it was already occupied.
Freezing, I reached for the camera around my neck. A nice size turkey vulture was sitting there and did not seem keen on giving his spot away. The 22 mm focal length of my lens turned the poor bird into a mere crow on the LCD, so I very slowly dropped my backpack and switched lenses with the dampened moves of a chameleon, the bird of prey watching nervously from 20 or 30 feet away. The next shots were better. Finally, as I stepped a bit too close, he stretched, opened his wings once, took a long last look at me and called it a day. He had an impressive wing span and quickly drifted around the ridge.
I sat down and ate my flan, enjoying a late afternoon sun and windless quadrant, then walked up the rest of the way to the top of my immediate world…
[This is part 1 of a story which then falls]
It doesn’t always look like that.
At times I know immediately what the goal is and my shutter follows mind and vision. But once in a while, however, I wander aimlessly and if my right index keeps shooting, I can’t say that it is upon a direct order from the brain.
It’s as though I’ve slipped into a vague parallel universe, one where all sights become blurry, fuzzy at best and uncertain. I can no longer trace my steps back to any starting point and lose the valuable ability to see beyond a moment’s event horizon. I am just there, staring around me, trying to understand the chaos, to make sense of other people’s apparent purpose and to catch in static old structures a glimpse of stability.
This was Midtown: Grand Central, Bryant Park, Times Square. I don’t really remember taking all these pictures. They made no sense to me when I looked at them on the camera’s LCD.
Only a few days later, when Lightroom and Photoshop came into play and began extricating data from RAW files, did I realize what the mood had been, and the camera done. I had been spaced out, a little confused, refusing to blend in. So I saw conflict, contrast and confusion. It happens.
Here are the pictures, in no particular order. If they are oppressive, feel free to check your temperature. You might be unknowingly healthy.
A few Sundays ago, Marie and I ventured into the molasses-thick crowds of the 2012 Atlantic Antic. Living a few blocks away, a walk to the event isn’t a very big commitment and we are always attracted by the perspective of interesting food. And often disappointed.
La Mancha having closed, an opportunistic French restaurant has taken its place and was also offering grilled sardines, but with less brio, the poor fish being cooked wrong and not very well scaled.
We worked our way down slowly for two blocks and then pulled a Smith, which means that rather than backtrack through the crowds, we exited sideways on Smith St. and went shopping for dinner.
Running was a late discovery. I only embraced it fully in 2005 at age 41. Up until that point, I had managed sporadic endurance attempts in my mid and late thirties, but never went very far, literally.
So when jogging eventually turned into a pleasant routine, I settled for a bi-weekly 10 km distance which proved the most rewarding psychologically, fitted a rather busy schedule and would always let me find energy for an extra session if time allowed. I had tried shorter, more frequent runs but these left me unsatisfied and I figured happiness mattered more than training logic.
Then last year, well into my running ‘teens, my sister gave me a book she presented as the Into Thin Air of ultra-marathoners: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. I pocketed it with pleasure, looking forward to high drama on the slopes of mountain trails and the accounts of extraordinary men driven by an inner force and ego sheerer than the obstacles they face.
I read the book on the train back from Montreal and as the pages flipped to the hypnotic song of Adirondack tracks, my feet got itchy and began to beg for some trail pounding.
A heal strike, cushioned by the expensive designs of a greedy running shoe industry, is a cruel distortion of the way humans were meant to runMcDougall’s true story was centred around the maybe-not-yet-but soon-to-be legendary Tarahumara Indians of Mexico for whom running is a way of life. They routinely cover distances equal to multiple marathons back-to-back, just for fun. And if that wasn’t enough, they run on thin, flat and open leather sandals.
So while the story indeed involved extraordinary men and drama, it was refreshingly void of megalomaniac egos. The Tarahumara had attracted the attention of a few people who studied their ways and began running and living like then, a colorful American character nicknamed Caballo Blanco among these.
Having analysed the tribe’s running style, most came to believe that our modern running technique, a heal strike cushioned by the expensive designs of a greedy running shoe industry, is a cruel distortion of the way humans were meant to run.
Hunting on foot, our ancestors had no cushioning and yet achieved speeds at which they could outlast most of their prey, because of humankind’s unique ability to pant while running. Animals cannot recover when fleeing, so they achieve top speed but eventually have to stop to pant and rest, and then they get killed.
The foot strike of our ancestors was thus very different from ours and more similar to that of modern sprinters. They hit the ground lightly, forefoot first, and the flexible arch worked together with tendons in the heel to cushion the impact, allowing the arch to compress and the heal to drop, absorbing the shock.
So in a proudly defiant and radical move away from common wisdom, some of our 21st century elite runners have adopted barefoot – or at least minimalist – running as their new religion and they officially condemn running shoe manufacturers for yielding and then nurturing generations of pampered and misguided runners whose style is so bad it has to be corrected, supervised, adjusted, stabilized, neutralized, de-pronated, cushioned and un-supinated.
They officially condemn
running shoe manufacturers for yielding and then nurturing generations of pampered and misguided runners“Nike has been wrong to design its shoes the way it did, knows it, but has kept going on the wrong track in quest of greater profit,” say these minimalist advocates. “A heel strike would lead to greater injury risk,” they preach. “Which runner has not been injured multiple times even when running carefully in expensively cushioned running shoes?” they ask.
The questions are quite relevant, the sermons powerful. McDougall, as an ambassador, comes through loud and clear, convincingly so. So back then, I gave in. Actually, I jumped in. As soon as I got home from the train station that day, I began transitioning to my new gait. Gone were the years of blindness, I would now, having seen the light, use a barefoot technique. I knew better than to transition too fast, however, so I kept my cushioned Asics Nimbus but applied myself to moving my strike forward until I was hitting the ground with the outer forefoot.
My challenge was twofold. For one thing, I was spoiled. I had been running for years on what I consider to be the most beautiful route on earth, Vancouver’s Seawall around Stanley Park. The Seawall is a 10-kilometer long section of 30 kilometers worth of uninterrupted, beautiful urban waterfront paths for pedestrians and cyclists alike. On any given run, I could see harbour seals, bald eagles, enormous purple starfish, raccoon, great herons and entire flocks of – yes, Canadian – geese and their young. The marine air was be pristine and I would feel sandwiched between ocean and mountain.
Spoiled, again, I had also been on amazing trail runs near Cape Town, in and around Table Mountain and the Cape of Good Hope, with various species of antelopes running away as I approached and baboons standing their ground. These, of all runs, would be forever hard to match.
My other issue was that I am a conservative runner. One of the major ingredients of my success has always been what I call runhypnosis. Routine. I pick a path that suits me, as stunning as possible, and then I stick to it until I know it by heart and could run it with my eyes closed. Once under way, my feet recognize the ground and do their own thing, my brain stops worrying about the answer to life, the universe and everything, and I am just there, in the present, on autopilot.
I had been running for years on what I consider to be the most beautiful route on earth, Vancouver’s Seawall around Stanley ParkSo for these reasons, and while I normally welcome change into my life, breaking running habits has never been easy. For four months, I patiently paced myself but persevered in my effort to transition to a minimalist style. Adapting was not fun but I blamed the pain on wearing the wrong shoes – normal padded shoes with a significant drop – for a barefoot stride.
Eventually tough, I declared myself ready and splurged on a pair of Vibram Five Fingers. I was annihilated to discover, albeit too late, that they did not fit my foot shape and that two toes ended up in one pocket. They actually fit so poorly I returned them immediately. Then I chose a pair of New Balance Minimus Zero, a compromise between nothing and very little. These were real shoes without separate toes but they featured a minimalist zero drop, barely any cushioning, no stability control and they were meant for a barefoot style.
I ran with them for almost a month. For the entire month and later, I suffered more – the pain was not only in my feet and Achilles’s heels but in my lower legs, hips, back, neck and ego – than ever before. It was a catastrophe. I stopped running for a while. I had finally achieved a running injury.
In a flash of genius, I decided to drop the new shoes and my style-rebirth hopes, put on my Asics again, and went back to old running moves. The pain was gone almost immediately. I could barely believe it. I had succumbed to a trend, a sporty fashion that could have cost me my ability to run. I had been curious, teased and tempted, and I had given in, adopting a theory which while interesting and logical, had not been thoroughly tested by the many even if adored by the few.
The bottom line is I don’t know why I needed to change my style. I have been running steadily, injury-free, for over 7 years. I am about to change my Nimbus 12 shoes that are still holding on very well but are a year and a half old. How could one complain about such shoes though, when they have effortlessly absorbed between 800,000 and 900,000 foot strikes each since I purchased them? That’s close to a million impacts per shoe, bearing my full weight. Injury-free.
That’s close to a million impacts per shoe, bearing my full weight. Injury-free.I will probably still pursue minimalist dreams in the future, as the theory pleases my sense of logic. But when something is going well, why change it?
Caballo Blanco died recently trail running on an isolated Mexican sierra path. R.I.P. Caballo, you might have wished for no other death. And as for me, I intend to run well into my old age and live long and prosper. So I will for now strike the ground as distractedly as possible, however that might be, and welcome reasonable cushioning. Because it just works for me.
For all I know, barefoot running is no more credible than a flat Earth or astral voyage. Ironically, the ones who started the controversial epidemic of cushioning, for better and for worse, might still have had the last word(s). After all the means ultimately matter much less than the end: Just do it.
UPDATE: Of course since irony rules this universe and all others, now that I’ve gone back to my usual stride I realize that the training has actually probably already changed the way I run, forever. I find myself landing just about forward of mid-foot and on the outside, with slight back-and-forth variation due to slope and surface, and then I notice that I absentmindedly switch to a slight forefoot stride once in a while without any issues. Alea jacta est. Time will tell.
The western side of the Manhattan Bridge lazily climbs over the East River from the very odorous heart of Chinatown.
Much less scenic than a Brooklyn Bridge crossing, a walk over this bridge is plagued by an extraordinarily high noise level. Joining roaring trucks and honking cars, the MTA subway crosses the bridge in open air right next to you, deafeningly loud and making the bridge shake so badly it raises the safe shutter speed for hand-holding pictures a couple of stops. The tracks are right above the road lanes, almost flush with the double walking/biking lanes and obscuring the view from one side to the other. A choice thus has to be made when crossing on foot based on what scenery one prefers.
Mine is a superbly heterogeneous collection of rooftop graffiti a few blocks away from the river and to the south, at a level where the bridge still struggles to gain enough height over the water for a safe crossing, barely clearing the top of nearby houses.
That day, a older tourist was taking pictures too, on an iPhone, and quite surreptitiously. He would look around him, whip the phone out of a pocket, aim, shoot, and stash it back safely in. Eventually he came over and we started talking. He had a slight Eastern European accent but spoke decent English. Staring at my long lens with envy, he asked if it managed to sneak through the fence. “I had brought one too,” he added, “but I did not think the bridge was…” He glanced around suspiciously and then looked at me as if awaiting judgement.
I realized he probably thought the place was rather isolated and must have been unsafe. I pondered distractedly what image an foreigner would have of New York and figured that while the city has cleaned up nicely, people of a certain age who have watched the movies of the ’80s would not know so.
“Oh it’s fine,” I nodded, trying to reassure him without making him drop his guard so low he would actually get in trouble. New York remains complicated.
Later, as we passed again, still shooting, he waved at the scene – a busy Chinatown street, rooftop graffiti on each side and the tall silhouette of 1 WTC in the background – and said: “This is amazing contrast of different cultures and different levels of…” He hesitated, looking for the world wealth. I agreed. “There’s New York for you.”
We rented a Zipcar one Sunday, despite my aversion for the company. It was a day after my long run and I was given first choice on our ultimate Long Island destination as a recovery favor. I had never been to Montauk, knew it was the farthest point on Long Island, had read about harbour seals being spotted at times, and decided to go for it.
We first drove to the North Fork, where we had been before and whose beaches are pristine and deserted. We found an empty stretch of shoreline, turquoise water and peace.
But I wanted to see it all and we pushed on, caught two ferries, met an old Union Square farmers market friend of Marie’s along the way, and drove to the very tip of the peninsula.
My hopes were short-lived. We had arrived in tourist land, next to a lighthouse painted nasty brown, with murky waters all around and nowhere to be alone. I learned two lessons. Always trust a bokkie’s instinct. And when you find some place nice, stay there as long as you can. Murphy always lurks around the next corner.
Next time, we will stay on the North Fork. There is a touch of Little Cayman, there.