Friday, August 1, 2014

Trails Without End

The other day I walked twelve straight miles without stopping, and didn't realize it. I began at the edge of a dark, seemingly endless trail - the entrance of which can only be found by those who accidentally stumble upon it while wandering "Historic Huguenot Street" in a fit of profound unemployment. I had heard legends, myths even, about the so-called "Rail Trail" that extended from Gardiner to "just South of Kingston". With my starting location of New Paltz, I assumed I would, eventually, find the end.

I did not.

I walked for six hours. In the beginning, I passed joggers and bike riders. Locals walked their dogs. Children sat bored in strollers as their mothers power walked. People cut across to get to the strangely Lynchian pizza place down by the Salvation Army. No one seemed to think it was odd. No one seemed distressed or disturbed. I was reminded of walking through Swazey Parkway in my hometown of Exeter, New Hampshire. As I became more comfortable, lulled into a sense of familiar small town security, I resolved to walk the whole trail. It was well maintained, and clearly frequently used. The sun wouldn't set until 8:30, so I assumed I had plenty of time.

Then I looked down. Not at my watch, of course. Who wears watches these days? I looked down at my phone which was, at this point, busy trying to keep Spotify running in the middle of the woods, and it was then that I realized, I had been walking for two hours.

Now, that doesn't seem like too dramatic a realization. But, to keep the tension up, I will here add that I had not eaten anything, and had only packed one small, store bought water bottle.

I looked the trail up and down. Behind me, I could no longer see where I had begun. Before me, there seemed to be no end in sight. Around me, there was a suspicious lack of people or animals.

But, as has been made abundantly clear to me over the course of this summer, I am a girl scout. I do not get intimidated by the idea of an endless trail, nor do I, apparently, feel physical exertion while hiking one. The trail had been laid out online, so it obviously had an end. I took a deep breath - taking care to remind myself how lucky I was to have oxygen in this air - and strode onward.

It should be noted that it is not uncommon for me to go for a walk in the woods and end up gone longer than anticipated. In New Hampshire, I had a habit of wandering off into the woods, getting lost, and having to call someone to pick me up by the side of some highway far away from where I had started. But the thing about trails in New Hampshire is that they have endings. If you walk too far in any direction, you'll end up in another state, which will inevitably bring you to some semblance of civilization. This is one of the side effects of being from a small state. You may feel trapped, and claustrophobic, but at least you know where you are.

New York, as I am constantly discovering, is a different beast. Aside from a few driving habits, I have basically acclimatized to metropolitan New York. I understand the mentality of Long Island. I can generally figure out how to get places in the city without having to check a subway map. I know who to ask about what and what to never mention to others. In a way, my Long Island/New York City experience has been somewhat similar to my New Hampshire upbringing, in that I always know where I am. Walk too far on the island, and you'll hit a beach. Walk too far in the city, and you'll hit the suburbs. It's easy.

But upstate, even somewhere only ninety minutes North, like New Paltz, is not the city. It is beautiful, like New Hampshire, but unpredictable, like New York. Walk too far in any direction and you...will still be walking. Forever.

As I kept hiking, the trail seemed to extend. I walked across bridges, through bogs, past rivers, through horse farms, past secluded houses, and empty baseball fields. There were moments when the trail seemed to be raised, at the top of an incline, only to suddenly be below the ground beside it. There were pieces of it that seemed to go straight through people's private properties, and then I would walk for an hour never passing a single building.

It was somewhere around hour five when I started to realize that I no longer had the physical stamina to keep going. Well, that's not true. I could have kept going. I wanted to keep going. But my stomach was clawing at me to feed it and my throat was beginning to feel like Spongebob in that episode where he dries out in Sandy's house. I wanted to keel over, or at the very least, sit down, but there was nowhere to do so. I passed a sign that, I assumed, would signal the end of the trail, but instead simply told me that from that point onward, the trail hadn't been properly "maintained" as if the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail Association had, themselves, simply given up trying to understand the length and whims of the trail.

Bizarrely, turning around and walking to a part of the trail I recognized as being close to my house seemed to only take me about an hour. This is most likely due to my actually paying attention to the passage of time, and to my house being slightly closer than my original chosen trail entrance...but it was still strange. I wasn't walking faster, if anything, I was moving slower due to the increased presence of hunger and thirst.

For a road that goes straight for miles and miles, it is surprisingly maze-like.

Upon finally arriving home, eating something, and mindlessly staring at the television for a bit, I did a bit of research. The Rail Trail, as the name suggests, used to be a railroad that ferried produce from Ulster County into New York City. By 1977, the barely used railroad closed, and naturally, lay abandoned until 1985, when the various towns it ran through started buying it up. It didn't open as a recreation trail until 1991, when the town and village of New Paltz (which are, apparently, two different things. Who knew?) managed to purchase about 12 miles of it. The website claims that the trail today is "24 miles of Linear Park from Gardiner to just south of Kingston" and much discussion is had about Gardiner and the south side of the trail, but of the north side - the side I eventually discovered was the side I hiked - not much is spoken of.

Railroads, and by extension, their remains, are man made creations. In the late 19th century we decided we needed a rail road, so we built one. In 1985 we decided we needed a hiking trail instead, and so we changed it and built that. Now we're left with a road that seems to lack purpose - eternally going somewhere, but never quite seeming to begin or end. There is a sense, when walking down the trail for hours at a time, without a local's sense of location, that the trail exists independently of us. What would that space have been had someone not decided to build a railroad? Who knows? But, for some reason, I can't help but feel that people would still walk up and down it, blazed or not, trying to find the end of something, and inevitably fail to do so. Something about the path wants you to keep walking forward, to lose track of time, to think you understand it only so that it can prove that you do not.

It's been a strange summer. But, all things considered, it's been a pretty great one. At the very least, my leg muscles seem to have developed super-human strength. Any previous summer, I would have decidedly noticed that I had walked twelve straight miles without stopping before reading about it hours later on the internet.