Walking New York City

A man walking under a scaffolding in Midtown, New York City.

The first thing I do whenever I go back to New York City is take a walk.

It’s one of the city’s greatest features, the walkability of the place. From end to end, it’s only 13.4 miles and less than three miles across at it’s broadest. This means you can go from one densely exuberant neighborhood to the next on foot in just minutes, particularly downtown. On foot, you can sample the myriad atmospheres and textures of the variegated urban environment at human speed, stopping to take in the wabi-sabi of a rusted old grating, or lingering to sniff the sweet air outside a bakery window.

Not only is it easily perused on foot, but NYC is also inhospitable to the most common American mode of transit, the personal automobile: traffic is terrible, parking worse, and insurance fees astronomical. Unless you need a vehicle to transport large objects or to make very specific sorts of commute, the city renders cars inefficient. Unlike most American cities, it’s often faster to take the train or ride a bike than drive a car. I took an Uber ride (I Ubered?) from the airport to midtown and ended up walking the last 10 blocks, so thick was cross-town traffic. The driver seemed surprised, but I quickly left him behind in the gridlock, enjoying the breeze and the exercise.

Once, in college, a friend visited me, trying to decide if he wanted to attend New York University. We went out for an evening perambulation and ended up going down to Houston and back up past 110th street before returning to my dorm on 3rd ave and 11th street. It took hours but it was an odyssey in miniature, yielding adventures sublime and bizarre, and leaving us somehow subtly transformed upon our return.

If you want to understand where we came from as a species, take a trek in the wilderness; if you want to understand what we are now, there are few places better than New York City. And, as mentioned, the best way to take it all in is with a stroll. (Or a run could work, too, especially if you have a very full itinerary, like my friends Brendan and Forest did on their 4,000-calorie New York 4K.)

This weekend I returned to the city, once my home of eight years, for a family gathering. I dropped my bag at the hotel and quickly headed back out for a walk. I wanted to see what had changed (and what had not) in this place that, despite a decade and thousands of miles of remove, has remained deeply woven into my personal narrative.

It was unusually warm, even after sundown. Strolling along with my jacket open, weaving through people of all shapes and sizes speaking a half dozen languages, I entered a sort of reverie of nostalgia. I smiled and nodded as I passed a grizzled old man leaning on a wall wearing a security guard’s jacket (that he was actually a security guard is not certain). He stared back at me, unamused. Just as he passed out of my field of view, I heard him say something barely audible over the rush and bustle of the busy street. What was it? Ah, yes, “What the fuck are you smiling at?” Perfect. Just like I remembered.

In the morning I walked from Madison and 30th down to the Lower East Side, to Russ & Daughters, a 100-year-old “appetizing” store specializing in smoked fish and now immensely popular for their bagel sandwiches. The guy behind the coffee counter—gaunt cheeked, thin white hair, creaky voice—looked like he might belong working at a mortuary; instead he was slinging rugelach, halva, and barbs of classic New York wit. The long, narrow room felt like a car on the L train at rush hour, if the car had fish coolers along one wall. The woman in front of me ordered a coffee, entering into the following conversation:

Counter attendant: You want cream and sugar with that?
Lady: Cream. Not too much.
Counter attendant: No one wants too much cream.
Lady [to me]: What’d he say?
Me: He said, ‘No one wants too much cream.’
Lady [to attendant]: Isn’t that the point of half and half, you don’t need too much?
Counter attendant: For me the point is, someone asks for cream, I give them cream. Otherwise, I think it’s pointless.
Lady: Good point.

Then, while eating my bagel and lox on the bench out front of Russ & Daughters, an old man with a thick white beard rolled up with a two-wheeled wire cart of groceries and looked in at the crowd.

Old man: Ah, shit.
Me: Busy, eh?
Old man: It didn’t use to be, until it got on the tourist circuit. [He looks me over.] You’re a tourist, aren’t you?
Me: I guess I am now.

The walk continues…

 

This was written at a spot in the East Village called Coffee Project. It’s a friendly place to stop if you’re on a walk and in need of a “deconstructed latte” and a quiet place to work on a blog post. 

Walking on Lava: A Pedestrian Lesson from Hawaii

Lava sunset

Take the helicopter tour, one friend suggested. You can hire a boat that takes you right up to where the lava meets the sea, someone else offered. But when the guy at the hotel info desk mentioned a walking tour to see the Mauna Loa lava flows in Kalapana, on the Big Island of Hawaii, my wife and I decided immediately and in unison that was the way for us.

We signed up for the tour and drove the Saddle Road to the town of Hilo, on the other side of the island (walking this leg of the journey would have taken days — a little long for this trip). We ascended nearly 7,000 feet on the drive, passing over the southern flank of Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world provided you measure from its base on the sea floor, and through several different climate zones along the way.

In rainy Hilo, we met our tour guide, a young blond girl from Massachusetts who’d just graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in volcanology. We were the only two on the tour that day. We followed our guide to the lava viewing area just outside of Volcano National Park, parked our cars, and started to walk.

Walking is by definition a human-scale endeavor, measured in footsteps. “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking,” Nietzsche said, and maybe there’s something to this. I certainly use walking to clear my head when things get too crowded up there. Thomas Jefferson praised walking as a key to good health for the body and the mind. A slow amble puts us down in the landscape, on intimate terms with the real cost of getting from here to there. On foot, we get to experience the fine textures and details of a journey.

We crossed the expansive lava fields, our shoe soles the only barrier between skin and blasted black landscape. We trod on the cracked and crazed mounds of lava rock, wove in an out of big broken domes called tumuli, crunched over the fragile folds of ropy pahoehoe. The trek offered a sense of what the beginning — or maybe the end — of the world might look like.

Our guide stopped and knelt carefully. The ground was mostly silica, and can cut with a touch. She pinched what looked like a fine, straw-colored hair between thumb and forefinger.

“Have you heard of Pele’s hair?” she asked, handing me the fragile strand. “It’s lava that gets spun out by the wind and cooled into a thread… Who knew Pele was a blond?”

Three miles over this terrain and we felt it in our legs and ankles. Each step landed on a different texture or angle. In the distance, a plume of pure white steam rose from the lava entry at the water’s edge. We walked by homes and vehicles that had become embedded in the lava flows. Studded with little bursts of red flower, an ohia tree 10 feet tall stood as a measuring stick to the decades since the lava had passed that spot.

An hour and a half into the hike, we came to the sea cliffs. Here, molten stone broke through a burnt veneer and globbed into the foamy, chaotic surf, generating steam billows that rose up and black sand particles that filtered down.

“There aren’t many places you can see new land being created like this,” our tour guide said with a geologist’s indefatigable reverence.

Nearby, we found a fresh “toe” of lava that had broken through its crusty containment and bulged up and out, folding over onto itself repeatedly, like glowing red layers of hot fudge. It quickly cooled and sealed over, only to break through again. We poked it with long sticks, which burst into flame on contact. Our shoe rubber grew soft.

On the way out, it started raining, offering a welcome coolness. The sun set behind the shoulder of Mauna Loa and we clicked on our headlamps. Certainly, the different perspectives of a boat or a helicopter would have been interesting, more cinematic maybe, but we already observe so much of our world through screens and windows. Better, we thought, to go face to face with the lava fields — slow, with effort, scorched and soaked and awed by the primordial beauty of it all.

Walking is not the fastest way or the easiest way to do just about anything. Humans have invented countless modes of conveyance to spare ourselves from the drudgery of conducting our many chores and journeys on foot. But in this age of acceleration and expediency, walking remains important. It gives us a chance to think or, if walking with another, to discuss, unhurried by the relentless ticking of The Clock.

We returned to our cars in the drizzling darkness, dreading the drudgery of the slow, winding drive back across the island, but happy that we’d chosen to go by foot. Walking is a great reminder that the journey is, at the very least, as important as the destination… If there even is such a thing as a destination, after all.