The Great Saunter

New York, NY, USA -- 10 May 2005 | Permalink
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I was at about 120th St on the East Side when my phone rang. It was my boss, calling to let me know that one of the test boxes was misbehaving. “I'll try to get to it later.” I told him. “I can't come in to the office right now. I'm walking around Manhattan.” He was very polite and didn't press the point, but I could tell that he didn't think it was a valid excuse. I thought of trying to explain. I wasn't walking around in Manhattan. I was walking around Manhattan. The whole thing. From South St Seaport up the Hudson River to the northern end of the island up by the Bronx, then down along the East River and back to the starting point. Thirty-two miles. Fifty-one kilometres.

The 'Great Saunter' organized by New York's Shorewalkers is an annual event. The concept is simple enough: walk clockwise around Manhattan, keeping as close to the shore line as possible. To make it possible, members of Shorewalkers scout out the route in the preceding weeks, looking out for potential barriers, possible shortcuts and - important detail - open public toilets. Based on what they find, the route may vary slightly from year to year, but the general principle of trying to walk as close to the water's edge as possible is always respected.

What makes the walk interesting — rather than just exhausting — is the way that the cityscape changes continuously as you walk through it. Walking the entire shoreline in a single day is like a peculiar form of meditation. You could do it piecemeal, of course, but the fascination comes from the succession of scenery and details, so that by the time you reach, say, the upper reaches of Fort Washington Park with its tall trees and views across the Hudson to New Jersey, the concrete esplanades and decaying piers along the lower west side of the island only a few hours before seem like something remembered from a dream. And then you find yourself walking through Inwood and Harlem, before emerging onto the shores of the Harlem River where a sequence of gaunt iron lift bridges and unreclaimed waste land make the lavish greenery of the northern parks seem dream-like in turn.

The walk becomes a sequence of images: a Canada goose with a clutch of dirty yellow goslings in tow feeding by the water's edge, a miniature red lighthouse tucked like a toy under the span of the George Washington Bridge, an abandoned brick motel stranded beneath a tangle of freeways with signs nailed to the boarded-up windows optimistically declaring it to be ‘Prime retail space’.

The Great Saunter is like Manhattan itself; everyone has their own experience of it. And the Great Saunter is one of the best ways that I know to get glimpses of other people's experience of Manhattan.