Great Saunter 2006

New York, NY, USA


Hikers on the Great Saunter walk through Riverside Park

New York, NY, USA

As I hobbled through Smuggler’s Cove, an elderly gentleman asked me in slightly accented English if I was “doing the walk.” I said that I was. “How much of it?” he asked. “Well, all of it, I hope,” I answered. He gave me a look that suggested that he thought the sun had softened my brain. “No. What is the amount? How long is it?” he asked. “Oh,” I said. “Thirty-two miles.” He wished me luck, and I limped on, trying not to think about blisters.

It was not the oddest conversation of the day. That was probably the one that I had with a teenager with dyed hair outside the UN Building, who asked me if I knew whether she could get a piercing anywhere close to Times Square and how old she needed to be. She seemed a little tense, as if she was well aware that her school trip to the Wicked City was almost over and that she only had one more chance to score a coveted tongue stud or eyebrow bolt before she was bundled aboard the coach and whisked back to Iowa or wherever she came from. She was very polite, though, and I wished I could have been more helpful to her.

The Great Saunter has become something of a yearly ritual for me, perhaps because it combines two things that I like – Manhattan and walking. Still, thirty-two miles is thirty-two miles, and there’s a certain amount of pain mixed in with the pleasure. For the hard-core Shorewalkers – gnarled veterans with white hair and bulging calf muscles, powering effortlessly through the miles - or some of the fitter newcomers – like the two sporty, pretty girls in black who seemed to float rather than stride along – it may have been a stroll in the park (20 parks, actually, according to Shorewalkers). For ordinary mortals, of whom I seemed to be almost the only one there, it’s more of a challenge.

Even familiarity with the route doesn’t stop me being surprised by the constant changes along the way, and there are always new things to see. In Riverside Park, an art project composed of hundreds of fluorescent orange balls bobbed in the gray waters of the Hudson. On 1st Avenue, a massive ConEd building that I remembered from last year was going down under the wrecking ball, cascades of rubble pouring from great gouges in the walls. By next year it will probably be a condominium complex. And then there are the truly transient details, like a Harlem street closed off with yellow police tape and filled with police cruisers and snappily-dressed detectives who seemed more interested in the stream of walkers wandering past with numbers pinned on them than whatever it was that they were supposed to be investigating.

“So what’s a saunter, anyway?” asked one of the sporty girls. I did my best to imitate a languid, Pink Panther-like strolling gait. “Oh,” she said, apparently satisfied. I’m glad I resorted to ambulatory theatre rather than trotting out a dictionary definition, but I wish I had looked the word up beforehand. Then I could have told her that ‘saunter’ derives from a Middle English verb meaning ‘to muse’. Somehow that seems particularly appropriate.