“I’m sorry,” I said. “I really thought we’d be there by now. I keep underestimating the distances.” My walking companion of the moment, a charming and easy-going schoolteacher from Hudson Heights, shrugged. “It’s OK,” she said graciously. “We haven’t had to turn back. If you’d made me walk further than we needed to –” She left the sentence hanging. “I know,” I said. “You’d have had to kill me. And they’d never have found the body.” She nodded. “Exactly,” she said.
It was about Mile 31, and we were both feeling more than a little tired and footsore, not to say punchy. I don’t know why the Great Saunter kicked my ass quite so hard this year. Maybe it’s that I’m more than a decade older than the last time I did the full walk. Maybe it was that I chose my footwear poorly, resulting in a spectacular set of blisters that almost took me out of the running entirely around Mile 26. And maybe it was just that bicycling everywhere has made me lazy. Whatever the reason, it was a struggle this year. That I finished at all is probably thanks to my new-found schoolteacher friend: chatting as you walk is a good distraction from pain and thoughts of quitting.
When we set off, it was cool and foggy. Across the Hudson, Jersey City was no more than a suggestion, while the river itself was a smudged silver blanket, fissured by tiny ripples and rumpled by slow-moving swells. As the day wore on, the fog gradually receded. By the time we reached the George Washington Bridge, New Jersey shore was plainly visible. By Inwood, the fog had burned off altogether, and the day had turned warm and humid. “More like the Great Sauna,” I joked to some fellow walkers. They smiled politely, but it was clear that they thought the heat had turned my brain.
As always, there was no lack of things to see. In Riverside Park, two Canada geese escorted a flotilla of three fluffy yellow goslings; when another goose came too close, one of the pair hurled itself on the intruder, precipitating a three-minute splashing, honking battle in which the wrathful parent managed to fully submerge the interloper before allowing it to stage a chastened retreat. Further north, there were the Sisyphus Stones, a garden of carefully-stacked rocks that manage to be at once charming and a little eerie. Later still, the route – which has changed since I last walked it – zig-zagged through some parts of Harlem I had never seen, before rejoining the river for the last long painful slog down to Lower Manhattan and the finishing point.
At Fraunces Tavern, I collected my certificate, said goodbye to the schoolteacher and limped across the road to find a Citi Bike. After 32 miles on foot, riding a bicycle – which turns out to use an almost entirely different set of muscles – felt like the swiftest and most luxurious mode of transport ever invented.