Walking to Vermont: From Times Square into the Green Mountains -- a Homeward Adventureby Christopher S. Wren
A distinguished former foreign correspondent embraces retirement by setting out alone on foot for nearly four hundred miles, and explores a side of America nearly as exotic as the locales from which he once filed. Traveling with an unwieldy pack and a keen curiosity, Christopher Wren bids farewell to the New York Times newsroom in midtown Manhattan and saunters up Broadway, through Harlem, the Bronx, and the affluent New York suburbs of Westchester and Putnam Counties. As his trek takes him into the Housatonic River Valley of Connecticut, the Berkshires of Massachusetts, the Green Mountains of Vermont, and along a bucolic riverbank in New Hampshire, the strenuous challenges become as much emotional as physical. Wren loses his way in a suburban thicket of million-dollar mansions, dodges speeding motorists, seeks serenity at a convent, shivers through a rainy night among Shaker ruins, camps in a stranger's backyard, panhandles cookies and water from a good samaritan, absorbs the lore of the Appalachian and Long Trails, sweats up and down mountains, and lands in a hospital emergency room. Struggling under the weight of a fifty-pound pack, he gripes, "We might grow less addicted to stuff if everything we bought had to be carried on our backs." He hangs out with fellow wanderers named Old Rabbit, Flash, Gatorman, Stray Dog, and Buzzard, and learns gratitude from the anonymous charity of trail angels. His rite of passage into retirement, with its heat and dust and blisters galore, evokes vivid reminiscences of earlier risks taken, sometimes at gunpoint, during his years spent reporting from Russia, China, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa. He loses track of time, waking with the sun, stopping to eat when hunger gnaws, and camping under starry skies that transform the nights of solitude. For all the self-inflicted hardship, he reports, "In fact, I felt pretty good." Wren has woven an intensely personal story that is candid and often downright hilarious. As Vermont turns from a destination into a state of mind, he concludes, "I had stumbled upon the secret of how utterly irrelevant chronological age is." This book, from the author of the acclaimed bestseller The Cat Who Covered the World, will delight not just hikers, walkers, and other lovers of the outdoors, but also anyone who contemplates retirement, wonders about foreign correspondents, or relishes a lively, off-beat adventure, even when it unfolds close to home.
Evan Thomas author of John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy A foreign correspondent walks out of his office at the New York Times and heads uptown for four hundered miles by foot. A fascinating journey with lots of adventures by a keen-eyed and honest man. You'll want to go with him.
David Roberts author of Four Against the Arctic and Escape from Lucania A charming account of a long walk into retirement, this memoir gains depth and complexity as trailside incidents trigger flashbacks from Chris Wren's years as a foreign correspondent in some of the most dangerous places on Earth.
Roger Rosenblatt Where Christopher Wren walks is always an exotic country, even when the terrain is the Bronx, Westchester, and Vermont. He brings a first-class foreign correspondent's eye and meditative memory to the familiar, which becomes wonderfully strange. Best of all, he brings his love of adventure to the adventure of his life. What great luck that he asked us along.
- Simon & Schuster
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Read an Excerpt
It was not yet noon and hotter than a July bride in a feather bed when I trudged a half-dozen miles down the wooded northeastern flank of Mount Greylock, which is, at 3,491 feet, about as high as you can go in the state of Massachusetts. The descent, steep and muddy, made my footing precarious under the weight of a pack that felt stuffed with rocks. By the time I emerged from the spruce woods onto Phelps Avenue, a street of tidy wooden houses on the southern fringe of North Adams, I was hurting as hard as I was sweating.
Before I got bitten, I had planned to follow the white blazes marking the Appalachian Trail north across a green footbridge over some railroad tracks and the Hoosic River. Instead, I turned east on Main Street and caught a ride to the regional hospital on the other side of town.
Within minutes, I found myself stretched out on a white-sheeted bed in the hospital's emergency ward, feeling the soothing chill of saline solution dripping antibiotics into my vein through a long needle taped to the top of my hand.
It was not where I expected to be.
I had been walking into retirement, from Times Square in the heart of New York City to central Vermont and a house bought eighteen years earlier while I was working in China. My wife and I talked of retiring someday to Vermont, of blending into its crisp mornings and mellow afternoons and worrying no more about fighting Sunday night traffic back to New York City.
Someday had finally arrived.
Now, a few miles short of the Vermont border, I was stopped by a suspected case of Lyme disease. The ugly red inflammation streaking across my right arm, the consequence of an apparent encounter with a hungry tick, only confirmed the ineffectuality of my wanderings over the previous three weeks.
It didn't help that I had passed a restless night on top of Mount Greylock, poring over a worn copy of the Appalachian Trail Guide, which among its earnest descriptions of trailheads, shelters, switchbacks, and sources of drinkable water found room for dire warnings about snake bites, lightning strikes, and maladies like Lyme disease and a pernicious newcomer called hantavirus ("The virus travels from an infected rodent through its evaporating urine, droppings and saliva into the air.").
My guidebook went on to catalogue some effects of Lyme disease for the hiker foolish enough to contract it: "Severe fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath, cardiac irregularities, memory and concentration problems, facial paralysis, meningitis, shooting pains in the arms and legs, symptoms resembling multiple sclerosis, brain tumors, stroke, alcoholism, depression, Alzheimer's disease and anorexia nervosa."
I am not a hypochondriac, but none of these sounded conducive to a serene and healthy retirement. The Appalachian Trail Guide left me to infer that the safest place was on a living room couch in front of the television set.
"It may be necessary," my guidebook nagged, "to contact a university medical center or other research center if you suspect you have been bitten by an infected tick."
Since my travel preparations hadn't included compiling a list of medical research centers, I headed for the nearest hospital.
"Age?" The admissions lady ran through her repertoire of questions.
"Sixty-five," I replied, and for the first time believed it. It's been said that inside every older person is a younger one wondering what the hell happened. It was dawning upon me that when Elvis Presley was my age, he had been dead for twenty-three years and Schubert for thirty-four.
I pulled from my pack a crisp Medicare card. The hospital admissions lady made a copy and handed the red-white-and-blue card back.
I looked like a vagrant, but my motley appearance raised no alarms among the nurses. They hooked me to an intravenous drip and, glancing over my unkempt appearance and muddy boots, were solicitous enough to ask if I wanted something to eat. I allowed as how I was hungry. Walking for three weeks had given me a ravenous appetite that even a nasty infection could not diminish.
For the first time, hospital food the plat du jour was a turkey sandwich accompanied by a Coke tasted scrumptious. By the time I polished off the strawberry Jell-O, all but licking the little plastic cup clean, one of the nurses marveled, "We've never had a patient in emergency who cleaned his plate."
Call my walk, interrupted, a rite of passage. After forty years as a working journalist, I had collided with the life change that is the stuff of which dreams and nightmares are fashioned. Once the fizz is gone from the goodbye champagne, how do you enter this next stage of your life with any semblance of style or self-respect? You can press ahead, or you can cling to the past while time keeps stomping on your fingers.
As a scared young paratrooper, I had it screamed over and over at me by foul-mouthed instructors that an exit from an aircraft in flight had to be vigorous to clear the propeller blast. Otherwise, the jumper risked being slammed back into the metal fuselage by the screaming wind with such hurricane force as to leave him unconscious or dead.
My career at the New York Times, which took me to a half-dozen news bureaus in Moscow, Cairo, Beijing, Ottawa, Johannesburg, and the United Nations, was winding down after nearly three decades as a reporter, foreign correspondent, and editor. It was time to collect what I had paid into Social Security and claim the perquisites with which America honors its senior citizens train and movie discounts and dinner bargains at hours early enough to get you home in bed before sundown.
The prospect left me restless and a little apprehensive. I no longer needed to chase deadline news, but there had to be better times ahead than falling back on golf and gated retirement communities. T. S. Eliot's observation that old men ought to be explorers was finally making sense.
As for exploring retirement at a brisk walk, the notion may have been planted by The Elements of Style, the gem of a stylebook compiled by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, which serious writers, and even newspaper reporters, rely upon to resolve questions of grammar. I had been sitting at my cluttered desk in the Times newsroom a year earlier, consulting the rules about restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, when Strunk and White caught my eye with an example they cited for enclosing parenthetic expressions between commas:
"The best way to see a country, unless you are pressed for time, is to travel on foot."
I don't know whether Strunk and White reached their conclusion after setting out on foot themselves, I hope with a picnic lunch, to prove their theorem, which grappled with the eternal problem of when to bracket a phrase between a pair of commas. They did concede that "if the interruption to the flow of the sentence is but slight, the writer may safely omit the commas."
I grew less interested in the commas than in their advice. Were Strunk and White inviting the reader with a wink to interrupt the flow of an uneventful life by taking a hike? They did not write that the best way to see a country was from the window of an air-conditioned Elderhostel tour bus.
And since Strunk and White had brought it up, there was a country that I was curious to see on foot.
Journalism is a great way to perpetuate the curiosity you developed as a child. I had climbed the Great Wall of China, ridden on horseback past the Great Pyramids of Giza, waded through snowdrifts to view St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square, and gaped at the filigreed interiors of Samarkand's gilded domes on the Silk Road of Central Asia.
I had talked my way through encounters with guerrillas and their AK-47s in Lebanon and Somalia, met drug-thugs in Colom-bia and Burma. I roamed the backcountry of Tibet and Yemen, as close as you can get to the dark side of the moon without actually leaving earth. I interviewed presidents and prime ministers, and saints and scoundrels, on four continents. And at the risk of sounding immodest, I contrived to do it all on an expense account.
After seventeen years abroad as a foreign correspondent, it was time to fill in some blank spaces at home. I must have traveled through more than seventy countries, if you include all fifteen republics of the shattered Soviet Union, but had taken for granted the stretch of New England that separated our Manhattan apartment from the Vermont house where I wanted to retire. We usually drove there at night, more preoccupied with headlights of oncoming traffic than the darkened scenery. What I knew about the countryside amounted to fuel pumps, fast food restaurants, and takeaway coffee.
The e-mail careening around the online listserv of the Dartmouth Class of 1957 swapped tips about retirement, beginning with how to plug in to Social Security and Medicare. I learned that I qualified for medical care at Veterans Administration hospitals if I could find my military discharge papers. There were tips about cheap flights for seniors and more than I cared to know about aching joints and balky prostates.
Some of the soundest advice was posted by my classmate Joel Mitchell. "As you are now in the house for the first time rather than the office, don't ever get into the habit of watching afternoon soaps," Joel wrote. "Always keep the TV off, unless you're watching the market channels.
"Lunch dates are important," he added. Gets you out of the house. Keeps the mind stimulated. It can be lunch with just about anyone (well almost).
"And get out of your chair, and go outside often," Joel concluded. "Walk, ride a bike, golf or whatever."
I posted my own e-mail explaining that I planned to walk into retirement to Vermont, and soliciting suggestions about bed-and-breakfast places, campgrounds, or backyards to pitch my tent.
"I also welcome any '57 who wants to hike a mile or two or three with me," I added, "though I'm doing this alone and don't plan to linger anywhere longer than overnight."
I made clear there was no hidden agenda, such as extorting money from friends for a worthy cause according to the miles covered.
"I'm not marching on behalf of anything, just celebrating my new freedom," I wrote. "Let me know if you want to come along for an hour or two, bearing in mind that my whereabouts will depend on how well my knees and ankles hold out under the weight of a forty-five-pound pack."
Several classmates, Joel among them, e-mailed back promises to join me for a day when I hit Massachusetts. I also heard from Harry, who had graduated from Dartmouth a year before me.
"Big mistake," he warned.
Harry had done marathons and other vigorous activities, he wrote, "but if 1) you think that the total distance will be as you estimate, you are way off, it will be much more, as you can't walk a straight line on your intended track, and 2) if you indeed will carry a forty-five-pound pack, you will wear out your no-longer-youthful body early on.
"Don't let your ego get in the way of making you feel that you are less than a man if you don't make this odyssey by foot. Rather you could make a slow trip by pickup truck, or an old VW bus with your wife, and really enjoy your passage into retirement, instead of beating yourself up while trying to prove that 'I know that I can do it, dammit!' No one will care about a change in plans; in fact most will admire that you chose a wiser approach.
"Just a suggestion," Harry concluded, "from one who doesn't have to prove as much as he used to think he had to."
Harry was probably right. I wanted to prove that retirement did not mean retiring my dreams.
The truth was that my walk to Vermont was about more than just walking to Vermont. I had reached the age when regrets set in. My own were blissfully few, involving mostly sins of omission rather than commission. We are likelier to rue what we failed to do than what we did.
If I didn't walk from Times Square to Vermont now, when would I get around to doing it? "Live the life you've imagined," exhorted Henry David Thoreau, the nineteenth-century contrarian whose account of life alone in the woods, Walden, I admired, even if I did discard it in his native Massachusetts.
I decided not to take a companion, though my twin sister, Ginny, volunteered. Since we were kids, Ginny has had an enthusiasm for what she calls "fun things," like bounding up the mountains of Wyoming on a month-long outdoor leadership course prior to retirement from her own career as a special education teacher in Lake Forest, Illinois. My son, Chris, also spoke wistfully of joining me, but his workload as a new lawyer in New York would not spare him time off.
I thanked Chris as well as his Aunt Ginny, but it seemed important to walk this one alone. I had taken chances for a living; why stop just because I hit the milestone of sixty-five years? I had survived in less hospitable neighborhoods than I expected to visit on this trip.
But I would not be rushed into retirement. There should be time to saunter on unpaved roads. For as Thoreau pointed out in his essay on walking in 1862, "The saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea."
In journeying to Vermont on my terms, I could picture myself, having cooked a simple but satisfying supper, lounging beside a small river, reading Walden by the flicker of an evening campfire, falling asleep under a canopy of bright stars.
Well, as a Russian proverb reminds us, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans."
Still, I was not to be disappointed by the people I encountered in the five states through which I walked, and sometimes limped. Yes, there were mean-spirited locals who pointed speeding vehicles at me, or balked at letting me use a toilet without buying something, or wished I would go away before they dialed 911.
But there were others. A nun at a convent in New York shared old folk songs while she fed me supper. In Connecticut, a shopkeeper had me watch her cash register while she rummaged in the basement for the raisins I wanted. A woman I didn't know in Massachusetts baked me chocolate chip cookies; another stranger let me sleep in his yard and invited me for ice cream on his porch. In Vermont, trail angels left cold drinks and fresh fruit by the wayside. In New Hampshire, a store manager whipped up a frosty milkshake on a hot day and refused to take my money.
I also failed to anticipate the extent to which my experiences as a foreign correspondent would resonate on this journey, evoking memories of memories as I trudged northward at the rate of something over four thousand paces per hour. For better or worse, reminiscences constitute the only acquisitions in this life that remain uniquely our own.
But first I had to walk out of New York City and through its dense suburbs. Once in the country, I could pitch my tent in the woods or spread out my poncho at a lean-to. But this did not solve the immediate problem of where to sleep before I got there.
I surfed the Internet for cheap hotels within a day's walk from our apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, without much success. The amenities at one motel just beyond the city limits, I was told, included complimentary condoms in a bowl on the registration counter. (The management's gesture said a lot about the clientele.)
Online evaluations of another hotel across the city line were no more encouraging. One former guest complained that "1) the bathroom had black mildew in the corners and on the wallpaper, 2) the security chain was broken, and 3) when I checked out they tried to charge me $99 per night instead of the $89 on the confirmation." That did not sound restful either.
I gave up and turned to other logistical problems. I arranged to have my final Times paychecks, plus eight weeks of unused vacation and accrued compensatory time, deposited in my bank account, along with my pension checks. I compiled a list of bills for my wife, Jaqueline, to pay in my absence.
My retirement started in Midtown Manhattan, with a farewell lunch in one of those discordant Asian restaurants where the overpriced drinks wear pastel paper umbrellas and the waitresses servers eventually slink over in black leotards and introduce themselves with names like Sonya.
My boss, Jerry Gray, anxious that I be nutritionally fortified for my walk, had layered the round table with multiple orders of sweet-and-sour ribs, egg rolls, butterfly shrimp, fried wonton, and other artery-cloggers in preparation for the really high-cholesterol stuff to come. Forget those tales about how journalists drink and pay more attention to how we eat.
Jerry complicated my retirement. He was that virtue in journalism, a demanding editor who was also a reporter's best friend. It's much easier to start off your career with a nice boss and bid farewell to a bastard. Everyone complains at the New York Times about being overworked and underappreciated, but it can be a lot of fun and is seldom dull. There were only a few people I wouldn't miss, like the editor who ordered me back from vacation on grounds that too much news was happening, then disappeared to the seashore with her family.
But I would miss the New York Times, which is why I needed quite literally to walk away from it. I didn't want to sit around my apartment wondering what the next day's front page would look like and whether my byline could have been on it.
Other colleagues from the continuous news desk at the Times joined me around Jerry's groaning table. They were friends too, because not a snicker passed at the notion of my wandering like Ulysses a graying, slightly arthritic, nearsighted Ulysses to a destination that normally took a good five hours to drive to, pushing the speed limit.
"Where are you starting your walk?" asked Jerry as he reached across to shovel more dim sum onto my plate.
The truth is that I hadn't decided. "Right here," I boasted, then corrected myself.
"From the newsroom," I said, since the restaurant was five blocks from the Times, and I wasn't sure we'd find our way back if Jerry carried through on his threat to order yet another liquid round of paper umbrellas.
An attempt to clean out my desk upon returning to the newsroom was scuttled by the appearance of bottles of chilled champagne and some chocolate truffle cakes, which attracted more well-wishers.
Joyce Wadler, the most endearing Times reporter of my acquaintance, came by to confer a big hug. "Be sure to take your laptop on your walk," she said, like a mother reminding her child not to forget his mittens.
Though Joyce was born in the Catskills, within sight of trees, her roots are transplanted deep enough in New York City to make Woody Allen look like a hayseed. To forgo a computer was incomprehensible to Joyce.
"Laptop?" I told her. "I don't need no stinking laptop."
"You could sit down at the end of each day, and write up what you've seen and done," Joyce said.
"Plugging in to what?" I interjected. "Woods don't have electrical outlets..."
"...and file it," Joyce said.
"...or telephone jacks."
"The Times might even print it," Joyce persisted.
"My laptop weighs six pounds," I said.
"You could buy a smaller one," Joyce said.
"I'll have a tent in my pack," I explained. "Sleeping bag. Stove. Food."
"You've got to write it down or you'll forget it. What if you decide to do an article?"
"I'll take a notebook," I promised. "Maybe even a tape recorder."
The party picked up with fresh well-wishers and clicks of more plastic glasses. I became giddy with champagne and bloated with truffle cake. At the end of it all, I went home, leaving the accumulation of stuff on my desk for another time.
On the first day of my retirement, I sneaked back to the Times with a daypack, into which I stuffed as much as I could. What was left overflowed several wastebaskets. My telephone rang. It was a flack pitching a potential story. I interrupted his oozing description of its page-one possibilities.
"I've just retired," I said. "I don't work here "
"Lotsaluckgoodbye," he said, and hung up before I could finish. If I didn't work at the Times anymore, I was no longer worth his time. I should have been offended, but I felt relieved.
I cast a last staffer's look around the newsroom before heading for the elevators. When I had arrived at the Times more than twenty-eight years earlier, pop-up typewriters were bolted to the rows of battered desks. Copy boys and girls, as we called them then, bustled about conveying our freshly typed pages to the copy desk, where editors marked up the stories with pencils before they were passed upstairs to be set in hot metal type. The Times in those days looked like what Hollywood expected a newspaper to be, except for the mousetraps underfoot.
I looked up. When had they painted the newsroom ceiling and ducts a designer eggshell white? I always remembered them as gunmetal gray.
Now the carpeted newsroom resembled an insurance claims office with quiet computers in small cubicles, where news stories flew away electronically to be paginated and printed on presses relocated to cheaper real estate in the borough of Queens or New Jersey. Copy boys and girls had given way to administrative clerks and news assistants. Editors no longer yelled, not deliberately, and cub reporters now were called interns. Even the bottles of Scotch that veteran reporters squirreled away in the bottom desk drawer for deadline courage had been replaced by plastic liters of designer water. When I got hired, Times reporters and editors shifted after deadline to Gough's, a seedy bar across the street, to hash over the handling of the day's news. Now they headed for their health clubs to unwind on the squash court or treadmill.
The mysteries of the Times lingered. How could a daily newspaper stuffed with more words than a Russian novel be created from a dead start every morning? And why did computerized news-gathering generate more paper than back when the news copy physically passed from hand to hand? I had had trouble finding enough empty wastebaskets to deposit the accumulation of notebooks and other clutter on my desk.
It was late afternoon when I walked out of the Times building, just in time to hit theater matinee gridlock at Times Square and the first drops of a thunderstorm. I sidestepped a man hawking a pamphlet with "251 sex positions for $5." (A dozen positions seem adequate for propagating the human race.) I shook my head and the vendor pitched to a more curious cluster of teenagers from the suburbs.
Walking west, I ducked into a doorway and pulled an umbrella from my backpack. Then I splashed up Eighth Avenue to Columbus Circle, one foot slipping into the gutter, a little like Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain, and turned up Broadway on the first mile of my journey.
The crowds thinned out as I continued north. I cut across the plaza of Lincoln Center, the arts complex where we would no longer renew our concert subscription to the New York Philharmonic. I moved westward with the traffic lights toward Riverside Park and the Hudson River.
By the end of the second mile, I regretted not putting myself into better shape. I could offer a number of excuses, most of them having to do with indolence. I had tried climbing eight flights of stairs from the newsroom to the Times cafeteria, which left me panting too hard to want lunch. I experimented with push-ups, but lost count. Sometimes I walked home from work, as I was doing now, but only in daylight and fair weather, if it wasn't too cold or hot and I wasn't late for dinner.
I had given up jogging because of a pain shooting into my right ankle, which I blamed on a recurrent sprain. It was not enough to discourage me from starting out, but could hobble my progress to Vermont without proper diagnosis and treatment.
My doctor referred me to an orthopedic surgeon, who sent me off for X rays before sitting down to discuss my complaint. He studied the large negatives delivered to him, and traced with his pen some grayish patches along the ankle joint.
"Osteoarthritis," he announced.
"What can we do about it?" I asked, afraid of where his diagnosis was heading. "I'm going to hike to Vermont."
The surgeon smiled and set aside the X rays. "Let's be precise about this," he said. "You're driving to Vermont, then you're going hiking."
"No," I said. "I'm walking to Vermont. From here. Hiking will be just part of it." I didn't bring up my bad knee, a testimony to arthroscopic surgery.
After more pondering of the X rays, he peered at me over the rims of his spectacles.
"Do you have heavy boots?" he asked. "Your ankle will need the support of a wide sole so it won't buckle. As for something anti-inflammatory, I'll prescribe Vioxx, that's rofecoxib, easier on the stomach."
We agreed upon a plastic brace that inflated with air, to cushion my ankle on rough terrain. I packed the brace for my journey and never got around to using it.
The rain had let up by the time I reached 90th Street and our apartment, where my wife, Jaqueline, who was into clay pot cooking, had prepared a lamb casserole for dinner.
She had moved eight times with our children while I was a foreign correspondent. After we came home from overseas and again settled down on Manhattan's Upper West Side, I was offered a diplomatic beat in the Washington bureau. Jaqueline put her small foot down. So we struck an agreement to move no more until I retired, and that would be to Vermont.
Jaqueline had let me charge off to cover a half-dozen wars without fussing about my safety. But we both accepted I was slowing down, as I discovered a half-dozen years earlier during the war in Bosnia, when I attempted to vault out of an armored personnel carrier manned by Pakistani peacekeepers, who were snacking on hardboiled eggs at the time, and got briefly stuck in range of a Serbian machine gun nest.
On my sixty-fifth birthday, I assured her that I still had the body of a sixty-four-year-old. But Jaqueline insisted that if I was walking to Vermont, I must take my cell phone for emergencies. In return, she would rendezvous with me a couple of times for resupply.
My son, Chris, who had worked as a law enforcement ranger for the National Park Service before becoming a lawyer, brought by some useful gear: an orange plastic whistle to toot for help if I plunged into some ravine and lay injured and invisible to other hikers. A snug watch cap to pull over my ears if it turned cold. A ceramic filter pump to purify water and a couple of wide-mouth drinking bottles. Between New York and Vermont, Chris said, unless the water came from a faucet I was not to drink it, unless I filtered it through a ceramic pump or added some iodine pills.
Chris offered his mammoth green backpack festooned with attachments and gadgets, including a coil of nylon parachute cord. I told him I would stick to my battered blue Lowe pack.
"I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes," Thoreau counseled in Walden.
Jaqueline pointed out that camping gear had become lighter and much improved technologically. "You've had that pack for twenty years," she said. "Even the straps are falling apart."
"Only eighteen years. Nothing that a roll of duct tape can't fix."
I did accept the nylon cord, which my son said should be used to hoist my bag of food on a limb high enough that bears couldn't reach it.
"I've got to worry about hungry bears?"
"Just two kinds to watch for, Dad," Chris said. "Black bears and grizzlies. Grizzlies are much more dangerous. I recommend carrying pepper spray and some little bells.
"Tie the little bells on your pack so the bear can hear you coming and run away," he said.
"What if it refuses to run?"
"Then zap the bear with pepper spray."
"So the less dangerous bear is black, and the meaner one is grizzlier?"
"Not that simple, Dad. Look at their scat to check their eating habits. Black bear droppings have berries and little twigs."
"What about grizzlies?"
"Grizzly droppings have little bells and smell like pepper spray. I don't know if you want this."
My son handed me a palm-size blue plastic canister containing enough pepper spray to repel the advances of any critter on two or four feet. At the end of his ranger days out in California, Chris used pepper spray to break up a gang fight and cart the instigator off to jail. He saved paperwork on that arrest by not drawing his service revolver, which would have made him late for starting law school in Vermont.
"Um, Dad," my son, now the lawyer, advised, "pepper spray is illegal in New York City. Don't get caught with it when you walk out of here."
Though I had planned an early departure for Vermont, I didn't sally forth until nearly ten a.m. It seemed politic to perform my usual chores of making the bed and cleaning up the breakfast dishes before disappearing on my wife.
"Have a wonderful day," called out Maurice, our doorman.
"I plan to," I told him. I habitually turned left to take the subway to work. This time I turned right across Riverside Drive and toward the Hudson River.
In Riverside Park, several park officials clustered around what remained of an old tree, discussing how to dispose of its last prominent limb, which winds had torn off in yesterday's storm. It made more sense to chop down the tree and cart it away, but the limb had also drawn civic-minded kibitzers who rally in opposition to any diminution of their greenery.
The promenade in Riverside Park was busy with joggers, cyclists, and nannies pushing baby carriages. A woman wearing an orange tank top was trying to walk her dachshund, but the dog stubbornly refused to budge when most other dogs weren't wearing leashes.
Inbound commuter traffic shwooshed overhead as I passed through a pedestrian tunnel under the West Side Highway and emerged at the Hudson River. The sky was clear, but for fleecy pillows of clouds hovering over the George Washington Bridge to the north.
New York reinvents itself so continually that the squawk and screech of traffic on asphalt made it hard to imagine what Manhattan looked like when the original inhabitants had to walk and wooded glens abounded among the outcroppings of schist. Under Dutch colonial rule, the best transportation was on the Hudson River with its sailing ships, rafts, and canoes. Fertile beds of oysters nourished the early Indian inhabitants, at least until they bargained away their island for sixty guilders' twenty-four dollars worth of baubles and other trinkets. New York City's official seal includes a beaver, denoting its origins as a trading post for furs and other natural wealth.
New Yorkers didn't cut their politicians much slack in those days either. Consider New York's first elected governor, Jacob Leisler. An ambitious German immigrant, Leisler was not quite twenty when he arrived in 1660 as a mercenary for the Dutch West Indies Company. This was a few years before the British grabbed New Amsterdam and renamed it New York.
Leisler gave up soldier's wages to get rich in the fur and tobacco trade and accumulated half of Manhattan. Enticed into politics, he organized the first free elections for mayor and city council, and was elected governor. But his enlightened notions of democracy annoyed the establishment, who contrived treason charges against Leisler that sent him to the city gallows in 1691. The deposed governor was hanged, then beheaded with an axe before an eager crowd. Today, wayward politicians get indicted.
I was less preoccupied with Leisler's ignominious demise than with finding a place to pee on my walk off his property. New York City boasts more of almost anything you can conceive, from art galleries to zoos, but not public toilets, of which it may have the world's fewest per capita. Given this dire shortage, my route required some planning. A close encounter with prostate cancer in the past had not left me with an iron bladder.
On my city map, I had selected a succession of potential bio-breaks, beginning with a few public lavatories in Riverside Park, which were usually kept locked to keep out heroin junkies, cocaine crackheads, and law-abiding taxpayers. Further north were fast food restaurants along Broadway, the mammoth Presbyterian Hospital on 168th Street, and a bus terminal at the New York end of the George Washington Bridge at 178th Street. Such stops would become easier once I crossed into the Bronx and entered Van Cortlandt Park.
I started north through Riverside Park, keeping the shining Hudson on my left. A tennis instructor was teaching a class of children. Oblivious to a parked police car, a homeless wretch in soiled clothes rummaged through trash baskets, looking for recyclable cans to cash in.
This park had nearly as many signs as trees. "Leash Dogs." "No Barbecuing." "No Loud Radios." "Put Waste in the Trash." Smaller print advised, "Violations are punishable by a fine," which seemed a letdown in our zero-tolerance era.
There were more signs: "No Scooters in Playground." "No Adults Except in the Company of a Child." "No Dogs Allowed." Negative signs have become so unbiquitous in New York City that no one notices them anymore.
Near a lamppost sign, "No Dogs Off Leash at Any Time," a stout man held a red leash and called plaintively for a German shepherd with other plans. A middle-aged woman mouthed a "good morning" as she strolled past me. Her miniature collie, trailing a blue leash, trotted a half-dozen paces behind.
The city fathers have cranked up the volume by replacing some generic "No Parking" signs with the warning, "Don't Even Think About Parking Here," which raises First Amendment issues of free thought. The Orwellian threat failed to alarm the American Civil Liberties Union or spook motorists, but variants might have worked in the city parks: "Dogs Found Unleashed Will Be Donated to Korean Restaurants." "Light a Barbecue Grill Here and We'll Make You Sit on It." "Children Who Deface Playgrounds Subject to Confiscation."
Some metal grates along the leafy esplanade of plane trees turned out to be air ducts for a railway tunnel used to shuttle trains in and out of New York. I arrived at the public tennis courts, with a sign warning, "You Must Wear Appropriate Attire." I climbed a steep path back to Riverside Drive, emerging from the foliage across from the bell tower of Riverside Church.
At the curb, I stumbled upon a rare sight in New York City: a legal vacant parking spot, so spacious that a driving school dropout could occupy it without having to slam the next vehicle onto the sidewalk, as had happened with our car. And street cleaning regulations did not require it to be vacated for three days.
It was the kind of discovery that prompts New Yorkers to stop and think where they parked their own car and whether there might be time for a fast shuttle. I was walking to Vermont and I stopped instinctively.
I passed Grant's Tomb, the largest and possibly best known mausoleum in the country. Its imposing white granite facade had finally been cleaned of accumulated soot and graffiti. I barely knew the neighborhood, though I lived there for a year as a graduate student at Columbia University. I walked on through dainty Sakura Park, which commemorates a gift from Japan to New York City of two thousand cherry trees nearly a century ago. Two flights of stone stairs took me down to Claremont Avenue.
I passed the Ethiopian Tigri Drop-In Center, and directly across La Salle Street, Praise the Lord Dental. Either could have inspired a feature article about homesick Ethiopian immigrants or evangelical orthodontists. I reminded myself that I no longer wrote for a newspaper.
I turned north along Broadway, New York City's most celebrated avenue, past the Obaa Koryoe West African restaurant, a Mexican restaurant, a Chinese eat-in-take-out parlor, and a laundromat named Bubbles.
My plan was to follow Broadway through Harlem, Washington Heights, and Inwood, and cross the bridge into the Bronx and Van Cortlandt Park. If I moved along, I could reach my mother-in-law's house in Scarsdale before dark. It was a good twenty miles from our apartment, but in summer the sun wouldn't set before nine P.M.
In the carts outside the El Mundo department store in Harlem, sandals were selling for two dollars a pair, shirts for three dollars, and sneakers were five. I was sorry there wasn't room in my pack. Block by block, Spanish gradually took over Broadway, the butcher shops were called carnicerías and the small groceries became bodegas selling cerveza rather than beer. A bilingual sign on a red-brick building proclaimed the Meeting with God Church, or La Iglesia el Encuentro con Dios.
Salsa music thumped from boomboxes on sidewalk tables displaying Hispanic tapes and compact discs. The staccato of Spanish spoken around me was occasionally drowned out by sirens of passing police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks. Competing aromas of pizza, fried chicken, and burritos wafted from the doorways of cafés, mingling with the fragrance of a vendor's burning incense. I felt like a foreign correspondent again.
People I encountered later on my journey expressed surprise that I crossed Harlem on foot. "Wasn't it dangerous?" one asked.
"Not unless you jaywalk," I said. Walking was more perilous in New York's posh suburbs, I explained, where you had to dodge sport utility vehicles jockeyed by expensively coiffed ladies running late for a tennis lesson.
My white face attracted no particular attention. I stopped for directions at a flea market and drew more smiles than stares. I considered making a detour to Sylvia's, a restaurant on Lenox Avenue where I used to eat while working stories as a reporter. But feasting on Sylvia's fried chicken, candied sweet potatoes, and cream pies would diminish my chances of making it to Scarsdale.
Finding a lavatory in New York City wasn't so hard after all. Our family doctors were affliated with Presbyterian, so I talked my way past the hospital security desk by dropping their names. I later stopped at the municipal bus station on 178th Street, following an unwritten rule of foreign correspondence: "Whenever you pass a bathroom, use it."
(All but one of the other rules I learned as a foreign correspondent bore some relevance to my walk to Vermont: Always eat breakfast. Don't travel with anything you can't carry at a dead run for a half-mile. When you get into a place, start thinking about how to get out. Don't stand behind a teenager fiddling with a rocket-propelled grenade the last rule no longer applied.)
The red-brick monolith housing the 34th Precinct of the New York City Police Department looked more like Lenin's tomb. Several dozen private cars were parked in a ragged row perpendicular to Broadway, half on the sidewalk under a sign that read "No Standing." They all but obscured the fire hydrant. A New York City cop gets few perks, but improvisational parking is one of them.
I came upon Fort Tryon Park, once dominated by Revolutionary War battlements and now home to the formal gardens and medieval art of the Cloisters. There wasn't time to view the Unicorn Tapestries, but I sat down on a bench to remove my boots and massage my feet.
I stopped at a Citibank branch near 180th Street for another hundred dollars. The screen on the ATM reported my balance as zero.
I scrolled back through the latest transactions. The Times had neglected to deposit any paychecks for the past two weeks. My pension and two months' worth of vacation and comptime had yet to kick in. I debated catching the subway back to the office. No, a phone call would clear up the confusion.
The first Irish bar appeared as I resumed my walk up Broadway, past Inwood Hill. Here at the northern end of Manhattan was Baker Field, the football stadium where Columbia plays the rest of the Ivy League and traditionally loses.
Beyond the metal link fence to my left loomed the Allen Pavilion, a branch of Presbyterian Hospital where I was operated on for prostate cancer eight years earlier. I rode the subway at dawn to this hospital, to be anesthetized and split open while my cancerous prostate was carved out and the surgeon determined that the cancer had not spread.
I now reached the age when my father died from pancreatic cancer. It had so consumed his body that the surgeon could do no more than stitch him back up. As he lay dying in the Los Angeles hospital where I had been born, he whispered through a fog of painkillers that he craved ginger ale. Would I bring him some?
The chart at the foot of his bed stated that my father was not allowed liquids. He promised not to drink the ginger ale, merely to slosh it around his parched mouth to take away the choking dryness. So I smuggled in a six-pack of cold ginger ale.
True to his word, my father held each sip in his mouth for a few seconds, then spit it into a basin that I cradled under his chin. His head fell back on his pillow and his eyes closed thankfully. He lived another two days.
It took time to accept his death and longer to pay off the medical bills. Now I was walking away from my own cancer, as though my father and I were conspiring anew, and he had willed me to escape what he could not. I turned my back on the Allen Pavilion and crossed the bridge into the Bronx.
I felt like walking forever.
Three and a half centuries ago, a Dutch carpenter named Frederick Philipse arrived from the West Indies and walked through these parts seeking his fortune. Philipse secured it, as Jacob Leisler had, in what was to become a quintessential New York City obsession: real estate. By the time Philipse died in 1702, he was said to own ninety thousand acres of what is now Westchester County, extending as far north as Tarrytown, and a large chunk of the Bronx, beginning with Spuyten Duyvil, now an enclave of Riverdale. That was more land than you could cross on foot in a day.
I mention Philipse and Leisler, and more to come, like Caleb Heathcote in Scarsdale, because I was looking for ghosts along the way. I don't believe in actual ghosts, not of the chain-rattling sort in which Europe claims to abound. But it was hardly a stretch to imagine what our immigrant ancestors had to say about the forgotten battlefields and the ruins of farms, mills, and taverns absorbed by the woodland through which I passed. Fading tombstones testify to the kind of people who preceded us, and so do old stone walls, and, back in Manhattan, what little remains of Fort Tryon.
I entered the Bronx onto Philipse's turf, past Spuyten Duyvil and up Broadway to 240th Street, where I paused at a McDonald's. After consuming a Big Mac, fries, and a Coke, I refilled my water bottle in the men's room and walked into Van Cortlandt Park.
Van Cortlandt Park takes its name from another dynasty of Dutch colonialists who collected property. The park belongs to New York City, but pockets look so untamed that I lost my bearings for the first time on my journey. Thickening clouds obscured the sun, making it impossible to judge which direction I was moving. I had postponed packing a compass, assuming with a New Yorker's arrogance that that it was impossible to get lost in the Bronx.
I worked my way along jogging paths, around a small lake, and past a tightly fenced golf course, only to be hemmed in by the Henry Hudson Parkway. It cuts through the northern edge of the park, winding from Manhattan through the Bronx and into Westchester County. There was no way to sprint across and survive an unrelenting whiz of traffic from both directions. I had to retreat back into the park, where I finally found an inconspicuous underpass that took me under the highway.
If I was lost, there were ominous clues that others were not soiled socks and discarded scarves, an orphaned shoe, torn plastic bags blown against bushes, scorched twigs gathered into the ashes of ineffectual campfires, liquor and beer bottles, spent condoms, a few crack cocaine vials, and messy human turds. It has become harder to get mugged in broad daylight in New York City, but this dismal expanse of vegetation seemed an excellent venue to find myself surrounded by shadows emerging from the undergrowth, calling with menacing politeness, "Hey man, got a match?"
I grew anxious to leave the tangled thicket, but its feral trails promised to lead nowhere. I stopped and listened for some audible clue to civilization, a technique that I came to employ increasingly on my travels. I heard traffic.
More by luck than by navigational skills, I broke free of the woods and into a quiet side street of modest homes, startling a man pruning his miniature lawn.
"Which way is McLean Avenue?" I asked, selecting a street that my map showed as dipping toward the northern rim of Van Cortlandt Park.
The homeowner jumped, as though I had sidled up behind him and asked for the time of day while wearing a wristwatch.
"Where did you come from?" he asked. "The park?"
"I was walking and got lost."
Concluding that I was not a burglar, the man pointed down the street. I had arrived in Yonkers, the first city in Westchester County, and once a commercial village set in the middle of Frederick Philipse's land grab.
My thoughts kept returning to my empty bank account as I followed McLean Avenue past grander houses. At Hillview Avenue, I sat down on the curb to dial the New York Times on my cell phone. After some confusion, I was told that there was no record of my wages being deposited for the last couple of weeks.
I resolved not to break off my walk now that I had put New York City behind me. I took a long pull on my water bottle and worked my way around the wooded slopes of Hillview Reservoir. At this pace, I might reach Scarsdale by dark.
My resolve melted later when I crossed the Saw Mill River Parkway and saw the northern terminal of New York City's No. 2 subway line back in the Bronx. Walking to Vermont or not, I had to do something about the missing bank deposits before the checks I had written began bouncing. I bought a subway token and caught the next train south.
Just forty minutes later, I was back in the New York Times building on 43rd Street. Fortunately the security guard recognized me and did not ask for my blue-and-white Times ID card, which I was no longer carrying.
"We know that you didn't get paid," I was assured at the news administration office on the fourth floor. "We're still trying to find out why."
I lobbied my cause as forcefully as I could. I could take the subway back to the end of the line and resume my walk into Westchester's suburbs. But it was past six P.M., with rush hour in full force. There was no way to reach Scarsdale before dark.
I telephoned the nearest overnight accommodations.
"Is there any of your excellent lamb stew left?" I asked.
"In the refrigerator," Jaqueline said. "Why? Where are you?"
"Back at the Times. Put the lamb back in the oven, and I'll explain over dinner."
"What happened to your walk?"
"Unavoidable detour. The ATM says we're broke."
Most problems you encounter are neither permanent nor personal, and are best remedied after a good night's sleep. I had learned that as a foreign correspondent.
During my first trip to Beirut more than three decades earlier, I approached the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, one of the nastier Marxist guerrilla factions, and asked to visit one of their camps. A week later, I was driven with Tom Koeniges, a photographer I worked with for Look magazine, to a base in the parched hills along Jordan's border with Lebanon. The militant Palestinian commander exploded.
"America is our enemy because you support Zionist aggression," he snapped through an interpreter. "You don't belong here, but you come anyway.
"However," he added after some thought, "my brother studies engineering at the University of Texas."
The commander ushered us into his tent. We quarreled for most of the night over endless cups of hot tea and flat loaves of Arab bread. The next morning, he introduced us to his heavily armed Palestinian fighters. They invited us to go along on their next raid into Israel. We declined. When we departed the next evening, the commander kissed me farewell on both cheeks. He still hated America, he said, but not Tom and me. And his brother was happy in Texas.
Later, I ran into the fixer who had set up my visit and asked what had happened to my guerrilla host and his band. "They were killed when they tried to cross the river," he said.
In 1979, when the Times dispatched me to Iran to cover the embassy hostage crisis, ordinary Iranians explained to me that their professed hostility toward the United States wasn't about me. One afternoon, I followed the crowd to a mass rally in downtown Tehran. I bought a paper bag of hot popcorn from a street vendor, which I nibbled as the orator denounced my motherland as the Great Satan.
A Revolutionary Guardsman stepped forth to frog-march me off for questioning. The Iranians around me blocked his pas-sage, berating him for violating their traditional hospitality to strangers. Even though I was American, they argued, I had done nothing wrong. The Guardsman returned my popcorn and apol-ogized. My neighbors smiled warmly and resumed chanting, "Death to America!"
Copyright © 2004 by Christopher S. Wren
Meet the Author
Christopher S. Wren retired from The New York Times after nearly 29 years as a reporter, foreign correspondent and editor. He headed Times news bureaus in Moscow, Cairo, Beijing, Ottawa and Johannesburg, covered the United Nations, and reported from the former , Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, Africa, South America and . He also worked as an editor at Look and Newsweek magazines and at the International Herald Tribune in .
Wren graduated with honors from Dartmouth College and Columbia of Journalism and studied on graduate fellowships at the of and Stanford. After leaving The Times, he lived in , , training Russian journalists and assisting independent newspapers across nine time-zones. In Central , he ran Russian-speaking workshops for young journalists in ten cities and towns across Kazakhstan, and advised newspaper editors in and . He taught at before coming to , where he is visiting professor in its Master of Arts program in liberal studies.
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I came across this book in the local library while waiting for my wife to choose some books. I read it over a two day period and basically couldn't put it down. It is essentially a book of contrasts in that the author walks out of Times Square, New York with all its bustle, through Harlem and out of the city to the north before entering country areas as he heads towards Vermont. Part of the book is in the City, part is on the Appalachian Trail and part is on the Vermont Long Trail. On the way he stays with friends, camps in shelters on the trail, filters his water, and then on the odd occasion stays in a nice hotel. I was interested in his observation that as soon as hikers entered the towns they would do what they needed to do such as have a good meal and then they would be anxious to be back on the trail again. Walking day after day is more like the world we evolved in rather than this artificial protective shell called civilization that we have built for ourselves. On the way there are interesting historical observations - who would have thought that George Washington would have paid $500 to have his horse rescued from a fall (and was he over charged - $500 was a lot of money in 1777). Despite the hardships on the trail you get a feeling that the author really came alive on this trip. The longest I have ever walked in one day is 20 miles and I have every admiration for the long distances covered here hiking day after day through what are often tough conditions. I have only done short hikes on the Appalachian Trail although I did a huge amount of hiking in England but whenever I look at a map of the Appalachian Trail you can see immediately that it is a tough hike with a lot of altitude changes. Wren met a lot of interesting people on the trip, many of whom were hiking alone which is probably the best way to do it. This is the kind of book that you could buy and then open up and read again five years later and I can recommend buying this one. I hope that Christopher Wren is enjoying his retirement in Vermont and that he still finds time to hike.
I loved this book! There was just something wonderfully magic about this tale of discovery of the people and places we all often just 'pass by' in our pursuit to get where we're going. The humor in this story is delightful, and the story of the hike itself is great. I picked this book up to read on a plane & honestly was surprised when a few hours later the plane landed & my eyes had not left these pages the entire flight! I wanted to begin hiking to discover my own familiar paths immediately. Thank you Christopher Wren!
The journey taken on foot has long been part of literature and philosophy. Herman Heese for instance wrote beautifully reflective vignettes of life in the valleys and hills of his own country. There are a number of books based in America from the genre; and even when done badly they all offer something to the reader because life from street level can't fail to be intriguing and illuminating. WALKING TO VERMONT is a winner; starting out from glittery grand New York and slowly descending to less celebrated plains, where making a living takes on a whole new and tougher meaning. As a journey to the soul, I heartily recommend IN THE GHOST COUNTRY which is an astonishing and haunting true story that is worth checking out.