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Trip 22 -- NYC-Boston Walk
November 17, 2018, was my 8,111th day as a New York City resident. Before moving to Manhattan I lived in the Boston area for my first 8,110 days. The idea of a walk connecting them has long intrigued me as a way to mark that occasion.
I have never known a wonderful way to get between the two cities. In the late '90s Greyhound was my default, but rising ticket prices, the lack of seat reservations, and a particularly grumpy driver soured the experiences. The small vans and buses between the two cities' Chinatowns were certainly priced right, but they took a rest stop in Connecticut that added a half-hour (and smelly fast food) to the trip, and one of the carriers' vehicles had a habit of catching fire or falling apart.
Amtrak used to oversell and it's gotten better, but they once stranded me in southern Massachusetts due to a track fire, and fares are often excessive (though this summer prices have been excellent due to reduced demand, trains have been clean, and the Acela now has reserved seating). Megabus has been unreliable, BoltBus used to have a terrible Web interface, and the Go Buses schedule is erratic and there's a scramble for seats, although the cost is decent.
In 2019 I would often fly, as the fares were often lower than Amtrak's, and on the Boston end I had the advantage of being able to walk from Logan Airport to the whiskey-focused bar my brother opened last year in East Boston, the Quiet Few, just 14 brisk minutes from terminal A. (If you're in Boston and finally enjoying to-go cocktails, a lot of the negotiation leading up to that was his doing.)
So maybe the best way to approach Boston from New York City is the way it was done in colonial times: on foot, though the feet back then might have been those of horses. After all, the Boston Post Road, heading out of the Bronx toward Connecticut, has been around in some form since the 1670s. It's now U.S. Route 1, largely known for traffic and the boxy buildings that flank it. East of New Haven the Post Road divides into the old lower and upper post roads, now the continuation of U.S. 1 and the northbound U.S. 5, respectively.
I am, of course, not the first person since the invention of the automobile to walk between New York and Boston. Someone did the trip in the other direction around 10 years ago and published a blog (walkingthepostroad.net) with extensive personal and historical commentary and photos, although nowhere on the site -- or its domain registration -- can I find the author's name. The trip's account has 65 entries, so perhaps it was a very slow journey.
My trip will take 11 days, at around 20 miles daily. For the past month and a half I've been practicing that pace, often walking an 11-mile route through Central Park twice a day. From my home in Hell's Kitchen, a neighborhood whose homeless population is friendlier and artsier (one creates a cross of pebbles on the sidewalk every day; another says "Good morning" through his mask) than recent articles seem to suggest, I walk up Eighth Avenue to Columbus Circle, where the statue of old Chris is fenced off for protection as his impact on our native population is increasingly and rightfully considered.
I enter the park and walk past Heckscher Playground, where near the restrooms a man in a ponytail cheerfully bows his violin, holding it lazily toward the ground instead of up to his chin. When a group with balloons comes by, he launches into "Happy Birthday," playing double stops regardless of their harmonic effect.
I dip down toward the carousel and then up to the Mall, where another statue of Columbus is similarly guarded and a gray-haired man plays a vertical single-string instrument; most recently it was "Jingle Bells." I look at him and shrug, "Why not?" Farther along the Mall they have just -- hours ago, this morning -- unveiled a new monument to Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as a testament to the centennial anniversary of women's suffrage and a recognition of the omission of Black voices from the amendment. Almost unthinkably, these are the first real women (as opposed to fictional characters) to be honored in statuary form in Central Park.
After descending the steps past the Mall, I pass a guitarist in a hat, facing the fountain. Then it's a short distance to the Bow Bridge, which together with the fountain and the steps are favorite sites for photo shoots. Sometimes children fish from the bridge, and occasionally a man plays an accordion next to its short span.
Just inside the Ramble, a raccoon greets me from atop the trash cans in the evening. I walk briefly through the dense forest -- I was there a few hours after Amy Cooper's famous tirade against Christian Cooper in May but before it was publicized -- and when I emerge on the other side, a whiff through my mask reminds me of the sanitation trucks frequently parked just off the main roadway.
I cross and head up to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, beautiful and tranquil at any time of morning, afternoon, or evening, and brilliantly laid out so as to have a seemingly shorter perimeter as I approach it than it appears to as I complete my circumnavigation. I sniff again and marvel at the hint of sea; in my 24 years in the city, the air has never been this fresh.
Here I recognize the geese, the ducks, the woman who reads while sitting on the banister near the reservoir's eastern entrance, and the woman who stretches her legs near its western entrance -- I notice the same foot impossibly hooked over the fence on consecutive days. Here, also, I might remove my mask briefly and let the sweat dissipate from around my mouth. The people circling the reservoir are mainly going in the same direction, fairly quickly, and with few close encounters, I believe the threat of catching the virus in motion in that location is trivial.
"Come on, you got this!" a tall, white-haired man encourages as he runs by, recognizing my pace as one more associated with exercise than a leisurely stroll.
"I'm going twenty-two miles -- I'm walking it! But you got this!" I yell back, and we both smile.
After following the main roadway all the way back to Columbus Circle, I do the whole loop down the Mall, through the Ramble, and around the reservoir again, before I head home. That's eleven miles and three hours.
I go without stopping, listening to National Public Radio, except the one time I was frozen in mid-step: Someone in an interview has just correctly pronounced "short-lived." I'm not sure that has happened since I moved from Boston.
Most of the time I walk the Central Park double loop in ideal conditions, shirtless and bagless. Eventually, though, I load up a small backpack with three days' worth of clothes (I'll wash them every few days) and my computer and practice under real-life circumstances. The computer and its cable double the bag's weight from four pounds to eight, but the computer's presence will appease the unemployment office (as long as I carry it, I'm available to work) and the people for whom I'm doing actual work as I go, in the form of making sheet music and assembling demo recordings. I'm thankful that the bag doesn't slow me down, and I maintain a pace of ten minutes per kilometer, just a tad slower at the end of each three-hour segment.
I realize my privilege in being able to make the trip, as a pianist who has enough money and lives alone. Normally I wouldn't justify the time off. I was grateful to accompany three opera singers live at a winery earlier this month, outdoors and apart from each other, but aside from that most of my music events have been canceled this year. I'm preparing for an online reading in September and for filming a few music classes in the fall from my home, but I'll be shocked if I play an audition or indoor event before March.
I plot the journey to Boston on Google Maps, making sure there are hotels open until I get to my parents' house in Newton, Massachusetts. Zoomed out, the route is surprisingly straight, except for a hiccup around Middletown, Connecticut, owing to a dearth of bridges over the Connecticut River. In general, I'll head up the coast to New Haven and then bisect the old upper and lower post roads, passing the tristate marker of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.
There are not many places to stay along the Post Road the first night: two in New Rochelle and one in Mamaroneck. The Mamaroneck Motel is closer to the 20-mile mark, but it sounds awful ("ROACH CITY!" screams the first TripAdvisor review that pops up, from three months ago) and is not much less expensive than the Radisson in New Rochelle. So while I would prefer to be patronizing independent businesses, and would love to knock off an extra four miles the first day, I simply don't want to stay at the motel. Instead, I'll go under 17 miles and sleep at the Radisson (itself a bit cheaper than the Marriott nearby). Besides, this way I can have dinner with friends who live in New Rochelle. And I can stay at the Radisson on points.
Google Maps gives me a few chuckles. I've specified a walking route, but it's stubbornly car-centric and instructs me to "Pass by Valvoline Instant Oil Change" and "Pass by Enterprise Rent-a-Car" and "Pass by Mavis Discount Tire." Why would I care? Why not "Pass by a plaque marking the site of the first steelworks in Westchester County" or "Pass by a gorgeous blue Queen Anne house"?
And the algorithm has routed me through the Bronx Zoo the first day. I attempt to shove the path over to Shore Road in Pelham Bay Park and it refuses -- apparently that involves a street crossing that it doesn't like, and instead of a short continuation along Pelham Bridge Road it wants me to detour around through Baychester for several miles. Clearly Google Maps needs a "hardy pedestrians" option, for people who are prepared to cross streets in unrecognized places (all intersections should have pedestrian crossings) or walk in gutters where there are no sidewalks (all non-dead-end streets should have them on both sides, but we'll get to that).
An area in the Bronx called Little Yemen grabs my attention. It's right near the zoo. How have I not heard of this before? I discover that it was just added to the map last year, at the request of one of its residents. Its center is the triangle intersection at White Plains Road and Rhinelander Avenue.
Well, I'll have to have lunch there, I tell myself. But I don't want to study the map too much. Part of the fun of the walk is seeing what I come across. As long as there's something to eat besides fast food and national chains, all I need to know is that I'm going in the right direction.
I don't tell many people about my plans, lest people offer too much advice (not a bad rule of thumb for life itself, I've discovered). A good friend asks, "Will you see a doctor before you go?" But I don't want to make more of this trip than it is: a string of daily six-hour walks. No need to ruin it with too much preparation or maintenance, the way the prospect of a day at the beach elicits nags about sunscreen or a bike ride nags about helmets. If I can walk 22 miles a day for three days, I can probably do it for 11 -- and some days will be shorter than that.
I do pick up the proper footwear, however. The Resorts casino in Atlantic City is desperate to get people back, and they offer me a two-night stay each week from July through October for just the nightly taxes and fees of almost $25. The last time I bought shoes was the Clarks store in the Tanger Outlets near the Atlantic City bus station, two and a half years ago. It is, as far as I can tell, the best place to buy walking shoes in the entire northeast, though admittedly I don't look around much. On my last visit I bought a pair of casual walking shoes and a pair of short boots; a few months ago I discovered a hole in the former, and I've been wearing the latter until I can get back to Atlantic City.
This time, in early August, Clarks is having a 50%-off sale, which applies even to already-discounted items. I check out their Cloudsteppers, which give me the cushioning I've been missing in my previous shoes. They slip, but when I put on thicker socks they're perfect. I find five different pairs in total that I know will have a place in my wardrobe, for $172.
I'm impressed with the virus-containment measures taken by the casinos, and at Resorts in particular. There's a temperature check on entry, masks are required, hand sanitizer and wipes are abundant, and a partition separates players at the tables. Over several sessions, I lose $92 at blackjack and its Spanish 21 variant, and I happily chalk it up to the cost of entertainment -- I'd been down much more than that.
Indoor dining in the casinos isn't allowed, so I use the opportunity to check out smaller off-boardwalk properties for outdoor meals. I can't finish the hearty chowder and ribs at the festive Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall. I enjoy dinner and two crab Bloody Marys ("It's a garden!" I remark to my server when the first drink comes with an abundance of greens) at the Atlantic City Bar & Grill, and then they wreck it with an unannounced credit-card surcharge. I have a better time way out at Sabor Salvadoreño, where I lunch before returning on the bus, my bag full of shoes.
I set a date for the departure: Friday, August 28. I plan all hotels except one in Connecticut, which has a 14-day cancellation window. All the other nights can be scrapped up until a day or two before, in case I chicken out.
But I've been thinking about this too long, and the more I think, the more excited I get. There's no way I'm backing out, even if Friday looks like rain, perhaps a remnant of the hurricane that hopefully will spare the Gulf Coast from much destruction. A little water doesn't hurt, and the odds of a full-day soaker are tiny. And while 2020 may have been a lousy year to do a lot of things, and an impossible year to do a lot of others, it's an ideal time for walking alone in the least virus-laden area of the country.
So when this restless pianist heads out the door on Friday with a small backpack, he'll blend in with everyone else on the street. He'll walk through Central Park as he has been doing for weeks. But then he'll keep going, and a week and a half later, he'll stroll into Boston Common, beckoned by the same Massachusetts State House dome that has greeted arrivals for 222 years.