Pedestrian 20: What's in a Walk?
Thoughts on walking 158 miles from Brooklyn to Montauk.
Welcome to Pedestrian. I’m Alex Wolfe.
For those of you joining me for the first time...hello! This is a bi-weekly newsletter about walking and our everyday surroundings, which went on an unannounced hiatus as I walked 158 miles across the length of Long Island over nine days (you can view a map of my journey here). It’s good being back.
Last time I finished a long, long walk, I wrote an entire newsletter attempting to unpack its contents, but I’m not doing that today (better saved for a book coming early next year). Instead, I’m sharing fragments of an experience I am still processing.
An Instagram story I posted on day eight, for example, is one of those fragments. I cannot help but smile each time I watch it. It sums up the mood perfectly. Read the transcript below:
I’m in no rush. I’m feeling nice and strong, I'm feeling the big duck energy flowing through me. Feeling powerful. Feeling purposeful. Feeling intentional. I cannot wait to get to Montauk, but I’m in no rush, I’m having a great time out here.
I did not write about it in the daily newsletter I sent each morning, but I wasn’t always feeling that intention. I spent the first two days dreading the walk. I witnessed my mood rise and fall like a ping pong ball. Such is the nature of walking, but nine days of it sounded closer to a million years. Blame it on all the misleading stereotypes of Long Island, maybe the end of a relationship, or a lack of sleep the night before departing (definitely).
I left for Montauk for many reasons, some I came to understand and others not at all, but processing my emotions was not on that list. And while It’s not a science, I am willing to claim – especially after two long, long, walks under my belt – it’s inevitable to feel some resolve after completing these journeys.
The morning I shot my favorite Instagram story, I sat on the lawn of my motel and wrapped my blistered toes, occasionally stopping to munch on a complimentary gas station coffee cake, fully aware of the cross contamination I was committing. I was dirty, but I didn’t mind. After seven days of travel, mixed with the persistent stress of walking beside careless drivers, I’d achieved a certain bliss that can only be described as deep gratitude for all that surrounded me. The feelings further manifested as I pulled the brand new fleece from my pack and wrapped it around my body. The air was crisp and the sky as blue as blue could be. It finally felt like fall and I was convincing myself this walk would never end.
I can lucidly recall how I felt that morning over and over, yet the walk feels divorced from my day-to-day existence here in the city. That is, until some subtle detail, long forgotten, creeps back into my memory. While reading emails I revisit the way Chick, an older gentleman I met in Islip, held his fingers around a lit cigar or the way the water crashed and glistened when it made contact with the ocean wall as I walked along the Belt Parkway.
As I write this letter, a plastic bag full of accumulated artifacts from the road sits on my desk (how I wish I could scan them for you, but alas, last night I discovered my scanner died). It hasn’t moved since I returned to Brooklyn, but it’s presence makes me feel as if the walk never ended.
Another artifact, a rock picked from the shoulder of the Montauk Highway, sits underneath my computer monitor. Throughout the walk I carried it in my pocket and felt its weight. Shaped like a triangle, it naturally lends itself to a compass. On its side is a white strip of paint – likely thermoplastic road marking paint – pointing me in the right direction.
Along this journey I have collected charms as means of protecting and guiding me. In my left pocket is a lucky penny, a buckeye nut, and a rock with a painted white line that I’ve decided is my compass. At all times it faces Montauk Point. While I wouldn’t consider myself an overly superstitious person, the road tends to reveal overlooked sides of one’s personality. I suppose it makes sense that I seek good fortune in these inanimate objects. To walk on the road is dangerous and at the slightest error, could end my life.
This walk has ended, but the rock's charm lives indefinitely. I’ll keep it forever.
I never intended these walks as spiritual ventures or a quest for deeper meaning, but I suppose that is the beauty of producing creative work; you can have intention, yet it’s nothing if you don’t possess the patience and flexibility to let an idea tell you what it wants to be.
I learned to turn my creativity into the only God I could believe in– the God of creativity. I learned to get out of the way and let that creative force work through me. I learned to just show up at the page and write down what I heard.
– Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way,
Walking, just as much as any creative pursuit, asks you to listen to that idea and sit with it for miles at a time. That’s not to say I trust any idea when it comes a-knocking. Although sometimes it’s too late. I recall a particularly hairy day of the trip, one I’d anticipated for weeks, en route to the beloved Big Duck in Flanders.
[I am walking] in a grassy median, likely 30 feet wide, between 4 lanes of moderate highway. Despite being completely exposed, it’s likely the safest place to walk in these conditions. The shoulder is much too tight, and with cars going 65 mph, I’d rather not walk there. I understand it’s not safe to walk on these highways, but this is the best option I have, and what I must do if I want to reach the Big Duck today.
A busy highway tends to ask the pressing question: would you like to renew your commitment to this practice? Do you trust what the idea has told you?
I joked the entire walk was about harnessing #BigDuckEnergy (which is a reference to the Big Duck, of course, and the history of duck farms on Long Island), and while abstract and silly, is about trusting the journey and letting things unfold as they will. What the walk delivers is what was meant to happen.
Walking lends itself to a certain sensitivity and vulnerability to the sights and sounds surrounding you. A speeding car feels like it’s moving five times faster. The smell of exhaust is more potent. I'm more upset about the countless drivers who almost run me over because they never look for pedestrians as they take a right on red. I can feel the violence of building a four lane highway through a wooded area. I’m disgusted by the amount of trash this way of living has promoted. I decide friendships and family are the greatest asset I’ll ever have and understand I inhabit a body that will not last forever.
I’m leaving Amagansett as the shiny black eyes of a deer watch me from across the street. Hit by a car in the dead of night, it now rests peacefully in the median of the road. A steady flow of traffic navigates its body so as not to run it over. I’m conditioned to see roadkill from behind the windshield of a car, however from the shoulder, I cannot ignore its presence and feel the life lost.
Another example. Each town on Long Island, within reasonable driving distance to the city, has its own piece of the fallen World Trade Centers prominently displayed beside plaques dedicated to the rescue workers who lost their life on 9/11. While I don't understand my intentions, I place my hand on the steel each time we meet. We’ve both managed to find our way to Long Island.
Perhaps the most sobering reminder of our fleeting existence are the roadside memorials I witnessed commemorating those who lost their life behind the wheel.
Some are simply marked with a white cross, while other memorials have their own sign and display a photo of the deceased. I’ve seen 3 or 4 today, and that’s in the span of 15 miles of walking. I can’t imagine how many of these memorials are scattered throughout the island.
It's powerful to witness these memorials from the shoulder and I take a picture of each one I see. While I don’t know these people, it fills me with immense sadness to see all the lives lost behind the wheel and the lengths family members have gone to preserve their memory. I take a little piece of them with me. It’s abstract really, but I feel a sense of duty to get home safely in their honor.
“You’re going to hate Long Island.”
At least that’s what I was told to think.
Bear in mind, I had a very specific experience of Long Island – one that only took place on the Southern Shore (I mean, there’s an entire Northern Shore and Northern Fork to be explored). and as much as I thought I would be right there with them *puts on Long Island hat and clears throat* … I had the time of my life walking all the way to Montauk Point and I’d do it all again. Long Island exceeded any expectations I had. The people. The sights. The generosity. The traffic. The beauty. The roads. The lodging. All of it.
And of course, Long Island has its share of unpleasant settings (just as all places do), but it’s also filled with immense beauty. To see the landscape shift from the dense suburbs of Nassau County to small towns, farms, and sandy dunes of the East End only made me grow a deeper appreciation for the place.
More often than not, these widespread generalizations of a place gain traction because the places they describe are frequently misunderstood. Call me crazy, but I feel the same way about Midtown Manhattan and North New Jersey, which are examples of my favorite places to walk. Whether stereotyped as a tourist trap, food desert, or suburban hellscape, it often means you just need to look a little harder. Don’t believe what everyone tells you. Go spend some time there.
Long Island, if you'll have me back, I won’t decline. It was a pleasure to walk.
Thanks to everyone who follows along and supports this project. I can’t wait to share the next big one in 2022. Stay tuned.
Thanks for reading.
Thank you Chance, Kiara, Francis, Gunnar, Laura, Jared, Sam, Nancy, Val, Charlie, Zoe, and Blythe for making today’s newsletter possible!
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