Pedestrian Newsletter 09
End of 2020: Walking to the Mainland and Back
Happy New Year’s Eve! This month I write to you from the comfort of my desk chair, where my shins and ankles are still slightly achy after walking almost 23 miles last Sunday afternoon.
It’s fitting that on my last big walk of 2020, things didn’t go to plan. Like many walks this year, I left my apartment with a defined end to my journey, however, as I moved through the front gate of my apartment building (a gesture akin to walking through a portal and into another world), I could feel my intentions start to shift.
The previous night, I decided on taking a short 5.5 mile jaunt to a Midtown barbershop where I thought I’d take a few photos (a barbershop worthy of its own newsletter, but perhaps for another time), but considering that it would be the last big walk of the year, it just didn't feel like the proper way to end 2020.
For some reason, the Bronx had been on my mind as I ate breakfast that morning and walking there certainly sounded ambitious to me. I daydreamed about making the trek since walking to Red Hook earlier this year. Despite only being 11.5 miles (and some change) from my apartment, things never panned out.
I don’t have an aversion to planning, but a part of me enjoys figuring things out as I move along instead of following a predetermined route. That isn’t to say planning a walk is a bad idea. In fact, some of the best walks take place when you have your route dialed in with points A and B clearly defined. It gives you one less thing to worry about, which creates space for other things to emerge in place of checking your phone every ten minutes to make sure you’re still on the right street.
Besides, there is some novelty walking all the way to the northernmost borough of the city. When considering the geography of New York City, few people realize that the Bronx is actually the only borough connected to mainland United States. Queens and Brooklyn are technically situated on Long Island, Manhattan is an island bound by the East, Hudson, and Harlem Rivers, and Staten Island is….well Staten Island. I wasn’t able to make it home for the holidays this year, but perhaps being on the same landmass as my family some 1100 miles away in Iowa would suffice.
Would I take the train home once I arrived in the Bronx? I started to feel inspired and it struck me that if I walked to the Bronx, I might as well end my journey in Manhattan, which would allow me to say I walked four boroughs in one day. That sounded like a fitting way to end 2020.
And so, I walked to the Bronx without stopping. I crossed the Newtown Creek (perhaps one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States) that separates Brooklyn from Queens, and then to an industrial and unusually vacant patch of Sunnyside, Queens. Things began to liven up as I walked beneath the elevated N/W train in residential Astoria and then across the Robert Kennedy Bridge where I could see a panoramic view of Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan in the distance.
I set foot on Randall's Island, which was incredibly calm and desolate compared to the roaring traffic of I-278 gliding over the RFK bridge. I passed the infamous Robert Moses Building as I continued on the trail that would lead me to the end of my destination in the Bronx. But the geese! How there were so many geese on Randall’s Island! It was perhaps the largest flock of geese I’d seen in all of New York City. I felt a childlike impulse to run towards them and watch them all fly away, but I suppose I had more pressing matters at hand.
I officially arrived in the Bronx just as the sun set and walked around for a mere 20 minutes before crossing the Willis Avenue Bridge which led to Harlem in Manhattan (little did I know that Randall’s Island is technically a part of Manhattan, so I guess I didn’t need to walk the bridge after all, but like I said, this walk was not planned).
I figured I’d celebrate the end of my journey with a much needed chop cheese sandwich from a bodega in Harlem (they originated there), but upon arrival, I made excuses to keep walking farther and farther. I decided I would forgo a meal in favor of hitting the 15 mile mark where I’d certainly hop on the train and head home, but my ambitions only snowballed larger and larger. I was moving southbound at this point towards the Williamsburg Bridge. The street numbers were getting smaller and smaller as I hit the 15 mile mark, which soon became the 18 mile mark when suddenly I reached the point of no return. I found myself on the corner of 36th Street and 2nd Avenue just east of Midtown staring at the Empire State Building thinking of all the times I’d walked home from that very point many times before. I had no choice but to walk all the way home, and if I didn’t, well, it would be a long time before I considered doing a walk of this nature once again. Would I regret doing it? Now was my chance to find out.
So I kept going and going and going, glancing at each train station I walked by which immediately elicited fond memories of my warm apartment miles away in Bed Stuy (and how tempting it was to just hop on!). To combat my desire, I focused on the walk before me and told myself, “the walk is all there is”, and at that moment I was correct. The walk was all there was. Nothing else concerned me but making it all the way home.
The rest of my body was beginning to feel the consequences of walking over 18 miles, something I rarely do. It was impossible not to make the occasional grunt to expel pain as I crossed block after block after block after block. A sense of anxiety began to take a hold on me as I questioned my motives for the walk in the first place. What was I doing? I tried to convince myself that this walk wasn’t worth finishing and I had nothing to prove. But of course, moments like these pass if one chooses to be patient. I slipped into a rhythm forming between my feet moving back and forth, one by one, left to right. My pace increased and I felt a renewed sense of contentment. The walk was all I had.
A walk of this length is a wonderful way to feel like an outsider. Moments occur where it's clear that you’re a wallflower witnessing movie scenes unfold before you. At the same time, it feels like everyone is hyper aware of your existence and knows you’ve just spent the last 7 hours walking. I saw families in Harlem hurrying home with groceries in hand slowly change into groups of friends eating together in the outside dining structure of an upscale restaurant. I spent the entire day barely interacting with anyone, save the man working at the bodega counter when I needed more water or a curious jogger asking me why I was taking photos of the Newtown Creek. Seeing people socializing just felt alien to me.
A walk of this distance acts as a thread that connects every neighborhood, every block, and every building. The city feels like one big neighborhood filled with neglected parts situated beside sections that are overly fabricated to produce a curated experience that doesn’t quite feel real. But to walk throughout the city is to see it all…and to see it all is to witness the boroughs connected like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle glued together by cement and steel, bridges and sidewalks, water and land.
I finally made it home in one piece by 8pm that night feeling a slight buzz from a day’s worth of activity. Exhausted beyond belief, I was starved considering I’d packed enough granola for a 5.5 mile walk. I slept well and even woke the next day still feeling exhausted. I’m glad things didn’t go to plan, but for the first time in a long time, I don’t think I’ll be walking for a few days unless I need to check my mail or pick up groceries. I could use the rest.
Before I wrap up today, I’d like to thank everyone who has supported Pedestrian in any way this year. I could not have done it without you. 2020 was probably the most unusual year of my life, but also a year of immense growth and contemplation. This project grew in ways that I never would have imagined after starting as a small zine in March of 2018. I am so grateful for the small community that has formed around this project and I hope you’ll continue to stick around. I have lots of fun planned for the coming year.
If you’ve appreciated Pedestrian in the past, enjoy it presently, and feel excited about upcoming projects, please consider supporting for as little $5 a month. This coming year I hope to make the Pedestrian community a bigger part of this work and offer group studio visits, members only interviews, and unreleased content. To those who have already signed up, thank you so much. I really, really appreciate it.
Until then, stay safe and I wish you all the best in 2021. Here is to another year of good walking.
See you next year,
Pedestrian tells stories about the people, routines, and connections we make as a result of moving throughout one’s everyday surroundings. It began as a quarterly magazine in 2018 by Alex T. Wolfe and is occasionally released as a podcast. If you enjoy Pedestrian, please consider being a patron.