Monday, November 23, 2009

Kayaking on the Hudson

Ready for some adventures closer to home--a readiness dictated by the increasingly cold weather and shorter days--NCT and I decided to follow our Cold Spring hike with a morning spent kayaking on the Hudson. One of the happy accidents of 2009 is that I came into partial possession of two kayaks, Salt and Pepper, this past spring; a fellow employee in my firm had planned to sell them because he couldn't afford the storage fees at the 72nd Street Boat Basin, but ultimately he decided instead to create a mini kayak co-op. As a result, twelve of us each paid about fifty dollars to cover the storage fees, created a Google calendar to track when one of us had booked the boats, and received a comically small key to the bowels of the Boat Basin.

Most of my kayaking experience has taken place in the following three places: Monterey Bay, where the kelp beds keep the rollers to a minimum while providing a glimpse into an incredible world of oceanic wildlife; Stanford's Lake Lagunitas, where I proved to be unteachable in the art of the Eskimo roll, and which, depending on the weather, would occasionally remain either unpleasantly shallow or else dry year-round; and Ithaca's Cayuga Lake, whose lake floor possesses an unchecked bounty of sharp zebra mussels. Each of these three locales ultimately taught me the same lesson; namely, that I prefer rowing shells to ocean kayaks, and that I prefer ocean kayaks to river kayaks. That said, now that I no longer live in San Francisco, where open water rowing had become a treasured part of my life, I've been ready to take what I can get when it comes to getting on the water. Enter Salt and Pepper.
NCT is my only friend in New York who possesses both the interest and the experience necessary to taking a kayak out on the Hudson, and as a result, he became my kayaking partner this summer. We weren't able to kayak nearly as often as we wanted to, but on the few occasions that we set our boats in the water, I was glad to have him by my side. And while it's true that it would have been impossible for me to roll/drag a kayak alone from the boat storage locker, across the bike/dog-walking/chaotically-running-children path of death, down the dock ramp, and across the kayak dock, I really valued his presence for one, unshakable reason: he is incredibly calm. NCT is so calm that when I see a wake the (perceived) size of a tsunami racing towards me off the back of a trash barge, and as my voice begins to take on the nervous pitch of a yapping beagle, NCT never loses his cool; instead, he paddles leisurely alongside me, pointing out the interesting detritus in the water, commenting on the beautiful sunset, and often, as a last resort before I give myself over to panic, lines his boat right up next to mine and rests his paddle across my hull while the wake rolls through. That is a good kayaking buddy.

I can't deny that the Hudson, for myriad reasons, unnerves me in a way that San Francisco Bay does not. True, I've kept to the Bay's relatively quieter reaches of Richardson Bay and Paradise Cove, but each of those sees a substantial amount of boat traffic and rough water as well. My difficulties with the Hudson can, I think, be traced to the following fundamental issues: the combined effect of the river current and incoming tides can result in one rowing against the "current" no matter which direction one is going; the traffic on the river is significant and varied, and never seems (from my perspective) to expect encounters with small, motor-less boats; river kayaks have always felt too capricious to me. Okay, that last point is not particular to the Hudson, and is also somewhat nonsensical; what I mean by "capricious" is that river kayaks respond to water in instantaneous and often unexpected ways. Such is their strength, and it's one that I've never been able to accommodate completely.

In combination with my general nervousness regarding Hudson River kayaking, however, is my love of being on the water, and for this I will suffer almost any river kayak and boat wake induced discomfort. The privilege of seeing Riverside Park from the river cannot be underscored enough, nor can the sense of tracing the City's watery boundary with a paddle. It was for these reasons that NCT and I decided to take a chance on another cold November Sunday and roll out the boats.

We walked over to the hut of the Boat Basin dockmaster (not his actual title), and rang the bell; the water surrounding the sailboats and small yachts lay flat and inviting in the cold sunshine. The dockmaster was clearly less excited than we were, but he promised to unlock the gate to the kayak dock and said he'd meet us in ten minutes. The mothballs in the boat storage locker were even more pungent in late Fall than they'd been in the Summer, and the lock stuck in the chill. We were wriggling into our spray skirts when we heard ominous footsteps...it was the dockmaster. He had come to tell us that the area around the kayak dock was undergoing maintenance, and as a result, the dock was closed until spring. No more kayaking until April. Our faces fell.
We walked glumly along the runner's path and looked at the dock floating in the placid water. "Let's go eat brunch", said NCT. "Okay", I replied. And so we assuaged our disappointment with giant popovers and apple butter, and talked about NCT's ascent of Kilimanjaro, among other athletic feats, which seemed all the more glorious from the perspective of a warm booth and a plate of eggs.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Cold Day in Cold Spring

In the early hours of a cold November Sunday (meaning at about 9:00 am, which for most New Yorkers constitutes dawn on the weekend), NCT and I met one another at Grand Central Station and bought two round-trip tickets to Cold Spring, NY. Our mission: to undertake one last, gut-busting hike before a cold snowy curtain dropped on 2009. As our train sped through the Hudson River Valley, and past suburban towns that still lay quiet in the Sunday morning sunlight, we alternately dozed, watched the river, and tried to read the paper. The journey was further heightened by my inability to find a trash can anywhere on the train--the result of an anti-terrorism campaign? Or Albany budget cuts? Alas, I laid my Zabar's paper tea cup to rest in one of Cold Spring's many conveniently placed trash receptacles in front of one of its many antique shops while NCT and I meandered to the trail head. Two and half hours after leaving Midtown Manhattan, our feet were crunching dry leaves as we climbed above the Hudson.
The Cold Spring circuit trail that most hikers undertake is about six miles long, and it begins by rising sharply above the river valley before undulating along a ridge. Despite keeping relatively fit this Fall through a combination of running (NCT and me), biking (me), and kettle balling (NCT), we were both red-faced and out of breath within minutes (so much for our alpine-induced fitness). That said, we were still hiking quickly, and as a result, we reached one of the trail outcrops much faster than I anticipated; to the South we could see West Point's campus nosing into the Hudson, with the town of Garrison just across the water. To the North stood Storm King Mountain, with its fearsome, sharp face dropping straight into the river. As we climbed what had began as a sunny Fall day became cold and foggy; I couldn't help but remember the lines from William Least Heat-Moon's River Horse, which had seemed more benign in the warm fields of di Suvero sculpture. The "dim, wet cloves" that surround the mountain started to feel more immediate, and disconcertingly so.
Once the trail leveled out, and as it alternated between large, exposed rock slabs and leaf-covered depressions, NCT and I began one of our increasingly favorite hiking pastimes--of where does this trail remind you? Due to the odd foggy weather, which was soon obstructing our views and swirling the treetops in soupy mist, NCT stated the Cascades; as a result of the uniform bare trees and leaf/mud mix, I named the Finger Lakes and the Berkshires. I was about to wonder what other place(s) might evoke all three when NCT announced that it was lunchtime, and I shut up in favor of sourdough bread, sausage, cheese, Lake Champlain chocolate, and a Jonagold apple the size of my face. We sat on a giant rock and watched the fog descend.
We, too, began our descent, and as we circled back towards Cold Spring, we encountered a man who asked us our opinion of the Americans caught hiking into Iran, an abandoned dairy farm, a preternaturally cheerful golden retriever, and a mud pit the size of my apartment (hence, bigger than one might think). The sunlight returned, and even the leaves seemed greener, once we turned south along the river and walked back into town. Any visit to the Hudson River Valley involves a requisite antiques shop tour, and so NCT and I took our muddy boots into a warehouse-like store that possessed, among other things, armoires, cooking paraphernalia, and an impressive collection of 1950s Playboys. Our curiosity sated, we sat by the river and watched Storm King watching us while we ate Perry's ice cream cones.

Back on the train, and wearing every single one of my layers, I took out the Sunday crossword puzzle so that we could use our combined brainpower to finish at least half of it. We made it as far as Garrison--at which point we watched all the cadets hop off and make their way back to school--and then fell asleep. When we awoke it was dark, and the train was about to pull into one of Grand Central's tunnels. We were both quiet as the train stopped in the fluorescent station light, and after saying goodbye, we walked in opposite directions to our subway lines. I stood on the 1 train and watched some Cold Spring dirt fall off of my boots onto the car floor. Then I walked home along the pavement and under the street lamps on my block, and dreamed about next year.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Part II: St. Gaudens' Shaking Civil War Relief

NCT and I found the American Wing empty and light, despite the downpour coating the glass roof above us. The Saint-Gaudens exhibit, however, was tucked into a windowless gallery off of the Frank Lloyd Wright room; in fact, exploring the various sculptures and photographs necessitated wandering down one long, twisty, cozily lit hallway. Whether or not the curator's intention was to evoke a nineteenth century evening, I actually enjoyed the presentation and its subsequent ambiance, and not only because the relatively dim lighting made every male bust look like Abraham Lincoln.

My first encounter with Saint-Gaudens was through Robert Lowell's poem "For The Union Dead", which I read as a teenager and whose namesake text is now one of my favorite books (it sleeps next to me on my nightstand). I purchased this particular edition at the Oxfam Bookshop on St. Giles in Oxford several years ago; it's a 1965 Farrar, Straus & Giroux hardcover with a sketch of Saint-Gaudens' Civil War relief on both the title page and dust jacket, and ever since that day it and Hass's Sun Under Wood have been my constant poetic companions.

I used to find, during the months that I spent in Oxford, that America and American poetry weighed more heavily on my mind than either did when I was at home. Then again, figurative speech regarding weight does not quite express what I felt--it seemed, rather, that America and American poetry were somehow on my mind (lightly resting?) in a way that demanded more attention than they did in San Francisco, or in Ithaca, or in New York City. Even when I went through a long Edward Thomas phase in the Fall of 2004, it was through the prism of his relationship with Robert Frost that I thought about his poetry while walking home by University Parks, or along the streets of Jericho.

As a result, because of Oxfordshire evenings spent reflecting on, and questioning whether, and ultimately concluding that "the ditch is nearer", and that, in fact and more than ever, "there are no statues for the last war here", the marriage between Lowell's poetry and Saint-Gaudens' sculpture will last forever for me. On the rare occasions that I walk by the Boston Common, the most recent of which was a brilliantly sunny and freezing March day this year, when the steep brick streets of Beacon Hill lay under a seamless sheet of ice, I always spend a few moments in front of Saint-Gaudens' "compass-needle" lean Colonel Shaw and his "bronze Negroes". Do they all still "await the blessed break"?

Of course, the Met's exhibit only displays a small mock-up of this Relief, but the curator pulled the piece away from the wall so that we could see the misshapen other halves of Shaw's and his soldiers' faces. NCT and I spent more time with Sherman and his winged victory, a contemplative Hiawatha and the ten and twenty dollar gold coins. My distant ancestor Deacon Samuel Chapin threatened to stalk the hall with his furrowed puritanical brow and dark bronze robes. We lingered over the cameos, and then decided to leave for the Central Park Pumpkin festival. "A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders / braces the tingling Statehouse, / shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw / and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry / on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief".

Why would a poet, writing one hundred years after Fort Wagner, and at a period removed from my own time in not only mood and perspective, but even in diction and meter, still weigh so heavily on my mind? Because Lowell felt like a weight as we walked through the Park, and as we watched excited children waiting for the Haunted House by Bethesda Fountain, and eating cider doughnuts while grasping their pumpkins. Wet straw from the Pumpkin Patch lay strewn across the 72nd Street Transverse, and Stebbins' angel drooped her shoulders in the rain.

"He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely, / peculiar power to choose life and die--"

New York City Marathon, I salute you.


Because you create a 26.2 mile-long block party in New York City. Because you allow mere mortals to share the course with the greatest runners on the planet, and because you celebrate those mortals as they cross the same bunted finish line. Because you welcome runners from all over the world, and because they laugh, and weep, and scream, and pump their fists as they wend through your wide serpentine curves. Because you show those runners how far they can push themselves, and how strong they really are, and how courageous they can be. Because your last three miles in Central Park showcase humanity at its finest. New York City Marathon, I salute you!