While there is no substitute for getting out of our homes and taking up the challenging Great Saunter, author, Shorewalker member, and Saunterer, Emmet Freedman of the writing project (link below) describes his Great Saunter virtual tour:
You make your way to lower Manhattan far earlier than you are used to on a Saturday morning. Stores are closed, and the streets are mostly empty as you trickle in from any number of subway stops: Whitehall, Fulton, Bowling Green, Rector. Maybe you walk west from the ferry, beneath the FDR. Regardless of where you come in from, all paths lead to one place: Fraunces Tavern, on the corner of Pearl and Broad. As you get closer, you start to see them, the other walkers with their bright colored backpacks, hiking shoes and sun hats. You see a few elderly people walking with what look like ski poles, helping to keep them balanced as they cross the cobblestone streets in FiDi. Everything is quiet, as silent as Manhattan gets, but you can feel the hum of excitement building block by block as you get closer to the Tavern; this is a big day, and you and everybody around you know it. When you reach the throng of people milling around outside, you begin to check your equipment. You look in your backpack for the extra pair of socks and box of granola bars you know you packed the night before. Maybe you apply some last-minute sunscreen on your nose, or smear some on your kids’ faces. You fiddle with your shoelaces, making sure your sneakers are tied just right. If you’re a veteran walker, you say things like “the first ten miles fly by,” and “we can get snacks at the Fairway.” If this is your first time, then you worry about the flimsy slip-ons you decided to slip on that morning.
Eventually, once you’ve checked your gear and your group has come together, you look around you and notice that people are beginning to peel off, away from Fraunces’ down Pearl, or Bridge, towards the Hudson. You check your watch: 7:55am. Somehow, you realize, you’ve missed these departures for the last twenty-five minutes, and now your group is one of the last one standing around. You wait for one more mad dash to the bathroom, take a few premature sips of water, and follow the distant crowd towards the river. The Great Saunter has begun.
Heading up the West Side highway, you are lulled into thinking that this day will be easy. That you will walk thirty-two miles around the perimeter of Manhattan and be drinking margaritas by five. You are wrong. As you shoot your way up the west side, ticking off the early miles, you are still very excited. Your group is chatting up a storm and taking pictures. You pass by Chelsea Piers and through Riverside Park and reach the perfectly balanced Sisyphus Stones a little before noon. If you are fairly new to the city, then this is unchartered territory (you’ve never been above Midtown), and as you reach the Little Red Lighthouse below the George Washington Bridge, you are blown away by the majesty of it all.
You climb up the steepest section of the walk, winding your way into the trees of Fort Washington Park and away from the shoreline, and your group takes a break among the grand pillars of Inspiration Point overlooking the Hudson. By the time you’ve crossed through Inwood Hill Park, where the scenery shifts from urban to rural in the blink of an eye, and where you stock up on Goldish, Gatorade and whatever else the volunteers offer, you feel a heavy sense of accomplishment. You’ve made it. Your group pauses, soaking in the cheerful energy of dozens of resting travelers, and recharges. You have halfway left to go.
Unfortunately, you soon realize that the second half is a different beast entirely. On rounding the corner, so to speak, of the upper reaches of Manhattan, you cross over from enjoyment into indifference. You lose a bit of oomph from your step as the route becomes less clear. “Where’s the beautiful shoreline?” you ask yourself as you weave your way through East Harlem, rejoining the East River path where possible in a frustrated sort of dance. By nature of the stopover in Inwood, your group has broken off from the rest, and as you try to stay on course, the rare saunterer, identified only by their backpack and race bib, acts like a homing beacon, keeping you on track.
Your group begins to wander. Between 155th and 145th, it’s up to you to find your way through the streets, back to the river where the Charles Young Playground sits at the foot of the 145th Street Bridge and the green way trail picks back up. When you finally reach the outer limits of where you thought Manhattan ended, the first pangs of regret seep in. At this point, you have passed four bridges since Inwood, and by the time you get to 125th, that number jumps to ten: University Heights, Washington Heights, Alexander Hamilton, High, Macombs Dam, 145th Street, Madison Avenue, Third Avenue, Willis Avenue, Robert F. Kennedy. You realize, with startling clarity, that the tan, hazy object out on the horizon is the Queensboro Bridge. It looks far away, as though it marks the entrance to Newark, or Staten Island, and it is far away. As you fixate on its steel beams you realize that the speck in the distance is not your final destination, but in fact a landmark roughly six miles from the end. You, or someone in your group, voices out loud what everyone is thinking: “Why are we doing this?”
If you are lucky, your group has an energizer, someone to corral the troops, distract them from emotional setbacks and hone their focus all the way to the finish. As your snake your way down along the Harlem River, having walked over twenty miles by this point, the energizer suggests a game. “Would you rather pee avocados or poop bowling balls?” Your mind wanders from the miles ahead and contemplates your answer. You are distracted. The energizer’s conversation sustains you past Icahn Stadium, which sits across the river on Randall’s Island, Carl Schurz and John Jay Parks, and then the Lyceé Français, Sotheby’s and the ornate entrance to Rockefeller University, those last three on a particularly lush stretch of York Avenue. Before you know it, you are crossing under the Queensboro, that massive feat of engineering that seemed so distant a few hours ago. In the spirit of the Saunter, and the Shorewalkers’ namesake mission, you cut back eastward and rejoin the river at Sutton Place, a somewhat secluded pocket of leafy green apartments south of the bridge, and continue on until you reach the United Nations, where you pause to take stock of what’s left: a few miles of uninterrupted shoreline all the way to the Tavern. You cross under the little walkway, officially rejoining the East River Esplanade, and you’re in for potentially familiar territory: the running route that passes by Stuy Town, Alphabet City, the Lower East Side and Chinatown. Your hips ache and the soles of your feet throb with each step, but as you walk past twilight tennis matches, the East River Amphitheater and the Manhattan Bridge you can taste it, the end of this whole ordeal, a little over a mile away. You’ve made it.
At the finish line, you are greeted by muted fanfare. A few walkers mill around , watching you finish. You think that maybe they walked much faster than you, or took fewer breaks, and are shocked to see among those that beat you two middle aged women, bristling with energy, an elderly man from Mexico, folding up his walking sticks, and a family of four from Cleveland. Two Shorewalkers beckon you towards them. “Congratulations!” they say, and as you are presented your certificate of achievement (32 mile finisher), the corners of your mouth betray you, and you start to smile. You did it. Your group did it. You’ve seen the entirety of the Manhattan shoreline and all you can think about, in between thoughts of cheeseburgers and ice cold beer, is that stretch of the East River when you thought it was all over, when you debated calling it quits. A quest like this leaves no room for quitting. You are a Saunterer.