Backpacking through New York

Prologue

I had been in New York for about a month, and the city, I discovered is beautiful.
Something is always happening, and somewhere or the other there’s always
something you’re welcome to join. But there’s only so much you can take of the
sky being cut up in straight-edged pieces. Glowing windows of skyscrapers make
poor proxies for stars. I wanted to get out and go somewhere. Someplace where
billboards don’t tell you what you need.

I needed money for the trip. Some essentials needed to be bought. I had brought
my violin with me, so I decided to busk. I had jammed with two street musicians
before, and I was kind of teetering on the edge of doing it or not doing it (I guess
I’m getting older faster than I expected). In the end, I decided I’ll try. If I could raise
enough money I’d go.

She had red hair and green eyes. I had set up my case besides the footpath on the
west side of times square. I was playing for some time, nothing was happening. She
gave me two dollars and a kind smile. I will never forget her, she had made me
believe everything would be possible.

When people walk by without noticing you, busking is hard. When people walk by
carefully ignoring you it’s harder. And when strangers stand to listen for a song after
song, it’s elation. After three days I had enough to go out and buy all the supplies I
needed, the fourth day was for precautionary measures. I only got two dollars that
day, one from a man who just wanted to take a photo with the violin, and one from
a man who wanted me to play so that he could let his girlfriend listen over the
phone. That alone was worth coming out to play after being tired as hell.

Friday

 

 

I had decided to set out for Harriman state park quite early. It was only forty miles
away, but the terrain would be hilly, and I had never cycled that far on hilly ground.
The cycle I had was a pretty low standard thing by American standards (the
cheapest one in Walmart), and luckily for me, Americans have pretty high
standards. The gears worked well, the machine was a fine one. The only way the
cost-cutting could be felt was by the seat cutting into my butt.

I woke up exactly when I had planned to, decided the bed was quite comfortable,
and sleep would be a good way to get rid of the pain from various parts of my body
(the kind of pain that comes from using a laptop bag that looks good for lugging
around heavyweights yesterday). Eventually, I woke up again for the final time and
started out at ten.

I made my way out of Manhattan, through the little hills of Harlem onto the George
Washington bridge over the Hudson River. I could see the New York skyline on one
side, and the New Jersey sky one the other. There’s something sad about seeing
reflections of clouds on the glass walls of skyscrapers, and I tried to get deeper into
New Jersey as fast as I could.

On my way, I encountered a submarine left in a river as a showpiece. Just a side
effect of having war-obsessed governments I guess.

As I cycled up steep hills, I was thankful for each cloud that came to give even a few
minutes of shade. I sat down on sidewalks when I got tired, under the largest trees
and softest grass I could find. I kept checking how far I was from my destination.
Eventually, I went into saddle river county Park. By this time I was tired and hungry,
so I sat down on a bench under a tree and opened my first can of soup. Soon I arrived
at Rochelle Park. Again I was tired and sought out a nice bench to lie down on. The
rucksack on my bag was heavy from carrying three day’s worth of meals in cans.
I lay down, under the shade of a huge tree beside a pond. A hoard of ducks was
swimming lazily in the rippling water. There were trees of various shades of green,
and a deep blue sky above. A light breeze blew, and suddenly it struck me. I had
been asking the most irrelevant question I could have. Trying to judge how far I
was, was a useless venture. I was exactly where I wanted to be, in the middle of
vast beauty. I had a tent, I could sleep anywhere. I had a stove and cans of food, I
could eat anywhere. Sometimes having a destination is a burden. The road was
enough.

I stuck my face into the Park’s fountain, washed off the sweat and the salt, filled up
my bottles, and started off again on the winding road. On my right was a little
country river, over my head sometimes a green canopy, sometimes the sunny sky,
on my left were fields of grass. I had never given much attention to how grass
smells.

Now I sat beside the river, felt the sweat evaporate off my skin, cooling me down,
and took in as much of the grassy smelling air as I could. I’d reach Harriman before
dark, I was sure. Sometimes getting tired is a good thing, you sit down to feel things
you would have left unseen.

Some way down the road I sat down at a little bakery and drowned out my
tiredness with coffee and a crumb bun. This establishment was run by school-going
people working part-time, in a town where people know each other’s names.
I continued up, got happy by the road signs declaring north. At one point I decided
to buy some beer. All the uphill work warranted a celebration with beer. I went into
the liquor store on the other side of the road. The man at the counter, it turned out
was from Kerala. I said I knew that the Malayalam word for rain is Mara, and I
remembered only this because rain is one of the most important things to me. (I
had set out some time ago to learn Telugu to talk to my half Telugu girlfriend who
doesn’t talk to anyone in that language to the point that when people try very hard
to hold a Telugu conversation with her she replies that she can’t speak the tongue,
in Telugu. My teacher sometimes threw in Malayalam words because she knew
that too. Learning a language is easy when it’s the language some of your muses
speak. The thing is, to say the word for water, a little bit of tongue-yoga is required,
so I try to practice said tongue yoga when I’m with a Malayalam speaker to see
whether I have made any progress, or am still sounding like someone with his
tongue tied up in a knot. When I learnt that I would actually be away for the entire
Indian academic summer to do an internship in New York, the course of action was
clear. I had to meet Megha before leaving, anyhow. Sitting and planning is easy,
and it’s easier to get caught up in planning. Saumya practically turned me out of
the classroom and I took the first train from Delhi to Kolkata that I could and got
up in the unreserved compartment. Indian state borders were drawn by languages,
and the moment I saw “thapornagar” written in Bengali script on the station
placard, I got elated. It meant I was finally, really really close. I sat by the door and
started singing. At one point I heard a girl talking to someone on the phone in a
beautiful and unknown language. Turned out she was speaking Malayalam. We
sang to each other, and she taught me the word for rain in her language.) Anyway,
the man at the store learned of my intentions of going camping and scooped up as
many water bottles he could with his hands and gave them to me, saying I’ll need
it. The rain did bring me free water.

IMG_20190630_204852

Finally, I could see mountains in the distance. Not the road rising up to a solitary hilltop like it was doing before, but mountains spanning my horizon. I felt a new rush
of energy. By now, the sun rays were slanting down.

As I entered the final valley, the valley was cradling the rays of the setting sun like
lovers who know they’ll be separated for a long dark time. The road took a few
turns and disappeared through curtains fireworks of golden dust. I sat down on the
footpath, going through a deep green grass patch. The patchwork was held
together by bright yellow and white flowers.

I reached the last town before going into the park and went into a Dunkin Donuts
store to get some tea. There’s a reason they’re not known for their tea. I tried to
splash water from the tap in their bathroom to as many parts of my body as I could.
I was sure this would be the last thing that even remotely resembles a bath, for the
next two days.

I reached Reeves meadow visitor centre at nine. The sun had gone down long ago,
but there was still about half an hour of sky-light to spare. The visitor centre only
operates on weekends and holidays, so I had decided to get a map from there the
next day, and camp for the night next to it. Camping is only allowed in designated
areas, and the nearest such area was a long way away. So, I figured it wouldn’t be
the best idea to camp right next to it and people had written about stealth camping
in the park on the internet.

I went off into the trail leading into the forest to find a nice spot for pitching my
tent. A group coming down the hill said there was a nice camping site about ten
minutes away. After more than ten minutes I realized they were in pretty high time
dilation, and I really didn’t want to climb the whole mountain in the dark. I picked
the trail out by shades of darkness (one of the most precious lessons from Adrita is
letting your eyes adjust to darkness rather than blind yourself with a flashlight),
crossed two streams, and finally found a spot with small plants. I need a place
exactly like this, because I had neither a sleeping mat nor a sleeping bag, and a cold
hard ground isn’t a particularly lucrative bed. I quickly pitched the tent in the
darkness broken by my phone’s light while avoiding getting bit by mosquitoes (a
practice perfected by pitching tents in University for night vigils and protests).

This was a new tent, and after getting in I discovered there were some parts which
I had no idea where to put. As long as the tent was successfully staying up though,
this wasn’t an issue to get caught up with.

I lay down for some time, too tired to do anything else.

When I had come in, so had the darkness, and with it, fireflies took the place of the
yellow flowers. The valley grounds were filled with them. Now, as I sat in my tent
performing a dinner while watching stars come out slowly and fill the sky from the
roof window of my tent, they flew all around. With the soft glow of the skies as a
backdrop, the heads of trees arching up over me became characters and started a
grand theatre.

I didn’t want to use my used food can as bait for anyone going hungry in the forest.
I also had to pee, but going out would mean sacrificing blood to mosquitoes. Solved
the two problems in one shot.

I went to sleep that night to the sight of fireflies, stars and dancing trees, with
the sounds of the small gushing river, the sound of leaves talking with the wind,
and what can only be described as sounds of the forest.

Saturday

IMG_20190630_061835

I woke up feeling fresh and happy. I thought I’d use the river water to wash last
night’s cans (as I’d have to carry them out with me) and my teeth and face in the
stream. The water, I found out was warm enough to bathe in. There were tiny
waterfalls over small rocks to take a shower.

I got into the river, bathed in water and dried myself off in the river of sunlight
following the river through the forest. A man quite serious asked whether I had
caught any fish.

I came up, cooked my breakfast on my newly acquired pocket stove sitting by the
river, packed up and left for the visitor centre. I was in need of a map (how to read
a map is a life lesson I had got from my father a few years ago while hurtling down
a desert highway late in the night in the exact opposite direction we were
supposed to be going because I had read the GPS wrong. Later the art was
perfected with the help of Madhur while we tried to make sense of our school field
trip).

On the way down, I was joined by a seventy-year-old Korean man (the same guy who’d
asked me about fishing). He used to come with his children, now they are too old
to come every weekend and he’s still not old enough to not come every weekend.
He told me stories of the Korean War, taught me taekwondo tricks (he’s a black belt
second Dan), gave marriage advice, and said goodbye.

The woman at the visitor centre, upon being asked about the chances of a bear
attack said she’d never heard of one here, and quite cheerfully added I might be
the first one (“though I don’t like to use that word if you do something stupid you
might get attacked. Else the bear will go about doing bear business, and you will
just see it” is probably the most politically correct way of feeding stupid people to
bears). She warned me of rattlesnakes equally cheerfully, marked out a trail for me
on the map and sent me off.

I was trying to get a view of the NYC skyline from a distance in the night, I had seen
people recommending that on the internet. On a more personal note, a long time
ago my first girlfriend had asked for a story, and I was painting a picture of being
on top of a hill watching the blinking skyline of a city in the distance. I had been
imagining the famous New York skyline that time.

I set off on the trail, tracked it sometimes by following boot marks of previous
trekkers. The park service works to keep things as natural as possible, so it sets trailblazers only in the most confusing of places, keeping the rest of the trail as a puzzle
to solve. Unfortunately, some trailblazers get lost. I lost the trail, figured that since
I wanted a clear view, it had to be at the top of the mountain. I made my way
through natural log Bridges and rock falls, through the woods to the top and
realized that I had climbed a totally wrong mountain.

 

It was actually wrong to call it wrong, it had a pretty nice view, just not the one I
was looking for. I sat there for some time, watched the lush green valleys around
me, and a sole eagle ranging the skies over the mountains. It was much better to
sit in the shade and enjoy the sun-soaked beauty all around than worry about being
in the wrong place just because I had set someplace as the right one. In any case, I
had a map and a compass. I’d never get lost.

I made my way back to the point where I had lost the trail and started out for a
different mountain. Some way in, sure enough, there came another junction where some tracking needed to be done. Too many mosquitoes tried to get friendly, so I
decided to change track again, towards mountains with more civil mosquitoes.
There was no point in trying to spend a night looking at glowing city lights to fulfil
half of a dream. That was a story, texted to a lover a long time ago. It would be a
wastage of the mountains to chase remnants of a dream around. I had left the city.
No point in trying to look at it especially when I had the chance to see other things.
I lay down on the sidewalk at the visitor centre (the one place I was sure there
wouldn’t be any mosquitoes in the day time), cooked lunch, and watched the somber
trees of the mountains rustling in the breeze. And to think I almost went after
something I decided to leave behind…

IMG_20190629_124754

Half the day was gone, and I started on the trek up to pine meadow lake. This was
a well-travelled route and proved to be quite easy to track. I steadily made my way
up the mountain, and I could see the tops of the trees spacing out. And then there
it was. My clear blue mountain lake.

That first glimpse was an amazing feeling, to see the brown path bordered by deep
green trees, leading up to the blue-green lake while the skies prepared for sunset.

I came upon a few swimmer/ sunbathers, discussed campsites with them and went
off to the other side. There were cliffs, and I wanted to camp in a place with the
best view.

I reached the place and came upon a group of campers. One of them came up and
said they’re ok with sharing the space with me. I said I’ll look around for other
places and if I don’t find a place I like I’ll come back and set up camp on one corner.
That corner turned out to be the best after a little scouting.

I pitched the tent under a tree, on some moss and rocks, as close as I could to the
cliff without getting on bare rock. Then I went to find out where people were going
to the lake from.

There was a sweet spot to go swimming from, once you climbed down a few rocks
of the cliff face. Or you could jump right in. I decided to check the water first.
I went in and found the water to be quite warm. I dipped and swam a bit to adjust
my body to the temperature.

She was in the water before me. Her eyes were bluer than the lake around her,
softer than the sky above. Sunlight sparkled off her sunset-coloured hair floating
below the water. She asked me if I wanted to dive. I wanted to and had never done
it before. She said to start with the little rock. I did that and decided to move to the
higher rock.

And there I was, at the edge of a cliff, trying to jump into the lake below. I got to
the edge saw there were some rocks to clear below, and went back further in.
From the water, Nadine kept giving me advice and inspiration. A party was going
on at the cliff beside me, they also joined in on the inspiration. I ran to the edge
and stopped. Reasons for this being a bad idea were racing through my mind. My
feet were tired from the strain of the two days before. My ankles may not have
enough strength to give the final push. I might cramp at the edge. My heart was
beating fast in my chest. Yeah, I had a whole list of why not to jump. And I had one
reason to jump. I wanted to. A guy came up, I asked him are you going to jump, he
said “what’s that?” while jumping off.

I had one reason.

I wanted to. I ran. I got to the edge and jumped.

The rush of falling, falling, falling and everything whooshing past my eyes and then
hitting the water with a splash, going in deep down, the water engulfing me,
slowing me down to a stop and then raising me up faster and faster till I burst out
above the surface…

That was some experience.

I pushed the hair out of my face, swam around a bit, taking in the scenery. I jumped
two more times and came back up to join the party on the rocks.

The man who’d given me the final bit of courage was Sean. He had been walking
the Appalachian trail for more than three months, walked over 700 miles. We
exchanged travel stories while drying ourselves off in the sunlight on the clifftop.
I went back to my tent to cook something, I was hungry. I was just setting up the
stove and a can when one of the people sharing the campsite came up and invited me
to join their fire. She was Katya, from Russia. There was Tom, from Ukraine. He had first told me I could set up camp with them if I wanted to (and that Ukrainian girls
are beautiful). There was Anastasia (Ukrainian girls are beautiful), and Waseem,
from Belarus.

We shared the warmth of the log fire, sausages, roasted vegetables and smores.
I sat on a piece of rock and watched golden and pink clouds float above in the skies.
I watched the lake change colour from sky blue to green to deep blue to grey to
black. I watched till the skies turned an almost black shade of blue. I watched two
bolts of lightning roll through the sky encased by our valley. Leaves rustled in the
distance.

IMG_20190630_123835

I went inside the tent for a bit. A man and his dog had been playing fetch with a
stick, on the other side of the lake. They were waiting for two people (they knew
them, were not sure if they were friends, met once camping, and once in a bar) to
camp with but they were nowhere to be found. They came over to our side to look
for the people who were supposed to be there. Sean and Nadine were camping a little
way down from my spot, I went over to see what was happening there. They had
also set up a fire, and the man with the dog was there too.

Patrick had come trail running, had no gear to camp with (only a shirt, a short, and
shoes), so he was taking in the fire’s warmth as much as he could. Buster lay under
the warm outside end of a log feeding the campfire. I invited them to sleep in my
tent if he couldn’t find his friends.

I went back to my spot, and finally took out the packet of m&m I had brought for
snacking or to use as an emergency source of energy (Soutrik had a bar of dark
chocolate when we had gone on our first long-distance cycling trip. That bar saved
us in desperate times. Chocolate is magic! 😉 ). I shared that with my newly made
friends. We sat on the cliff and shared the beer I had brought.

Tom suggested we go swimming. After some time, Katya gave the ultimatum, it had
to be now or never. By now Tom was unsure, but I definitely wanted to go in the
lake, and that spirit spread well enough.

Katya went in first, I followed her soon. The sky was black, and the stars were out. I was
there, floating in a vast deep black mountain lake, tops of dark trees going up all
around into the black sky splashed generously with silver stars. We were swimming in the starlight and the faint glow of the sky, Katya was telling me Russian stories
of the stars we were under.

We dried ourselves by the campfire and lay down on the rocks. It was storytime.
The conversation around me was in Russian, Katya translated bits and pieces for
me. There’s amazing comfort in lying down surrounded by friends who I didn’t even
know a few hours ago and sharing the stars. I didn’t need to know the language to
share the conversation.

Sunday

I had woken up in the middle of the night to the sound of wind rushing through the
upper level of my tent, shaking it’s walls, shaking the treetops above. I simply made
a burrito of myself in my raincoat to stop the cold. The stars were beautiful. I
couldn’t afford to put up the rain fly. Too many stars were at stake.

I woke up to the golden early morning light, coming from an intense clear sky, and
being filtered through bright green and yellow leaves dancing and twirling, pouring
in through the roof of my tent.

I had a long way to go home, but I couldn’t leave this place so easily. I owed my
friends goodbye. I owed this place my senses.

I decided to go swimming one last time. A Spanish group said the water was warm,
and cloud shadows were cold. I swam around, taking in the view of a new day being
born.

Nadine was also up, setting up a fire to make tea. I dried myself off by the fire and
her warmth.

Patrick had decided to sleep in an emergency blanket by the fire. I offered to cook
him breakfast. He said he’d rather not eat, saying “what do they call it? Yeah
fasting. I heard it’s good for you”. I gave buster a dog biscuit I had picked up from
the visitor centre (there were enough to bring home for my dogs even if I ate some).
They left for the way down after a while. Buster insisted on some more fetch.

I packed up my stuff, said goodbye to everyone and everything that had made the
place my home for the night, and started the trek down.

Some clouds came up and gave some rain. The air was cleared up, and I rushed
down the way that had taken so long to go up.

I stopped at an ice cream bar by the highway and had foot-long ice cream, listening
to country songs playing over the speakers. Kids gave me judgmental looks for
consuming ice cream as long as their hands. I watched the black road stretching
out. This was freedom of the wild blue skies above, distilled into two lanes for
travellers.

Fresh sunlight was out again. The trees sprayed down rainwater from their leaves
in the wind. I stopped at the places where I’d stopped when going up, to tell the
people I’d made it.

I reached the Hudson far too soon. I lay down on a footpath to make up for gained
time.

The last little bit home is always the hardest. I went into Starbucks to get some
coffee. The man at the counter gave me coffee in the largest cup. He had been
sitting outside with me for some time, I had let out a tired aaaaaah, he said agreed,
I laughed. “You laughed at a bad joke, I can give you some free coffee”. Maybe it
was just the kindness in that cup, but it was the best coffee I’d ever had.

I took to the road. The clouds were catching fire. I rolled into Manhattan, whizzing
past golden streetlamps. I had done it. An entire trip, out of my own effort.

Epilogue

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I know what a dollar looks like in cents.

I know the worth of every cent. By the time I started out, I had marks of the strings
cutting into my fingertips, proof I had earned all of it.

I know the weight of every meal. My pack got lighter after each one.

I had gone trekking solo for the first time and did things I had only believed I could.
People had blocked intersections with their cars to let me pass easily. When I was
sitting on a sidewalk by a lonely interstate with a what the hell made me think I
could do this expression on my face, a woman had stopped her car to ask if
everything was all right.

I have gone to sleep to the smell of pinewood fire. I have done things which I
wanted to, was scared to do it too, but I have done it. Maybe, only because
strangers had come up to become friends.

Everything I had done, was possible only because a few people had stopped to step
out from the busy crowd and gave me a little money. Every thank you I said, was of
pure gratefulness.

I have cycled shirtless for miles, felt every bit of the world around me. I have walked
barefoot in the mountain top.

Maybe I’ll see them on some trail again someday. I’ll always remember Nadine’s
simple inspiration, Sean’s easygoing wildness, Waseem’s quiet presence, Ana’s
sparkling warmth, Tom’s infectious cheerfulness.

I’ll remember Katya’s kindness? Friendship? I don’t know what to call it. Something.

I’ll remember everything.

I wouldn’t say it was an out of the world experience. It was in this world, and that’s
perhaps the beauty of it.

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