Before I pulled out of the driveway near 4:00 a.m. on May 23rd, a fleeting thought stopped me cold. I had forgotten to print the attendance list of 115 walker registrants for our 50-mile walk. Was it a good sign that I remembered or a bad sign that this was an incredibly complicated day that needed to run like clockwork? There wasn’t much of a precedent for what we were about to do. Wet weather and a suspect forecast threatened to call off our adventure. Our plans and dreams were at stake and yet we had nothing much to lose for our one day challenge.
Mike Oliva, Midlantic Trails Coordinator for the East Coast Greenway and I had come up with the 50-mile walk idea along the ECG. Mike insisted that running it along the railway lines into New York could really help draw people and make a complicated event simple for each individual, as they could choose how long they walked and still find a way back using mass transportation. This was a great way to exercise in some unlikely areas, keep environmental impact low, and make use of a really efficient infrastructure. In a way, we created an event that required mass transportation at its best. I was particularly proud that we could do that. Our only problem was that trains don’t run before 5:00 a.m. to Metropark. This caused some logistical problems for our enthusiastic NYC-based walkers.
Arriving at Metropark at about 4:40 a.m., I breathed a sigh of relief, instead of fear, when I saw unfamiliar faces congregating zombie-like at the entrance of the parking garage. By 5:00 a.m. our group of about 25 hearty souls were ready to push ourselves to our individual limits – some of us hoping to walk up to 50 miles in one day. Even my brother-in-law, Jim Smith, had made it from Georgia to be here. Mike Kruimer, the East Coast Greenway’s NJ Trails Coordinator was there to provide valuable ECG NJ Trail Guides and cheer us on, and seemed as surprised as the rest of us at our turnout at this crazy hour on Sunday morning.
After going over the basic plan - one that was loosely created on little experience and a prayer - we began to head out of the lot at around 5:15 a.m. walking on a sidewalk that already looked like an afterthought for a world built for cars. Soon we crossed over a quiet pre-dawn Garden State Parkway with our spirits up, ready for the adventure ahead. I remember meeting Randi Plevy, an interesting attorney from Pennington, who was psyched about the adventure ahead. This made me curious about who were the rest of these people on an unknown adventure at 5:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning?
With a long way to go and a lot of time, we all soon found friends, or at least felt comfortable enough to chat easily with anyone along the way. I had the benefit of having walked the first segment from Metropark to Cranford so I knew pretty much where to go. But what you quickly learn is walkers tend to be very friendly people who work together well. They can figure out how to march forward efficiently on their own. I merely needed to make sure we were not off track and to find valuable rest stops along the way.
So, it was a large group trekking off through Woodbridge neighborhoods where we came across our first stop at the East Coast Greenway information kiosk in Merrill Park at about 6 a.m. Here I pick up a surprise call from CBS TV news saying they have a cameraman wanting to connect with us in Rahway. Shocked at them finding us, I agree to meet at the train station.
In Rahway, I said goodbye to my son Ethan who had come up from D.C. to provide some early support. We picked up a few new walkers as we were being filmed and interviewed. Later that day we learned that we were on various stations in short TV clips. WPIX stored a streamed video while FOX and CBS were reported to have broadcasted it; maybe even other stations. Our 30 seconds of fame came and went that day as at least some of the public was aware of our journey.
The early morning walk through Rahway Park, Winfield Park and Cranford was one of the nicest sections of the trail. It passes modest middle-income residential homes as it skirts county and local park areas, following the Rahway River. I spoke with Pat Moran, a nice guy around my age, who had remembered the original 50 mile walk in 1963 and had come all the way from Boxborough, MA with a thought of exploring and maybe writing about the East Coast Greenway. Here was an amazing example of how powerful the Internet and social networking could be to draw him 300 miles to join a group of virtual strangers.
After Rahway, the group had a renewed energy level I did not expect. Our group of about 25 soon became spread over half a mile, as ambitious walkers charged ahead and slower ones enjoyed the scenery at their own pace. At this point, I wondered if this would become a problem. But, at the rest stop in Cranford we added more people, and all joined back together again.
It was about 8:30-9:00 a.m. when my wife Mary Ann, my daughter Alison, and friends Bob Anglum and Igor Goldberg joined us in Cranford, bringing some breakfast bagels and coffee for everyone. We had walked about 12 miles or so and the rest of the world was just waking up. The reality of the difficulty of walking far at a decent pace, slowed a few as they dropped off at their own pace. Derek Chullanandana was one walker who struggled by the time we had gotten to Cranford, but continued on his own pace and toward his own goal.
For the most part our group had grown and spirits remained high. It seemed like one of the benefits of these stops is that not only can you rest, but the energy of new walkers joining the group adds to the energy of everyone. This became more important as the walk went on.
Our next general destination on our map was going through Nomahegan Park one of the many park gems in Union County. Here we encountered others along a nice paved walking path for a few miles. The park spills out to Kenilworth Boulevard where the trail then connects back to residential streets until Black Brook Park on the border of Kenilworth and Union. The ECG trail intentionally goes through greenspace areas – sometimes out of the way. While this can lead to extra steps and time, it’s usually worth the effort. If you don’t live in a community, it’s easy to discount the natural beauty that’s there, even in small, unexpected places.
Remembering names, especially at an introduction, was never my strong suit. There was a close group of seven from Westfield that met us at Cranford. I remember talking with (Janet? Janice? Joyce?) and her husband (Tom? – a cycling enthusiast) and others in that party about the good old days in Union. I grew up in Roselle, a neighboring town and often headed to Union for everything from amusements at Olympic Park, to sledding at Galloping Hill’s Golf Course in the winter, to late night teenage outings at Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor. While the next stop was a Boston Market on Chestnut Street, this group decided to continue their walk to the Galloping Hill Inn for their famous hot dogs. Being a big fan myself, I was tempted to re-route the entire trail a few blocks but we knew we had to conserve our strength for the 30 or so miles ahead. To this date we have pictures of the phantom group, but no names – could not find them as registered walkers.
It was only around 11:30 a.m. and we were at the Boston Market for a lunch break, a place we had experienced from a previous practice walk. A fresh turkey sandwich and some sides hit the spot. This is a good restroom stop and place to refill water containers too. At this 20 mile point, the group began to feel the challenge ahead, stretching and resting before the journey to Newark, another 10 miles ahead. There’s some great shots of the great Morristown-based trio of Mary, Gilly and Doreen doing some stretching contortions on the BM lawn. It was hard to predict that these three girls would have the stamina to see it all the way through to NYC. Being from the medical profession, they became important support staff for walkers like Mike P. that needed help along the way.
There were connections to be made a couple miles ahead at Salem Rd. and Morris Avenue near the Union train station. John Dempsey (my future son-in-law) and Nancy Jonap joined us, while several walkers headed to catch the next train back. The train schedules changed that weekend and a couple walkers, like Nancy, had to take the next train from Newark to catch up with the group. Having walked some distance with the group, even those that could not make the remaining distance, still felt satisfied having accomplished something personal.
We then moved quickly through Hillside and north Elizabeth to Weequahic Park (see historical info on park). By now the day while slightly overcast was warm and we were in need of our Sag Wagon guy Bob. Bob had left over water and bagels from that morning. But because the group had splintered into sub groups, not everyone caught Bob and instead headed into Newark following the ECG trail guide. We waved goodbye to David Asher and Risa Olinsky who decided to enjoy the park a little more then head back. The area after the park converges into an older more tattered neighborhood, which once was a troubled area. Today, everything looked fine and we proceeded quickly along the higher ground toward the University area.
A group of us joined Igor, his daughter Irma, Orville McNally and the very green-colored Coyle sisters (Karyn, Susan, Kathryn and cousin Emma Bonanmi from PA) on the next leg heading down the hill to Penn Station, Newark. There was some debate as to which street to take. There’s several streets that head to downtown Newark, but the ECG guide, heads in a rambling direction for a few blocks just to go by the museum and Military Park. I’m guessing we all took a more direct route, saving from ¼ to ½ miles to get to Penn Station sooner. It was great to see Irma, and several college-age students join us in this adventure. Irma had walked before with us and had helped with our marketing efforts.
Penn Station was our second major rest point where many were dropping off and more were joining us for the last leg of our adventure. My son Justin and his wife Megan, her brother Dennis and father Tom Quinn joined us. Mike Oliva from ECGA and Steve Marano of the Liberty Water Gap Trail (the east-to-west trail across NJ) also joined in for the next stretch.
We had walked about 30 miles, it was 3:00 p.m. and we had been at this for over 10 hours. We had another 20 tough miles to go but we were pretty close to schedule. Fatigue was showing but the reality of 50 miles was hanging out there as a real possibility. Those that left like Tom Landes and the Coyle sisters promised on another day they would join us.
We had a last minute plan to walk the next section (or not) between Newark and Jersey City. Nancy Jonap led a small group on the PATH train to Journal Square as an alternative for anyone who wanted to avoid a tough patch ahead. The main group walked through the Ironbound section, which is a pleasant walk through a busy commercial area with a distinct Portuguese flavor to it. But the land narrows to a series of natural and man-made obstacles (thus the name “Down neck” Newark). This is east of the Ironbound, and is really a no-man’s land with industrial yards and meadows and bordered by two rivers and ominous highways above. This is the Route 1&9 Truck Route, the oldest of the roads constructed for driving across the rivers with little thought that someday someone would think of walking or even bike riding to the town across the river, Jersey City.
Walter Elliot, of Local Talk News, met us at Penn Station for an interview. Walter was a classic press character. With rumpled suit and press credentials hanging from his neck he pulled out his notepad as he took notes looking in a different direction; seemingly for the next story to appear at any time in the station waiting room. There must have been some bond created with us, or a lack of other news, because he ended up joining our group walking all the way to Journal Square. You got the feeling that Walter probably knew where Jimmy Hoffa was buried along with other trade secrets as he told stories of this mystery land between cities.
Up to this point we had really no physical obstacles to slow us down. But, at this “Intersection Hell” there were plenty: crossing major highways, narrow walks on steel bridges, ducking road girders, climbing over guardrail and whacking through huge prolific weeds growing mightily on the side of the road.
Once over the Hackensack River it was smooth sailing into old Lincoln Park heading directly for a needed bathroom break at the tennis complex. We were slightly behind as we met Nancy and her group at Journal Square. It was time to do a status check on our new and old group. Mike Pellagatti, who started in Metropark was still with us carrying his big walking stick all the way, but already showing some foot pain. You could see that this guy was tough and inspite of everything, was determined
to make it.
Nancy found out that the Harsimus Stem Embankment Coalition group were planning a greeting party for us only a few blocks away at the start of the Embankment structure. We were met by a group of 10 or so enthusiastic volunteers who provided lemonade and cookies at the perfect time. It was like finding an oasis in the middle of a city. And, the timing for refreshments was absolutely perfect.
The Harsimus Stem Embankment is an elevated stone structure that once carried seven tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad to the Hudson River Waterfront. It runs for a half mile along 6th street in downtown Jersey City and is listed on the State Register of Historic Places. The Embankment and its planned elevated streetscape will be part of the ECG and the Liberty Gap trailways of walkable, bikeable greenways. Everyone should support this active group’s dreams of building something better than the NYC High Line – which would be an impressive feat, indeed.
Our next stop was Liberty State Park for a quick pass by the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and a 9/11 Memorial(which Patricia Freeman found particularly moving) while walking along the promenade around 7:00 p.m. What a beautiful view - from the monuments to the NYC skyline - with a perfect sunset too! On the other hand, at this point some of us had been at it for over 14 hours. There were muscle problems for some, fatigue, and blisters. In Liberty Park, my sister Carolyn Kiczek, friend Jeff Bernstein, nephew Bob Langan and his friend Jess Heaton joined us for the final leg of about 10 miles into New York City. So we all headed toward Exchange Place along the water and down into the PATH station to go under the Hudson and into NYC for the final miles.
Our ranks had thinned out and mostly it came down to the last survivors that were determined to get to Penn Station NYC – or, more specifically, the Tick Tock Diner for some food, drink and rest. Maybe it was our mental state or the infinite choices that NYC provides but the groups went in three separate routes – all headed to our final rendezvous. My group chose the scenic route, steady walk up the West Side greenway bike path. Others took a more direct route or went straight up Broadway. Walking with Michael Paterson along the Hudson we talked about the city and careers. He’s a professional stage carpenter from north New Jersey who has had some interesting jobs on Broadway.
Along the way, our group also included Justin, Megan, Randi, Gilly, and Doreen and Mike P. Nearing the end, Mike P., clinging to his walking stick, was suffering with bad blisters and sore feet and probably could hardly make another mile, but did make it to the diner. You could hear him talking to himself and grunting at every step. My feet were aching but were without blisters and I still had some energy. In my mind, my walking research and practice had paid off. Anyone who made it this far was an inspiration to me.
Passing near Penn Station at around 10:00 p.m., Randi and Michael decided to catch the next train back asap. Patricia found her husband Jay, who had walked earlier that morning for while with us. Finally, my group arrived at around 10:30, pretty good time and nearly on schedule. At the diner we found Pat, Mary, and Yon. And, soon after my sister Carolyn arrived with her group of four. Mike Oliva arrived with Jennifer Chakey. We were all dead tired but satisfied that we had accomplished more than we thought we could. Everyone was in good spirits and relieved that we made it. Then after everyone ate and congratulated each other, I left at 11:30 with Carolyn, Jeff, Bob and Jess to hitch a ride back to Metropark to pick up my car.
I should have just caught a train back from Penn Station as it took two hours, mostly of waiting for PATH trains then to drive south to Metropark. At about 1:30 I found my car, drove home and opened the door just before 2:30 Monday morning. With 23 hours of traveling and celebrating I had nothing left to do but take my shoes off, get some sleep and take the rest of that Monday off to recuperate.
Somehow, someway, the day and the event were nearly perfect. We even had some nice surprises and many interesting stories to tell about the spirit and effort of some hearty walkers. After my fist attempt 47 years ago and another last year, I had finally walked 50 miles in one day. It was a long worthwhile journey for all of us. And, I know looking back, I'd like to do it again.