On Friday night I sat in Old Man Rafferty's in Asbury Park, dining on my pre-walk meal of roast beef au ju and french fries, watching the crowds walk to the Bamboozle Concert, on their way from the train station to the beach. It made me think of my clubs and affiliations - the Society of Actuaries, the Jersey Shore Running Club, and now tomorrow, the New Jersey Free Walkers, all seemingly in quest of destinations far, far away. I really need to get in with some cool groups that need only walk a few blocks, where they immediately start drinking and listening to music.
I was awake at 2:30 am on Saturday morning and knew I wouldn't get back to sleep. Probably not a great idea to walk 50 miles on too little sleep, and probably even a worse idea to do it without any training, sans one 35 mile trek two weeks before.
Jeff and I showed up at Metro Park with about 60 other folks for the planned 6 am start. The Chairman of the New Jersey Greenway got up on the tailgate of his truck and made a little speech, and then people milled around as though they were waiting for someone to show up with the starter's pistol. Not knowing when it would arrive, if ever, and not seeing why we had to hear the gun's blast anyway, Jeff and I set out down the road ahead of the others with what ended up being about a 5 minute headstart.
You'll recall the money we found on the first walk, and the two cent per mile run rate we held through seven miles. It wasn't but a half mile down the road this time when I found a shiny new quarter wedged in a crack in the road. Jeff immediately exclaimed, "Wow that takes some early pressure off, we're now good for 12.5 miles." When I picked up the quarter I saw the others coming up fast behind us. We'd soon learn the group had some real strong walkers who would keep the hammer down the whole day. The big dogs:
1) Brian from Monroe Twp. He rode his bike across the country two years ago. He has done a 3:21 marathon. Basic animal instincts and constitution.
2) Ron, a 65 year old guy, who walks 8 miles every day. He told us he used to be 100 lbs heavier, something you'd never know now, given his great conditioning. Ron had his head down the whole day, torturing the rest of us with a firm pace. Basic finish line bloodhound type.
3) A couple from Oregon. They flew in primarily for this event at the wife's request as a way to celebrate her 50th birthday. She had a few marathons under her belt, and even considered running part of the 50 miler. Basic dog track rabbit type who kept the rest of us panting and chasing for close to 15 hours.
Ms Oregon asked us where we were from, and when we said "the Jersey Shore" she inquired about the hair height of the women in our lives. Jeff quickly replied that all of the Jersey Shore characters were from Staten Island. Whew, close call on that association! Then she asked about the dialogue she'd witnessed from the Jersey shows, including the Sopranos. "Do all of you people out here talk like that?" "F no!"
I was stunned by the first 15 or so miles of the event, as we walked near or through wooded areas and parks, on bike paths and trails, near gurgling streams that I never knew existed. The group spread out a bit over the initial phase, but we regrouped together again at a predetermined Boston Market meeting place. It was there that we found Ms Oregon chowing down on a turkey leg, hopefully something we hoped would help slow her down some.
After a morning of heading in a basic northerly direction we finally started to make our way east toward Newark through the beautiful, well kept neighborhoods of Union and Hillside, another pleasant surprise that I never conceived existed beyond the ugliness of Routes 22 and 78. Then we hit Newark.
We all remember how everything turned from black and white to color in Munchkin Land. Well, everything turned from color to black and white when we hit Newark. We noticed how all of the cars parked along Wequaeck Park were protected by The Club and or The Tire Boot, or both. We were led past chop shops and establishments protected by high fences with razor wire. There was garbage everywhere, especially when we'd have to go through any type of underpass. There were boarded up buildings, seemingly as many unoccupied as occupied. A group of five of us stayed huddled close to Dorothy, trying to focus on the Dirty Black Road. At some point a voice across the street yelled out, in an angry tone, "War yall go?" "To see the wizard, at Penn Station in Newark, if you'll let us pass, please."
The waiting room in Penn Station is like nothing to be found anywhere else in the world. In the civilized world. People are acting and yelling and being quite uncommon. To wit, a woman was in a murderous rage yelling at someone you would think had just tried to rob her, although somehow I have a funny suspicion they were probably married. There's no question that if aliens landed at this location they would readily conclude we were of a very low life form. In all candor, this diagnosis wouldn't have been strengthened on this day by the half dozen or so creatures sprawled on benches with their socks off, pulling and prodding at their aching feet.
I did something at the train station, perhaps never attempted there before - I brushed my teeth. Now I know, this is akin to somebody stopping at a toll booth on the turnpike, getting out of their car, and polishing their shoes on the meridian. It's just not done. Halfway through my brushing this Mike Tyson guy comes in and yells at the top of his lungs, in a bellowing, maniacal voice, "What are yall doing in there?" (Must have been related to the woman down the street) I almost died, and spun around to explain how I was brushing off 20 miles of road flannel, when I realized he was not yelling at me, but rather to the guys in the stalls causing a backlog. Despite the emerging foot pain I got out of there in one big hurry.
The eastern part of Newark was no better than the approach from the west. We finally made it to the Pulaski Skyway and the series of bridges that would take us to Jersey City. At some point there was a tremendous confluence of cement and steel and roads and garbage and burnt out cars that would signal the beginning of this next section. I marveled at why anyone would put sidewalks out here, and then realized that they might be a refuge for anyone departing from their broken down or stolen car. We couldn't believe how every cross walk had the now familiar textured mats, our guess that they are put there as the way to alert a blind person to the fact that they are approaching an intersection. Why in the world would a handicapped person ever be walking out here? Why were we walking out here? (Ironically, there was one blind person who started with our group. I only pray he wasn't in one of those train station stalls).
Onward to Jersey City. The sidewalk over one of the bridges reduced to a width of 30 inches. Jeff wondered what would happen if a bike or something came from the other direction. Wonder no more, a bike came from the other direction. Luckily the driver was kind and smart enough to stop, and we shimmied past each other. Knowing a group of the others were ahead of us, Jeff asked "How much behind are we?" Appropriate answer "You are a LOT of behind", but he didn't answer because it was quite evident he didn't understand English. I quickly assessed that nobody would be riding a bike across this bridge if they were normal and could speak English. Just like nobody would walk across this bridge if they were normal.
We past the prison in Kearny adorned with the Newark razor wire trimmings. Jeff agreed that he wouldn't be surprised if it was really a Macy's, and if they said the wire was part of their security system. We called the structure the Green Zone of Bagdad.
We arrived on the outskirts of Jersey City at a park where a huge Pakistani contingent was engrossed in a cricket league. Patel was batting. Talk about culture - in Jersey City we saw every nation of origin and every religious creed, completed only by the white anglo saxons who by this point were starting to show the pains of their miles.
The course circled The Embankment, the old elevated train section recently sold to a developer. The Greenway and others are protesting the sale, arguing that it remain open as a walking path. We soon became pawns in the dispute when two ladies appeared from a side street and offered us juice and cookies. They had hung a long twelve foot sign on a fence with the word "Embankment" and wanted to take our picture in front of it - what better way to prove their cause was just than to have actual walkers take the time out for them and their sign. Truth be told, at this point, no juicey, no snappy picture! There were about nine of us together, so after snacks we hobbled in front of the sign for the photo. Huge problem - the viewer wouldn't be able to read the sign. We spread out to the sides, but had another problem - no wide angle on the camera. As we all stood perplexed, for the only time all day I had my one stroke of genius (if you don't count high tailing it out of the bathroom in Newark as genius) - I said, "let's go to the other side of the fence and stand behind the sign." This was a lot harder to coordinate with the way we were all hobbling, but we pulled it off. I also hit the mother load and found five pennies behind the sign. No doubt right wing crazies had been driving by earlier trying to pelt the ladies with coins.
We finally made it to Liberty State Park. The nine of us walking togther all started to use the term "death march." We were thirty some miles in, and we felt every step. (I logged 95,000 steps for the entire day, and would say I felt about 70,000 of them). When the pain got too bad, after every 7 to 9 miles, or so, the others and I would pop some Ibuprofen. On a normal day the six miles around LSP must be quite nice, on this day it was complete torture, just there as part of the course designed to give us the mileage we would need to get us to 50.
Somewhere on the LSP loop I asked a question of the group "How much money would it take if you were asked to turn around and retrace your steps all the way back to the beginning?" A little puzzle to take our minds off the pain. One guy said 100,000. I was thinking more like 10 million! When one guy said "3,500" I offered to seed the pool with 500 dollars, to raise the money on the spot. The games prisoners of war and death marchers doth partake!
Forty miles down and it was getting pretty serious. The pills seemed to have lost their effect. Every step was pronounced and painful. Jeff likened the experience to putting his hand in a garbage disposal and turning it on and off, repeatedly.
We took the Path Train to NYC and started the hike north between 8;30 and 9:00. Besides the fluids he took in throughout the day, Jeff had only consumed two fig newtons. We both were getting hungry and set our sights on Ray's Famous Pizza, somewhere in the Village. What a commercial for Ray's this could be - "These two guys walked 45 miles for a slice!" What a commercial for Bellevue this could be - "These two guys walked 45 miles for a slice!"
It was almost over. The big board in Penn Station said the next train for Jersey was leaving in an hour, but there was one boarding, NOW! Jeff started to run. I followed suit. Around one corner we both almost fell over popcorn strewn everywhere, like marbles. We made the train and died in our seats.
The big walk broke us down physically, and then mentally, back and forth all day. Jeff and I concluded it was one of those events that we probably wouldn't need to do again, those "once is enough" type things like getting shot, or having a car accident, or almost getting killed in a bathroom. This may not make any sense, but as tough as it was, I'd say it was one of those things you gotta try once. Leave your toothbrush at home.