When hiking in New York, I’ve usually chosen to leave the city limits. For my latest adventure however, I made my way to the Staten Island ferry at 6 AM and took in the wonderful harbor commute past the Statue of Liberty over to St. George, where I caught the S61 bus bound for the Greenbelt—a system of parks and woodlands occupying a large section of Staten Island’s interior.
The bus left me at the corner of Bradley and Harold, just a short distance from Brielle Ave., which abuts the Greenbelt along its central West side. According to my map, the longest of the Greenbelt’s trails begins here, just East of the College of Staten Island, a network of greenery hemmed in by ostentatious houses, SUVs, meticulously groomed lawns, and all the material trappings of suburban life. Staten Island is the only Republican borough in New York City and judging by the look of the neighborhoods, it could have been anywhere in Middle America. This was not a side of the city I knew.
The trail began with a slight ascent up towards the ruins of Seaview Hospital. After less than half a mile, I was confused to find myself in a construction site. According to the New York Walk Book, “this area has been targeted for a senior citizens’ development, and the trail will be relocated around the development once it has been complete.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have been completed yet. The blue blazes were extremely inconsistent and I retraced my steps to be sure I hadn’t gone wrong. Unable to find where the trail reconnected beyond the construction site, I decided to bushwhack through thick brambles, ripping my legs up in the process. So much for three miles an hour… an auspicious start to the day.
Fortunately, I found the trail again soon after emerging from the brambles and so continued along a rusty, fenced perimeter. When the ruins of old brick buildings became just barely visible through the forest, I knew this must be the old Seaview Hospital. A tuberculosis sanatorium during the first half of the 20th century, the abandoned site has been gradually reclaimed by the forest and is today the superbly spooky setting for urban legends and teenage mischief. I found a hole in the fence and took a few photographs around the exterior. Adventurous types enjoy exploring the area more thoroughly, but I was here to hike and I didn’t particularly feel like accidentally trespassing on a snoozing vagrant. There were clear signs of recent human habitation, after all. Once my photographic inclination was satisfied, I headed back to the trail.
For some time, the trail was much more adequately blazed, albeit neglected. Parts were washed out or blocked by fallen trees. I wonder if some of this damage remains from Hurricane Sandy, which devastated parts of Staten Island in 2012. Notwithstanding a few collapsed footbridges, the trail did have its rewards. In addition to countless squirrels, I came across a large turtle, a number of casually elegant blue jays, and a even a rabbit (who tore through the underbrush at breakneck speed when I inadvertently disturbed his breakfast). Considering the Greenbelt’s proximity to one of the largest urban centers in the country, I was immensely satisfied with these encounters.
Of course, the proximity to New York does pose challenges for forest life, particularly in terms of population and overuse. The trail crisscrossed multiple unblazed paths, which I imagine must have been formed simply through constant informal use for the convenience of those living nearby. After a point, I lost my intended trail completely and found myself on one of these informal paths. Luckily, it soon spilled out onto several properly blazed trails, but the most challenging aspect of the Greenbelt by far seems to be staying on the intended trail! Signs of constant human contact were apparent in other ways as well. Every large tree along the trail within a half-mile from a road crossing was carved with the layered initials of countless forgotten romances. I used the density of these carvings as a barometer to guess at the intensity of human use at various parts of the forest. Above all, litter was the most immediate problem, whatever mitigating efforts local groups exert. I began collecting what I could manage from the start of my walk and within a mile, I had already acquired too much to carry. At a minimum, the New York City park service needs to organize more frequent litter sweeps.
Within a few miles, the trail opened up to the LaTourette Golf Course, which unfortunately covers a sizable swathe of the Greenbelt. Again, it was not clear where the trail picked up and I was forced to inquire with the golfing staff in the historic LaTourette house, an impressive colonial brick building, which now serves as a clubhouse. My legs were caked in blood and mud by this time, quite unlike the immaculately dressed club members who pretended not to size me up disapprovingly in their peripheral vision. The sleek physiques of Republican housewives offered amusing visual counterpoint to corpulent businessmen who spurned their legs in favor of golf carts, thereby depriving themselves of the already limited physical demands of their sport. While I concocted absurd back stories for these characters, a member of the staff directed me to the far side of the parking lot and I was grateful to once again descend into my less commercial form of recreation.
Streams along the trail were raging. There had been a downpour the previous night and I had nearly cancelled the trip, concerned the trail would have more closely resembled a mud-slide. As it turns out, the mud was supremely manageable and the forest saturated with the humid aroma of spring. Refilling my water bottle was a simple matter of finding a clear stream and breaking out the First Need pump, which I usually bring on walks where weight is not a concern.
To my dismay, the trail proceeded along roads for a time as it passed by historic Richmond town and beyond Egbertville Ravine. I took this opportunity to grab lunch before reconnecting with the trail as it ascended through High Rock Park to the Boy Scout camping grounds near Lake Ohrbach. Once there, I came upon a typical scout amphitheater. I’ll never understand the scouts’ bizarre infatuation with Native American pseudo-tradition. On the East coast especially, it’s an odd form of cultural appropriation given that the indigenous population of the thirteen colonies had been entirely wiped out by the time Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. The noble savage lives on in the Order of the Arrow.
I encountered a few people on the trail for the first time in the early afternoon, a couple of elderly Audubon Society types and a fellow hiker with a massive camera (and an equally massive belly). This part of the trail was by far the most consistently blazed and well maintained. There was even a surprising lack of litter, perhaps thanks to the presence of the Boy Scouts in this stretch. Several ponds made for a pleasant photo break before the trail moved alongside the tapered turf of Richmond Country Country Club. At the top of Todt Hill, the highest natural point in the five boroughs, I lost the trail again, finding myself in a massive industrial zone with panoramic views of the Staten Island Expressway and the Manhattan skyline beyond.
My frustration was beginning to grow over the trail, or the lack of a trail at this point. I hadn’t expected to be scrambling over concrete slabs and jumping fences. Yet that is precisely what I was forced to do when I realized the road leading out of the industrial zone fed directly into the freeway! I was fenced in on either side, unable to access the forest, and forced to climb into the Petrides Sports complex, attracting a few perplexed views from parents picking up their kids from a Little League game. From there I had to jump another fence, road-walking through some absurd complex named “Safety City” with street names like “Stop Look Listen Lane” and “Bicycle Helmet Road.” I’m quite sure the nuclear families observing me from a distance would have called the police had I lingered a moment longer.
The last few miles of trail brought me across the expressway, following blue-blazed telephone poles along Little Clove Rd. into Clove Lakes Park, by far the most heavily populated part of the entire trip. As soon as it was possible, I left the (tarmac) trail to make for the leafy interior, where a network of unmarked trails forced me to use my phone to orient myself. The Clove lakes themselves were quite pretty, though I’m not sure I would have ventured to swim as some parents were allowing their children to do. By the time I emerged at Forest Ave., I had seen enough of the Greenbelt. The poor blazing and constant backtracking had added miles to my trip, making a 12-mile trail closer to 16.
Within an hour I was back in Manhattan, a completely different world. Another kind of wilderness perhaps, to find solitude among millions of strangers. One thing was immediately clear: I was less conspicuous here than among the Staten Island suburbanites. At Union Square, a man in neon underwear performed magic tricks, another man held a sign “Why don’t hot chicks love me?” (which naturally attracted a steady stream of female tourists to his side), the Hare Krishnas were out in full form, while a demonstration in solidarity with the protesters in Turkey proceeded with much flag waving and sloganeering. Just another city freak with my mud-and-blood-covered-legs, I sidestepped these spectacles, picked out a few fresh vegetables from the farmers’ market, and headed home to a massive, well-deserved, meal.