Nassau-Suffolk Greenbelt Trail

Although both Queens and Kings County are physically located on Long Island, the urban landscapes bear little resemblance their suburban siblings, Nassau and Suffolk. Together, these counties span the length of the largest island in the contiguous United States, a 118 mile protrusion beginning in New York Harbor and stretching out across the Atlantic just south of Connecticut. 18,000 years ago, as the continental ice sheet proceeded steadily south from Wisconsin, pulverising and dislodging stone and sediment, Long Island became a kind of geological dump—the terminal moraine marking the end of glacial advancement at the recession of the last Ice Age. Over the course of 10,000 years, tidal activity moulded the glacial detritus and seawater flooded the northern basin, thereby forming the massive estuary known today as Long Island Sound. In geological terms at least, Massapequa is more or less identical to New Haven, but I wouldn’t have been able to guess as much as I stepped off the train at the side of Sunrise Highway.

That quaint feature of smalltown America, the welcome sign, stood alongside the motorway, whitewashed and emblazoned with the usual symbols: local chapters of the Elks and Rotary Club, the Boy Scouts of America, the Massapequa Chamber of Commerce, the Knights of Columbus, etc. Just across the road I spotted a tower of chrome and smelled the sickly aroma of artificially-flavored pancake syrup: the Massapequa Diner. The parking lot was packed with shiny SUVs. One bumper-sticker read: “THE 2ND AMENDMENT: America’s Original Department of Homeland Security”—historical revisionism in 140 characters or less.

A procession of wrinkles, Keds, and aluminum walkers ambled from the parking lot up through the entrance. Having worked at Dennys for a hellish few months during college, I knew diners to be magnets for seniors, but the demographics of the clientele on this particular morning suggested a day out at the convalescent home. Against my best judgement, I had been drinking too much the previous night. A few potent Manhattan cocktails were now, only six hours later, stoking the latent migraine I could sense throbbing at my temples with greater and greater intensity. I got a table and ordered up a western omelet and a pitcher of water, hoping to thwart my fast-developing hangover.

The southern trailhead of the Nassau-Suffolk Greenbelt Trail (completed in 1986) begins a mile south of the diner at the corner of Merrick Boulevard and Ocean Avenue alongside Caroons Lake, which also takes the rather overused name Massapequa Lake. From there it stretches roughly 19.5 miles north to the old whaling hamlet of Cold Spring Harbor. The southernmost section of the trail is part of a nature preserve known predictably as Massapequa Preserve. Indeed, the name Massapequa is actually something of a misnomer, mistakenly thought to be that of a local tribe of Native Americans. Unlike the western and even mid-western United States, the indigenous presence in the original thirteen colonies appears only as apparition, reduced to the names of innumerable roads, towns, and lakes—though not even accurately in this case! Caroons Lake is not particularly impressive, serving as a fishing hole in the summer and ice-skating in the winter. I wondered if Jerry Seinfeld or Alec Baldwin (both Massapequa natives) spent any time here in their youth.

The trail enters into an absurdly narrow strip of forest alongside the lake, just adjacent to a paved bicycle path and follows a tunnel of green over footbridges and littered marshlands north up to Sunrise Highway, where I had alighted from the train an hour earlier. It crosses under the tracks and opens up to the Massapequa Reservoir (the local infatuation with this name was becoming tiring). Hordes of jogging soccer moms circumnavigated the water, frightening flocks of Canada geese, and waving to old men fishing for trout and carp. The trail continues across the bicycle path and into the forest to the west, but I mistakenly took the paved bike lane to the east instead. This forced an additional mile of unpleasant roadwalking, all the while dodging overzealous bicyclists who indignantly announced their proximity with shouts of “on your left!” When I did find the trail again, I was chastised by an older couple not to “go off the path.” Like many of the trails in the greater New York City area, there seems to be an abundance of people completely oblivious to their existence. In their eyes, leaving the paved bicycle path meant mischievous bushwhacking. I pretended not to hear them and continued along, happy to have escaped the Sunday crowds as I followed the trail beyond the Southern State Parkway.

From the reservoir, the Bethpage State Parkway straddles the trail to the west for some time, periodically winding down below a series of overpasses before arriving at Bethpage State Park, whereupon the natural setting becomes much more varied and interesting. The blazes, infrequent before, become apparent and consistent. At 6.6 miles, the trail traces the outskirts of Bethpage’s approximately 1,500 acre expanse, hemming one of several golf courses and emerging at the park’s western edge. If one were to exit the trail at this point, a short walk along Powell Avenue leads to the Bethpage LIRR station.  The trail had remained predominantly flat on soft earth and Bethpage contained some slight inclines, but nothing remotely strenuous. After Breakneck Ridge this was a casual walk in the park. I proceeded for three hours without a single rest, determined to average a brisk three miles an hour up to Cold Spring Harbor. What the trail lacks in physical demands, however, it makes up for with a surprising diversity of wildlife. Over 175 species of birds have been spotted in the areas through which the southern sections of the trail pass and I must have seen at least 20 of them myself without trying very hard.

The Algonquin-speaking natives called Long Island “Paumanok,” but the meaning of this name seems to have been lost. Some sources claim it is a reference to the vague fishlike shape of the island, immortalized in a Walt Whitman poem, which begins with the line “STARTING from fish-shape Paumanok, where I was born…” Another source, rivaling Whitman’s poetics, suggests the name means “the island with its breast long drawn out, and laid against the sea.” Finally, a turn-of-the-century expert in Algonquin languages offers this detailed etymological explanation of a harsh political meaning:

The verbal prefix Pomman, or Pauman, is from the same root as the Narragansett … Pummenúm, “contributes”; Púmminteduquash, “to contribute money”; Paumpaumun (an intensive), “he habitually or by custom offers it”; Paupaumenumwe “an offering”; Paumun-og, “If we pay thee”; Paumun-g, “If we pay them” … From this comes “Púmpom, a tribute skin when a Deere (hunted by the Indians, or wolves) is kild in the water. The skin us carried to the Sachim or Prince, within whose territory the Deere was slaine.” Thus we have with the locative affix -ack, “land, place,” or “country,” our name Paumún-ack, “land of tribute,” or “the contributing country.”

According to author’s explanation, “part of Long Island was under tribute … to both the Pequots and to the Commissioners of the United Colonies of New England.” With no knowledge of Native American languages myself, I have no way of determining the veracity of this explanation, but it strikes me as more plausible than Whitman’s fish-shape if only because the native population would presumably not have had access to cartography until much later.

At 10.8 miles, just over halfway through the “land of tribute,” Washington Avenue inconveniently forces a 600-foot roadwalk under the Long Island Expressway before heading left into an unexpected white pine forest. These lovely trees can be found sporadically throughout Long Island, their presence made immediately apparent by their warm pine scent that wafts up through the underbrush. Many of the trees suffered salt burns in the aftermath of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, but the trail was steadily rising and the present grove likely avoided the worst of that storm. The first slopes of the Ronkonkoma Moraine, the so-called “backbone” of Long Island, pose only a minor challenge, but I began to grow concerned about my water supply. Hoping streams would be plentiful along the trail, I was surprised not to encounter a single water source after leaving the Massapequa Reservoir. I was now running low and my headache was stubbornly resisting a cocktail of ibuprofen and aspirin. I decided not to take any breaks until I found a stream and was able to filter some water.

At 12.3 miles, the trail crosses Sunnyside Boulevard and I caught a distant glimpse of the Empire State Building, but still no sign of water. I considered venturing off the trail and onto a local street, perhaps appealing door-to-door for a refill, but decided against it. There would surely be a stream soon. As it turned out, there wasn’t. The first source of water I found was a Stop N Shop grocery store off the Jericho Turnpike at 13.8 miles. I took the opportunity not only to slake my thirst, but also to grab a fairly bland roast beef sandwich. A picnic area immediately adjacent to the trail served nicely as a spot to rest and sun my feet. Twenty minutes later, I was back in the forest. According to the New York Walk Book, the stretch north of Jericho Turnpike “is marked by signs of former inhabitants: an occasional rotting fencepost, a strand of spruces probably planted near a long-disappeared farmhouse, and broken china occasionally yielded up by frost-heaved soil.” Unfortunately, I hadn’t read about this in advance and so remained oblivious to any artifacts I may have passed.

At 15.1 miles, the trail enters Stillwell Woods, a Nassau County preserve containing a large stretch of open fields and several blazed trails of various colors. The trail crosses Stillwell lane and passes just south of two lakes and marshland. Just before crossing NY 108, I filtered more water at a creek spanned by a small bridge. A mother and her young son curiously observed me crouching at the stream, splashing water on my face, and filtering a liter of water.

The final stretch up to Cold Spring Harbor offers the first (slight) challenge in elevation, taking hikers up and down a series of morainal hills at most a couple hundred feet above sea level. It also happens to be the most heavily travelled section. Perhaps it was the time of day, but I hadn’t seen many people on the trail, really only a handful of joggers, until I got to the section north of NY 108. By the time I was able to actually see Cold Spring Harbor through the trees in the hills above the hamlet, I must have passed at least thirty people heading the opposite direction.

Cold Spring Harbor

I emerged at the Cold Spring Harbor waterfront mid-afternoon, successful in my attempt to hike three miles an hour, but it wasn’t clear how to get back to New York City. The Cold Spring Harbor LIRR station lies, oddly, three miles out of Cold Spring Harbor. Instead of taking in the victorian architecture of the town for which Billy Joel named his first solo album (I’m not a fan, but there was a tribute to him in the waterfront park), I opted to begin the roadwalk back to the station. There was no sidewalk and very little shoulder, so the last few miles resembled something like a game of “chicken” between me and the speeding vehicles. Such roads, lacking any accommodation for bipeds, deter pedestrianism and force a reflexive reliance on auto transport. I thought of Rebecca Solnit’s lovely little book on walking, Wanderlust, where she observes:

[I]n many new places, public space isn’t even in the design: what was once public space is designed to accommodate the privacy of automobiles; malls replace main streets; streets have no sidewalks; buildings are entered through their garages; city halls have no plazas; and everything has walls, bars, gates.

My attempts at hitchhiking to the station were predictably rebuffed. As I stopped to observe a marker indicating the historic international border between New Netherlands and the British colonies, a yellow BMW convertible filled with several white, smirking, pimple-faced, polo-shirt wearing adolescents paused at the roadside just long enough to collectively salute me with their middle fingers. As they sped off, one of them shouted “fuck you, faggot!” I mused that the town of Hicksville was only a few miles west—but it was probably unfair to associate the unsavory meaning I intended with the famous abolitionist Quaker Elias Hicks, for whom the town is named. Still, as I made my way back to the train, I wondered if the privileged buffoons were even aware of the strip of earth, just 19.5 miles long and barely one foot wide, that meanders around and alongside their mansions, (nearly) obscured in green, connecting the south and north shores of the “land of tribute.” 

The Nassau-Suffolk Greenbelt Trail

Length: 19.5 miles Blaze: white

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