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  • Writer's pictureZachary Desmond

#4 of 18: WALKING ON THE RIVER

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

// IMAGINARY ATLAS //

January 9, 2023

Vol 1, Issue 4


Happy 2023 Good Human!


New year, new title baby. Perhaps we’ll reinitiate the Misty Frights in 2024, but the year of the rabbit is fast approaching and it’s time for feet get fleeted. You may notice that this issue is almost a month late (my editor has been giving me hell, believe me) so January will be a double-issue month to get us back on track, a one-two punch of Imaginary Atlases aptly titled:


Pilgrimage

The Procrastinator’s Guide to Writing Efficiently


Part 1. When the shortest distance between two points is a thirteen-mile walk along the isle of Manhattan


Chapter 1

A(n incomplete) list of things I did this month instead of writing this newsletter:


I read the first four chapters of a book about game tracking in California

Played Disco Elysium (a video game) for about 20 hours straight

Built a Rube Goldberg machine (seriously)

Took several naps, one of which was in a bath

Made a Points of Interest map of La Jolla, CA

Re-discovered a Points of Interest map I had once made of Izmir, Efes, and Sirince in Central Aegean Turkey

Drank whisky and played shuffleboard at Seattle Tavern with Roger

Met my friends Michael and Eva’s new baby, Rosslyn

Waged a sock war against my mom in her living room

Sang some Avett Brothers songs with my brother

Taste tested a number of fine mezcals with my mom and stepdad

Replaced all the tile in a stranger’s kitchen with my dad

Read Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry in about 24 hours and bawled through the final thirty pages

Called my grandparents

Wrote a 3,500 word story and sent it to my English professor from 12 years ago

Rearranged my apartment’s extra bedroom (if not now, when?)

Applied to a Performance Lab with the Orchard Project

Made a meal prep plan and then bought tacos from El Bronco anyway

Cleaned my room, swept the kitchen, unpacked my suitcase, ran the laundry

Built another Rube Goldberg machine (seriously)

Took a series of increasingly difficult vocabulary quizzes on my phone

Played Wordle, Quordle and Octordle on my phone

Watched the entire seventh season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia on my phone

Watched Danny DeVito interviews on my phone

Took the end of year NY Times Faces quiz (several times so I could get a higher score) on my phone

Looked up driving routes to Virginia on my phone

Watched a video about breathing techniques that help reduce wrinkles on my phone

Tried to comprehend how electric batteries have evolved over the last two decades on my phone

Watched the first episode of Welcome to Chippendales on my phone

Read the entire history of the Chippendales murders on my phone


Chapter 2

I needed to get off my phone. But every time I hopped on the computer to start writing, the hungry hungry dopamine receptors howled for the internet: its information overload, its spectral wündermacht. There was no hope for this month’s essay without a neural reset. Fresh off Harold Fry’s unlikely pilgrimage, I decided that the best way to write the essay would be to refrain from screens for at least 12 hours by walking the length of Manhattan from the tip of Inwood Hill Park to the anodes of Battery Park City. I opted to flow south-southwest with the Hudson River. Walking is a lot like writing. It took me all morning just to reach the starting point.


Chapter 3

When we were fifteen Mit and Gor and I found ourselves marooned in Seattle Center late one autumn night after the buses stopped running. We probably snuck our way into the movie theater at Pacific Place, enjoyed a double feature and resurfaced well after the final bus had gone to bed. I don’t remember what movies we saw or what we did that morning, but I remember making the decision to walk home along 1st Avenue and Alaskan Way, past Deja Vu and the Lusty Lady and Pioneer Square, through SODO, skirting the International District along the viaduct, crossing the brown Duwamish beneath the West Seattle Bridge, passing under the orange sodium vapor lamps of the Port of Seattle Harbor and the Nucor steel mill. By the time we were climbing Avalon hill, our feet were swollen. We moaned and laughed and hurled insults at Gor, who had underestimated the duration of this journey by hours.

By the time we crested the hill, it was the witching hour. A few paces from the driveway into Taco Time, a cab pulled over. An Australian man of indeterminate age (I cannot remember his face) asked if we needed a ride, he’d seen us walking. We didn’t have any money, we told him, and we were just walking home. Climb in, he said, he knew weary travelers when he saw them. The Junction, our home turf, was deserted, dew collecting on every surface, traffic lights dousing storefronts in green and red. Rolling down to our neighborhood along Erskine Way, we were belligerently thankful. If you try to pay me, I’ll punch you in the face, he said. We built a fort of pillows and blankets in the attic and celebrated the twists and turns of our walk in hushed voices. In the telling, the walk took a story’s shape, gatekeepers, monsters, unexpected allyships, impossible tasks, and the death of something irretrievable to make room for the boon. Mit was convinced the man in the cab was God. An angel maybe, I thought, but he was sure.


Chapter 4

I used to be able to see Inwood Hill Park from my roof. Through my first four years in New York, I called the northernmost height of Washington Heights my home, St. George Hill. The Bronx, Northern New Jersey and the bulk of Northern Manhattan were all well within view. Inwood Hill Park is a brisk twenty-two minute walk from my front door, if you hit all the crosswalks right. From my current home in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, it’s an hour and twenty-two minutes by trains D and A, plus a jaunt through Isham Park to get to the proper tippity top of Manhattan, a wedge of rock and tree shivering beneath the blue plate girding of the Henry Hudson Bridge. I passed a woman in Isham Park who was struggling to roll her laundry cart down one curb and up another. “You got it,” I said, partly asking, mostly encouraging. “I used to live on Dyckman with all the drugs,” she said to me, so I nodded. “This is better,” she offered, steaming ahead. I peeled left to cross the street and start my climb up Inwood Hill. “Just gotta keep at it,” she called out behind me. “That’s right,” I told her. Peerless counsel for a pilgrim starting out.


Chapter 5

There are two ways to get to Fox Island, Washington. The first, and the only one we knew, was to drive across the Fox Island Bridge, after cruising through the small town of Gig Harbor, after rolling over the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, after speeding 35 miles down Interstate 5, and after driving east from Mit’s house over the West Seattle Bridge. The only other way, Gor and I determined, was to kayak.

Ellen and Reena were sisters, within a year of each other, and just a year younger than Gor and me, respectively. Ellen was tall and willowy with oaken hair. Reena was smaller and surlier, a sandy blonde with soft blue eyes. They were non-familial cousins of Mit’s and we’d spent every Fourth of July with them and their entire family on Fox Island for the preceding three years. A magical island of sand castles and half-built homes and unlimited access to fireworks with near-zero adult supervision. Mit’s family wasn’t going this year and Gor and I, after years of blissful ignorance, were beginning to nurture the burgeoning presumptions that Ellen and Reena might be, like, into us. But this year (of all years!) we were without a ride. So we would prove our mettle by crossing the Puget Sound in vessels powered only by trail mix, Odwalla bars, and far too little water, by way of our lean, capable upper arms and torsos.

When dipping the nose of one’s rental kayak into the clear cold Pacific along Beach Drive, Vashon Island looks downright proximate. Crossing a major international shipping lane is no joke and this first leg has to be our quickest, not just to stay clear of ferries and cargo ships, but to ensure that, in four hours or so, we pass through the Tacoma Narrows with the tide, not against it.


Chapter 6

The first note I write on the journey down the Western edge of Manhattan is prescriptive: “We are training the brain. There is literally nothing else TO DO right now.” I am walking through the oldest and least denuded of Manhattan’s forests but I have no notes to prove I noticed. “Ah yes,” I write of my backpack, “I forgot that hiking is just a series of strap adjustments to alleviate back pain.” My mind is restlessly listing: emails to send, people to reach out to, tasks to complete, things to be doing as soon as I am done doing this. “The brain,” I note, “doing whatever it can to escape the body.” To escape the present. Where the body, most dependably I might add, can always be found.


Chapter 7

Our sprint across the shipping channel starts off as these things normally do: exceedingly well. Against the receding shore and above the vibrant blue-green-grey of the ocean floor, a kayak glides across the surface of the water almost without effort. The paddle slices the barrier between sea and sky without so much as a bubble, the left and right and left of the row gives one the impression of steady, inevitable progress. One’s hands are merely guides in an indefatigable forward propulsion prescribed by hydrodynamic order, the perfect summer morning, and the beating left and right and left ventricles of the women who await your arrival.

The shore is already well behind you. The Sound’s bottom has faded from sight, the water deep enough now to swallow all visible light into a uniform block of impenetrable sea pine green. Additionally though, Vashon Island isn’t getting any closer.

“When the going gets tough?” Roger calls out to me.

“Yeah? What happens then?”

“The tough get going,” he cries and we laugh, like seagulls carried by the wind.


Chapter 8

There is a break in the trail, where the sloping forest of Inwood Hill kneels before the cliffs of Fort Tryon. One can either hug the hillside and head up toward the monastery or bank right and walk the narrow lane between the railroad and the river. Three characters from a play I’ve been working on start arguing with each other about the nature of prayer. They are stuck in a cave somewhere beneath southeastern New Mexico and Shira wants the other two to pray. Addie dismisses her, finding prayer childish.

Jurgen agrees with Addie that, “All our religious preoccupation can be boiled down to humans’ desperate obsession with the unknown, that which is beyond comprehension. Prayer is just a way to cope with the obsession, a little barque of unbeyondness navigating a vast and expanding sea of beyond.”

“That’s what I’m saying,” Shira agrees. “In whatever way you’re relating to the universe’s unknownness--all of its little beyondnesses--is how you pray.”

But Addie doesn’t like the word pray; prefers the hunt of research, the foraging of fact, predation upon ignorance. Shira tells her she can use whatever word she likes. Addie insists it’s different, the pursuit of truth, the collection of data, the application of reason, the scientific method.

“Uh huh,” says Jurgen, “This is how you relate to the unknown, you corral it and contain it and do everything you can to devour its beyondness. And this,” he says, understanding Shira’s point, “is how you pray… I think is what she’s saying.” He shrugs and looks to Shira, like, right?

Addie parries, “No, you’re just saying that however one orients to the unknown, whatever one does with it is prayer, but prayer requires an object. If you’re not praying to something, you’re not doing prayer.”

“We’re always praying to something,” says Shira. “Whatever we’re doing, that’s praying to something. Or whatever we’re not doing. All we do is prayer. It’s just recognizing, you know, which gods am I praying to?”

“I thought we were supposed to be praying for things,” Jurgen says smiling.

“That’s even better,” says Shira. “Which gods are you praying for then?”


Chapter 9

Rowing is also like writing. Your hands hurt. Your back hurts. Your butt hurts. No one should ever sit this long.

The tide has been against us. Even a moment’s rest loses you what you earned with the last ten strokes. We pull our kayaks onto a pebbly beach somewhere along the endless western length of Vashon Island. The island Vashes on and on. Vash on Island. Vash right the fuck on.

We have not packed enough water. The gloves we brought are for weightlifting and our hands are blistered around the finger holes, the webbing between our palms and thumbs is hot and red. My neck is raw from the collar of my life vest, which I doubled over and repurposed for lumbar support hours ago. Roger’s arms and chest are spattered with dried salt drops. Our paddles no longer slice the grey-green wake but slap it stupidly, splashing us ceaselessly with saltwater one quarter cup at a time.

Roger passes me an Odwalla bar, my fourth, and I am well sick of them. I pass him the sunscreen and remind him to get his ears, they’re getting pink. The sun is high. My cap is powdered white with sea salt and dry sweat. We are miles from home and miles more from the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. We slip our ‘yaks clumsily back into the water. I had stashed my gloves on the bow to dry them out and now they are nowhere to be found. The beach is five minutes behind us. We could let the tide carry us back, but re-paddling the five minutes it took to get here is unimaginable. The blisters swell. We muster onward. When the going gets tough, and all that.


Chapter 11

I am sweating in my down coat. I roll the brim on my beanie and let my ears breathe. My plan was to do the whole walk in daylight but I’m only two and half miles in and it’s well past 1pm. I curse my late start, again. I’ve been sleeping in a lot, waking up bored, the depression boring a heavy hole where my body usually is. I wake up wanting only to sleep, return to the spirit world where the great effort of having a body is forgotten.

The alarm I set every night is a symbolic gesture. Between snoozes, I bargain with myself: all one needs, I tell myself, is to seek for something bigger than this story, this gargantuan sense of apathy.

But I’m tired of doing that, I admit, of mustering the innocence to believe things can be different, fostering the faculty to accept things as they are.

I hear myself turning this phrase over and around, teasing out the platitude so that when my child someday asks me about this feeling, this heavy, bored, dread-filled kind of tired, I will have something to offer them. Imagining this child is a kind of hope, I warrant, even if all I have to say is, I know what you mean, I too have felt this. Will this kid even ask me about the feeling, I wonder with a chill. I didn’t ask my parents. I didn’t have the words. God knows they knew the feeling.

The path just ends: “End of Public Access” says the sign, no larger than a mailbox. The asphalt dead ends into a scraggly winter hedgerow of marsh elder and goldenrod. A thin man stands at the water’s edge looking out, his CitiBike against a sleeping sweetgum. He is peeing, otherwise I would ask him about the sign. I had no idea the trail stopped here. I can see the George Washington Bridge just ahead, and under it sits the Little Red Lighthouse and I know the trail goes uninterrupted from there all the way to Battery Park City, 200 blocks or more.

I weigh the prospect of turning back, rerouting to the uphill trail past the monastery and Fort Tryon. It’s at least a mile back, maybe more. Sunset is in three hours, maybe sooner, and I still have 11 miles to go. While my inner monologue and I squabble, my feet carry me toward the dark iron fence that runs beside the railway. There is a patch of crushed stone, probably for drainage, offering a break in the bramble. On the other side of the hedge, the stone spills into a dirt and gravel footpath which appears to traverse the unkempt edgeland as far as I can see. I glance over my shoulder. The peeing man certainly won’t mind.

There’s an order to the edgelands that my feet love to follow. In this prohibited strip of estuarial coastline, cut off from Manhattan by six lanes of highway and two high speed rails, people have been habiting. There are dormant garden plots, 4x8 feet, gridded and edged with driftwood. There are benches built of stone and an anarchic miniature fishing pier stacked a yard above the water. As the water encroaches, the path narrows until I’m hugging the fence. Every four feet, sharp metal spires from a previous fence jut out an inch or two from the uneven earth. To my left, wrought iron gives way to chained link. To the right, my narrow strand widens up to a boulder strewn shoreline and across a mile of running water The Palisades stand tall and still. The trail climbs an outcrop of ancient Manhattan schist. Above, graffiti covers the cement railway walls in a thousand fonts. Below, a battered home of foam, wooden pallets, and tarp leans against a gnarled old hackberry; an upturned garbage can lid rests in its boughs, full with rainwater. Another CitiBike sits nearby, this one with black-plastic-bag-and-bungee panniers.

There are human-sized fissures in the chain link, next to newer looking lengths where old holes have been repaired. A curious comfort befalls me, to see them right next to each other. Order being queered. Not chaos, not entropy, but an enduring insistence on disputing the boundaries, here in the forgotten land between the river and the rail. There are people who put fences up and there are people who cut holes in those fences, no matter how many times they are patched.

To be continued…


--


For previous installments and an introduction if this is your first round:




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