Off the Beaten Path

After four decades, seeing Central Park with fresh eyes

gigi_nyc/Flickr (976807015@N03)
gigi_nyc/Flickr (976807015@N03)

Five days a week for 43 years, I’ve been walking around the Central Park Reservoir. (In 1994, it was renamed the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, but nobody calls it that.) Since the onset of the pandemic, the lower loop of the reservoir, which is part of the bridle path, is the only place besides home that feels safe. In 1977, when New York was on the brink of bankruptcy, I moved to my present apartment, my fifth in the city and my favorite because it is the one closest to Central Park—205 steps from the lobby, to be exact.

Growing up, I played in the park on the West Side. I passed countless hours at the old zoo studying the imprisoned bear that children were cautioned had ripped off a debutante’s arm when she tried to pat it through the bars. I’d lunched at the Bethesda Terrace in the ’60s, when a restaurant there served artichokes stuffed with shrimp. I’d taken riding lessons on the western stretch of the bridle path, skated at Wollman Rink, and gone sledding. The reservoir was terra incognito.

My first glimpse was in 1977, entering the park at the Engineer’s Gate on 90th Street and Fifth Avenue. Beyond the gilded bust of John Purroy Mitchel—New York’s mayor from 1914 to 1918 when, neglecting to buckle his seatbelt, he fell out of a plane—there it was. A hundred and six acres of water in the middle of Manhattan. A biome with ducks, giant weeds, and sunbathing turtles. I walked counterclockwise (the prescribed way) on the upper track, 1.57 miles of packed cinders cordoned off from the waves by a chain-link fence (now replaced by wrought-iron staves, a facsimile of the original fence discovered in the reservoir by a scuba diver named George Parry). A few people were jogging. I tried it. The benefits were obvious. You could increase your heartbeat and get a workout. But jogging didn’t let me think. So for the next 21 years, I walked the cinder track with my friend Lisa. Five days a week times 52 weeks a year for 21 years equals 5,460 loops. That many loops times 1.57 miles equals 8,572.2 miles.

Then Lisa had serious foot surgery, and I started walking with Lily, Molly, and Fran. The upper loop didn’t work anymore. It wasn’t wide enough for four women walking abreast. If we broke up and walked two-by-two, we couldn’t all have one conversation. Somebody always felt she was missing something. So we swung down to the lower, wider, less-manicured bridle path, a sprawling hilly loop of 1.66 miles. We walked together two days a week. The other days I was accompanied by a Walkman and Blossom Dearie, Mozart, Leonard Cohen, Amy Winehouse, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Stan Getz, George Shearing, Erroll Garner, Michael Franks, Django Reinhardt, Beyonce, and Bach. I wore them out.

“How long does it take to love your playlist again?” I asked my son, who used to have a band called Crispy and the Critters.

“Three to four months of complete withdrawal,” he said.

Five days a week times 52 weeks is 260 walks per year. Two hundred sixty walks per year times 22 years comes out to 5,720 loops. Walking the lower loop of 1.66 miles 5,720 times equals 9,495.2 miles. Add 21 years of cinder track to 22 years of bridle path and that’s 18,067.4 miles. Or five roundtrips from New York to Los Angeles as the crow flies. Or 690 New York City marathons. The circumference of the Earth measured at the equator is 24,901 miles. I’m 75 percent there.

Since March and the outbreak of the pandemic, I’ve been walking alone. Social distancing with masks on made conversation impossible. Everybody kept saying, “What? What?” I started listening to books on Overtime, the New York Public Library app. I’ve gone through all of their Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan, Jesmyn Ward, Susan Orlean, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Rachel Carson. I listened to these books rapt, but something strange and unpredictable began happening. Although I thought I knew my loop the way a hamster knows its wheel, I started seeing things I’d never noticed before. I started extreme noticing.

I’ve always been a big noticer, the one who spots the penny on the sidewalk, who finds a ring in the crease of a cab seat or the steer skull on the facade of a building. Shells pressed into cement on the sidewalk. Someone’s shifting incisors. Close observation started in childhood when my hobbies were collecting stamps and insects and breeding tropical fish, three invitations to minute inspection. But since March, for the first time I was noticing the difference between the leaf structure of purple clover (ovoid and pointed) and white clover (round). The orange sprays of Columbine on the northeast end of the reservoir grew in maroon near the South Gate House. In a massive bank of riotous green, I picked out the stance of a single garlic scape. In a tangle of ivy, the pinked edges of chicory. The difference between rhododendrons and azaleas was for the first time obvious. Mulberries littered the ground like rice at a wedding. Thousands of acorns formed a terrazzo under an oak tree (this is a mast year—a natural phenomenon when all trees in an area produce humongous amounts of nuts—no one knows why).

How could I have missed all the patches of violets that clump like nosegays at the base of wire fences? And the untrampleable plantain leaf, a favorite from childhood because it took heroic skill to pull the two ends of the leaf in opposite directions and extract unbroken strings of white vascular tissue. One hundred sixty-five steps west of the biggest tree in the park, a London planetree that according to Sara Cedar Miller, the Central Park historian emerita, takes nine second-graders holding hands to encircle, I saw for the very first time in 43 years that a tree I’d passed 11,180 times on my right formed a hammock, three concave low-lying limbs, one for the back, two for feet, the perfect place to read a book. It might as well have sprung up overnight.

Why did it take a pandemic to see all these things? What does sensory deprivation as a result of isolation trigger? Does the brain crave a certain amount of stimulation that it will find a way to satisfy no matter what? Was extreme noticing a byproduct of corona anxiety?

At the beginning of the outbreak, the lower loop wasn’t more populated than usual. By mid-April, both tracks were teeming. An alarming number of people weren’t wearing masks. An alarming number had their dogs off leash, dogs that would race up to you to sniff or snarl and have to be retrieved by maskless owners. That’s when I first noticed what hikers call a “herd path.” A herd path is an informal track made by animals or people taking a shortcut instead of a recognized route. East of the hammock tree, a worn footpath took me off the dusty bridle path and away from other walkers and joggers. Anyone could see it. It wasn’t hidden. But no one else was using it. It felt okay to lower my soggy mask.

I looked for more herd paths. Central Park has four kinds. The type that is recognized by the Central Park Conservancy, which maintains the park. These get mulched. Then there are the narrower un-mulched herd paths that have been walked on so often, they’re bald. They aren’t hard to spot either. Next come the quasi-hidden herd paths, which are more like tracks, as if people with weed killer on their shoes stomped through grass. Last of all, there are the dark, dank, deeply hidden paths where the sun doesn’t shine. I’ve never seen another human being on these. I’ve found four of them. When I guided my friend Lily on one, she called me Natty Bumppo.

The longest mulched herd path cuts up from the bridle path across from the Ardsley apartments on West 92nd Street. By the end of May, Kwanzan (double blossom) cherry trees form an arbor there. Walking under it on a windy day is like being in a snow globe. There are nine foot-pounded shortcuts from this path to the upper loop. Some are two feet apart. People will do anything to save a step. The mulched path ends at four benches, one of which has my father’s name on it. I think of that bench as his lap. I picked that particular one after Dad died because it faces downtown, where he worked, and it’s on the West Side, where he grew up. Close to the end, I said, “Dad I’m going to get a bench with your name on it in Central Park.” He was in bed at the time. He turned his head away from me. His bench is next to Madeleine Kahn’s bench. He would have liked that.

Another way to Dad’s bench is a short, hidden path. It’s hard to find. The entrance to it is obscured by low vegetation. But something draws the eye forward to a bald spot, then more vegetation, then another bald spot. You might as well be in another world. Recently I found a new secret path and bushwhacked through it. When I got home and took a shower, countless black blobs the size of aspirin washed out of my hair and circled the drain. I swept them up in toilet paper and flushed them.

Of the seven obvious but unmaintained herd paths around the reservoir, a favorite starts just before the Bosom Tree, a gray beech with two large side-by-side rounded knots. The path extends, after a small fenced interruption, all the way to the bushes near Purroy’s memorial. Watch your head. You’ll be concentrating on your feet. One Yoshino (single blossom) cherry tree has a murderously low bough.

Weekdays now, the reservoir tracks are less crowded. People are going back to work. It’s getting colder. The summer flora has died back, leaving mostly fleabane (a kind of aster) that I only just noticed comes in white and lavender. Milkweed pods are bursting angel hair. There are banks of coreopsis, yellow as egg yolk. And, mainly along the south side of the bridle path, low spreading patches of smartweed that look like pencils embroidered with pink beads.

The pandemic is all about restrictions, what you can’t do. But within the framework of these restrictions, it’s exhilarating to make discoveries about what you thought you knew well. I Googled “bear rips off arm + debutante.” A man whose nose was clawed off by a bear came up first, followed by a series of sadder-but-wiser, one-armed survivors. There were no former debutantes. Recently, walking west on the bridle path, I noticed a woman reading in the hammock tree. It stopped me cold. The impulse was to yell, “Get out of my tree!” For a moment, I’d forgotten. Central Park, all 843 acres, isn’t mine.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Patricia Volk is the author of two novels, two collections of short stories, and two memoirs, the most recent of which, Shocked, was an NPR book of the year.


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