25 August 2006

Great Kills

In England, it’s standard practice for hundreds of thousands of people to spend their free time by taking a train somewhere out into the country and then walking five or ten or fifteen miles to the next town before catching the next train back. As you’ll know, of course, if you’ve been following my past blog posts about the West Country Walking Society.

That sort of activity seems a lot less common, if not downright eccentric here in the USA, but yesterday I was able to pull off an English-style expedition to the country, even if it did require taking three trains and one boat, and several miles of walking. All, I might add, without ever leaving New York City.

I spotted Great Kills Park, part of the Gateway National Park, on the map, and it looked reasonably close to the Great Kills train station. It also looked as though it had some nice beaches, so I got out my trusty mini-backpack and hopped the L and the W to the Staten Island Ferry and then on to the somewhat grandiosely named Staten Island Railway. What it is in reality is a sort of clapped-out version of a New York subway line – I think it’s where they send trains to die when they’re too old and decrepit to use on regular lines anymore.

People often say the G line, running between Queens and Brooklyn, gets no respect because it is the sole line that never touches Manhattan, but they’re wrong. The Staten Island line also never touches Manhattan (or any other borough of note), and gets far less respect. It’s dirty, only runs once every half hour, and is the only New York train line I’ve seen in more than a decade with significant amounts of graffiti.

But never mind that; it still gets you where you want to go, even if when you get there, it turns out not to be where you wanted to go at all. I mean, not to keep harping on England, but as bad as the trains can be there, it’s pretty typical for them to drop you off close to major destinations like castles or national parks or other tourist attractions, and also pretty typical for them to have a station named after or at least related to the attraction in question.

Not so with Great Kills (a kill, by the way, is a creek or a stream; sorry to disappoint you if you thought that Fresh Kills, also on Staten Island was a giant open-air abattoir or buzzard feeding ground); apparently it’s just the name of the town or district, and there were no signs pointing the way to the park, no sign, in fact that it even existed.

Luckily meandering around the English countryside has endowed me with a certain sense of direction, plus Staten Island is small enough that if you keep walking you’re bound to hit water sooner or later, which is what I did. Unfortunately, although it was the right ocean (bay, whatever), I was nowhere near the park, but I found it eventually by cutting across fields, through a whole row of private yacht clubs, and at one point into a swamp with cattails towering over my head.

So was it worth it? Well, I was definitely out in the country, the air was fresh and sweet, and apart from the moron who parked his motorcycle nearby and kept it idling so that he would have to shout louder during his half-hour conversation with another moron, awfully quiet and peaceful. The beach wasn’t bad, either, apart from a couple flaws. For one, it seemed like you had to walk out about half a mile to get in over your head. Fine for children and short people, but not so great for me. It might be all right at high tide.

The other thing, which actually made it unbearable to sit on the beach for more than a few minutes, is the horde of biting black flies that zooms in on you the minute you stop moving. I noticed other people lounging around – not many, though; at points it looked like one of those deserted tropical beaches you see in a travel agent poster, minus the palm trees, of course – so maybe they were immune to the flies, or oblivious, or maybe they had some kind of bug repellent. When I got home that night, I bought some, but will have to wait till my next beach visit to see if it works.

So I had only a brief swim before I had to flee inland, and then I started hiking the length of the park, mostly along the seashore, though stupendous amounts of trash which I assume has floated in on the tide from other environs, because I can’t imagine people going to the trouble of hauling it all to a national park and dumping it there. There were also some amazing peat bogs which I thought I might sink into and be lost forever, but didn’t, and the shells of some enormous sea creatures with fearsome-looking claws.

Eventually I was out of the park altogether without really noticing it had ended until the beach and the peat bogs sort of dissolved into impenetrable swamps, at which point I was able to clamber over huge piles of rocks and bricks and then a decaying wooden retaining wall and finally came to a gravel road that led me out through a forest and deposited me right back in the middle of suburbia. Following the advice of a fisherman, I found my way – after another couple miles – back to the railway station I probably should have gotten off at in the first place, and was on my way back to Brooklyn with aching feet and a little bit of a suntan.

1 comment:

Wesley said...

But those are some of the only Kills that motorcycles are allowed on these days...