Saturday, December 14, 2013

104. The Beauty and Danger of the Palisades

     Just across the Hudson from New York City, cliffs of dark gray rock rise almost vertically some 500 feet above the river, sometimes clothed with vegetation and sometimes just bare rock.  This is the New Jersey Palisades, a solid wall of rock stretching from Fort Lee northward as far as the eye can see, all the way to the New York State boundary some twelve miles to the north.  Huge signs advertising patent medicines and other worthy products once blazoned forth their message from the cliffs for the benefit of steamboat passengers in the years following the Civil War (“Obscenery!” proclaimed Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune), and the rock itself was once quarried for railroad ballast.  And when, in the late 1890s, a movement developed to preserve the Palisades, the quarry operators used dynamite to speed up their work before conservation efforts put an end to it.  Fortunately, those efforts soon paid off; quarrying ended in 1900 with the creation of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission by the governors of New York and New Jersey.  In time, the Park Commission would undertake to acquire for the park all the private property both below the cliffs and on top of them.  In 1933 John D. Rockefeller, the robber baron turned philanthropist, donated to the Park Commission all the land he had acquired along the cliffs, on condition that the Commission acquire all the estates not owned by him and demolish their mansions, so as to restore unobstructed views of the river.

File:Hudson River Palisades seen from 187th Street.jpg
                                                                                                                                                                                  Beyond My Ken

     This park is a long, skinny stretch of green squeezed in between the Palisades Parkway and the cliff edge, often only an eighth of a mile wide, so that you can’t possibly get lost in it, but you are constantly serenaded by the sound of zooming traffic.  I have often hiked the length of it, though not all at once but in segments.  Two paths traverse it: the Long Path along the top of the cliffs and, far below, the Shore Path along the edge of the river; each has offered me a climactic experience, unique, at the end of my hike.  There are three real dangers in the park, two of which I have encountered; I shall deal with them all in time.  Let me now relate a hike on the Long Path, which is easily accessed just over the George Washington Bridge (which I have usually walked) in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

The Long Path

File:View north along the Long Path just north of the Women's Federation Monument in Palisades Interstate Park on May 5th 2013.jpg
     Starting north from the bridge, I would pass through a shady, dank wooded area and turn onto a side path that took me to right up to the approaches to the bridge.  There, in late spring and early summer, in a dry, sunny spot I always found a stand of common milkweed, my favorite summer flower, thrusting domed clusters of tiny intricate flowers, dusty rose or lavender or dull brownish purple in color, and emitting an intoxicating fragrance.  That the plant is also toxic seems irrelevant, since one is tempted only to sniff it, not at all to eat it.  A nice beginning for the hike, in spite of the unending traffic sounds from the bridge.

     Pressing on along the trail, which is marked with turquoise blazes, I passed the remnants of foundations of former mansions that always puzzled me, until, researching this post, I learned how, at Rockefeller’s insistence, the Park Commission acquired and  demolished them.  At times I would go to the cliff edge and look back at the bridge, measuring my progress by how much it had retreated into the distance.  Its sounds faded, but those of the nearby parkway persisted, and my quest of solitude in nature was further frustrated by the presence of a roadside gas station.  Just beyond it, however, I would come to Allison Park, a small, well maintained bit of greenery offering a nice view out over the Hudson, benches for picnic lunches, and water fountains and rest rooms.  It is named for the first mayor of Englewood Cliffs who once had an estate here and was a leader in the movement to preserve the Palisades.

     Continuing north through the oak forest that prevails here, I would come to High Tom, a rock promontory offering fine views north and south, and then to Rockefeller Lookout, another spot for good views, a mile north of the bridge and just across from the northern tip of Manhattan, where the Harlem River flows into the Hudson.  Here once, finding a bit of cliff just beyond the fence that offered an unusually fine view, I stepped out onto it, settled down, and enjoyed the vistas.  At this point another hiker happened by, saw me, and warned that in going beyond the fence I risked arrest for reckless endangerment.  He himself had been arrested on that very spot and had been obliged to go to court and pay a hefty fine.  Thus warned, I stepped back over the fence and never transgressed again.  It’s just as well, since in the summer of 2012 alone three deaths occurred here, two accidents and a suicide whose body was found 225 feet below the edge.  Yes, the cliffs are dangerous, and if Big Brother is out to keep you safe, however annoying he can be, his intentions are the best.  So much for the first of the three dangers to be encountered in the park, though we’ll return to it later.

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     Continuing to the north, I would pass the fenced enclave of Greenbrook Sanctuary, a large nature preserve created to protect native species.  Only members are allowed inside, but for a season or two I became a member, so as to have a look at whatever treasures lay inside.  Near the entrance was a feeding station where the sanctuary naturalist put out quantities of seed to attract seed-eating birds, and there, along with sparrows and pushy blue jays, I had my first sighting of wild turkeys, who were scooping up the seed ravenously.  I had always wondered how so big and bulky a bird could survive in the wild, with hunters all about, but when I saw them run into the brush, I understood: their plumage was such that they instantly vanished among the weeds and bushes.  This was the bird that Benjamin Franklin thought should be our national bird, and not the bald eagle, whom he censured for grabbing fish out of the mouths of osprey – a spectacle that I once had while hiking this very trail in late autumn; it happened so fast I hardly realized what I had seen, but the fish-deprived osprey, and the triumphant eagle, fish in beak, convinced me.  But I still prefer the bald eagle as a national symbol, and not these bulky earth-bound gobblers, who can only fly short distances and have nothing majestic or inspiring about them.  Still, I’m grateful to the Sanctuary for affording me a glimpse of the creatures.

File:Concrete bridge to Grey Crag from the Long Path in Palisade Interstate Park on May 5th 2013.jpg
The concrete bridge to Grey Crag.
    Passing the Park Administration Building, a former estate mansion that escaped demolition, I would come to Grey Crag, a detached bit of cliff only ten to twenty feet wide, accessed by a narrow concrete bridge without a railing.  I always crossed that bridge quickly, without looking down.  I’m surprised that the crag is even open to visitors; Big Brother isn’t always on the job.  And what do you find, once you’ve mustered up your courage to cross the bridge and reach Grey Crag?  Poison ivy!

File:View north from Ruckman Point in Palisades Interstate Park on May 5th 2013.jpg
View north from Ruckman Point, north of Grey Crag.

File:View from the southwest of the Women's Federation Monument in Palisades Interstate Park on May 5th 2013.jpg
    Still farther to the north I would come to the Women’s Federation Monument, a little stone castle where you can climb up to a sort of battlement, though it doesn’t provide a spectacular view.  When I first encountered it, I wondered why it was there, seemingly so out of step with nature, so pointless, so useless, but later I learned better.  Dedicated in 1929, it honored the role of the New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs, who from the late 1890s on played a major role in preserving the Palisades.  God bless those girls; while their wealthy spouses were out making money, these wives put their leisure time to good use, helping to reclaim these magnificent cliffs from the quarrymen who were blasting them to pieces.  And God bless this pint-sized castle, even if it provides no rest rooms and, alas, reeks at times of urine.

File:Palisades cliff.jpg
Can you make out the Indian Head?
     Beyond the monument I would come to State Line Lookout, a park with a snack stand, picnic tables, and good views out over the Hudson.  Looking south, you can see a rock formation called the Indian Head, since that is what it looks like in silhouette.  I have often lunched in this park and found summer flowers, including catnip, from which I harvested a few leaves to offer a neighbor with a cat, so her pet could get high and roll about in ecstasy.  From here the trail crosses the state line, marked by a chain link fence, into New York State and advances along the cliff edge, but I would rather describe this section the way I have usually traversed it, coming from the state line bus stop on route 9W, near the entrance to Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory.  From that point the Long Path continues to the north as far as the Catskills and beyond.  I have done segments of that trail and have dreamed of doing the whole trail in another life, but that takes us far beyond New York City and its environs. 

     Coming from the bus stop, I would pass through a dank, shady stretch of forest, approach the cliffs, and climb up, up, up a staircase, huffing and puffing, to reach a point almost at the top of the cliffs, where I would emerge into morning sunlight and experience, once a year, the climax of the trail, the goal of my annual pilgrimage.  Here the path passes between the cliff edge on one side and a sloping wall of rock on the other, and here, and here only, I would find two spring flowers that thrive in rocky soil. 

     At the cliff edge, and even on ledges on the face of the cliffs, grow clusters of wild pink, a flower with wedge-shaped pink petals and a sticky stem: beautiful, but not to be approached too closely, given its preference for the edge of the cliffs.  

File:Carolina wild pink flower.jpg
Other rock-loving spring flowers bloom there as well, mostly inconspicuous little mustards, but one flower growing singly here and there on the rocky wall opposite upstages even wild pink.  This is columbine, whose yellow-centered nodding red petals with long curved spurs have always fascinated me and drawn me year after year to this very special spot.  

File:Columbine flower in British Columbia.jpg
The flower points down, but the spurs of the red petals point up.
Alan Vernon
I always lingered there for at least fifteen minutes, usually having the path to myself, bathed in the bright morning light, with the river scintillating in the sun far below, and overhead a blue arch of sky, with one or several turkey vultures gliding on unseen currents of air.  A magical moment, unique, not to be repeated for a year.

The Shore Path

File:American Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis).jpg
You don't want him on you.
Jerry Kirkhart
     The path along the river, marked with white blazes, is a totally different experience, offering not breathtaking views out over the river, but, at intervals, impressive views of the cliffs rising from the riverbank.  The path is accessed by side paths leading off from the Long Path and involving a long descent to the river.  Taking the first of these paths, one goes down to the Ross Dock Picnic Area, where I have rarely lingered.  The first stretch of the Shore Path, between that area and the Englewood Boat Basin, is easy walking, but dull.  Then, beyond the Englewood Picnic Area and Boat Basin, the path proceeds narrowly between the wooded cliffs and the river and passes an abandoned bathhouse, a reminder that this area was once a popular bathing resort.  Along this stretch of the path, one spring I encountered the second danger of the Palisades paths: the wood tick (Dermacentor variabilis), which in May and June of every year swarms all over this stretch of the Shore Path.  I and a friend were so misguided as to hike this section of the path one May of a wet spring and spent all our time, not gazing out over the river or up at the towering cliffs, but flicking ticks off our pant legs, which made for a fiasco of a hike. Their bite can be harmless or infectious, so they are to be avoided at all costs.  Never again have I attempted the Shore Trail in spring.

     I am informed that this area once had a settlement called Under the Mountain, and a mix of small farms and quarries, fishing shacks, and manure and bone factories, of which the only remnant today is a small cemetery somewhere on an upper level that I have never seen.  At intervals the remains of a dock, usually masked by vegetation, jut out into the river; going out on them, I would get a better view of the cliffs to the north and the south.  Passing under Greenbrook Sanctuary, you come to Greenbrook Falls, a trickle in late July and August, when I often came this way to harvest raspberries, but an ice mass in winter and, in spring after rain, a gushing waterfall – sights I have never seen, since I avoid the Shore Path in winter, fearing ice on the paths leading down, and likewise avoid it in spring, not wishing to renew my acquaintance with the ticks.

     Approaching Alpine Boat Basin and its picnic area, you come upon the Blackledge-Kearney house, dating from about 1750 and now a museum, where Cornwallis, landing his troops here in November 1776 in pursuit of Washington across New Jersey, is said to have spent the night.  His troops marched up to the top of the cliffs by the very same switchback trail that I have often used to access the Shore Path here.  Beyond, one comes to a place where the Indian Head already viewed from State Line Lookout is seen from below; here, it isn’t the Indian or the patroon that is seen, but the Yankee pioneer.   

Blackledge-Kearney house.

     Now, 11.5 miles north of Fort Lee, comes the climax of the hike, the so-called Giant Stairs, a vast jumble of boulders that over the centuries have tumbled down to the foot of the cliffs, creating a lunar landscape such as I have never experienced elsewhere in the East.  The caves and cavities under these masses of rocks harbor raccoons, foxes, small rodents, lizards, and snakes, including the third danger of the park, the venomous copperhead.  I have never encountered any of these creatures except a harmless little green lizard, and least of all the copperhead, since in following the path over the boulders I make too much noise; he doesn’t want to face me, slithers down into the dark cavities under the rocks at the least hint of a human approaching. 

A copperhead.  Look close or you won't see him.
     I have traversed the Giant Stairs a number of times, following the white blazes of the Shore Path as they led me up, down, over the boulders or around them, in a zigzag path that took forty-five minutes to cover a mere quarter of a mile.  As you scramble over or around them, the boulders have a way of wobbling, which doesn’t make the hike any easier; in fact, you have to focus so on where you’re stepping next, you can easily forget to survey the unique landscape all around you, and the cliffs that tower above.

     A sign used to warn hikers that the going from this point on was difficult, and advised them to take a path blazed blue and white back up to the Long Path above.  It’s not just the Giant Stairs that pose problems, since beyond it the Shore Path is impaired by erosion; once, having survived the Stairs, I pressed on, only to find a short section of the path completely worn away, obliging me to drop down a few feet and continue that way, before climbing back up to the path.  So once the sign appeared warning of the problems ahead, I would go only so far as to view the beginning of the Stairs, then retreat to the path leading upward and return that way – an arduous climb, even so – to the Long Path far above.  Today, however, a sign simply warns hikers that the going ahead is difficult.

     That’s not quite the end of the story.  On May 12, 2012, a 500-foot rock face came crashing down from the cliffs, shaking the ground and dumping a fresh layer of boulders onto the Giant Stairs right down to the edge of the river, and sweeping a whole stand of trees – oak, birch, and paulownia --  into the water.  Witnesses on the New York side of the river reported hearing a sound like jet planes overhead, and seeing what looked like a big cloud of smoke as the rocks tumbled down.  Fortunately, because the slide occurred in the evening, no one was injured, but the path over the Stairs was closed until further notice, so heavy machinery could be used to stabilize the boulders and make the path safe again for hikers.  So nature’s raw power can be exerted at any moment, without warning.  I have often hiked that very stretch of the Shore Path where the rock slide occurred, which gives food – a whole feast – for thought.  Yes, the Palisades can on occasion be dangerous, and in those cases no amount of precautions can guarantee your safety. 

Taken by the photographer while kayaking on the river one week after the slide.
Michael J. Passow

     Another note on WBAI:  The financially beleaguered station continues to spiral downward.  One fund drive succeeds another, with ever more desperate pleas for donations.  I thought the award-winning evening newscast would be sacrosanct, but even that has disappeared.  I now listen to Gary Null at noon, but little else.  The Thom Hartmann program, replacing an informative program that I liked, doesn't hold me, when the host repeats his fund drive plea again and again in exactly the same words as before -- obviously a recording (maybe he's taking a rest break).  Hartmann is knowledgeable, but his self-promotion annoys me.  For the minimal donation he will give you a bumper sticker, "Graduate of the Thom Hartmann University."  I usually flee to WNYC.  

     Coming soon:  New York Mosaic: The Neighborhoods (the Diamond District, Chinatown, Soho, and much more).  In the offing: items from my Inanities File of the 1960s, ranging from hilarious to sinister, but always inane.

     ©  2013  Clifford Browder


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