The Rowley's Bridge Trail

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The Rowley's Bridge Trail is an amazing and magical place to be, so close to New York City that you could see the skyline if it weren't for all the trees. A brook wends though the ravine in the heart of the property, burbling at several small waterfalls. It then takes a precipitous drop down a bank, disappears into a culvert that runs under the track bed built by the Hudson River Railroad Co. in the 1840s, and empties into the Hudson at a point directly across from the highest point of the Palisades of New Jersey.

The sounds of chirping birds, rustling leaves and foraging animals are continually punctuated by the grunts and groans of mechanization. Cars rumble by on the stone Rowley Bridge, which has traversed the ravine since 1898. Planes on an east/west path to and from LaGuardia Airport, or the north/south route to Westchester County Airport, roar dully overhead, their engines sometimes screeching as they gather momentum or slow down. Helicopters hug the shoreline, while small planes cruise the middle of the river, propellers clopping on the air. Trains travel through all day, from the swoosh of commuter expresses to the rhythmic clacks of the freight cars that rumble through every night about 12:30 a.m., gently shaking houses like mine that are close to the riverbank. The river bears its own traffic, of course, from kayaks to tugs pushing barges to huge tankers, which can slip by with less fuss than the Jet-skis that seem to rip apart the twilight on evenings in the summer. You have to decide to listen to hear most of these sounds, however, because they have blended so seamlessly into our lives.

It is a summer day, I am perched on top of a humpbacked boulder that's about twenty-five feet off the 1,600-foot-long Rowley's Bridge Trail trail. It is about the size of an Airsteam, those timeless camping trailers made of riveted aluminum. My legs are crossed yogi-style, with the corners of my Macintosh Powerbook embedded into my calves at an angle so it will not slide away. I am integrating thoughts that I have had here in the past, and in other spots nearby, as I've gazed out on the Hudson, a tidal estuary that the indigenous Lenni Lenape called “the river that runs both ways.”

I've built a footpath to this boulder on Saturday mornings over the course of a year or so. It's up a steep slope, so I've fashioned crude steps out of a combination of flat rocks and railroad ties. The ties are secured in the front by slivers of discarded slate I scavenged from a masonry job at the Hastings Library, or by locust limbs I've sawed to two-foot lengths and hammered into the loose soil. To actually get on top of the boulder, I have to grab the trunk of a young maple tree that grows at its prow, which faces the Hudson. I hoist myself, pivoting on one foot and swinging around until I can lean on the tree for support from the other side. Then I twist again and take a few careful steps on the slanted surface, which is usually made slicker by pebbles that have tumbled down from the loose dirt on the hill that the boulder nestles in. It flattens out enough at its peak to allow me to sit. At this point, I'm about forty feet above the trail, which is due south. To the west, framed by overhanging limbs of cottonwood and maple trees and the lush canopy of summer grape that covers everything by mid-summer, are the gray, striated cliffs of the Palisades.

I was smitten by the boulder as soon as I saw it in the winter of 2001. I imagined that many others have been drawn to it during the 10,000 years or so that men and women have inhabited the east bank of the Hudson. I have found oyster shells in the soil surrounding the boulder and imagined Indians feasting. Perhaps squaws stood here watching their husbands and sons paddle out to Henry Hudson's Half Moon, which moored off Yonkers, just south of here. One day, I had a strong feeling that there was something beneath a pile of rocks that sat at the base of dead tree a few feet east of the boulder. As I dug, there seemed to be an unusual number of fist-sized rocks in the sandy soil, and I became obsessed by the feeling that someone had buried something there. I eventually unearthed what I believe is an ancient scraping tool. My thumb and index finger fit perfectly into two notches on either side of the crescent-shaped stone.

The person who fashioned this tool would be totally mystified by the world that has emerged around this boulder over the centuries, or millennia. But if he or she were somehow brought back to life, how long would it take before he found himself eating Big Macs, watching Access Hollywood, and speeding on the interstate with the rest of us?

Our industry, in the archaic sense of the word, is dedicated to making things easy, superficial, fast. But I wonder what wisdom we've lost as we anesthetize our senses and surround ourselves with all sorts of objects that separate us from the struggle to survive. Over time, a resurrected native might find it much easier to comprehend our world than we would his. It requires less effort, thought, and cunning of the life-or-death variety.

I was encouraged to undertake the step-building project off the Rowley's Bridge Trail by Dr. Fred Hubbard, a retired environmental consultant who volunteers as the village's naturalist. He subsequently dubbed it “Forbes' Folly.” I don't think the boulder itself is “Forbes' Folly”; it's not designated as such in the map of the trail and its environs that another resident produced under Fred's direction. I think Fred was probably just describing the process of building access to this piece of rubble left behind by a retreating Ice Age glacier about 18,000 years ago.

One morning when I was clearing brush near the top of Forbes Folly, a village trustee walked by. Looking up from the main trail, which terminates at the arched Rowley Bridge that carries Broadway over a deep ravine a few feet away, he commented favorably on my progress.

“Will the path lead to anywhere when it's done?” he called up to me.

It was an odd question. Clearly there was no anywhere else to go. I chalked it up to his being a fledgling politician.

“It is done,” I replied. “It leads to this rock.”

A few weeks later I repeated that conversation to my daughter, who I'd not seen for a while. I tried to imbue the exchange that I'd had with the trustee with some Zennish significance about destinations being exactly where your feet were standing at the moment.

My daughter had had some history with Forbes' Folly. One day the previous spring, she had worked with me on clearing the path to the summit. Mostly she dug at the edges of a 30-gallon drum filled with congealed gunk, oozing toxicity, that had been buried there years before. Because she was oblivious to any consequences — typically — I had to insist that she wear gloves and cover her arms as she worked. She used a spade to scrape at the outline of the barrel, picking deliberately as if she were extracting a dinosaur's mandible from the soil. I remember the sweat beading on her forehead. I admired her diligence. When she was younger, she would have given up in frustration after a few minutes.

As it turned out, she managed to get most of the job done before we had to leave. I'd hoped for months that she'd come back and finish the excavation, but she always had an excuse why she couldn't make it. Then she ran away from home. Eventually, with the sort of pang you get when you realize your daughter is wearing lip gloss and has forsaken her dolls forever, I took the barrel out myself.

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