April’s brush had painted the Chinese glory of forsythia on every road in Awaughkonk when Will Nixon and I started our walk to Kingston. Our destination there was the Dutch Reformed Church in the historic Stockade district. Our ostensible purpose was to answer a question Will had: why did it take a century for early Dutch settlers to move out of Kingston to Zena (called Awaughkonk by Native Americans)? Was it fear of Indian attack, the fact that it was already owned by the Livingstons, or was it simply too far to walk? To find an answer to this last would require a walk. Who you gonna call?
Of course, the real reason for our trek was the fine spring day we woke to, and the chance to renew the dialogue between friends out for a little adventure. Winter was behind us, and it was time to shake a leg, and hit the open road: Route 28. We began our walk on Sawkill Road in Zena, where Morey Hill Road begins.
Morey Hill is a narrow, backwoodsy road with gentle ups and downs and almost no traffic that morning. Will knew the road because he ran on it, and it was near his house. He said it had three sections: The first was the Tibetan prayer flag neighborhood of weekenders. We passed some palatial homes and a pile of garbage dumped at roadside. We strode along, and our conversation meandered from writing project to friendship as we passed through what Will delicately dubbed the “Northern Appalachian zone” dominated by a huge, silent dog kennel; the final third was state land, cliffs rising on one side. I was lost in pleasant reverie when Will jolted me with the news that he had taken up boxing. Now, having studied martial arts for ten years myself, I was well aware of the benefits to be gained. But Will is not the martial sort. I was absorbing this news when a Stygian roar drowned out birdsong and conversation…we had arrived at the daily racetrack, Route 28.
We emerged from Morey Hill next to a strip of buildings that includes a pizza parlor and 5 Star Exteriors. It was the stretch of the highway where giant holes are gouged in the landscape, taxes are prepared, cars are washed, and billboards proliferate, if you’re on foot, you wonder how you got yourself in a situation where you feel like a cowboy without his horse in the midst of a cattle stampede.
We started walking, hugging the side of the road and trying to continue our conversation. Road walking makes you feel vulnerable and eccentric. Driving, you hardly notice what you’re passing through. The radio’s on, you may be talking or texting and you don’t notice the generic ugliness. It could be Paramus. But you usually notice someone on foot. They always look poor. To be carless in America is to be rock bottom poor.
As we walked facing traffic, I watched carefully, on high alert, painfully aware that just one swerve by an inattentive motorist, and we were road kill. Under these circumstances — one eye on traffic, the other on my footing, talk choppy, but we made an effort to be heard over the constant roaring of the river we’d stepped into.
The question we asked ourselves was why were we walking here rather than exploring some Catskill trail? If the early settlers feared Indian attack, for sure they would have turned tail at the sight of the semis roaring by. I reminded Will that every spring for many years I had walked from my house in Glenford to Kingston, making it in three hours. “What,” he shouted over the din, “was the point?” “That we can be independent of cars I guess. A symbolic gesture.” It was my standard answer. Will didn’t buy it. “But people don’t want to be independent of their cars. They love them.” A school bus clattered by.