8 Hours in Manhattan

My first step into the city, Upper West Side

The window of a train this time, my 3rd time, approaching New York City. Coming slowly in from the Appalachian Trail gave it gravity and a dreamy glow. That one could step out of the woods onto a platform, pay 22 bucks, then emerge in Manhattan. There is was, the empire state building making it undeniably identifiable from across the Hudson. The city that never sleeps. Here I am, digging up memories and accessing mental pathways set when I was a teenager, moving here to try a life in musical theater. I was surprised that 16 years later, it’s still part of my muscle memory, like riding a bike, and I stepped around port authority making a bee line for an A train, uptown, before even realizing where I was going.

The humidity and smells of the subway haven’t changed a bit. Nor has the sound of its metal wheels jugging against the seams along the screeching tracks, while people stand inches from it without looking up from their phone. I felt it more than I heard it, the rhythm thumping in my chest. This used to be every day. Now my everyday is foot patter and trickling water.

Yet, fresh air is always the same when you’re breaking into it from a place without. The breeze on your face, the understanding, without words, as you step out. This. Here I am. 72nd and Broadway, my school, my dorm, my neighborhood. Where 18-year-old me landed fresh off the boat from the mid-west with a dream and a suitcase, and a lump in her throat. Standing here now, in my hiking dress, I carry an empty stomach, a watchful eye, and a coyote smile. The animal that I am is equal parts enticed and peaceful. I look up at the Ansonia building, and say thank you, with lungs that I know how to use and soles that use me. The study of being human has never left my blood. This is where I got my training.

Ansonia Building

Then I find a falafel and go directly to the John Lennon memorial, pausing for reflection in front of the Dakota building. Imagine indeed. Now and always. I sit in Strawberry Fields next to the circle, and listen to Beatles covers while watching the other onlookers like myself. There’s something about a New Yorker. Not just the way they wear their hat or sip their tea, but the way they sit on a bench like it’s their living room. Sort of reminds me of the way thru-hikers sit on logs.

Chess Games in the park

This moment means a lot to me. I think of how I felt as a teenager trying to make it in this city on my own. I imagine her sitting beside me now, I wonder if I could get her shoulders out of her ears a bit. Maybe just by sitting next to her with all this peace in my heart. Recalling the things she would be running through her brain about what she has to do or who she has to be and seeing her inside her glazed eyes. I could just shake my head, “Nah.” I’d say, “We’re good.” Maybe she’d sink into that bench a bit. Maybe she’d close her eyes and feel the music vibrate. She’d smile. She’d hum. She’d be one of those specks in the wind, like other New Yorkers. I love that kid, for her hope and her drama. She did alright with what she had.

When I returned to the trail the next morning there was a group of thru-hikers sitting on the ground against their packs, right next to the road crossing. They reminded me of pigeons in Central Park. We talked about the city. I told them that, in a big way, it feels like moving to New York was my first thru-hike. I access the same wild animal, briskly walking to my destination, surviving, dancing with the obstacles. How the learning curve was similar in that it felt huge and impossible upon arrival, then a short time later, I looked up at myself to say, “Holy shit! I’m this now.” A couple of them chuckled and seemed to know what I meant.

We adapt. Perhaps I lose sight of that sometimes, being a bit set in my ways. It’s remarkable how normal can change, how we can roll with it. They say if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. I’m not sure what counts as making it, but I’m grateful to have started with Manhattan.

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