Walking the Line

Two milky white rectangular signs with bold, black, capital letters-"caution:
high speed area" and "authorized personnel only"-greeted
me from the industrial landscape as I began my pilgrimage. I was at New
Haven’s Union Station; Yale was behind me, and ahead of me-beyond the caution
signs-were 72.5 miles of track stretching to New York’s Grand Central Station.

With a bag full of water bottles and energy bars on my back, I continued
into the cold, damp dawn air and faced the Connecticut Railway Maintenance
Facility of New Haven. Twelve conjoining tracks and a fleet of canary-yellow
Metro-North security vehicles teamed up to intimidate me. I had taken the
train into New York a dozen times before, but this time I was going to walk.

There was ample space next to the tracks-about ten to fifteen feet on either
side. I checked the metal for vibrations every now and then. After walking
a few miles, the sun began to rise, and I saw my first train. As the cars
rolled my way, I ran to the outer edge of the track and hid behind some
shrubbery. I went undetected.

On the trail from New Haven to New York, there are three types of terrain:
ground-level tracks flanked by fields, neighborhoods, and marshes; elevated
tracks passing over streets and bodies of water; and sunken tracks with
fifteenfoot slate walls on either side. Sunken tracks were my favorite.
I enjoyed climbing up the walls, walking along the ledges, living on the
edge.

As I approached my first major body of water, my mom called me on my cell
phone to check up on things. I thought crossing the bridge looked fun, but
as I got closer, I saw that there was only about a foot of space separating
death by train and death by drowning. I climbed down to the water’s edge.
Half a dozen speedboats scurried under the bridge. The closest one carried
a trio of sunburned, beer-bellied old-timers. The boat sputtered toward
me. As it approached, I could see that the men were pleasant enough, but
I was still nervous. To my relief, they initiated conversation: "Hey
buddy." I tried to respond casually. "I know this sounds really
strange, but could you possibly take me across the water?" "Sure,
five bucks." I hopped in, not a single word was spoken as we crossed
the water. I was about to leave with a quick "Thank you" when
something caught my eye. Resting on top of one man’s head was an oversized
foamy white hat with blue netting in the back. Ironed onto the foam was
a map of the United States and the words "Get Your Kicks On Route 66."
I had to say something. "That hat’s great. It reminds me of home."
Awkward silence. "Could I possibly buy it off you?" "Are
you kidding?" "No, I’ll give you twenty bucks." "Deal."

With my new cap in place, I reached an intricate overpass in Bridgeport
that traversed yet another body of water. Standing by my plan to avoid traveling
on bridges, I crossed beneath the tracks and climbed back up on the other
side. In Fairfield, the buffer zone between track and fence became dangerously
narrow. I jumped the fence, off of the tracks and onto Carter Henry Drive.
I bought a dipped cone at a Dairy Queen and resumed my journey once the
tracks looked safe. A few miles down the line I counted a dozen security
trucks in my path. Fearing detection, I once again climbed the fence and
got off the tracks. When I began the trip, I wanted to be the kind of guy
who would swim across shark-infested oceans, jump on the cabooses of speeding
trains, and hold my ground against any middle-aged Metro-North official.
But I was pussyfooting, messing around, avoiding danger left and right.
I was less rugged pilgrim and more Jewish mother. My cell rang for the second
time. It was my mom again. I love Jewish mothers.

Midnight came quickly the first day. It was cold and I was standing on
the ledge of a Scooby Doo billboard near Stamford. Freddie Prinze Jr’s mouth
was the size of my head. Knowing I wouldn’t sleep outside, I called a friend
at his home on the Upper East Side. By one in the morning, I was asleep
inside his 1984 blue Cadillac. I woke up the next morning at six rested
and ready for more.

Graffiti is ubiquitous on the Metro-North train line-literally thousands
of tags between New Haven and New York on buildings, train cars, fences,
rocks, even dirt. A cage that encases a huge generator with a warning-"Caution:
10,000 volts"-is beautifully decorated with colorful graffiti. Huge
metal posts supporting webs of large electrical wires were clustered along
the tracks. Each post had a white sign reading "Danger: Live Electrical
Wires," and each sign was tagged with the same explorer’s mark. A blackened
rock read "Partied Hard: 10-19-98." This was charted territory.

I didn’t meet anyone on my journey. Before setting out I had fantasized
about discovering "tunnel-people" along the way. I planned on
blowing away sociologists and anthropologists with stories of entire communities
that secretly lived in darkness. I would find throngs of timeless characters-brave
men recalling their days back in ‘Nam, beautiful women sick of life above
ground, investment bankers tired of ipo’s embracing the r&r that only
rock, track, and concrete provide. But to my dismay, the tunnels were empty.
No homeless people, no rail yard bulls, no one.

When I neared Harlem on the evening of day two, I realized that yet another
obstacle was in my way-namely, the Hudson River. I rationalized: "There
really isn’t anything that interesting between 125th and Grand Central.
And even if there were, the four mile long elevated track could prove deadly."
I called my friend with the Cadillac. He picked me up, and we headed home.
I had hiked the Metro-North with no close calls, no arrests, no glorious
discoveries, and precious little of the adventure and self-discovery I had
imagined. 72.5 miles of track behind me, and all I had was a new foam hat.

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