Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Friday, November 1, 2013


While I was in upstate New York I walked along the “extended Wallkill Valley Rail Trail,” in and around Rosendale.  I used to spend a lot of time in Rosendale because my girlfriend lived there, and we did often go walking around the area.  It was a while ago, and not all the routes are very clear in my memory anymore, and although I did remember walking along a former railroad line here and there, I certainly didn’t remember it ever being called the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, extended or not. 

I also remembered that on one of ours walks we found some ruins, decaying stone buildings, with the windows and half the roof missing, perhaps originally a site office or workshops, and nearby were various bits of abandoned machinery and pipes. These, like the railroad itself, were remnants of the golden days when Rosendale cement ruled the world, starting at the beginning of the nineteenth century, peaking around 1900, but still in production in a minor way even today.  Rosendale cement is in the Brooklyn Bridge and the base of the Statue of Liberty.  Consequently when walking around the woods you’d often suddenly come across the opening of a former mine, a big, dark mouth in the rock.

Back then you could walk right inside the mine openings, which actually looked very much like caves, and I did.  Being of sound mind I never went very far in, not least because most of them had flooded, but it was good to be able to go just far enough inside to scare yourself.  If anyone ever came to any harm in there I never heard about it.

Far more scary was an abandoned railway trestle that crossed the main street of Rosendale, some 150 feet above road and creek.  I never went up there because it was unfenced and it looked kind of lethal, and (I was told) it was a favorite spot with suicide jumpers, though I now suspect this may have been an urban, or I suppose, rural, myth.

Well it’s all different now.  The trestle is part of the rail trail, a pedestrian walkway.  It’s been tidied up and made very secure indeed.  I’d read an article in About Town magazine (a Mid-Hudson Valley Community Guide) by one Vivian Yess Wadlin that “the trestle has substantial railings that cradle you and yours in safety, actual and psychological.”  And when I got up there I saw it was absolutely true.  The handrail across the top was thick and broad, the uprights plentiful and close together: something with half the heft would be enough to stop you falling off, but its good to feel doubly secure when you’re 150 feet in the air.  They didn’t use to care so much about these things apparently:

It was cool walking up there, but the real task was to find those ruins and mine openings.  It was actually no trouble at all to find the mines, but – will it surprise you? – they’re now are all fenced off.

 And there are signs like this to keep you on the trail:

Now this strikes me as some sort of apotheosis of 21st Century priorities, authority and control.  First of all there’s the primacy of private property.  Then there’s some unctuous plea to protect the wildlife.  Then, as a bit of an afterthought, there’s some bogus health and safety concerns for the individual.  And finally there’s the threat of prosecution, to be shored up the evidence from electronic surveillance.  Authoritarian? You think?

I knew I would have to wander from the straight and narrow in order to find the ruins, and after a while I did find them, or at least some very like them.  In fact I can’t absolutely swear these were exactly the ruins I’d been before.  That tank and its extraneous bits and pieces didn’t look quite like the machinery I recalled. 

And this giant stone chimney, no longer attached to anything, and hemmed in my trees,  was far bigger and more impressive than anything I remembered.  I was pretty sure I was seeing this for the first time.  And I was impressed, and moved.

And I absolutely didn’t recall this vast, substantial, stone edifice.  In fact it contains a series of kilns, and presumably something pretty massive was needed to withstand the extremes of heat and chemical reactions, but surely they didn’t have to make it look so picturesque.

In fact from the back it was crenelated (crenelated!) so that it looked like a castle, English perhaps, though I think more likely to be Irish.   Since Rosendale is in Ulster County I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suspect there may have been a few Irishmen involved in the building trade around those parts.  Whether they knew it or not (and frankly I reckon they did) they managed to create something that a century and half down the line had turned into a very impressive, utterly convincing (if not in any sense genuine) ancient ruin.  I wanted to cheer.  I wanted to blub.

Eventually I got to the trailhead where another notice told me that the old kilns I’d just visited would be the site of the “future rail trail cafĂ©.”  I was ready to blub for quite different reasons.

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