Sunday, 14 July 2013

Cute deer, nature - and the fragility of civilisation

It’s perhaps because I normally ride nearly exclusively in cities that I initially assumed the heads I could see poking over the brow of the hill were other cyclists. But, as I got closer, it became clearer. Standing to one side of Henry Hudson Drive, in the Palisades Park in new Jersey, a couple of small deer were eyeing me warily. Taken aback at encountering such a sight barely 20 miles from my front door in Brooklyn, I stopped to watch them back. Then, after a moment, a car came the other way, the deer took fright and bounded off into the undergrowth.
 
Cute baby deer express their shock at seeing a genuine
urban cyclist out here in the New Jersey countryside

However brief, the encounter was the kind of experience that makes some people insist that cycling in the countryside is the only “real” cycling – that urban cycling, to get one from A to B, is a poor substitute. It’s a view that I resist so strongly that I’m sometimes almost reluctant to leave the city. “Go somewhere upstate? But the buildings will all be boring.”

Yet it wasn’t only the deer during my ride on Saturday – the first time I’ve ridden over New York City’s boundaries since moving here – that made my ride to the Palisades a fine advert for the rigours of cycling outside a city. It’s an opportunity to stretch oneself in ways that would be illegal or anti-social in a city. It offers a chance to wonder at sights one never sees in the city. It offers a fresh perspective on city life. But, for me, it's light relief from the serious business of using a bike to get about. I will never be one of the grim-faced riders I passed in the Palisades for whom recreational riding was clearly a serious End in Itself.

As with quite a lot of things I do, part of the reason I headed for the Palisades – an “interstate” park, since it stretches north from New Jersey into the New York State counties west of the Hudson – was negative. Many work colleagues, neighbours and so on, on learning I am a cyclist, immediately start raving about the attractions of the Palisades and how I really must go there. It was becoming frankly embarrassing to keep explaining that, no, what with working all hours and having two children whose idea of fun wasn’t riding 17 miles to reach a park with nice cycling routes, I hadn’t yet got round to riding there. I wanted to join in those conversations better.

There was also the relish for a new challenge. I’ve written before about the pleasure of finding one’s way in a new place. A ride to the Palisades would take me north of the furthest north point I’d ridden in Manhattan and across the dramatic George Washington Bridge. Hitherto, I’d only seen it straddling the Hudson in the distance.

Most powerfully of all, perhaps, I’d told people this was one of the things I’d do with a free Saturday in July, when the family were going to be away for three weeks. I was going to feel frankly foolish if by the time they returned I, er, hadn’t got round to it.
 
Midtown Manhattan does its best to imitate grease spots on a
paper bag, in this picture from the George Washington Bridge
So, despite humidity so oppressive the air outside felt no fresher than my apartment’s bathroom after my morning shower, I headed out just before noon. I lunched by the river in the Upper West Side and found my way, heaving myself up some steep and awkward slopes on the way, onto the George Washington Bridge. A product of New York City’s building boom in the era of Robert Moses – whose legacy I only recently criticised – albeit built by another authority the bridge offers remarkable drama for a humdrum link in the interstate highway system. It leaps between high cliffs on either side of the Hudson River, taking vehicles hundreds of feet over the water down below. Looking down the river, the heat haze spread a white, translucent curtain over midtown Manhattan. A series of grey shapes loomed out of the haze, like the outline of greasy goodies seeping through a paper bag from a patisserie. It was beginning to feel as if I’d got myself properly away from my normal surroundings.

The view, however, didn’t prepare me for one of the great pleasures of countryside cycling – that there are greater extremes involved. It was a point I’d almost forgotten before, 17 miles into my trip, I passed the park entrance and reached Henry Hudson Drive, which snakes between areas well up on the riverside cliffs and areas right down by the river’s edge. Suddenly, I was using capabilities of my bike and myself that I’d almost forgotten were there. On the downhills, I was riding for long stretches at more than 20mph, looking out for rough patches of road surface, using my largest chainring to push that bit harder. On the steepest uphills, I was occasionally onto the smallest – hardly ever used – chainring, straining to climb in air so humid it felt as if I was hauling the water in it uphill along with me.
 
A snake skin - which the Invisible Visible Man was surprised
to see didn't occur naturally only on handbags or boots
The nature was a more unexpected surprise. Having ridden five-and-three-quarter miles from the entrance, I decided to turn round at a little bridge. In contrast with the sounds of city cycling, I could hear nothing but a waterfall splashing down the cliffs behind. It was a little startling to look out across the river and see The Bronx, a part of New York City so thoroughly urban it was the birthplace of rap music. It felt still stranger when I noticed that, at one end of the bridge, a snake had recently shed its skin, leaving a long, patterned, transparent sleeve among the ivy.

The deer, encountered on the way home, only confirmed my sense of wonder. They were a reminder of how wild this part of the United States naturally is. The surprise should perhaps not be that there are deer wandering around within sight of The Bronx but that nature has been so thoroughly eradicated in the built-up parts. As recently as the early years of the 20th century, after all, Jackson Heights in Queens, where I catch the bus when I use LaGuardia Airport, was Trains Meadow, a marsh area noted for its richness in waterfowl. It’s now as densely-populated an area as any in the United States.

Yet, however magical some of my experiences in this potted little bit of countryside might have been, I didn’t feel any reluctance about returning to the city. I hauled myself back up the hill to the bridge and once again over the Hudson. I navigated the unfamiliar streets of Manhattan’s northern tip and was soon pedalling along a path beside the river I’d just passed so high overhead.
 
The Invisible Visible Man freely admits he'd happily ride
on more roads with this many cars on them
Many of the other cyclists I’d seen in the Palisades wouldn’t, I suspect, have enjoyed the urban portion of my journey. I know at least one person who declines to ride his bike in New York City except to reach the bridge and the purer cycling experiences in northern New Jersey. Many of the other cyclists I saw wore the fixed expressions of men and women locked in their own personal battles over a Strava segment.

The rigours of urban cycling bring their own rewards, however, even if they're not measurable on a competitive cycling website. As I made my way down by the Hudson, I had to stay alert, speeding up and slowing down as I made my way round other path users. I had the pleasure of seeing how other people were interacting along the path, the ways people from different cultures were using the open spaces to barbecue or talk or flirt.

There were also, as ever, the awe-inspiring monuments of New York’s built environment, constructed on a scale to match the grandness of the Hudson’s cliffs. I remember particularly spotting the Italianate spire of Riverside Church poking above the trees of Riverside Drive.

My pleasure in such sights was all the greater for the sense of how thin a veneer such signs of civilisation have laid over nature, even in the area around greater New York. It would take very little, I realised, if human beings stopped maintaining this place before deer were again leaping and snakes sunning themselves amid the ruins on this eastern side of the Hudson too.

8 comments:

  1. I live just outside Washington, DC and regularly watch the deer cross my front yard. In fact, they're a nuisance as there are too many for the land to support, but I can't resist the "awwww" of fawns with spots.

    Now another good weekend story for the water cooler! Well done!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, SouthLakesMom. Deer are also a nuisance in Scotland, where I grew up, albeit because too many have been bred for the deer-stalking industry and they're now destroying the trees. But it would, as you suggest, be a harsh person who looked at that pair and thought, "environmental menace".

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. And there's a woman in my cycling group who was knocked over by a deer once while she was riding on one of our nicely paved and maintained bike trails. Shame on the deer! He/she didn't announce "passing on the left!"

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    3. OK. Now it's getting personal. I'm sorry I didn't mow down the deer in reprisal for what happened to your friend.

      Humourless footnote: I know that collective punishment is wrong, whatever the circumstances.

      Actually, one of my earliest childhood memories (I can have been no more than four, since it was before my parents moved from London to Glasgow) is of being driven through Richmond Park, a vast royal park in south-west London, on the way to visit Great Aunt Charlotte, a rather intimidating elderly relative. The park was full of deer far bigger than the ones I saw in New Jersey and they made a strong impression on me.

      Years later, I would occasionally go and cycle in Richmond Park when I lived in London myself. There's a 20mph speed limit but there are, frankly, some hills where it's hard for a red-blooded cyclist to stay below 30mph. I remember heading down one of these hills at dusk one evening at, er, close to the speed limit, spotting that there were lots of deer far bigger and heavier than I hanging around the road side and having quite serious concerns about what I'd do if one of them decided to bolt into the road in front of me.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  2. Deer are not cute when they are up on your deck and chomping on the roses.

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    Replies
    1. Steve A,

      That sounds like the voice of experience.

      No, they're not cute when they're doing that. But, for those of us who live in places like New York City, that's not a pressing concern. So we get excited when we catch a glimpse of said deer out in the countryside.

      Which just shows you that I'm as vulnerable to thinking my subjective experience has given me objective knowledge as the drivers, police and other people about whom I complain.

      And, look on the bright side, maybe next time the deer will munch on a thorn, realise the dangers of munching on roses and leave your garden alone.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. You want deer? Try the Garden State Parkway, especially the section from Toms River to Atlantic City and further south.

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    3. Anonymous,

      Thank you for the tip. My lack of a car's going to be a problem on the Garden State Parkway, however.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete