In New York City, you have a lot to watch out for as you walk around. This is unfortunate, as the necessity of keeping your eyes on the ground or around you prevents you from seeing the incredibly wealth of architectural curiosities staring at you from above doorways and beneath windows. I decided to organize a little walking tour one fine, chilly day so that we might get some exercise, get out of our usual stomping grounds, and have a chance to seek out some of this city’s gargoyles, demons, dragons, leaf men, and the other stone and terra-cotta creatures that watch over us without us ever knowing. Along the way, we hoped to also stumble upon a few other curiosity and city sights we didn’t expect.
Toei Movieland Studio hadn’t been on our official itinerary, but I convinced people to give it a try even though I was the only big Japanese movie fan in the bunch. Toei had given some of my absolute favorite sci-fi superhero shows, and the chance to see one of their studios was too good for me to pass up. After shelling out a rather hefty ¥2500 per person to get in (note: this was in 2001; it is probably more now), I quickly began to realize it wasn’t going to be as cool as I’d hoped. The entrance was was a museum of samurai and ninja articles, most of them from then upcoming movie Red Shadow. A large screen television played clips of various Toei samurai movies and histories of the studio. None of it was especially interesting, unfortunately.
It was a fine morning but looked like it might turn to rain by the afternoon. I found myself with the day to myself and no real plans, so even though it was a bit late to start such an excursion, I decided to go hiking. After leaving through a guide on my way to the car, I decided to try a hike called Stairway to Heaven, just south of Harriman State Park and the Hudson Highlands, on the New York-New Jersey border. It looked to be a fairly easy drive to a hike that, the trailhead being out int he middle of nowhere, probably wouldn’t be too terribly crowded.
Morning mist was still clinging stubbornly to the ground when we pulled into the parking lot. My partner in crime rubbed the tiredness out of her eyes, which grew wide as soon as she realized what she was looking at.
“Did I lie?” I asked her as I pulled into a parking spot adjacent to the bottom row of chipped white concrete teeth that were part of the lower jaw of a gaping T Rex mouth that served as the entrance to White Post, Virginia’s Dinosaur Land. To our right were two more dinosaurs, one a brontosaurus, the other one of those two-legged beasts that, because no one knows exactly what it is, simply gets called an allosaurus. They were frozen in mid-menace of an Amoco gas station sign. To our left, just visible on the crest of a hill, was a giant octopus locked in mortal combat with a prehistoric shark. In front of us was a sign:
20′ Kong! 60′ Shark! 90′ Octopus! Christmas Shop!
There are a lot of pluses and a good number of minuses to living in a place like New York City. Among the pluses is that, if you time it so as to miss the traffic and drive in the right direction, it doesn’t take long for the city itself and its surrounding sprawl to melt away and be replaced by the forested peaks and craggy ridgelines of the Appalachian Mountains, or whatever it is that the yankees up here have named them. Ninety minutes can put you anywhere from the Delaware Water Gap along the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border to Bear Mountain along the Hudson River, or maybe the Shawagunks in New Paltz, home to some of the best climbing on the east coast.
“Hold on, hold on!” I shouted into the cell phone pressed against my ear in a vain and laughable attempt to seal out the cacophony of a passing delivery truck with a faulty muffler as it scurried out of the way of a fire engine.
“I can’t hear a damn thing,” I said, more to myself than to the distant, tinny voice trickling forth from the phone and struggling to be heard over the din with a determined might (or is it desperation?) not unlike that exhibited by those baby sea turtles who plunge for the first time into the unforgiving sea and must paddle wildly in flight from the myriad predators lined up to gobble them whole. I did my best to pin the phone between my shoulder and head so I could free my hands for scrawling down the directions on the rare event that I was able to hear them. Let’s see. Downtown F train at West 4th. Take that to the Carroll Street stop in Brooklyn. Leave the subway station and look for 2nd Street…
I am a sucker for a lot of things. A pretty smile, a nice pair of legs, a bottle of bourbon. I’m also a sucker for a good cave tour, or even a bad cave tour, and if you want to read some horrifying Freudian meaning into that, be my guest. It won’t affect my enjoyment of women, liquor, or cave tours in the slightest. A grew up an easy day trip to Mammoth Cave, the biggest cave system in the world, or at least that’s the record as I remember it. And my grandfather’s farm was pock-marked with caves, many of which were large enough for a kid high on Mark Twain adventures to explore, provided they weren’t staked out by a pack of wild dogs. That I have never outgrown my fascination with caves means that, even at my more advanced age, I rarely pass up a cave tour.
When one visits Kyoto, Japan, one expects to spend the bulk of the time there visiting a long parade of temples. And that’s exactly what we did, and for the most part, it was time well spent. However, there comes a time in every unwashed heathen’s life when he simply needs a break from serene Buddhas and hordes of schoolkids, and in those times, a man is well served by hopping the train to the small town of Arashiyama in order to hike Mt. Arashiyama and, if all goes well, see one of his friends attacked by an irritable monkey.
One fine July day, while better cyclists were battling for a yellow jersey in France, we drove up to Montauk on the far tip of Long Island for a day of trail and mountain biking in Hither Hills state park. It was a gorgeous day, and despite getting caught in crawling parade of Hamptons traffic on our way up and the sundry tailgating, over-aggressive at 10mph assholes those towns seem to attract, there was nothing that could dim our spirits on such a beautifully hot, sunny July day.
I was staring directly into the fissure — a ragged scar that ripped across the face of the asphalt and heaved up mounds of broken black rock on either side of the opening, leading off into the swaying scrub that grew alongside the road. I read the sign, photographed for posterity the warning that I was standing on top of an underground fire. This was Centralia, just about smack-dab in the middle of eastern Pennsylvania, the heart of anthracite coal mining country. Below me — I wasn’t sure exactly how deep — was the fire that brought me here and sent everyone else away, burning since 1962 and showing no interest in extinguishing itself or being extinguished by the occasional intervening hand of man.