Sunday, June 21, 2009


04:15, mid summer. Wake up! Time to walk six miles! Let's bounce.

0 (04:20) House, South Orange —elev 225 feet

The magic hour. Get outside. You should experience this if you haven't. You can't do it in the city that never sleeps, but you can do it out here in the towns that do sleep. I miss living in the city sometimes but this is something I can't do there.

04:20. It's really late at night. It's really early in the morning. I go out and the world belongs to me. I'm down the front steps, across the street to the side that has sidewalks, and I start to walk.

I get a special feeling walking in the darkness before dawn. The streets are there, the houses, the trees and plantings, but nobody's around. Pretty soon they're going to turn the lights on, and the people will come out and start doing stuff. But not yet. For now I'm the only one here.

It's cool. In two ways. This is the low temperature point of the day. But there's also a stillness that casts mystery. A car comes by, and the driver tosses newspapers to the houses on his route. But he's past in a minute. Look up in the silent sky and see the moon. Somewhere in a tree one bird cheeps a note, but no other joins in. It's too soon. The world is not quite ready.

The road I follow is a pre-colonial trail. Ridgewood Road runs along the base of First Mountain, the first Watchung Ridge, locally called South Mountain. It's not straight for more than three blocks, but it maintains a general southwest trend. It undulates mildly up and down with the natural contours.

In the darkness I pass the eighteenth-century Ball House, where Washington stopped (and possibly flept). There's a big tree by the roadside to which he reportedly tied his horse. The curb curves out around it. A stream comes down the hill, and I can feel the cooler air around it. A block farther, across the road, is a small house that comes right up to the sidewalk and must be from the same era. Both of these stand perpendicular to the road.

Many of the houses in our old suburbs are from the 1920s. They all look different, and they stand close by each other on pleasingly small lots. The trees have grown tall and full. My walk goes in and out under their canopy. Outside the canopy I see the last stars and the moon.

Ten minutes on, 04:30, the morning chorus begins. Every bird in town starts its call. And I mean full 5.1 stereo. It's crazy. I pass a stone school from the 1920s, stone churches, and another old house. The darkness is fading into pink light.

1 mile (04:35) Lenox Place, Maplewood —elev 200

There are two streets in Maplewood called Lenox Place, and not only do I pass both of them, but I hit both at mile markers!

I've just passed another colonial house at the Baker Street corner. Some houses around this point are from the late nineteenth century.

Five minutes on I turn off Ridgewood Road, just before it crosses under the railway. I now follow Glen Avenue, which was laid on the original curving path of the railway after the railway was straightened around 1910. There is no sidewalk and I have to walk in the pavement facing traffic. Moving mostly west now.

Wyoming Avenue. I don't know why a residential development in New Jersey is called Wyoming. The Lackawanna Railroad was based at Scranton, in Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley: does that answer the question or just beg another?

This is where I turn around on weekdays, almost two miles out. I have to get back around 05:30 so I can get ready for work. Lately what I do is loop around to the right through small streets to avoid walking back on the inside of the curves on Glen Avenue. That adds a little distance and I end up doing just over four miles in an hour and ten minutes.

2 miles (04:50) Glen Avenue reverse curve, Millburn —elev 200

Definite light in the sky now. I can see pretty well when I'm not under the trees. In the bushes it's still inky shadows.

The road here squeezes between South Mountain on the right and the railway on the left. The Watchung Ridge is interrupted at Millburn, because of some geological process I cannot explain (because I don't know what it is). The houses on the right are uphill from the street, and those on the left have trains in the backyard.

And then the houses end. On the left is Millburn station and its parking lot. On the right is the forest of the South Mountain Reservation, starting at the abandoned grade of the railway siding to the quarry (it looks like a straight and untended dirt road).

It's 04:55 as I pass the side road to the reservation parking lot. This is where I will go in soon. The park opens at dawn, and Nature enforces the rule. That is: it's just too dark under the trees to see the path up the mountain! Instead I kill ten minutes looping around downtown Millburn.

Under the railway. Pass the wedding dress shop and the diner across the street. Right into the main drag, Millburn Avenue. Pass a bakery, the first sign of life. It's not open yet, but a couple of people are inside baking. One day the old baker happened to be standing at the doorway and we said hello to each other. He was the first person I met. Pass Futter's shoes, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, all closed now, but busy later. Turn right into the little cross street, pass the storage place, right again along the back street, where I reach mile 3, on my way back to the reservation.

3 miles (05:05) Millburn center —elev 180

I reach the reservation entrance for the second time, and there's just enough light to see. I follow the paved road that goes in to the parking spaces, not far.

I would call the next section dirt paths, but they're pretty rocky. South Mountain is basalt, the
stuff they make gravel out of. There used to be a big quarry operation right here just inside from the parking area.

It's about three hundred feet to the top. I'm well warmed up by now and nice and loose. On the way up I stop only twice to admire the view. You do realize that's the only reason I stop.

First fit. 05:10. From the parking spaces, slightly left up a wide trail, under a fallen tree, then right, to a grassy space, in front of the quarry. Stop and admire the rock wall the cutters left behind. Shirt off ; I get warm from the climb.

Second fit. With the quarry to my back I enter a narrow, rocky unmarked trail going uphill under the trees. Leave civilization. From this point I must have a little daylight to mark where I step. First there are two short, steep runs that I can take at normal walking speed: up, hairpin to the left, up, hairpin to the right. The next stretch is longer and mostly less steep, so I can catch my breath as I go. There's one big washout in the trail. Stop at the next hairpin turn to the left. I'm about about two-thirds of the way up already.

I can see that these trails were built, not just worn in by hikers. They're like a shelf on the
hillside: it slopes down from above, then there's the trail level about five feet across, and then the slope again. That big washout really just restores the natural slope. The rocky surface of the trails seems to be large chunks of gravel, maybe from the quarry I just passed (convenient!). They were built decades ago. The reservation was put together in the 1890s and these trails may be early twentieth century. They're not marked by blazes.

From this stop I can barely see the summit and cannot see the town, now that the trees are in leaf. I am in a
wilderness. No one is around. I am in the fading shadows of dawn.

Third fit. Now there's one last steep climb with more rocks than before, and one more turn to the right. Past that it gets grassy again and the tree cover is less solid. I saw a wild turkey here a week ago. The last section goes over outcrops of bedrock.

Very quickly the climb is over and I am at the Washington Lookout, a concrete platform with a metal pipe railing around three sides.

It's about 05:25 by now. The climb takes about 15 minutes. I'm very warm by the time I reach the lookout, even on a cool morning. I always take a couple of minutes here. It's inspiring. I'm alone with a fine view across miles of New Jersey terrain, except on a few very cool and moist mornings, when there is only grey fog below. That might be the best. It increases the feeling of being someplace far away.

Actually I am not quite at the top. That's just up a gentle rise from here, where there is a metal plaque set into a rock. I pass it as I step onto the pavement of Crest Drive.

South Mountain is a ridge. From here I will walk a mile and a half almost level along the ridge top.

4 miles (05:35) Crest Drive, Millburn —elev 550

The mile marker is just beyond the loop. Crest Drive is closed to cars, and that has preserved the smooth pavement. Later in the day, the drive is a favorite for people with bicycles and skateboards, and runners and dog walkers. They get here by driving to the parking lot a mile north. The drive winds its way through a forest that has not been cut for a hundred years.

A few times I have walked a whole mile from the lookout without meeting anybody. But more often there's some lone individual who shows up along the drive, usually a runner with or without a dog. I'm cooling down, and there is sometimes a good breeze up here that we d
on't feel down in town where the mountain shelters us. Shirt on, somewhere along here.

I keep hearing a red-bellied woodpecker near the loop. There are some dead trees in the woods that they must like. I feel like I should come across more wildlife than I do. If I knew more bird calls I could name more. I've seen chipmunks and deer and a rabbit. I've seen raccoons, possums, and groundhogs out my back window but not up here. Once in a while a bear gets into the reservation but no one's reported one this year. That's something I don't want to see.

5 miles (05:55) Bramhall Terrace, Maplewood —elev 575

I've now come to the part of the drive still open to cars. The runners and others usually park here and go down the drive to the lookout. Far fewer people climb up like I did. Bramhall Terrace is the largest of a few lookouts along the drive. You can see New York.

By this point I have usually seen a few more people, but not always.

I feel loosened up. I used to think my first mile was the slowest, and I was really moving by this point, but when I checked my split times twice for this story I realized my first mile is in fact the fastest. I go from 4 miles an hour down to 3 by the end.

South Orange Avenue. This is the end of Crest Drive, and the least attractive part of the walk. I turn right, east, and walk along the edge of this busy county road, protected by a metal barrier, and then past an apartment house called The Top. The downhill grade starts. After a few more blocks I can cut off into a suburban street again. Full daylight by now, but the sun is still low.

6 miles (06:15) Lenox Avenue hill, South Orange —elev 300

I continue steeply downhill. Here I pass the other Lenox Place, which extends into Maplewood a half block away (see mile 1).

I reach Ridgewood Road at about 06:20, and home a few minutes later. I run up the front steps— sometimes.

Usually I have time for this six mile walk only on weekends, but a few weeks ago I was home on a weekday because I had to take the cat to the vet (he's fine). As I reached the road opposite my house, and looked both ways for cars before going across, who do I see approaching but Runner Girl, heading south. This is just when I would have been walking to the earlier train. (If this paragraph makes little sense to you, click that link.)


What's that? Why do I do this at dawn? Didn't I mention the magic feeling at the start of the walk? Besides that, it's not as hot as it will get later, and there's none of that damned bright sunlight. It's got everything going for it really, doesn't it?

Distances were worked out using Gmap Pedometer.

Next time: Stone House.

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