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Van Cortlandt Park

The Daily Plant : Friday, January 24, 2003


A few weekends ago, I sought distraction from a nagging nicotine addiction and a small case of mid-winter blues by going to my neighborhood park: the awesome Van Cortlandt. Living next to 1,146 acres of green growing north from 240th Street and pushing right up against the Yonkers border, I can count myself among the lucky New Yorkers whose apartment is within blocks of one of the City's flagship parks. Those of you living in less verdant neighborhoods do not despair; Van Cortlandt Park is easily reached by taking the 1 or 9 train to 242nd Street or the 4 train to Woodlawn, and so the adventures that this article recounts are available to any park-lover willing to travel the distance.

Saturday morning, I laced up my sneakers, looped a scarf round my ears, and set off running a steady 9½ minute mile. My destination was the revered Van Cortlandt Cross Country Course. Created in the 1910’s and re-constructed in 1997, this three mile course is remembered by generations of cross country competitors for its challenging hills and scenic woodland route. I approached the course from the south, passing two baseball fields, the one football field, and the ¼ mile track of the Van Corltandt Stadium that is decorated with mosaic tiles-- the result of The International Children’s Tile Project. On my left was an outdoor swimming pool, on my right was the path to the Van Cortlandt Lake and Golf Course, and above loomed the Georgian architecture of the Van Cortlandt House Museum. I passed the Nature Center, ten tennis courts, and the largest expanse of playing fields with which my eyes have ever been blessed. All this I passed in only five minutes, and beginning to break a sweat, I was grateful to follow the white arrow signposts onto the calm of a path winding through trees.

I don't know how to explain what happened next. Was it the perfectly maintained paths designed specifically for running? Was it the sun waltzing through naked branches? Was it a winter bird flitting through the bushes? …I became thirty pounds lighter and three inches taller as that invisible weight urbanites are required to carry evaporated from my shoulders. I strode up the steep inclines, conserved my energy in the downhill coasts, and in that last half mile in a downhill sprint, I marveled at my discovering oneness with nature right here in the Bronx.

The next day, I tucked my flannel shirt into my blue jeans ready to hike the 1.7 miles of the John Muir Nature Trail. An informational brochure, that included a map, quoted the great conservationist, John Muir (1838-1914): "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike." And so I figured the nature trail was a good Sunday place to keep away from urban temptations. The trail is the only east/west running trail in Van Cortlandt Park and boasts the unique privilege of passing through the Northwest Forest, Vault Hill woodlands, Croton Woods, and the Northeast Forest. To my fellow adventurers, I recommend taking along the brochure and map to supplement the yellow trail markers blazed on the trees, as well as a tasty snack and a friend or two to make the adventure more fun and safe.

Hiking is a contemplative exercise and as I tramped along the curving path, I traveled into my imagination. It was just me and the trees and the fallen leaves and the shifting clouds and bird song and then suddenly a human-made object— be it one of the three highways that travel through the park, be it the Weir Building that is part of the Old Croton Aqueduct, be it the chain link fence circling the golf course— would snap my thoughts back to the Bronx. My first thought was that these intrusions were invasive, but then I saw them as part of the park’s beauty in striving to accommodate the diverse interests and needs of New Yorkers.

After all the weekend miles my feet had traveled, I felt that satisfying tiredness and was ready for a hot cup of tea, and so when I reached the east end of the John Muir Nature Trail, I followed it back as the quickest route home. For the more adventurous or for those of you with a more serious case of urban ennui, there are countless trails weaving through the park that will take you to many exciting destinations.

Written by Shelagh Patterson


"I quickly laugh at everything, for fear of having to cry."

Pierre de Beaumarchais


Le Mariage de Seville









Directions to Van Cortlandt Park

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