Walt Whitman would probably have joined the Greenbelt
Trail Conference. He was all in favor of the great outdoors, and
celebrated the beauties of Long Island in his poems.
Isle of sweet brooks of drinking water -- healthy air and
Isle of the salty shore and breeze and brine!
It's not hard to guess what Whitman would think about the
scenery along Route 110, near his birthplace, or the Walt Whitman Mall.
But there are still some unspoiled areas out there, and I
wanted to see them the hard way. The Trail Conference organizes dozens
of hikes throughout the year, and I chose an easy one to start. It was
advertised as a ''flat to rolling'' walk of five miles through the pine
barrens. The description also said ''out by lunchtime,'' which was
encouraging to those of us who hate to miss a meal just to enjoy nature.
It's a strange landscape in the pine barrens south of
Riverhead. The woods still stretch away in all directions, as if the
bulldozer had never been invented. About a quarter of the entire
landscape of Long Island was once covered with pine forests like this.
Now there are just a few thousand acres left, waiting to be turned into
subdivisions and golf courses.
Our hiking terrain was an area of 2,183 acres dedicated
to what the sign calls ''passive recreation,'' although I soon
discovered that there was nothing passive about it. It's named the David
Sarnoff Preserve, after the whiz kid who helped develop radio in the
The group gathered at 9 A.M. in a small parking lot
beside the highway, in the middle of nowhere. There were 11 of us to
begin with, and our leader was Kim Darrow, a guide with a bushy beard
and a big hat. He carefully took our names in case anybody got lost, or
in case any newspaper columnists had infiltrated the hike to reveal what
really goes on out there in the woods.
For some reason, I had expected the greenbelt hikers to
be all retired people who would be happy to hobble along at a languid
pace, with frequent stops for refreshment, medication and conversation.
But my fellow hikers turned out to be energetic, healthy and
considerably younger than me. They came equipped with backpacks, serious
boots, big, floppy hats, light-colored pants tucked into their socks to
guard against against ticks, and long walking sticks for defense against
lions and tigers and bears, and for whacking any ticks bold enough to
appear on the trail.
If I had read the preliminary advice more carefully, I
would have brought a lot more stuff. As it was, I had none of the
essentials: no sunscreen, no hat, no water, no tick spray, no map, no
compass, no food, no binoculars and no stamina.
I wasn't afraid of a bit of walking. I have been walking
for years. But hiking was outside my experience -- especially when the
hikes are given warning labels, like movies, so you can choose your own
pace. I had chosen one labeled easy. But, by common consent, the group
set off at what our leader humorously described as a moderate pace. It
was immediately obvious that this was not going to be the usual, easy
Long Island amble from the pastry section to the ice cream section. I
trotted along and caught up, telling myself that I absolutely must not
lose sight of my group. A person could easily get lost in the pine
barrens, and I didn't fancy having my bleached bones discovered by the
next scheduled hike in August.
The trail was just wide enough for us to walk single file
-- so conversations had to be shouted back and forth along the line. It
was a convivial group. Scarcely even breathing hard, people told their
life stories, their divorce stories and shared the inevitable high
''Possible light bushwacking'' was mentioned in the
description of this hike. So I expected that we would be hacking our
path through the forest primeval, and that machetes and tourniquets
would be provided. But Kim just carried a pair of garden pruning shears,
snipping off a branch here and there.
From time to time, he called too-brief stops to show us
interesting plants, berries and lichens, and to explain how pitch pines
magically revive from forest fires. For those more technologically
inclined, there were interesting remnants of the old RCA radio antenna
field: insulators, fallen aerials and coils of wire, poignant reminders
of how quickly technology moves on. In the 1920's, the cutting edge of
electronic science was far from Silicon Valley, right here on the East
End of Long Island.
Although the pine barrens all look the same from the
highway, they are full of surprises once you get deep inside. We skirted
a spectacular ket tlehole left behind by the retreating glaciers, and
some isolated ponds inhabited by solitary mallards, who looked badly in
need of a dating service.
From time to time, we stopped to examine ourselves for
invisible deer ticks. Once, we had a bathroom break, probably violating
several state and local laws in the process. But we never stopped for
Two and a half hours of steady slogging brought us back
to the parking lot, just in time for lunch. Eleven of us had gone into
the woods, and eight came out. Our leader seemed quite unworried by
this. The Greenbelt Trail Conference has 3,000 members, so I suppose
they can afford to lose a few. I was just glad that they hadn't lost me,
and even more glad I hadn't chosen a different hikes, like 16 to 18
miles ''fast'' in Connetquot State Park, or 32 miles ''fast'' along the
Long Island Trail.
There must be easier ways of getting exercise. You can
take out a subscription to a health club and burn thousands of calories
thinking up reasons not to go. You can mow the lawn by hand, or even
park a couple of rows back from the supermarket entrance.
But if you want to see beautiful, unspoiled corners of
Long Island, you have to do what Whitman would have done back in the
1840's: grit your teeth and take a hike.