Sunday, October 4, 2009

A New View

One of the chief ways I relate to the area in which I live is through its history. I love knowing things about what happened around us, I read books about the history of this area, and the smaller and more obscure their subject matter, the better. (We actually have a volume in our library, written by one of our neighbors, entitled "The History of West Park from 3,000 BC to the Present"). I have read books about individual neighborhoods in Kingston (the small city to our north), about the ruined churches of Ulster County and about the ferry that ran from Highland (to our south) to Poughkeepsie.

So I've joined in the local excitement of this weekend which marked the dedication of the newest State Park in the New York system of parks. It's what New York calls a "Linear Park", meaning it's essentially a trail, but this trail is quite unique: it's called The Walkway Over the Hudson.

It is, in fact, the old Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge, which spans the Hudson River from Highland to Poughkeepsie. The bridge was quite famous in its day. It was first proposed in 1855, but not completed until 1889 because, among other things, it went bankrupt 3 times in the process of its building. But when completed it was, for a short time, the longest and highest bridge in the world - and in fact is still one of the highest bridges ever to be built. It originally was for trains that carried passengers from Boston and New England to Washington, and it was a great improvement on the only other route, which was through New York City, and was very slow and tedious since none of the railroad bridges in and out of New York had yet been built so the journey had to be done partly by train and partly by ferry.

But the passenger business didn't flourish for long because the necessary bridges in New York were soon built and robbed the Poughkeepsie Bridge of its purpose. It did serve for many decades, however, as one of the chief routes for getting freight in and out of New England. But as the rail industry declined in the 20th century so did the fortunes of the Poughkeepsie Bridge and it was less and less used, and even less maintained. Finally in 1974 (I think) the railroad ties on the bridge, soaked with creosote and badly maintained for a long time, caught fire and the surface of the bridge burned. The structure was subsequently abandoned, the rail lines torn up, and it has stood as a monument to the past ever since.

There have been numerous proposals for its use: some said it should be revived as a railroad bridge, some that it should be rebuilt as an automobile bridge to relieve the pressure on the Mid-Hudson bridge which is nearby. A variety of other proposals have been floated, one of the most fanciful of which was to make it a gigantic shopping mall, complete with Condos in the piers. The big attraction was to be the view - because of its height the bridge offers views that are spectacular - and plans were drawn up and widely publicized, but it never came to anything. Finally, just a few years ago, a group of local businessmen who were interested pursued the idea that it could be a walkway - a 1 1/2 mile long trail, if you will - and they raised the 38 million dollars necessary to make it a reality, organized the construction, and this weekend it was finally dedicated.

There were fireworks - quiet a display, to judge from the noise they were making - there were 1,000 lights on the bridge, a hot air balloon all lit up, boats new and old floating by and the usual speeches and celebrations. I had some thought of going, but Friday night is not a good night to get away because of our weekend schedule, and as the numbers expected to attend swelled into the thousands and tens of thousands, it seemed less attractive.

Still, the project is exciting to me, and I'm going to wait a few days until the excitement has settled a bit and then some nice fall afternoon I'm going to take a couple of hours off and walk across the Hudson River seeing, from a height of 212 feet, a view of "my" river that I have never seen. The first reports are very enthusiastic, and it should be quite an experience. Randy is planning to go to take pictures, so those of you who follow his Flickr site will have a visual report before long. And hopefully, many of you who come to be guests here will take a little time one morning or afternoon to visit the new wonder of the Hudson Valley.

I make no distinction between the Hudson River and my spiritual journey. It is one of my most constant companions, and it weaves in and out of my prayer. It is one of the first things I see every morning and one of the last at night and it is there as my prayer greets each day and as I pray for our neighbors just before I get into bed. Its beauty exalts my sense of what is lovely and gives me great joy. Its history expands my mind. Just knowing that it has been here for a couple of million years, flowing back and forth as the tides change, day after day for all those milenia, awakens my sense of awe. I have lived much of my life beside this river and it has helped give shape to my thoughts and to my thought-less meditations. It is truly deep in my soul. It is wonderful to think of having a new, and breathtaking, view of the Hudson River.

I just have to follow all this up with an incident from the weekend. There was a group of teenagers from Toronto here from Thursday through this morning, led by our friend and Associate Tay Moss (who is our present Web Master). He asked me to do some work with the group, which I was very glad to do, and I got acquainted with them and of course liked them a lot.

During the weekend one of the girls came to me one evening and said that she wanted to know if I write poetry. I said that I didn't and asked why she thought I might. She said she had just seen how I notice small things and how I describe them lovingly and said that she associates that with poetry. We talked about that for a while and we agreed that I do write "poetic prose". Then, of course, I needed to ask about her poetry and she told me a bit about it. It was a lovely exchange and it reminded me, just one more time, how closely adolescents notice the adults around them. They are watching all the time, especially when we don't think they are, and they notice everything. My realization of that, and my comfort with it, has been one of the foundations of my work with teens for many years. It's one more link with the meditative life, and it's been full of rewards for me.

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