A Day Off the Grid

It’s been a nutty couple of weeks in the life of Georgy, including working the Commencement ceremony for my university of employ on Sunday. So I decided to take Tuesday (which I had originally picked as my comp day for Sunday to spend time with a friend, before that friend had to work) as a reboot day, as I mentioned here. Except for a quick voicemail and e-mail check after lunch, my cellphone was off and stowed away the whole time. The day couldn’t have worked out better.

I left my house around 9:20AM and caught the 89 bus to Sullivan Square station. My ultimate destination was Forest Hills Cemetery, and while I could have just taken the Orange Line straight from Sullivan to Forest Hills, I decided to catch the 93 bus for the first leg of the trip. The 93 is a great route that goes through Charlestown and affords views of the Bunker Hill Monument, the cargo loading docks on the mouth of the Mystic, the Zakim Bridge, the FleetCenter and the leading edge of the Boston skyline. It terminates at Downtown Crossing, but I hopped off to get on the Orange Line at Haymarket — not before taking a minute to look at one of my favorite buildings, the Custom House tower, and to drink in the buzz of downtown.

On the train, I read my book, “Dangerous Laughter” by Steven Millhauser and listened to music. At Forest Hills, I got off and walked down Tower Street to the cemetery gate. I first discovered Forest Hills nearly two years ago, after years of overlooking it in favor of my beloved Mount Auburn Cemetery. But it really won me over. I didn’t do a lot of exploring; I mainly came to sit in my favorite chairs by the lake and to relax and reflect. 

At noon, the chapel bells began to chime. After chiming the hour, they launched into “Amazing Grace.” At that moment, the bells meshed with birdsong, the sharp honking of geese, the wind in the trees, a jet plane soaring thousands of feet overhead and the distant, just barely perceptible rush of cars in the distance. The combination was a delight. As I walked back down Tower Street, nestled in the tall trees and the three deckers and the exposed hillside, I felt tremendously at peace. The chairs had done their trick.

Next up was lunch. My friend Alison recommended Ula’s Cafe, a relatively new place in a complex called The Brewery, location of the former Haffenreffer Brewery. Over the past couple of decades the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation has been reclaiming and reviving the site with small businesses. The results have been pretty spectacular.

I was surprised when I walked into Ula’s at 1PM on a Tuesday that it was PACKED. The staff was friendly, and while the wait was a bit long (understandable given the number of people who were there), my egg salad sandwich was good and my chocolate chip cookie was delightful. I stayed there reading for a bit before heading off to my next destination — Jamaica Pond.

I charted a course down Boylston/Moraine Street to the Pond, which I had driven past but never visited. It was while I was walking down that street that I finally caught the bug. I was falling for JP. The leafy streets, the warm and inviting three-deckers, the neighborhood coffee shops and bars… there was just such a positive, friendly vibe, despite it being empty during midday. Even the mailperson looked cool.

Eventually, Moraine Street emptied out onto the Jamaicaway, which I decided would be a great idea to cross. I survived, and made it to Jamaica Pond and… was underwhelmed. I’m not sure what I was hoping for, but the Jamaica Pond fell short. Maybe it’s because there weren’t many people there, or because there was a busy highway zipping along right beside, but it just felt sort of ordinary. I soon embarked on my walk up through Olmsted Park, to tour the Emerald Necklace. To my left, amidst some trees, I spied a downhil path, of sorts. Intrigued, and with nothing in the world but time, I decided to investigate.

I followed the path down, and I was struck by what I found. A beautiful, isolated pond enclosed by a protective grove of trees. Wards Pond, to be exact. It was hard to remember that I was in the middle of the city, I felt so isolated and alone — in a good way. The trees and the submerged location guarded the beauty of this pond from the hustle and bustle mere feet away. I realized that it was Jamaica Pond’s naked exposure to the face of the city that detracted from it, in my eyes. Places like Wards Pond were more my speed. It reminded me of Spy Pond in Arlington, a place I have great affection for. While at Wards Pond, feeling at total peace, I had the incredible urge to be there during a thunderstorm  or a heavy snow, to experience the most quiet places at their most turbulent moments. 

I didn’t head back up the stairs I came from. Instead, I followed a path through the woods. It was exciting, to feel like I was adventuring in the woods, with the knowledge in the back of my mind that the streets of JP were just beyond the curtain of green. At one point, I encountered a large tree trunk fallen over the path. Briefly, I panicked: perhaps the path was blocked on purpose, and if so, where will I go, and how will I find my way? Then I realized: I am in the middle of the city. I could have headed in any direction off the path and been out of the woods within ten minutes. But the great thing was that, as long as I was in the woods, it wasn’t easy for that outside world to reach in to me.

I kept walking through the woods along the Riverway, encountering bridges, Leverett Pond and other delights. Eventually, I crossed Huntington Ave., and the Riverway narrowed, allowing civilization to creep in. That was fine, though; I appreciate seeing parts of the city that are unfamiliar to me. I saw the VA Medical Center, Beth Israel Hospital (the hospital where I was born — it’s always slightly weird to come completely full circle) and more nifty ponds and bridges before finally hitting the Fens. I kept following the Emerald Necklace down the Fens, past the rear of the MFA (complete with creepy baby head statues), past geese with goslings, one of the oldest works of public art in the city and an amusing defacement of a monument to an Irish poet. I passed a playground where, at 4PM, the only people present were just a few years younger than me. 

Looking back, it truly stuns me how much green space — both secluded and open — the Emerald Necklace contains. Looking at a map, it doesn’t seem as expansive as it really is, and you certainly don’t get a sense of how lush it is, how easy it is to get lost or at least feel lost — and sometimes, you just need to get lost, swallowed up by something larger than yourself, to really find anything. That Frederick Law Olmsted really knew his stuff.

Eventually, I rejoined civilization on Mass. Ave. By now, it was 5PM. I was a little weary and slightly hungry, but more alive than I’d felt in a while. I turned my cellphone back on, sat by the Charles River and caught up with the world that had kept turning while I kept walking. It felt good to plug back in, but even though I was catching up, I didn’t feel like I had missed anything. It was nice to get a little perspective. 

Soon, I walked across the Mass. Ave bridge and then, my legs crying uncle (all told, I walked at least 8.5 miles), I caught a bus at MIT to Harvard Square. I was officially back in the grid, but I felt like I fit more comfortably than I had at the outset of the day. And as for my city, an entirely new side of which I had just discovered, I think it fit me better than it ever had before.

(You can see all the photos I took in this Flickr set.)


4 responses to “A Day Off the Grid

  1. My first house in JP was on Moraine Street. That walk you describe, up Moraine and to the Pond and then up the Emerald Necklace to Huntington — I made that many many times (sometimes ending up in Harvard Square!). Hence my first love of JP. I used to walk up Harvard St. to the Trader Joe’s in Coolidge Corner, then lug the groceries along the horror of the Jamaicaway — not something I recommend after dark.

    The Pond is at its best near sunset in the chillier months, say November or late February, when it’s gray and stark and few people are out and the trees are pretty bare. But maybe that is my innate melancholy speaking. Certainly I have spent one hundred happy hours on its shores in all seasons.

    Glad you got to explore, regenerate, and explore a new part of the city. I adore Somerville, but my heart is secretly still in JP for all the reasons you describe.

  2. This sounds like an excellent trip. You and I should do something like this someday.

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