I saw the deer just north of Yonkers, New York.
At first, I was convinced he was a lawn ornament. He had to be. On my left, rush hour traffic hummed south along Route 9 toward Manhattan. Beyond that, commuters read papers on Metro North trains clattering beside the Hudson River. On my right, not 300 feet away, construction workers were erecting an apartment building.
No deer would live in the midst of all this, I told myself.
Then he moved.
I should explain that, despite the fact that I was trying to hike more than 20 miles of New York state’s Old Croton Trailway, I am no outdoorswoman. My idea of getting in touch with nature is sitting on a cottage dock in bare feet.
So when confronted by this antlered beast, my brain pulsed with one erroneous thought: bulls charge when they see red, and maybe deer do too.
My red backpack instantly seemed like a flag of death. If I turned my back on the buck and retreated, would he gore me to pieces? Deciding not to risk it, I simply backed up until I was out of the deer’s sight.
There, I congratulated myself. I’ve given him a golden opportunity to walk away. But when I retraced my steps minutes later, he was still there.
Rerouting myself around the deer would take time I didn’t have. So I walked forward slowly and avoided looking the deer in the eye. Someone had once told me that dogs take that as a challenge. And while challenging a cocker spaniel was one thing, challenging something the size of a Toyota was quite another.
He didn’t move.
Holding my breath, I strolled past him. With one small step sideways, I could have reached out and touched his nose.
After a few hundred feet, I dared to look back. The buck was still there, and standing beside him was a lovely doe. Thank heavens he hadn’t been feeling protective.
With the certainty of the inexperienced and stupid, I had assured my husband that this solo hike was perfectly safe. Old Croton Trailway State Park parallels a highway, a rail line and the Hudson River. There was no way I could get lost, I explained, adding that I could catch a train if I got tired. The trail also cuts through a dozen towns where I could find sustenance. I could even use my cell phone to call for help.
Fat lot of good a cell phone would have done if Bambi had gone bad.
In retrospect, hiking the trail alone probably wasn’t smart. Not long after my encounter with the deer, I passed a pasty-faced guy in a red toque who stared at me eerily as I walked away.
But despite these odd encounters, the Old Croton Trailway is a great trail. Winding along a 26-mile route from the New Croton Reservoir in Westchester County to the city limits of the Bronx, it lies atop a giant masonry aqueduct that brought fresh water to New York City from 1842 until 1955. The Irish laborers who built the aqueduct dug a shallow trench for the massive pipe, eight feet in diameter, then covered the exposed surface with dirt. The result is a low, continuous grassy ridge that’s perfect for non-extreme hiking.
Along the trail are ventilators—stone towers resembling rooks from a giant’s chess game. They regulated air pressure in the aqueduct and helped keep the water fresh. Since they’re quite large, they make it fairly easy to find the trail.
Fairly easy, but not foolproof. I started the day by getting lost in Yonkers. My trail map showed the route passing along a hill not far from the train station. After pursuing numerous dead ends, I finally spotted a yellow marker on a tree and started on an odyssey through playgrounds, woods, riverbeds and clotheslines (the trail occasionally drills right through backyards presumably owned by public-spirited people).
By 9:30 am, six miles from Yonkers, it was time for my first break. I plopped down thankfully outside the post office in the Norman Rockwellesque town of Dobbs Ferry. My light backpack felt like an anvil.
After Dobbs Ferry, I sauntered through Irvington, another impossibly pretty town. Continuing north, I emerged from a grove onto the immaculate grounds of Lyndhurst, a Gilded Age mansion whose Gothic gables tower over Tarrytown. After a harrying walk along Route 9 and over the New York Thruway, I found myself trudging along dirt and grass once more. Soon, I stopped for lunch in a park next to Sleepy Hollow High School.
My legs, which had seemed so sprightly in Yonkers, were now aflame. I took long, deep breaths of the pine-scented air as I hiked next through the Rockefeller State Park Preserve north of Tarrytown. The fresh breeze revived me—for a while.
By the time I emerged from the preserve, I had walked 13 miles. But there were another nine miles to cover before I reached Croton-on-Hudson, and my legs had other ideas.
Passing through the village of Scarborough, with its immense riverside homes, I suddenly began walking like John Wayne after a long day on the range. My back hurt. My knees hurt. Even my eyelashes hurt. So much for four months of training.
But there, in the distance, I saw a train station. Hallelujah.
I fully intend to try again to walk from Yonkers to Croton-on-Hudson. Next time, though, I’m taking company. Preferably someone who knows a lot about deer.