Man has conquered Everest. Pinned it to the point where its trails are as crowded as avenues. And adventurers have gotten into city cracks and crevices, crawling around in tunnels and free-climbing even new, smooth skyscrapers from the sidewalk to the roof.
The last uncharted frontier? It isn't the North Pole, I decide, or any secret corner of Manhattan. It is the terrain that is right under my nose. Early one Sunday I decide that I must be the first: the world's first pedestrian to hike the suburban strip mall and come back alive.
It so happens I know just the place. Warwick, Rhode Island's Route 2. Where everyone in the state drives and shops. And where nobody -- ever -- walks.
It's got weedy, crumbling strip, monumental covered malls, and big box Best Buys sprouting out of unmeasured acres of asphalt. There are even a couple of hills to trudge up -- that is, if I don't get nailed by a truck in the first 15 seconds of my hike.
Gear check: Hiking boots with Vibram soles that should be tough enough for cement curbs but flexible for traction in mulch. My Brookstone "Night Walker" pedometer for counting mileage. An optic-red knapsack for visibility in eight lanes of angry traffic. And a brand-new "Write in the Rain" notepad since it's starting to drizzle.
Am I really going through with this? demands my worried wife. "Why?" she insists. "Why would you do it?"
Well, I say. Because it's there.
I park my car in the lot behind an Olive Garden, just west of the Warwick Mall. After using the restaurant's bathroom, I'm off past the Showcase Cinemas next door. Now playing: The King's Speech. But I've no time for a matinee. I am hiking south along Route 2's razor-thin sidewalk, fighting blasts of wind as northbound cars and trucks roar past.
Under a highway overpass, traffic sounds explode like shots from a gun. I pick up my pace until I reach the competing Rhode Island Mall. Though I've driven between these two malls dozens of times I've somehow never noticed the gurgling river that divides them. But here it is, as plain as the Hudson to a hiker. I make a note to look up its name.
A few minutes later, when I snag the corner of my sock against a dwarf-sized Wendy's cedar, I decide to switch to the southbound side of the road. There is, of course, no crosswalk for pedestrians. I've got to try and time the next pack of cars and make a run for it.
I get to the median, but it is spitting rain now, and I get soaked by a wave from a Ford F-Series pickup. I see the pickup guy grinning back at me, pumping his fist. Drowning a hiker, I think. That's got to be worth bonus points on this road.
The median is kind of pretty even in the rain with patches of puffy dandelions and some type of purple flower that looks like lavender, but can't be. Not here. Not growing wild.
I sprint again and make it safely across to somebody's "Palm and Tarot Readings" with a neon sign shaped like a hand. I am anxious to find out the fate of my hike. But -- it is hard to interpret this omen -- there is no one home when I knock.
As a hiker in a land that is sculpted for cars, I keep discovering that my path is broken up with jutting clumps of bushes and busted lampposts that have been bent over in collisions or beaten into the ground.
"Isn't this a great day to buy fresh flowers?" suggests a sign for Ka-Bloom. But I say no. It's still spraying rain. And now I know that I can pick the blossoms I need for free from the Route 2 median.
At this point, I am maybe halfway to my goal. And I am thirsty. One thing about hiking a strip mall: You don't need a canteen. I stride up to the drive-thru at a Chock Full O' Nuts and, ignoring the look from the attendant, order a large iced-coffee to go. "You have to be kidding," she says. "Can I have that black, with sugar?" I reply.
After a honk from a Chrysler on my tail, I move on, slurping my drink past Walt's Roast Beef and a Boston Paintball Supply. I've made it to a line of stores at the top of a ramp and some stacked-up boulders. I decide the boulders might be interesting to climb.
My boots are slipping, and when I step on a Cadbury wrapper, I am sliding backward. Finally, a hold -- industrial-sized weeds, tough roots. The summit: Staples, Chili's, an American flag.
There is more of my hike ahead. The patch of cattails I stomp over in front of Sports Authority. The cluster of big box giants -- Sam's Club, Best Buy -- that I manage to weave through. But somehow scaling this cliff of boulders makes the whole, strange hike worthwhile.
From the upper lot, I am the king of Route 2. I can trace my pilgrimage from the Showcase all the way to my goal just a short distance ahead: The Li'l Rhody Ice Cream Shack. Minutes later, I am reaching the sidewalk-less crest of a hill.
I check my pedometer: My hike has covered exactly 3.1 miles. I have discovered a river between malls (which, I learn later, is the Pawtuxet). I've conquered plains of mulch and dangerous forests thick with prickles. I've crossed a median in a storm. I've climbed a cliff.
And I am going to celebrate with a cone. A double.
The soft-serve vanilla slides down and I slump onto the cement to rest. I'm thinking about sleep. About traffic-less quiet. And then I see it, something fat and orange billowing above a used-car lot just up the road. It's an inflatable gorilla. A gorilla with a message: Great deals? Low rates? I can't be sure.
I finish my cone, stand up, dust off. Must push on.
This mall's got more to explore.
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