We come down from the mountain on that third path to a flat land that was once a railroad, thick now with fireweed and tall grass, walking our bicycles where the wheels roll over stones we dare not ride on.
We walk side by side even after the land gets even, this place that once ran rails all the way the Hudson River, the slant of its remains leading to an abandoned rail road station my family once used, splinters and rust now, and heavy layers of dust on signs saying Scranton or Hoboken, places we barely know exist.
Dave doesn’t love this place the way I do, no trains to watch, he says.
I see the train with their plumes of ghostly smoke rolling out over
Paterson’s roof tops as
ghostly trains roll by.
We drag out bikes over the gravel and the last of the rails to the flatter land slanting down towards where the work crews construct the new highway, a road Dave tells me will touch both coasts at either end, and bring tractor trailers from places so far away he can barely imagine, and drivers he can speak to over his CB in the middle of the night.
Dave loves the road more than he loves trains, and comes down to where the work men have their trailers, asking as he has asked before, just when they think they will finish so he can ask the truck drivers to talk to him, and the worker, who know us by this time, laugh and say, they may never get done.
And as we usually do, we beg them for water they issue us in cone-like paper cups with water out of a large silver cooler, pushing the lever down to let the ice water flow, we feel through the paper straight into the palms of our hands.
And then, we roll on, Devil’s Crack above us as we move west on those lanes already complete, but not yet open to traffic, our wheels the first wheels other than those of the workmen to roll over, as it turns through the gap that makes way for the Passaic River to pass, and Devil’s Crack a gap in the flat face of stone on one side of that gap, filled with ice in winter and dripping streams from the mountain above this time of year with the turn of flat land the rail road once rode over, some of which the highway absconded with, workmen ignoring the flat face of the mountain and its widening crack up which kids like us often try to climb, the way he climb up and down the walls of the quarry a mile south; this face a terrible face from which kids like us often fall, against which the town puts up fences, kids like us always tear down, and warning signs kids like us ignore, more an invitation, a challenge we must take, and so, we do, me, Dave and tag-a-long Dennis, who has about as much business being with us as Little Davy would, we fitting our fingers and toes into the tiny fissures past blasting for the railroad made, feeling the sharp edges bite into our palms the way the workmen’s ice water does, rising, inch by inch, crevice by crevice, to this ledge and the next, not looking back to the widening crack we can’t see close up, too large for our imagination when all we can see in the next place to fit our fingers or our toes and keep from falling.
Some kids, when standing below, say they see eyes here, staring down from above the wide crack we climb. Other times, we think we’ve seen them, too. Not now.
The highway workers watch and laugh as they always do when kids try this, making bets among themselves as to how high we will get before we lose courage and turn back, telling us later how we look like pathetic spiders clinging to webs nobody can see, and they gasping when Dennis, who is behind me and I’m behind Dave, loses his grip and falls, not far, not all the way down, just to a ledge with stones so loose, he had to cling to one of the protruding rocks to keep from sliding off like many of the stones do.
Above me, with his long arms still reaching high into the dark crevice, Dave looks back and cries for his brother he assumes he will lose, while below, the highway workers rush to the guard rail shouting for one of us to save him.
Since I’m closer, I go down first, inch by inch, told hold by toe hold, clinging to stones I hoped my fingers will not pull loose, cringing each time my toes send pebbles falling down onto the ledge to which Dennis clings, and ducking again the shower Dave’s decent from above sends down on me.
Inch by inch, two spiders gripping places we think we cannot grip, non-existing cracks in the face of the crack we find in our desperation.
We do not come down onto the ledge where Dennis clings. We go to either side of it, Dave to his right, me to the left, telling Dennis the whole time to stay calm, urging him finally to make his way in my direction since my side seems to have better places to grip than Dave’s.
Inch by inch, Dennis moves towards me, each movement causing an avalanche of pebbles off the ledge beneath his feet, dragging his feet down with it, forcing him to cling all the more with his fingers to a ledge of stone none of us know will hold.
Inch by inch, he comes closer to the ledge’s end and the supposed better footing where I am, inch by inch until he comes close enough for me to grab his hand, holding it, putting his weight on me long enough for him to make the transition from the ledge of sliding stone to a foot hold on the flat face of rock.
Then, as spiders, we three make our way the rest of the way down, to the pile of loose stone slanted against the bottom of Devil’s Crack, and from this we scurry down to the more solid ground near the guard rail and the watching highway workers, who pat our backs and give us cups of water, telling us how brave we are.
We are not brave, least of all Dave, who vows never to try this again, or even chance the walls of the quarry which we know has more to hold on to, even if no less high. He says he intends to keep horizontal not vertical, by which he means his route will follow the same route the truckers take, and so he falls even deeper in love with the road, and makes up get back on our bikes for a ride out the completed section, not west, but east, waving at the workmen as we travel towards that part of the highway just beyond the border of Paterson and beyond where the it crosses over the Passaic River again, to where the guard rail crosses over all six lanes, and traffic rushes towards us from the far east where it starts at the George Washington Bridge, veering suddenly north rather than straight, the three of us, sitting on our bicycles as the cars charge straight, and turn, as if we are defying them, standing guard over sacred ground even Dave believes sacred, aware that when the highway is finished and the guard rails come down, our world will be altered forever into something even we cannot predict.