Earlier this month I decided to have a go at Batona Hiking Club’s annual “Manayunk Steps Hike,” which promised a unique look at the riverside neighborhood from various, constantly changing elevations. The brochure was clear in its warning (“We will climb many sets of steps”), but tempted reluctant participants with the offer of a debriefing afterward at the Dawson Street Pub, one of the better places to drink a beer up in the Northwest hinterland of the city.
At 7 p.m., about 20 hikers met in the Wissahickon R6 station parking lot, people of questionable sanity eager to climb more than a thousand stairs in what was still nearly 90-degree heat even at this late hour.
The hike started with a descent along Ridge Avenue into Fairmount Park, along Wissahickon Creek just before it discharges into the Schuylkill River. Barely had we reached the bottom when we started back up on our first climb, the iconic “100 Steps,” a set made of solid granite leading back out of the park into the neighborhoods. I didn’t bother counting to verify the accuracy of the name, but I will say they were the sturdiest set of stairs we would climb that night.
Batona is open to anybody, but the average age of hiker that night was somewhere well north of 50. As we climbed, we passed many confused Yunkers who were no doubt wondering if there had been a mass escape from the senior center. Persistent discussion of sore limbs and “what the kids are up to” aside, there was ample opportunity for the youth to seek ancient wisdom and hear stories of the neighborhood from when it was a blue-collar union town, before its transformation to a post-collegiate utopia of inebriation and public urination.
We snakes-and-laddered our way through the Wissahickon neighborhood, full of old manor houses formerly belonging to the bosses who lorded over the canal workers who lived down in the relative slums of Manayunk. The neighborhood is built on a hill, home of the infamous wall on Levering Street that bedevils riders in the annual bike race. Parallel streets running along the hill often have stairs connecting them in places too steep to sustain a road. Everyone agreed there are at least a dozen but fewer than 20 such staircases, although no one was able to settle on a precise figure.
The hike was supposed to hit all of them, but, again, no one counted. We moved north in a journey that covered only a mile and a half or so as the crow flies, but with a substantial distance added by the constant zigzagging up and down the stairs. Daunted by the elevation changes and stifling temperatures, a few wise members dropped out early to wait for us at the bar.
The physical orientation necessitated by ascending narrow metal staircases made for a distressing amount of time staring at other hikers’ rear ends, but thanks to all that climbing, damned if they weren’t the nicest group of 50-year-old butts I'd ever seen.
Eventually, after we had all dropped approximately 15 pounds in sweat weight, we arrived at the the Manayunk Canal, a brown, stagnant, funny-smelling waterway prone to emitting strange bubblings, but pleasant in its own urban way. Its charms are enhanced in the evening, when croaking bullfrogs contribute to the soundscape. Plus, the hyperaggressive Canadian geese had bedded down for the night, so passage is considerably safer.
We followed the towpath south to the end of the Main Street commercial district, then climbed up one last set of steps over the train tracks. These stairs came complete with rust holes, but we all made it and, finally, our destination was in sight.
Dawson Street manages to combine the best elements of a dive bar with a beer bar. The selection is impressive, with 15 brews on tap and another 70 or so bottles to choose from. They feature three hand-pumps for those of you who prefer your beer with the softer mouth-feel achieved by getting the beer out of the keg with gravity instead of compressed gases. And it’s just far enough from Main Street to not attract much of the less desirable element of the Manayunk bar scene (you know who you are).
It took quite a few beers to rehydrate, but then I was off to find a full-length mirror and admire how much more toned and shapely my own butt had become. Thanks, stair hike!
Gabriel García Márquez, 1927-2014
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