Updated: May 3, 2019
My name is Michael Hunt and I love this Park!
My path to Central Park guiding started with a phone call from a Belarusian who’d read a few kind reviews of my West Village Historical Walking Tour and wanted someone American-looking and -sounding to handle his walking and bicycle tours of the park. As my own tour was struggling to find its niche, I agreed to consider his offer, even though I had very limited knowledge of the park.
Our meeting was enlightening, to say the least. I expected a discussion about the history and highlights of the park, followed by a stroll through the park with a seasoned guide, but was met instead by a young man carrying a lime-green shirt and hat, along with a couple of picture books on the park and a list of some of the park’s highlights.
After a little chit-chat we came to an understanding on wages, and I inquired about the training. “Trainink? What trainink? Take peekchur book, say ‘Theez where MacCauley Culkin throw snowball in Home Alone 2’”. When I stated that I would prefer to show the park from a more historical and social view-point, his response was, “Suit yourself. First tour tomorrow mornink. Ten O’Cloke”.
And with that statement he left, and I became the company’s face for their walking and cycling tours. I wouldn’t say I went into panic mode, as I’ve always been an keen student of history and nature, and knew I could swallow a couple of books overnight and regurgitate the facts the next day. What I did not take into account was my extremely poor sense of direction. I once got lost on Alligator Alley, the two-lane highway crossing southern Florida. I stopped for lunch and then drove back the way I had come. I thought I was experiencing deja vu, with very familiar sights and landmarks, now on the other side of the road.
And on my first day in the park, I learned why you should always, always, enter for the first time with a guide if you ever want to find your way back to your starting point! There is only one straight path in the park and that is the Mall, the open-air cathedral-like path leading from the outer-loop roadway up to Bethesda Terrace. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux consciously avoided designing direct paths for a number of reasons that I’ll detail in another blog, but if you are not carrying a detailed map (I wasn’t), you’re screwed! I started off strong when entering the park that morning, rattling off facts and figures (843 acres, estimated real estate value of 550 billion dollars, blah, blah, blah) and was pleased that I instantly recognized and recalled the details of the structures I was coming across. “And here is the Dairy Visitor Center”, I told the nice couple I was guiding. “This was conceived in 1869 as a post where dairy was distributed at cost to counter the deplorable and watered-down milk being sold by sordid dealers from Brooklyn and the Bronx. It now serves as a tasteful gift shop where you can find quality items related to the park”. This was straight out of some guide book, but I was proud I’d retained it, and led the couple deeper into the Park.
We went along the outer loop, and the words I’d read the previous night were pouring out of me when we came upon a statue of a dog. Balto! “This is Balto, hero of the epic mush from Fairbanks to Nome in 1925. The town of Nome, Alaska had developed an outbreak of diphtheria and the only way to deliver the serum needed to save the children of the town was by taking it the 537-mile distance by dog sled. Balto was the lead dog for the last leg. He was considered a national hero and was the only living creature to be present at the dedication of his own statue here in Central Park. His trek was the inspiration for today’s Iditarod Dog Sled Race, and his remains, stuffed, can viewed at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History”. If I had suspenders on, I would have plucked them, I was so proud! I was getting the hang of this Central Park thing. And so I went in deeper. And deeper. And deeper. As the sun and temperature rose, the clock and my resources of information started running out. I was in the middle of the Rambles, where the paths cross and backtrack on each other and I was sweating like Bret Kavanaugh at a confirmation hearing, recognizing that I had no idea which way was out. I finally had to admit to my guests that I was lost, and it was time to ask someone for help getting out. It was NOT my finest moment.
But I went back again the next day, armed with a map and another night’s reading. And the next day, and the next. And with each visit the park slowly revealed to me the living work of art that it is. It breathes. The trees are its lungs and the birds its voice. The streams, ponds, and lakes its blood. It is a whole with a million parts, making up a vast artistic and social experiment. I have found a serenity in this quiet room of the large noisy house that is New York City, and I love strolling through it with newbies, and explaining and exploring the secrets it has revealed to me.
And now, nearly three years after that most embarrassing first visit, I have shared my discoveries with over 800 groups. I am going off on my own now, not like Thoreau at Walden Pond, but as a tour director where I am free to share the treasures I have found with like-minded adventurists. I hope through this blog, and the photos and stories I will share on our other media, to entice you to venture into this magnificent park and come to share my appreciation for this amazing national treasure.