Dora Guo

It was an intimate, yet impassive kiss — she breathed into my heaving lungs with immoveable majesty, threaded her lifeblood through my throbbing body, pumped my heartbeat into alignment with hers. I looked into her ancient, creased eyes, and through those cracked, uneven crevices I saw for miles: winding roads flanked by towering ravines, sidewalks stretching past a coffee shop and a brewery, an angel standing watch atop a monument for fallen heroes. I saw, and I knew and loved with deep wonder the aching beauty and story of my lover, my Atlas — my East Rock.

Such a tryst is, perhaps, a defining experience of Yale: a romance shared freely and generously from mouth to mouth, on blogs and social media. The trek up East Rock at the golden hour when the sun teeters on the building-barnacled horizon is a well-worn tradition of Yale students, an initiation that itches and beckons at fresh-budding first years. It is then that we first begin to feel like we truly belong at Yale, like we have signed our names in cosmic Sharpie on the massive autograph book of the University. In the months and years that follow, however, we quickly come to realize that East Rock is more than a grinning group selfie or a bucket list item. We come to rely on East Rock as so much more.

Maybe East Rock is where you turn for a run when you need to sweat out the stress of the week. Perhaps it’s where you find a home as a student trying to find housing. For the rest of Yale, East Rock is vast with possibility. It is where young professionals settle with dreams of the future they will unfold. It is where families settle and watch their children grow up on the playgrounds. It is one of the bloodlines that connects Yale to New Haven through community outreach and events. East Rock is where I virtually spent my pre-frosh summer planning outdoor trail events, as part of the community service program FOCUS. Even from 700 miles away, I could feel the passion of my group leaders, and their enthusiasm for the work we did with the local government convinced me of the beauty of the symbiotic relationship between my university and its city — not one without its problems, but a beautiful one nonetheless.

East Rock was born a century after Yale, with humble beginnings as farmland. The neighborhood originally had a different name. Before it gradually took the name of the ridge that overlooks it, it was called Goatville for the goats that, according to urban legend, shared the Irish enclave with the human residents and raided their homes to eat their clothes. Goatville was founded in the 19th century as a small town meant to house a growing population of laborers and merchants, but through the Industrial Revolution and the decades that followed, it became known as East Rock, famous for providing a space for Yale faculty, staff and their families as well as New Haven residents. Graduate and undergraduate students alike rent out apartments and houses in the neighborhood, and East Rock is the destination of many a hiker or biker from the surrounding area and, of course, myself.

I first breached the gentle gates of East Rock in the fall of my freshman year, not loudly nor softly, but raggedly with labored panting that pumped my icy cheeks with a vivid, crimson flush that belied my exhaustion. I was on what I call a run — realistically, sporadic spurts of sprints followed by lengths of lethargy — and I had spontaneously opted to add East Rock as a “stop,” an intellectual judgment, really, to my initial run to Science Hill because of its rumored scenery and its omnipresence on my social media feed. I had underestimated, however, both the distance and physical commitment. My legs were already sore after bursting through the wrought-iron Saybrook gates and dashing up Science Hill, but I stubbornly stuck to my promise to climb to the top of East Rock before returning to my suite. Guided by the trusted navigator, Google Maps, I made my way up Prospect Street with increasing deceleration until I had turned onto Edwards Street then again onto Orange Street. I slowly but surely forged my way towards where East Rock stood at the tail of the shoebill stork drawn by the map of New Haven. 

As I trudged down the street in weary search of the bridge crossing the Mill River and leading to East Rock, I became aware of something strange and yet familiar. Each crack in the sidewalk, each tree, each car and pedestrian — no goats to be seen — ambling down the street hummed quietly with a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose. By the time I passed East Rock Coffee, I was overcome with the conviction of everything being not in its rightful place, but moving in its rightful path. In the manner that the planets revolve according to the law of gravity around the sun, I perceived my surroundings revolving according to some unspoken law around the core of East Rock itself, not merely the neighborhood nor the park but something bigger, something more whole

Perhaps my lack of stamina came infelicitously. Without it, would I have chugged mindlessly through the neighborhood of East Rock, the space between my ears empty of all but the thump-thump of blood, the next aching step forward? What was supposed to be a 30-minute run slowly trickled into three hours of exhaustion. But when I staggered to the steel railing at the top of the ravine and looked down at the city nightscape blinking to life far below me, creating a galaxy of tiny, flickering lives, the fatigue itself felt justified. It was right that I should stand there and laugh freely at the memory of the unleashed corgi I had seen vault to the top of a boulder lining the ravine, attempt and fail to brake, and then disappear, fluffy rear-end first and oversized ears last, over the 10-foot drop much to the alarm of the tardy owner who found her grinning upwards and wagging her tail from far below, unharmed. It was right that I should have seen the autumn foliage paint the Mill River with a brilliant mosaic of amber, crimson, vermillion and gold as I ran across the bridge. It was right that I should have encountered East Rock that day, that I should have known her as I did, that I should have seen her in those colorful aspects of our lives. And it could only be more right that I seek her again.

And so East Rock becomes our sublet apartment homes, our morning bike trails. We become one of the frantically fluttering, many-massed colonies that make up the community of East Rock. Even as we breathe in and out of our tiny lungs, East Rock comes to life and breathes, one long inhale and one long exhale that reaches from the deepest crevices of bedrock, that roll enormously beneath our feet like the deck of a grand galleon. East Rock blows silently over ashy, tar-black mugs of coffee, steaming the windows that frame sleepy locals at East Rock Coffee. East Rock sets the sun over the slumped shoulders of the graduate student, fast asleep over their open textbook. East Rock anchors us to the firmaments spinning close above where we stand at the peak of our world. East Rock is both everything for us and anything we can dream of — our Atlas, holding our sky.

East Rock breathes, and I shared her breath that day, locked our lungs together. For just an instant in the eternity of East Rock, our heartbeats aligned, and we met as partners in sweet, momentary lovemaking. I have, most intimately, loved East Rock; I love her still.

Hyerim Bianca Nam | hyerim.nam@yale.edu

HYERIM BIANCA NAM