I gulped down two donut holes and a cafe americano at a cute coffee shop on Manhattan Ave in north Brooklyn and made for the subway. It was late in the morning now, later than I’d hoped to get started in my journey to the New Jersey wilderness, and I still had to traverse the wilds of Manhattan to get to the Garden State. Even then, I’d be a world away—in an aesthetic sense at least—from my destination: the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, at 12 square miles one of the smallest wild places in America, tucked into the New Jersey suburbs. Just 26 miles from Times Square, as the crow flies.
Catching the G train to the L, I crammed into a packed car to join a herd of bleary-eyed New Yorkers making the mid-morning slog into Manhattan. At the 6th Ave station—near the Parson’s School of Design, at the northern boundary of Greenwich Village—I transferred to the PATH train to New Jersey. I luxuriated in the space of the mostly-empty train car as my reverse commute took me away from the city.
Not long after, I disembarked in Jersey City — a fast-gentrifying neighborhood just across the Hudson River that’s still very much a part of the NYC metro. Many city scenes from the Sopranos were filmed here (Big Pussy’s house, segments from the intro), and it’s closer to lower Manhattan than most of Brooklyn. I grabbed a rental car and picked up my friend Alicia Ruth, an artist, local activist and the director of TedX Jersey City, who agreed to come out to the swamp with me despite having a cold.
“Probably some neat ass bugs,” she’d said when I invited her. Fair enough.
Several years ago, when I was living in New York, The Onion published one of my all-time favorite Onion headlines: 8.4 Million New Yorkers Suddenly Realize New York City A Horrible Place To Live. I remember the piece because in New York it became a pop culture moment unto itself; everyone was posting it on social media, talking about it, arguing about it, and laughing our asses off about it at the bar. It’s funny because it’s true (I’m sorry but New York is, objectively, a terrible place to live, it’s just that it’s also an amazing place to live in ways that outweigh the terribleness) and people in New York, especially transplants like me, love to complain about how the city is grinding them down.
This nearly universal complaint is probably why — when I told friends I was headed for the day to a wilderness area just outside of town — I was met with a curious cocktail of incredulity and envy. Whether you fully register it or not, if you live in a big city, some part of you is yearning to be in the woods, if only for a few hours. Hell, these days if you live anywhere in America or use the internet you could use a break from civilization.