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.
Alicia and I hopped in the car and noshed on a two slices of pizza as we made our way down the turnpike. In less than 45 minutes, we were well into the winding roads and rolling hills of New Jersey, near Morristown, where cookie-cutter mansions are interspersed with older houses. Manhattan feels more distant than it actually is in these suburbs —commuters travel into the city from much farther out than Morristown—but even still, the bedroom communities around the Great Swamp are by no means a wilderness.
There’s a McDonald’s less than a mile from the boundary of the refuge. This sense of being close to modern comforts made the transition all the more jarring when we parked the car at a trailhead and stepped across the threshold and into the Great Swamp wilderness. A few steps down the flat and muddy trail—this is a swamp, after all—and we were overtaken by the quiet. Dead leaves crunched under our feet as we walked past evergreen trees being consumed by thorny vines. Tiny red berries mesmerized me with near-luminescent crimson, standing out in bright contrast to the bleak grey of bushes denuded in winter. Back in the woods, a dead tree leaned precariously on a live tree, creaking as it swayed in the breeze, as it had long before we arrived and as it would long after we left, until finally, someday, probably when no one is around to hear, it crashes into the swamp.
Under federal law, “wilderness” means more than simply a wild place. The term is an official designation that gives a tract of land some of the strictest environmental protections a piece of land can have. Anything brought into a wilderness must, under federal law, be brought out, and no human activity is supposed to alter its essentially wild character. It’s illegal to run a motor in a wilderness area or ride a bicycle, no roads or campfires are allowed, and hikers mustn’t stray from the trails. It takes an act of Congress to create a wilderness area, and an act of Congress to undo one.
Though only half of the Great Swamp’s 12-square-miles is designated a federal wilderness, these protections help make it a literal refuge for wildlife amid the urban density of the NYC metropolis. The Great Swamp is home to species of snakes, turtles, frogs and fish, 223 species of birds, plus foxes, skunks, beavers, deer, bats, mink, river otters and sometimes black bears.
Within minutes of entering the refuge, I approached a small pond, where half a dozen or more turtles sunning themselves on the mossy clump-islands that form around the trunks of swamp trees vanished into splashing water. They were gone before I even registered that they were there—except for one brave little turtle, who went on sunning himself proudly as if I’d never crashed the party at all.
Alicia and I left the main trail to explore a turn out that cut deeper into the woods. The day was clear and unseasonably warm for a late November afternoon, and the sun glowed warmly at a sharp angle across leaves of red and ochre, and the occasional evergreen. Autumn orange was mostly gone by this time of year. With the foliage mostly fallen, we could see deep into the woods. We spotted squirrels, birds and a dragonfly, but none of the larger more furtive mammals that live in the Great Swamp.
On either side of the trail were little swampy ponds, and ponds beyond them and other little ponds beyond those. We couldn’t get to them without tramping, against regulations, off the trail and through the water, but it doesn’t take a lot of space to create a sense of isolation, of the mystery lurking somewhere back there in the inaccessible wild.
Alicia turned over a log to find worms and a roly-poly, and ran a hand softly over a pad of luscious green moss.
“People pay a lot of money for that shit on Etsy,” she said, leaving the moss in place.
We stood in the quiet of the woods for a long moment, listening to the high limbs wavering in the breeze, and the rattle of dry leaves being plucked from the trees by the late autumn wind, until the relative silence of the forest was broken by the roar of a jet engine overhead. Low-flying jets roared by every 20 minutes or so, en route, most likely, to Newark Airport. The jet prompted me to tell Alicia about the peculiar history of the Great Swamp.
“This place was going to be an airport,” I said, as something bright red and glistening in a bush caught my eye. “That’s why it exists.” I kept staring at the shiny thing—a flower, or a berry, or whatever it was—waiting for it to make sense, until I realized I was staring at a red balloon and its ribbon glistening in the afternoon sun.
Though the language of the Wilderness Act says the designation exists to protect places “untrammeled by man,” when it became a wilderness area the Great Swamp was very trammeled indeed. It had been the site of a working farm for years, and a dirt road ran right smack through the middle of it. But in the 1960s, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey made plans to turn the area into an airport and locals revolted. One of them was an heir to the Rockefeller fortune.
Turns out, if you want to stop an airport from being built in your backyard, it can’t hurt to have a Rockefeller on your side. Soon, the area was turned into a wildlife refuge, and then designated a wilderness, and the natural dykes that had been broken to drain the swamp to make it farmable were plugged back up. The swamp filled in again, and the road was closed and converted into the trail on which we were walking that very moment.
“There’s a funk in the air,” Alicia said as we made our way to the exit and the distinct odor of a swamp wafting across the trail. Our shoes were a little muddier, our heads a little clearer. We passed a couple photographers taking pictures of leaves and berries through enormous telescopic lenses and returned to the car. We made it back to the interstate just in time to see the rush hour commuter traffic passing by in the opposite direction. I took Alicia home, said goodbye, and dropped off the rental car.
A little over an hour after leaving the Great Swamp, I was back in Brooklyn raising a glass with an old friend at a bar near Prospect Park. I’d had an experience and didn’t have to break from my life to do so — which is sort of the whole point.