New York is New York, and Manhattan is, 24 hours a day, full throttle, unquestionably, Manhattan. What we wanted after two weeks of both was a place that was neither.
Somewhere green, serene, devoid of people.
If it had wolves and bears then even better.
|A lizard sunbathes in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.|
It took less than two hours drive from the Lincoln Tunnel to find most of the above, in the shape of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (hereinafter referred to as the Gap). The Gap gets its name from the dramatic notch cut by the Delaware River through the Kittatinny Mountains, and the recreation area covers some 28,000 hectares of fine forest in both the states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Night One in this heaven was hell on earth. It came in the form of a motel, and a woman named Eileen. Eileen was one of those peculiar souls that one finds washed up in motels like Hunters Lodge, Columbus, N.J. Alone, from Iowa, her car had just been stolen. Her mother had just died. She had no idea how to get back for the funeral. Distraught and, it must be said, hugely drunk, Eileen was at her wits’ end and also at the end of a 12-pack. Or an 18-pack.
The dilemma! Should we wander the wild banks of the Delaware River by dusk’s sweet light, pondering on the beauties of the hemlock glades and wondering at the drifting fireflies and the grand, green mountains?
Or should we hang around the motel and look after Eileen?
The motel added further teeth to the dilemma.
Back in the 1960s, Hunters Lodge must have been considered dangerously chic. No longer. Time, the great devourer, and sunshine, the great heater, had dissolved chemicals in the foul orange plastic furnishings which had melted, leaking clammy chemicals over the matching linoleum. The owner had added random yet dementedly thick applications of various unmopped up cleaning agents.
The floors were like fly paper. The TV’s three black-and-white channels rippled like the Delaware. The prospect of staying in this morbid environment was appalling.
Still, we did the decent thing. We stayed. We conducted suicide watch over the incoherently babbling Eileen.
By 3 a.m. concerns that Eileen might take her life had been superseded by homicidal urges to take Eileen’s life. Having retired to bed, her TV was on at full volume “to scare off bears” and as every new talk-show host mounted his distant New York podium to discuss perennial American difficulties such as “My lesbian lover ran off with my father,” the entire motel wobbled and thrummed with the brain-dead rhetoric like some infernal amplifier.
We dared not wake Eileen, for if we woke her, she might begin to talk again.
Morning dawned with a headache and Eileen in ambush. “Could you folks run me to the store?” Damn woman looked fresh as a daisy.
When we got there the store was crammed with wild-looking rednecks and doing brisk sales of the sort of American coffee that comes in immense 1-liter cups and doesn’t do you any good at all. Eileen wisely went for a 12-pack of Coors.
We fled for the hills.
What happened in the hills made me suspect that in an earlier life I had been a rotten, good-for-nothing swine. Maybe even Adolf Hitler or Bluebeard. Someone really bad. Karmic backlash continued, in the form of a New Jersey man and his bobbing troll-like German wife who decided to join us on our ramble.
There are 96 km of hiking trails in the Gap, including a section of the Appalachian Trail known to its weary but healthy pilgrims as the “old AT.” If you want to know what hiking the old AT is like buy Bill Bryson’s book “A Walk in the Woods.” It is entertainment of the first order.
Our uninvited companions by contrast were not. They were two of most garrulous people that we have ever encountered. They laughed so uproariously at their relentlessly brainless and one-sided conversation that every other living thing in the Kittatinnys left by Speedmail for Canada, New Jersey’s estimated 200 bears included.
There should have been blessed peace at the Lakota Wolf Preserve, an interesting establishment that offers a forested campsite, trailers and cabins for rent and an education-oriented visit to the arctic, tundra and timber wolves that prowl excellent premises.
|A nature photographer/caretaker at the Lakota Wolf Preserve|
A white-bearded garden gnome of a nature photographer earnestly launched into a talk about wolves.
The wolves were cool. You see some wolf photos and you think “that’s a dog.” See a wolf in the flesh at Lakota, and it is clearly not a dog at all. It’s narrow-chested, long-legged and obviously uninterested in you but very keen on its gnome (who feeds it deer road kill). It’s a wild animal and carries with its restless trot an elegance that is beyond dogs.
So what went wrong here?
The obnoxious preschool kid factor, that’s what. Bawling. Hollering. Making amusing fart noises. The wretched parents suffered. The gnome was impervious. He had seen it before. Never once did a wolf leap the fence and kill the obnoxious future of our species. Perhaps they were steadied by the rapt and captivated gazes of older children.
I felt keenly for the unheard gnome, and for everyone else who had come to listen to the unfortunately inaudible talk. Also for the wolves, which were once extremely numerous in New Jersey. New Jersey calls itself “the Garden State” and bits of it look very well pruned. But even in the New Jersey wilds the wolf has been selectively weeded out by mankind and is gone.
Scenic roads through the Gap’s surrounding villages were picture-postcard perfect with deer and chipmunks cantering about. But by this time our hearts were no longer in it.
We got back to Manhattan. The sirens were yodeling. Six floors below our steaming apartment the gamboling children were still conducting their conversations at decibels sufficient to carry every life-threatening adolescent boast through our windows. A pile driver, hissing hydraulic steam and thumping away, was at determined work on the corner.
It was great to be back.
Three travel tips for the Gap: get as deep into the woods as soon as you can, then get deeper; pretend you speak no English if accosted by friendly folk on trails; and, in God’s name, avoid the Hunters Lodge. Eileen may still be there.