Wide Awake And Dreaming

The author sets out to camp in New York's Central Park--and winds up roused by matters of life and death.
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The author sets out to camp in New York's Central Park--and winds up roused by matters of life and death.

It was not my typical overnight camping trip. That afternoon, I arrived by train at New York's Penn Station from a town a few hundred miles up the Hudson. My backpack contained the standard kit--sleeping bag, raingear, a few extra layers--as well as a crumpled gray suit and a pair of polished dress shoes. I was, in a sense, between assignments. I was coming from a funeral, shell-shocked, and on my way to a long, peculiar night beneath the stars.

Outside, it was the year's first Saturday of outstanding summer weather--mid-80s, blue skies, light breeze. The station was packed with commuters pouring into the city for a night at restaurants and clubs. Mine was a different kind of outing. I adjusted the straps of my pack and made my way to the C train. I got off at 103rd Street, climbed into daylight, crossed four lanes of traffic, and looked for a comfortable place to pitch my tent in Central Park.

A few weeks earlier, when the editors of this magazine told me they were hosting a sleepover in the world's most famous urban refuge, I jumped at the chance to reserve a tent. As a New Yorker beset by chronic longing for the natural world, Central Park has long been as vital to my sense of well-being as the white-noise machine I keep beside my bed.

I have run, biked, skied, lounged, and otherwise simulated a life outdoors within its faux-rustic confines. Above all, I have escaped there in search of solitude, which the park, despite hosting 25 million visitors annually, seems willing enough to provide, especially in its fairy-tale woodland rambles. Somehow, the ever-present fringe of skyline lining the park makes its 843-acre interior feel like a vast hiding place--or, even better, a place to get temporarily lost in the woods.

My relationship with the park had limits, though. I had never slept there. No one I knew had. Although the park has made a gleaming comeback from its days of neglect in the '70s and '80s--when, according to the Central Park Conservatory, whole swaths resembled "dilapidated ruins"--spending the night there still carries a whiff of the reckless and forbidden. (Officially, it is forbidden; the park closes at 1 a.m.) Come sunset, when the Frisbee players and practitioners of tai chi depart, the park's manicured lawns and lush, fabricated ravines are widely thought to become an underworld den, the haunt of drug addicts, prostitutes, marauders, and other people that go bump in the night. When I told my friends that I was planning to pitch a tent there and not leave until the sun rose, the responses I received blended envy with incredulity. Camping out in the park seemed to be a particularly cool New York thing that no one would be stupid enough to try. I imagined writing a story that would be quirky and ironic and would chronicle the strange varieties of nightlife that populate the dark center of a slumbering city. Certainly, sleeping outdoors--in the wilderness, or an urban park, or even your own backyard--is about the best way I know to be awakened to the thoughts you most need to be thinking. When I say you, I mean me. That night, in Central Park, my thoughts kept returning to the town I had left earlier in the day.

I had awakened that morning in a motel room. For a moment I forgot where I was or why I was there. The sun was blinding. A highway ran outside the room, dotted with fast-food restaurants and gas stations. I made my way to a Unitarian church in a slightly run-down part of town. Nearby streets were blocked for a road race; runners streamed past the entrance to the church. I went in. I picked up a program bearing the photo of a friend I hadn't seen in a long time. Her name was Victoria. She had died a few weeks earlier, on her birthday, at an age when most of us are still starting families, careers, still starting to figure out our lives.

I met Victoria in 1988. We were grad students in Iowa, studying poetry. Victoria was brilliant and eccentric. She liked to drive into the countryside and wander into derelict farmhouses. She had a penchant for locating abandoned roads and train tracks, and for following these weed- and rubble-strewn trails to vantages that seemed as remote from human activity as any place in the deepest wilderness. These old homesteads had once been laboriously carved out of nature. Only now, nature was taking them back. This was the outdoors to which Victoria introduced me: a landscape through which people had once passed, and which persisted when the people went elsewhere. I was 23 and found Victoria to be utterly mysterious. She knew all about philosophy and literature but she was also a natural athlete and thrived in the outdoors. She and I bought our first mountain bikes together in Iowa and would hack our way through fields and across creeks. I had been raised in cities. Victoria taught me some of the freedom of uninhabited spaces. She was the last best friend of my childhood, of that moment just before the tenor of friendships seems to change, and the intense and all-consuming and occasionally wild adventures of youth become grown-up and reasonable. When Victoria finished school she moved to Montana. A year later, I followed. We stayed close for a while. She took me cross-country skiing for the first time and introduced me to the river valleys around Bozeman. She had gotten interested in birds and pointed out to me the presence around us of wildlife I hadn't seen before. It was as though she had learned the birds' language.

I fell out of touch with Victoria for about 10 years. Then, late last year, I heard from a friend that she was sick. She was suffering a lot, I was told, and she didn't want old friends to contact her. I tried to call her a few times but heard nothing back. Finally I sent her a letter. A few days later I got a call telling me she was gone.

The Great Hill of Central Park is a meadow ringed by lavish hardwood trees and perched just above the traffic of Central Park West. When I arrived there, parkgoers were jogging, walking their dogs, and finishing picnics. I found a flat spot in the shade of an American elm and set up camp. Other tents were going up nearby and attracting curious looks from passersby. By dusk, the area was practically deserted, except for three-dozen campers and the half-dozen park rangers--one of them equipped with a handgun--who were our chaperones. We ate sandwiches and played some silly games. (During one, I was instructed to hold hands with BACKPACKER's editor-in-chief; a surreal moment in the annals of freelance journalism.) Fires are prohibited in Central Park, so there was a halfhearted attempt to make s'mores with dehydrated marshmallows. I drifted away. My thoughts were elsewhere. After dark I followed the group on a walk through the park's North Woods, a 90-acre forest bisected by a stream and five waterfalls. We were trying to hear owls. A ranger brought a stereo and played a CD of high-pitched owl calls. All we heard in response were sirens. We wandered back to our camp. I nearly tripped over a couple stretched out on a blanket in the dark. Otherwise, there was no one to be seen. Without people, the park felt vacant--not like wilderness, but like an eerily deserted city.

The campers zipped themselves into their tents and went to sleep. I wasn't tired. I roamed the park for a while, and passed a few dogwalkers. We stopped and eyed each other and moved past. I was tempted to go to Columbus Avenue for a beer. I listened to the wind in the trees. Nothing was happening--no intrigue, no mayhem, no quirkiness. It was just the park, and night. I sat on a bench watching the silhouettes of the tents on the field. When I turned my head I could see apartment buildings nearby. Before long, most of the lights in the windows went out.

I crawled into my tent. I couldn't sleep. I was thinking about Victoria. It was good to have spent time with her friends and family in the morning, but it was better to be alone at night with my thoughts of her. I was glad to be outside. I wanted nothing between me and the night. I knew that I could just as easily be steeped in my ponderousness at home, a few miles away. But it wouldn't be the same. I wanted some of the clarity, some of the direct connection with night that tends to be obscured by the comforts of one's own bed. I watched one of the rangers patrolling the campground, talking quietly into his cell phone. I heard helicopters hovering low overhead. I lay atop my sleeping bag and settled into the night.

I couldn't help but be struck by the oddness of what I was doing--pretending to be on a camping trip--and the further oddness of having no desire to be doing anything else. It occurred to me then that merely sleeping, or trying to sleep, may be our most undervalued outdoor activity--if sleeping can be considered an activity at all. Sleeping, to my mind, is a more primal act of intimacy with the outdoors than hiking, climbing, paddling, even hunting. It is what separates the indoors-person from the outdoorsperson. It requires no expertise, nothing but a commitment to being out there, bedded against the dirt. It is a temporary return to the elements from which we usually take such extravagant means to shelter ourselves. When we sleep in the woods, we are just one more nesting animal whose rhythms are dictated by the rise and fall of the sun. We're accustomed to thinking of outdoor adventure in terms of daylight possibilities: the mileage we gain, the vista to which we ascend, the pristine stream we reach. Night in the unlit reaches is about negation. We're not going anywhere. There's nothing to see. We've arrived, and that's enough. Soon, if our exhaustion catches up with us, there's the blissful emptying-out of sleep.

But lying there, in Central Park, I wasn't yet exhausted. I thought about how, when I first started sleeping out, I found it hard to unwind. The night was too quiet. I felt vulnerable without locked doors and electric lights. The absence of distraction--television, phone, refrigerator--was unnerving. The tent was claustrophobic. Even in the wilderness, the night itself seemed hemmed-in, forbidding. It was only gradually that I learned to relax and to appreciate the night. At this point, I think I have become one of those people who goes to the woods not to hike, but to stop hiking--to get to a clearing, pitch a tent, and be surrounded by night. I'm not a snob about the location. A hard-to-reach, private spot is nice, but car camping works fine for me, too. The long chill nights of late fall or early spring are ideal. My preference is to keep comforts to a minimum--no super-inflated mattresses, no pillow. I want to feel the ground. One night I slept at the base of Ausungate, a spectacular mountain in the Peruvian Andes that remains sacred to local indigenous people. I had hiked for two days in dreary, overcast weather and hadn't caught even a hint of the peak said to be shrouded beneath the clouds. I was beginning to wonder whether the mountain existed at all. I went to sleep early and woke a few hours later with a start. I stepped out of the tent: The night sky had cleared. Ausungate, covered with glaciers, lit by stars, was glistening in front of me, as though it were being drowned in floodlights. It was a vision of the mountain, and more--a glimpse, it seemed, of the interior of night.

Even in a place where the faint glow of the city is a constant backdrop, where the sound of leaves stirring is punctuated by occasional screeching brakes and blaring horns, one has no less access to night's mysteries and clarities. After a few restless hours, I entered the pleasant lull that resides somewhere between sleeping and waking. My eyes were open, my senses were heightened, my body was relaxed. I'm not much given to mystical claims, but my mind was so focused on Victoria--not the person overwhelmed by pain and misfortune, but the vital, beautiful girl I had known--that I felt she was, in some genuine way, sharing the tent with me, resting a few feet away in her sleeping bag. It was good to be back with my old friend. Together, we listened to the silence of a city that was taking a break from the obligations of daylight. We heard dogs barking and occasional drunken shouts. A camper nearby snored. Shortly before dawn, when the night seemed darkest, there was a surge of bird calls. The din was extraordinary, a sustained chiming that could have competed with cathedral bells. It must have continued for an hour. I wondered how many birds there must be living in those trees, and how many of their names Victoria could identify.

When the sun rose I packed my sleeping bag, broke down the tent, and headed to the subway. It was early on a Sunday morning and I knew I'd have a long wait for the train. But I didn't mind. I had nowhere in particular to go.

Mark Levine normally sleeps in Brooklyn, New York.