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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.

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.

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