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October 2005

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.

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.

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