Growing up, there were certain inarguable rules Mom set forth to ensure her kids' safety: don't take candy from strangers, power tools are off-limits unless your Father is present, avoid the yellow snow, and never, under any circumstance, spend the night in Central Park. But over Labor Day weekend, my girlfriend, Kim, and I threw caution to the Ramble and joined the Urban Park Rangers for the first-annual camp-out in Central Park. (It was really more like the the first sanctioned camp-out; as one passer-by informed me: "Back in the day, we used to sleep out here all the motherfuckin' time").
It began in the late afternoon with a bit of catch-and-release fishing in the Harlem Meer, and an impressive display by a pre-school-aged angler who pulled two "sunnyfish" out of the sketchy waters with her bamboo pole and bread-dough bait. We then proceeded through Forever Wild, a wooded area in the northern netherworld of the park, for a lesson in "orienteering," otherwise known as How to Use a Compass 101." In short, line everything up with the N, or in Ranger terms, "put red in the shed" (the meaning of which I have yet to grasp, but I repeated it with authority).
Our group consisted of four families with children ranging from toddlers to middle school, three young couples (one of whom set the bar quite high in the most-making-out-per-minute marathon), and a number of Urban Park Rangers higher than that of Sunday afternoon rollerbladers. The Rangers were very excited to be part of the maiden camping experience and offered a wealth of ecological and historical information. We learned that Central Park has a lookout built during the Revolutionary War that was never used, that screech owls live in weatherized cedar boxes in the trees during the day, and that Ranger Dakota has a serene deadpan delivery (Me: "Where's the Forever Wild-ing section of the park?" Dakota: "We don't take campers to that section").
After the orienteering hike, we set up our comfortable two-man tents on the grass of the Great Hill -- just inside 106th Street, off Central Park West. There is a strict ban on fires in the park, so we foraged our meal from Subway and Garden of Eden. Ranger Ted provided us with a battery-powered lantern for a modicum of authenticity and an off-off-off-off Broadway theater troupe rehearsing Shakespeare with wooden swords and plastic helmets provided us with a modicum of jocularity.
After sunset, we were treated to S'mores tartare and licorice whips before setting out on the piece de resistance -- the night hike. A Ranger wearing tie-dyed civvies showed us how to find the North Star -- it's off the bucket of the Big Dipper -- and how to relate it to the compass, bringing our orienteering lesson full-circle. I assisted a couple of toddlers in painting two trees -- one in the light, one in the dark -- with "bug juice," a sugary confection of fresh fruit and berry-flavored syrup designed to bring out the nocturnal insects.
We set out on the hike, and as we wandered through the dark, Ranger Rich shined his high-powered light on bats and a lazy frog chilling in the cool air. The conditions were perfect for an aimless stroll through the woods; it was a brisk fall night with a swaddling harvest moon. But believe you me, Central Park seems a whole lot more dense, expansive and spooky during the witching hours.
At one point, we stopped under a bridge for a science experiment involving wintergreen Life Savers. The flashes of light aren't actually sparks, but rather ionized air, or something like that (to be honest I wasn't paying attention. My focus was on the stale wintergreen pellets -- army-issue circa the Vietnam War). Kim and another couple agreed that nobody saw any white-light, but who can find fault with an earnest attempt at injecting a little science?
Although a colony of ants was dutifully licking fructose off the tree under the streetlight when we returned, the bug juice was considered a flop. According to Ranger Rich, we hadn't used enough banana. Later, before hitting the rack, Kim and I ventured down to one of the trees and I'm happy to report that a horde of sinister-looking beetles was dipping their pinchers in the fruity concoction.
Apart from the occasional feint wail of a siren, the night was amazingly tranquil. Without being too cliché, it was hard to reconcile the fact that we were smack dab in the hub of Manhattan.
This being Gotham, however, it must be noted that you can take camping to the city, but you can't take the city out of camping. For instance, Ranger Ted completely ignored the pile of human waste we discovered during the evening nature hike, and we were treated to a couple of Upper West Side teens who decided to, well, get back to nature about twenty yards from our tent (bless their horny little souls). I spied on these precocious youngsters and delivered unwanted play-by-play to Kim as their adolescent moans wafted through the air. I couldn't see her, but I give him an A- for stamina and a C- for technique -- too much of a jackhammering motion. We dozed off with a full moon above us and one bouncing up and down to the left of us.
We were abruptly awakened at dawn by an argument between the loud owner of a tether-less mutt roaming through the tent-town and a conscientious Ranger.
"Come'ere, Joe," a woman yelled to her dog. "Come'ere, Joe, come'ere, Joe."
Then the Ranger's voice: "Ma'am, your dog should be on a leash. The park isn't even open yet and people are trying to sleep."
"Don't talk to me like I don't have my GED!" she snapped, and continued calling after Joe.
It was morning again in the city.
To read other fine yarns about New York City check out Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, www.mrbellersneighborhood.com.
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