By Lawrence Krayn and Gary Sprengel
Lawrence: I knew this was going to be a trip into the uncharted when Gary took the old paper road map out. We were leaving White Mana Hamburgers on the outskirts of Jersey City, turning past hidden industry and heading out under bridges and power lines into sprawling meadows. A Harrison native, he was more experienced with territories east of the Passaic River. I enjoyed the excursion and came away with a vastly new perspective on an oft-discussed but little explored region of New Jersey.
One of the reasons I’d always attest to Newark’s prime location has been its relatively easy access to the highway systems that lead up into the mountains or down toward the shore. What had consistently slipped my mind, though, were the Meadowlands. Acres upon acres of natural wetlands right in Newark’s backyard. Like the many Jersey industrialists before us, I think many take this habitat for granted, seeing it as just an empty space for bridges and rail lines en route to some dense urban destination. But this space really is beautiful in its own way, deserves preservation, and is worth a day’s hike so close to home. I say this especially to those of us who appreciate Jersey, and the Newark area, for what it is: beautifully imperfect in its timeless natural grit.
Our trek brought us through an abandoned 19th century settlement (intentionally overgrown and obstructed), across acres of water by way of narrow trails protruding into otherwise impassable wetlands through Richard DeKorte Park, marked with signs detailing native wildlife and a Superstorm Sandy-damaged visitor’s center haunting its landscape.
This was not a nature hike in the way one through the Pinelands or northwestern mountains might be. Only yards from congregating birds and the quiet whisper of a breeze through seven-foot grass were trucks speeding across the turnpike. Beyond signs warning of toxic fish swimming in innocuous looking pools, the Newark and Manhattan skylines loomed silently. Rusted railroad bridges and the remnants of wooden fortifications lay scattered across the landscape. A serene grass-covered hill was actually a repurposed landfill, and many paths into the water had originated as access points to massive rows of power lines.
It was all a jarring change in perspective. What had been my whole life a minor backdrop to major highways and cities, now appeared to me to be the dominant space. Cities, highways, and decaying rail lines were only minor human advancements into unconquered nature. I was even a bit jealous of two New Yorkers who got onto wave-runners by way of a rickety pier and headed out into the marsh toward the Newark skyline, exploring places we couldn’t go.
I’d recommend that Newarkers take a day to venture out into this underrated industrialized wilderness, and explore some of the areas we did.
Gary: Larry and I started in Secaucus in the area known colloquially as Snake Hill in Laurel Hill County Park. A bit obvious, but it got its name because legend says it used to be overrun with snakes. Amusingly, Larry spied a tiny one on our walk that we couldn’t decide whether was alive or dead. I’d been here once before many years ago and was anxious for a fresh perspective. Two friends and I had triumphantly scaled this jagged volcanic rock protruding out of the swamp, so Larry and I were frustrated to realize there was no easy way to do this anymore. Graffiti and an American flag were at the peak, but we couldn’t figure out how to get there. We ultimately realized that the construction of High Tech High School, completed in 2018, had made it more difficult to easily scale this fascinating Hudson County anomaly. Luckily, the park had many other nooks and crannies to satiate our exploration needs.
Snake Hill has had many intriguing uses over the years. Its location made it an appealing place to hide society’s less desirable, whether it be criminals, the very sick, elderly, or mentally ill. There was a prison, various infectious disease hospitals, an almshouse, and the Hudson County Lunatic Asylum. No, I don’t think that name would fly today. Scores of buildings occupied this land, some of whose weedy brick remnants are still visible. Then there are the bodies. Roughly 4,500 bodies were discovered in a potter’s field when the Turnpike began building their 15X interchange. They were disinterred and reburied in Hackensack, but it is highly likely that many more souls still lie unknown under the Turnpike.
The land that surrounds Snake Hill has become a very appealing respite for urban dwellers. Various recreation fields, playgrounds, and multiple walking paths exist between the hill and Hackensack River, the muffled sounds of traffic and train whistles a subtle reminder of the concrete jungle nearby. There are plenty of places to forge your own path, too, as Larry and I did around the hill’s periphery. One of the coolest things we did was explore a small section of an old discontinued rail line that is slated to become the Essex-Hudson Greenway. Governor Murphy just announced that NJ has officially acquired the nine miles of land from Montclair to Jersey City. I nervously watched as Larry gingerly stepped on the decaying wood of an old rail bridge over the Hackensack, but we will hopefully be able to safely stroll or bike across it one day in the not-too-distant future.
We eventually made our way westbound on Route 3 to Richard DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst to explore an oasis I’ve enjoyed for years now. After going down a very desolate Valley Brook Avenue, you finally come to the park’s entrance. You have your pick of multiple trails that take you deep into the meadows, one of which practically ends on the Turnpike. The park has also become a favorite of birders, ever-present with binoculars and a camera. Part of this park used to be a landfill until remediation and construction started in the 1980s to repurpose the land for public use. The first time I realized such splendor existed in my own backyard was when my cousin had his wedding reception in the now shuttered octagonal visitor’s center; you can still get married outside in a gazebo.
It was such a thrill for me to get Larry east of the Passaic and introduce him to the contemplative urban meadows familiar to me my entire life. Whenever I need to quickly get away from it all, the Meadowlands are my go-to destination. Put on your best walking shoes and bring bug spray and suntan lotion if you’re going in the warmer months, but I also highly recommend going when it’s covered in snow and ice; the desolation of the winter amongst the reeds is something to behold. No matter what month you go, though, you’ll come away from the visit with your soul nourished and a newfound respect for the oft-maligned Sopranos corridor of North Jersey.
Lawrence Krayn Jr. is a Newark resident and lifelong New Jerseyian. He graduated from Rutgers University-Newark with a B.A. degree in Political Science and received his J.D. at Rutgers Law School-Newark. A practicing attorney by day, Larry spends much of his spare time engaging in creative projects. He sees Newark as a vibrant hub for the arts, and is an avid fan of various local creators. He has been a musician for many years under the moniker “IL Lusciato”, and hosts a weekly live podcast on current events, entitled “The Logic and Larry Podcast”. Whether fiction or non-fiction, his writing is heavily influenced by his immediate surroundings and his own life experiences.
Gary Sprengel is a Harrison native who fled to Amish Country, PA to obtain his BA in communications from Elizabethtown College. He enjoys photography, craft beer, wandering urban landscapes, and country music. He wrote dating blogs under a pseudonym for about a year and was once pulled onstage by Don Rickles in Atlantic City. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @garysprengel
Featured image by Lawrence Krayn