Somewhere in the swamps of Jersey

Close to home.

The head of the Mill Creek Marsh Trail is in a Kohl’s parking lot. I’d call that peak Jersey, if everything else about Jersey wasn’t also peak Jersey; we sustain long peaks here. It’s also telling that no matter how far you press into the swamp, you’ll never lose sight of the Turnpike or the Secaucus utilities complex. This is the back half of Hudson County: the part with the brackish water and the flat big-box stores, the plumbing, the power-generation, and the transport. I’ve always found it a rewarding place to explore.

Although I knew it was there for many years, I’d never been to the Mill Creek complex of footpaths. That’s mostly because the Marsh Trail is difficult to reach by bicycle. To get to the Kohl’s and the Marsh Trail, you’ve got to contrive a way of crossing Route 3 and Route 495, which is a dicy thing to do even if you’re in a car. Technically, Secaucus shares a border with Jersey City, but it’s a doozy, a boundary reinforced by the swamps, the gooey Penhorn Creek, the great industrial car-parks and repositories of truckloads of stuff, the Fedex and Goya complexes, and the infamous Highway 1-9, the most unforgiving stretch of road in the galaxy. If I were a marsh bird, I imagine it would be a snap to get from the reedy banks of the Hudson to the mud flats on the Hackensack. Traveling to Secaucus reminds me that I don’t have wings.

It also reinforces my feelings of vulnerability. Over the past few months, busy as it’s been with talk of quarantines and border-crossings, and aspersions cast in our direction by loudmouth governors who don’t want Jersey people infecting their states, it’s occurred to me, many times, that it would be a simple thing to isolate Jersey City. All the authorities would have to do is close a couple of bridges and barricade a couple of roads. We’d never get out.

Secaucus seemed like a smart answer to the questions posed by the day yesterday: sun out and sixty degrees, some restrictions relaxed, Jersey City parks likely jammed, Hilary’s little green car waiting on the street, undriven and unloved for two long weeks. We didn’t want to travel too far; Mill Creek, at fifteen minutes away, felt reasonable. George had sent a good article by a Massachusetts doctor that broadly reinforced many of the points made by Jonathan Kay and Muge Cevik, and further suggested that our chances of catching the coronavirus from a passerby on a trail was low. A brush up against a stranger on a path through the reeds might not necessarily be the end of us.

As it turned out, there was no reason to worry. Besides the birds and the bugs, most of the trails through the marshes were blissfully empty. We passed a few other people on the red gravel pathways, many of whom were walking dogs or watching birds or just stretching their legs after long weeks indoors, but nearly everybody was masked, and absolutely everybody took the distancing suggestions seriously. One of the things that has infuriated me about the discourse I’ve heard from distant quarters is the implication that Hudson County is under a fascist lockdown — that we’ve had masks put on our unwilling faces by government fiat, and robots are prying us apart. This couldn’t be more wrong. We are voluntarily taking steps to avoid hurting our neighbors. For us, it’s never been a question of individual liberties. Nobody has had to twist our arms. We’ve just needed to be properly informed. We’ve taken the initiative to protect what we’ve got, and we’ll continue to do so, even if the authorities attempt to reopen prematurely. We would like to get back to the life we knew as soon as we can, because it was one well worth living. Even as my embarrassment about being an American has grown, I feel a great upwelling of New Jersey pride. I didn’t think we’d show as much dignity and restraint as we have. I was wrong to doubt my neighbors. Mill Creek Marsh Trail was not policed, but we all knew what to do, and what not to do.

We were there to take in the scenery, and nobody was going to be the ruin of anybody else’s day. Imagine a latticework of narrow, tree-lined paths through mud flats dotted with dried tree stumps; then, imagine the New Jersey Turnpike right over the barrier of reeds. Parts of the landscape were flat and greasy as a cookie sheet, while other parts were undulations of grass and moss. The trails and footbridges aren’t the maze that they seem to be at first, so even if a visitor couldn’t orient herself by the highway, she’d never get lost. Birds were general. I saw, among other little fellows, a finch so yellow I thought it had been spray-painted, a few egrets with their webbed feet in the shallows, and a mother duck leading a line of ducklings from the mud to a brackish rivulet. They all looked happier in the water.

On the way back, signs on 1-9 continued to warn us off the road. Flatten the curve, not your tire, we were told, and that seemed like a bit more of a threat than I wanted to encounter. We get the picture. We’ll take our excursions sparingly, and maybe even responsibly. At the big box restaurants, patrons queued up in the parking lots, six feet apart, to pick up Mother’s Day dinner. Scores of masked people waited in their cars in front of the Olive Garden for their names to be called; they’d go and get what they came for, as gingerly as they could, and return home to their families. Everybody still needs to celebrate. We’re doing it as cautiously as we can. But we’re doing it.