How the Pandemic Got Me Into a Garden State of Mind

by | Sep 13, 2022

Illustration of a woman hiking a tree-lined waterfall.

Illustration by Wenjia Tang

“Why do they call it the Garden State?” I wonder aloud the first time my future husband takes me to his childhood home in Flemington.  

He waves out the window as we travel on Route 202. “There are horses and cows! And cornfields,” he says. It’s picturesque, but not enough to dislodge this New Yorker’s indelible idea of Jersey as little more than the gray Turnpike and Newark Airport sprawl.

A dozen years later, we’ve bought a house in Montclair—12 miles west of the Lincoln Tunnel and one door away from the NJ Transit commuter line. There’s the leafy Mills Reservation nearby, but our house shakes when the trains pass. We vacation down the Shore, where beach houses stand neck to neck on stilts, and the Garden State moniker still seems unearned.

It’s Covid-19 that finally removes my blinders. Banned from the gym and parks, I look out my suburban windows and wonder what adventures and exercise I might find without wandering too far from home. Early in the pandemic, we trail through autumn woods with our son and his fiancée, and our spirits lift. One-hour hikes around the South Mountain Reservation’s Hemlock Falls in West Orange turn into afternoons exploring dense paths and carriage roads, dogs in tow.

Friends and family learn our little pod is up for adventures and suggest new destinations, which is how we find ourselves staring open-mouthed at a warning sign posted at the gated entrance to Apshawa Preserve in West Milford. 

“That’s scary,” I say, grimacing at a huge photo of a ferocious black bear. 

We consider turning back, but what we’re really searching for is a day of forgetting we are scared to death of the virus, and so we go, singing loudly to keep the bears at bay. We feel braver for it when we reach the Butler Reservoir falls.

We take kayaks to the Paulinskill River, east of Marksboro, paddling and portaging over fallen trees until we can’t stand up from laughing. When winding country roads lead our less intrepid friends to panic, we’re not scared of the unknown—we’re excited. We plan outings further afield, and even wilder. 

“Not all who wander are lost,” we add to our mantra. 

We acknowledge what we cannot control by surrendering to the untamed woods of Warren and Sussex counties and the wilds of the Appalachian Trail. There’s the mossy glade where we find a swimming hole and never want to leave.

When Omicron prompts us to cancel our December trip to Sedona, my daughter and I explore the State Line Lookout in Alpine and hike the Palisades Park along the Hudson River. Then we discover Stokes State Forest in Sussex County, as deep and green as the Adirondacks.

“This isn’t what I expected,” I admit as we stand atop Buttermilk Falls in the glow of a Garden State sunset. “It’s better.”

Laurie Lico Albanese writes, hikes and plays pickleball in Montclair. Her new novel, “Hester,” comes out in October.

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* This article was originally published here