Whenever I'm in New York and have a little time on my hands, I grab a backpack and some maps and a compass and maybe some lunch and I hike through Times Square and up the stairs of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where I catch a bus out to the Meadowlands. The bus winds down the terminal's three-story ramp and dives into the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel, which surrounds the bus with darkness and thick gray exhaust until it spits it out on the other side. As the cars around us scramble to be the first onto the highways of New Jersey, the bus struggles up the eastern side of Bergen Hill, while the skyline of New York seems to shout at the bus's back and ask it where it's going. The leaves of the scraggly ailanthus trees wave in the wind of traffic as the bus passes through the cut in the red rocks that separate New York from New Jersey and the Meadowlands from the rest of the world. And then, in just a few minutes, as we drop down the other side of Bergen Hill and cruise into a low, flat land of lush grays and greens and pockets of rust and more and more circles of concrete, the bus seems to genuflect at the landscape before us. When the sky is clear, the water in the far-off creeks and rivers shines through the reeds like a sheet of aluminum foil that has been crumpled and then spread out again. When the sky is gray, the clouds mingle with the smokestacks' clouds of steam and smoke so that it is difficult to tell which is which.
After the bus courses down through cloverleafs, passing fields of cars waiting to pay tolls, turning onto smaller and smaller ramps and roads, and finally onto little local streets, I get out at the bus stop that is in a mall which was once an old cedar swamp, or at the stop in a grove of outlet stores, or maybe at one in the center of Secaucus. The bus can be empty or it can be crowded with people who are on their way to the discount shopping outlets in the Meadowlands or to the giant sports and entertainment complex that is also known as the Meadowlands, or even to the little towns and cities along the edges of what remains of the old swamp. These people go to the Meadowlands for a deal on a dress or a pair of slacks or for a good time or to go home and have dinner and go to bed, while I go to the Meadowlands to explore. When I leave the bus, I will often head for the towns around the edges of the swamp or for ancient industrial sites that are now rusting or fading away. In the cars on the highways all around me, or in the planes that take off from Newark Airport, people have packed their trunks or their backpacks or their carry-on luggage with travel books or maybe brand-new water-repellent hiking clothes or PowerBars and polypropylene underwear, and they are heading West to travel and explore. But I am creeping slowly back into the East, back to America's first West-making a reverse commute to the already explored land that has become, through negligence, through expoitation, and often through its own chaotic persistence, explorable again.
As often as not, when I head for the Meadowlands, I head for Snake Hill, which is a one-hundred-and-fifty-foot-tall rock that sticks up out of the very middle of the Meadowlands like a geological mistake. To get there I walk through downtown Secaucus, where I pass neat little homes and feel as if I startle each one. I pass some corporate headquarters and then warehouses and then a prison, at which point, with Snake Hill now before me, there is very little of anything to pass at all.
At the base of Snake Hill, the leaves of aspen trees quiver nervously in the breeze of the Hackensack River. The landscape is like something out of Arizona or the South Dakota Badlands; in the summer, squadrons of dragonflies and mosquitoes patrol the dry land over waves of heat. On weekends, teenagers sometimes ride motorbikes around Snake Hill, darting among the trees and climbing up its quarried carcass-their engines sound like chain saws- but on weekdays, after I pass the guards at the prison, no one is around, and the only sounds are of the wind in the reeds, and the occasional freight or passenger train, and the constant rush of traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike. Altogether, the chorus is a kind of wild industrial New Jersey sound track, which, unlike the environmental sounds of the Eastern forests and Pacific Coast whale migration routes, is not available on cassette or CD. It takes another half hour to climb the rocks to the top of Snake Hill. On the way up, I sneak through little dark forests and bushwhack through large wild fields of tall grass, both of which are nearly invisible from the highway. At the top, I can see for miles. To the north and west, a low ridge contains the area like a bowl with a lip made of little cities and towns. To the east, I can still see the Manhattan skyline, only now it is not shouting but whispering from behind another ridge. To the south, I can see past the refineries and their towers of smoke and flame, out past the boat-loading cranes that feed along the cargo-containered fields of the Port of Newark lie huge dark insects, out toward the Atlantic Ocean.
Before anyone ever stood on top of Snake Hill, the Meadowlands were a giant glacial lake that began receding in 8000 B.C. and still seems to be receding to this day. The glacier that cleared the way for what was eventually named Lake Hackensack was a mile thick, and it dumped boulders, rocks, clay, sand, and silt into what would have been a deep bay, so before the Meadowlands even became the Meadowlands it was a field of haphazardly assembled debris. As the lake's cold freshwater drained off and seawater crept in, the bottom of the lake changed into a swamp and then a bog, and then a salt water marsh, and then, in some places, a kind of combination of all three. It was a giant inland estuary, a brackish place where microscopic organisms rose from a stew of decomposed plants and animals and other microscopic life, whe ethe Hackensack River and the Passaic River were cleaned and purified and restocked with life-a hydrological kidney. When humans arrived in the Meadowlands, in about 10,000 B.C., they went from leaving huge piles of oyster shells to dumping increasingly poisonous wastes, from homes, then from workshops, then from factories. At one point very recently in its history, the Meadowlands was the largest garbage dump in the world.
Excerpted from The Meadowlands by Robert Sullivan. Copyright © 1999 by Robert Sullivan. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.