I loved living in New York City, but that place can fray the nerves.
Overcrowding makes everything, from grocery-shopping to walking down the street, a competition with some of the most intense and aggressive people in the world. I used to go to Trader Joe’s just after it opened so that I only had to wait in a line that snaked a quarter of the way around the store. On trips to visit my parents in quiet suburban Massachusetts, my ears felt like they were stuffed with cotton balls at night because I’d become so accustomed to metropolitan clamor. I once exchanged “fuck yous” with a perfect stranger, once looked down in a crosswalk to find a cockroach crossing the street with me like a very tiny, very dirty person. The incessant angry blaring of horns had a cumulative effect on the boiling of my blood some days, so that I was just plain angry when I got home at the end of the day, and the thick air turned the sill of my open window black. When my neighbors weren’t blasting bizarre europop music they were fighting, and when they weren’t fighting they were doing the opposite, loudly.
Obviously I found many wonderful things in the City, too, or I never would have lived there. But I owe much of the preservation of my sanity in those years to Central Park.
I lived less than a mile from the park (read: rent-stabilized apartment), an oasis gouged into the center of the most densely populated area in America. I worshipped it, I orbited it, I made excuses to cross it, I visited it whenever I could, and something magical and dramatic happened every time I crossed one of its thresholds: my hot blood immediately cooled and I could breathe properly. The park muffled the sounds of the city and smothered the smells with its own, the most pleasant of which were that of dirt, green growing things, and flowers (and least pleasant of which were horse piss and stagnant pond scum, but you can’t have everything). I felt more alone in the park than I did in my own apartment, because living in Manhattan is to never be alone. If you’re a textbook introvert like me, you understand the challenge in that.
It’s not easy to get to larger expanses of nature from NYC. Sure, you can ride the train an hour and a half up the Hudson for a hike in a town like Cold Springs, but a hundred New Yorkers may disembark with you– you might as well just add some trees to a Starbucks. You can rent a car to travel further afield, for a long weekend in the Adirondacks or Berkshires, but first you have to wait a couple hours at the tolls while your lungs fill with exhaust and your heart fills with disgust for your fellow man. I’d rather a sunny perch next to a turtle-filled pond in Central Park any day.
I now live in Lyon, France, a city that is not at all like NYC. I can’t buy a lightbulb at 3 am, the two “skyscrapers” just barely scrape the sky, and the bagels are tragic. But it is still a city, complete with pollution and concentrated humanity, things that have a compounding effect on stress. I would argue that any predominantly man-made environment strains the psyche in unquantifiable ways, and that even a small dose of untamed nature can have a rejuvenating effect. Lyon has a few lovely parks but, unlike New York City, it’s also less than two hours from a variety of mountains, forests, and farmland, none of them truly isolated, which allows for a low-commitment, relaxing escape (read: no tent required). It’s a quick and inexpensive train ride from casual (and not-so-casual, too, if you’re the type to own crampons and stuff) hiking experiences.
Which is perfect, because my personal outdoor-exercise drug of choice is: mountains.
There’s something especially centering about the magnitude of mountains, the straight-forward process of climbing them and standing at the top looking down at the land spread out around you. Mountains dwarf civilization and help put your human concerns into perspective. It’s similar, I think, to how people sometimes feel when they look up at a starry sky: insignificant, young, and ephemeral in the face of the ancient and infinite, but stunningly fortunate to have the privilege and ability to wonder at it. For me, hiking is even more humbling because of its physicality. You’re simultaneously reminded of your body’s limitations and of the force of your own will. The mountain doesn’t flinch, and it would be there without you, and it will be there without you. At the same time, there’s an immediacy to the experience in the creatures and plants making the mountain their home and thriving in their own fleeting moment.
It all inspires a kind of fatalist comfort– gratitude and a restoration of the ability to live in the moment. Not to mention the release of some really excellent endorphins, which apparently activate the brain’s opiate receptors (look it up, it’s true, your body knows how to get you a little bit high).
I think that the availability of green spaces is crucial to the happiness of a community’s residents. To mine, anyway. I need to remove myself from modern life once in a while, even if it’s just to what amounts to a very big patch of green bounded by gridded city blocks. It helps me slow down, appreciate what I have, and remember how little my ambitions and neuroses, successes and failures matter in the long run.