Studying 'Big Sky Country East' Meadowlands: Five miles west of the Empire State Building lies a 10,000-year-old marsh that has yielded up plenty of surprises -- but so far, no trace of Jimmy Hoffa.


November 18, 1998|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Some people are content to look at the world from the top of Mount McKinley or the bottom of the sea. Others find satisfaction traversing the Appalachian Trail or exploring Death Valley.

Robert Sullivan's passion is the New Jersey Meadowlands, a barren and reedy, wind-swept marshland, home to mosquitoes so large they have been called New Jersey's state bird. It is celebrated as the imagined resting place of the vanished union boss Jimmy Hoffa and for the ripe aromas of the Secaucus pig farms of bygone days. And it is only five miles from the Empire State Building.

Sullivan, 35, author of the recently published "The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventure at the Edge of a City," finds beauty and occasional treasure in a place that people rush through by train, car or bus "on their way to the rest of America."

As a teen-ager growing up in nearby Madison, N.J., Sullivan was entranced by the 32-square-mile former glacial lake and cedar forest. While on trips with friends to sporting events or rock concerts in New York, he often left the main roads that cross the Meadowlands to explore its muddy roads and streams.

He lives in Portland, Ore., with his wife and two children, but he has not outgrown his enthusiasm for the 10,000-year-old marsh.

"When I moved west, I couldn't stop thinking about it," Sullivan says in an interview from the West Coast. "I used to say, 'Oregon is nice, but it's not New Jersey.' While the Cascades are OK, I really missed that classical industrial New Jersey look.

"I missed the Pulaski Skyway, the garbage piles, the Newark Bay, the Kearny Marsh and Manhattan skyline," he says. "It's just not as loved as other places on earth. But because it's not the Grand Canyon, it doesn't make it any less interesting."

Sullivan spent years hiking and canoeing through the 30,000-acre swampland -- part wilderness, part industrial. No skyscrapers or tall buildings obscure a view that includes the skyline of Manhattan, so Sullivan dubs the Meadowlands "Big Sky Country East." "I used to say to myself, what is this place and how swampy is it really?" he says.

His hiking equipment includes a pair of L. L. Bean duck-hunting boots, a compass, maps, drinking water, a blanket and "10 other essentials I can't remember."

For a time, the Meadowlands had the unsavory reputation of being the largest garbage dump in the world. During the 1970s, it was taking in garbage at the rate of about 11,000 tons a day. A 1978 federal report described the area as a "swampy, mosquito-infested jungle where rusting auto bodies, demolition rubble, industrial oil slicks and cattails merge in an unholy, stinking union."

But in this world of abandoned cars, used tires and benzene-scented pools crisscrossed by some of the nation's busiest highways, Sullivan found an odd and somewhat unexpected tranquillity and beauty.

From the top of Snake Hill, a 150-foot-high rock pile jutting up from the middle of the Meadowlands, where once there was a Gothic-looking psychiatric hospital, now torn down, Sullivan could see across the huge cranes of Port Newark to lower New York Harbor and out to the Atlantic Ocean.

He could trace with his eye the railroad lines and highways bisecting the meadows and watch the Hackensack and Passaic rivers twist and turn on their ways to the sea -- all to the background hum of "a wild New Jersey industrial soundtrack" consisting of the New Jersey Turnpike, freight and passenger trains and the airplanes landing and taking off from Newark Airport.

In and around the Meadowlands, Sullivan discovered black-crowned night herons, pied-billed grebes, 18 species of ladybugs, snapping turtles, carp, muskrats, sandpipers, pheasants, rabbits and plenty of rats.

During his perambulations, he has gotten to know such characters as Anthony Malanka, owner of a Meadowlands dump; Victor Deserio, known as the "Mosquito King" for his job as inspector for the New Jersey Mosquito Control Association; and Leo Koncher, 83, a retired machinist who has lived in the Meadowlands all his life.

Koncher, says Sullivan, is the inventor of a marsh-walking shoe that allows him to traverse the spongy surface in search of pirate gold reportedly buried there during the 1700s. The shoes are attached to the inverted bottoms of plastic buckets secured to plastic milk crates creating a variation on the snowshoe. The shoes keep him from sinking into the muck of the swamp.

Drawn by the persistent legend that the body of Hoffa rests somewhere in the Meadowlands, Sullivan, like others, has spent time searching for the remains of the former head of the Teamsters union, who vanished from a Michigan parking lot in 1975. Sullivan and his boyhood friend, Dave Diehl, who illustrated the book and shares his passion for the Meadowlands, didn't find Hoffa, so they "started digging for Pennsylvania Station as a consolation prize."

The huge New York railroad station, modeled on the Roman Baths of Caracalla, once sprawled over 28 acres of Manhattan. Its destruction and unceremonious dumping in the Meadowlands 1964 brought cries of outrage from newspapers and architectural preservationists. Someday, Sullivan fancies, archaeologists excavating the Meadowlands will wonder why a piece of Rome was buried in New Jersey.

After several false starts, Sullivan and Diehl found pieces of the station's beautiful granite columns and chipped off several hunks for souvenirs.

Sullivan continues to make excursions to the Meadowlands whenever he returns to the New York area, and he always discovers something new.

"I went back to the Meadowlands this summer and found a Grateful Dead tape," he says. "It just fascinated me how it got there."

Pub Date: 11/18/98

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