In the darkest, most isolated point of 2020 I had vivid dreams. Maybe this is because so much of my life that winter was confined to my house, and my brain needed to travel to new and exciting places beyond our walls.
What did I dream most consistently about? New York City.
I walked through people-filled streets, ducked into restaurants and bars, met up with friends, took the subway, wandered museums, and inhabited cozy apartments. I didn’t mind the horns, whooshes, rattles, beeps and hammering that form a constant din throughout the city. It meant life. It meant many people, together.
New York represented the opposite of what I was going through: it felt connected, unpredictable, crowded, chaotic and full of possibility and novelty.
At the time, of course, actual New York City was not a fun place to be. With heavy public health restrictions in place, for a time many New Yorkers were essentially trapped in their apartments. Many fled north to the Catskills, which is basically the upstate equivalent of Alaska.
Meanwhile I had freedom of movement and all the outdoors I could get, and I spent my dreaming hours hanging out in a city I suddenly sorely missed.
Last week, I finally visited NYC for the first time since the pandemic. Since life has once again picked up speed since the first round of vaccines, I haven’t dreamed about it much since those early COVID days. But booking the trip and tickets was still exhilarating. I was particularly excited about going with my husband, who is an outdoors junkie like me but also generally an ardent appreciator and explorer. He’d only ever visited NYC once for a whirlwind couple of days, and I had this idea in my head about the two of us wandering around New York together discovering things.
I’ve always said that I had a hard time choosing between NYC and Alaska, because both satisfied different needs of mine: to be in the middle of absolutely everything, and to be in the middle of absolutely “nothing,” i.e., vast, open, wild.
What this trip taught me is how similar the two places actually are.
My husband and I were on the same page about how to approach the trip. Before we went, we listed out a sketch of our respective bucket lists for New York to get a sense of the “anchor” destinations/activities. We listed things like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Met, eating great food and finding good cocktails, running through a park, etc.
Each day we picked one activity to serve as the primary destination and focal point. Just one, because the city itself is so overwhelming that there’s no need to pile on logistics and stress if you can avoid it. Before and after that one “anchor,” we wandered and decided as we went.
This brought us to the Whitney Museum of Art — focal point — the West Village/Washington Square Park, the West Side Highway pathway and Chelsea Market. We chose the Met as our primary activity the following day. But before the museum stop, we managed to eat ramen for breakfast in Dumbo and walk over the Brooklyn Bridge into Chinatown. Later, we went through Central Park and down to the East Village for a fabulous progressive dinner of small plates at amazing, unassuming restaurants.
It sounds like a lot, right? But the approach of picking just the one known and then otherwise wandering our way around the city meant that it was just one long series of impromptu experiences unfolding for us. We had no particular place we needed to be. We just accessed the city as it happened, taking it in.
Just like so much of Alaska is a testament to the wonder of nature left largely intact and to its own devices, NYC is a living, breathing embodiment of human ingenuity. Walking the Chelsea High Line, for instance, we reflected on what it took to have the vision to convert this old rail line to the beautiful and incredibly popular elevated walking path and experience that it is today. Seeing the city from that vantage point, there is an incredible concentration of old and new architecture, people walking, living, and working all over, even the cars and cabs racing down the avenues and beeping their cacophony in the constant movement toward “somewhere.”
Yet, even with all this coexisting in such a small area, there was cohesion. NYC is bound together by that New York-ness of it all, which is concrete, but also water, trees, glass, art, food, giant bags of trash on the street ready for pickup, the variability of weather, storefronts, spires, trailers, and — the true heart of the city — the crush of people that inhabit the place.
There are enough people that no one gives each other a second glance. That’s a good and a bad thing sometimes, but if you’re looking to exist as yourself in a city with enough people that you can both come exactly as you are while also blending into the general humanity of it all, NYC is the place.
I realized that Alaska and NYC are both wild in their own, very different yet also connected ways. They are both extreme, full of life, inspiring, completely over the top, surprising, and brutal. All these years I thought they were complete polar opposites, but it turns out that exact opposites sometimes punch through to resemble each other. NYC is no exception.
No wonder I dreamed of this place in 2020. Experiencing it again was everything I dreamed of. Even with so much change in the city, the essence of it felt the same — which is to say, never the same.