When people ask how long my commute is to New York City from the Poconos and I tell them it’s two hours one way, they look at me horrified.
“Two hours?!” they say. “That’s crazy!”
No, I will tell you what is crazy:
Paying rent for a postage stamp-sized apartment in New York City that is twice the amount or more than I do for my spacious house in the Poconos.
Or how about dealing with the traffic and congestion of city life?
The sidewalks on 8th Avenue in Manhattan are so crowded that I regularly walk in the street.
Then, of course, there is the city’s “wildlife.” I’m not talking about squirrels or pigeons — I’m talking about rats.
At night, they come up out of the sewer grates and swarm the garbage that is left curbside to be picked up in the morning.
I am not ashamed to admit that near one particular hive of rat activity, I hug the wall to be as far away from the trash as I can.
Then I run — and silently scream.
In Pike County, I can live in the woods with “real” wildlife: Bears, deer, raccoons, skunks, eagles, chipmunks, fox and humming birds, for instance.
The number of cars that pass my street on a single day I can count on one hand. The noisiest it gets is when the garbage truck comes by once a week.
In the city, the incessant wail of sirens of ambulances or fire trucks stuck in traffic pierces your brain like an ice pick driven into your ears.
Before you paint me as some kind of country hayseed, understand that I grew up in the Bronx in what were the very unglamorous ’70s.
I was a city kid through and through.
I recall making an overnight visit to a former Bronx neighbor who had moved to Long Island and not being able to sleep because it was too quiet.
And when I first moved out of the Bronx to a community in the Adirondack Mountains, I regularly visited the city as often as I could to take in its distinct aroma.
But as I’ve gotten older, I have come to appreciate the peace and quiet and privacy that comes with living in “the sticks.”
I’m not alone.
Nearby Monroe County, Pa., ranked among the top 10 extreme commutes in the country, according to a 2013 study by the Census Bureau. Just look at how many people take the commuter buses into Manhattan.
Those people have decided that the quality and affordability of life, schools and housing in Northeast Pennsylvania make the long commute worth the while.
Of course nothing can match New York City for its cultural offerings, food choices and diversity. And yes, areas of the Poconos have been hard hit with foreclosures, skyrocketing school taxes and a lack of high-paying jobs.
But it’s all a tradeoff.
I’ve heard the Poconos referred to as the “green prison” because of its woodlands, isolation and long winters.
I’d rather live in a green prison than a concrete jungle.
You know, as a parent, you can be wracked with self-doubt and anxiety about what kind of job you’ve done raising your kids.
Did you instill in them the right values? How do they treat others? Do they respect themselves?
Will they only remember the stupid things you did wrong when they were younger?
Did you give them enough support? Did you not give them enough?
My “boys” have just turned 23 and 18.
The older one is on his own after graduating from college last year. He’s a manager-in-training in the hospitality industry, working for a major hotel chain and making more money than his old man did right out of college.
He’s living independently, owns a car, buys his own groceries, is well-regarded by his co-workers and really enjoys his work.
The younger son just graduated from high school, has been a stellar student and an even more stellar friend to his wide circle of friends, has held a number of offices in school groups and activities and will be working four summer jobs.
So, yeah, I think the kids are all right.
And if I needed any more affirmation about whether they learned the right things, I turn for some comfort to this essay my younger son wrote last year:
Ten years ago, my family moved from the streets of New York to the wilderness of the Poconos.
With it, came many challenges such as dealing with the extreme winters. My father, being conscious of this, made a rule that my brother and I had to abide by: wear your boots to school.
After the first month of winter, wearing my boots to school every day became tiresome and uncomfortable.
Becoming irritated by the bulky footwear, I decided to do something about it.
One night, I put my Nike sneakers in a plastic bag and placed them in the backseat of my dad’s car.
The next morning, I put on my boots, as instructed, and got into my dad’s car to head to the bus stop.
In the three-minute ride from my house to the bus stop, I quietly changed from my boots to my sneakers. I then proceeded to board the bus with pride in the chicanery I just pulled off.
Later that morning, my dad found the infamous boots sitting on the floor in the backseat of his car.
Safe to say he was displeased. In the grand scheme of things, it was just one day I didn’t wear my boots.
However, in that same day I did learn that Nike sneakers do not have favorable insulation. In fact, I did not wear my sneakers again until the following March.
The clunkiness of the boots was worth the warmth they gave me. I was fortunate to learn from this situation at a young age that I am not always right.
It was at that moment I realized that there are people who know me better than I know myself — and those people are my parents.
I got married on July 4, 2010, to Meg, who is gorgeous, tall and fiercely, fiercely bright.
I was then and continue now to be one lucky guy. Talk about marrying up…
The wedding itself was a relatively easy event compared to getting engaged.
Meg loves waterfalls and what better setting than in the Poconos of Pennsylvania to find a waterfall where I could propose?
Ring? Got it.
Knowing what I was going to say? Pretty well rehearsed.
Finding a waterfall. The Poconos is dotted with them, so I figured this all should be easy-peasy.
But our route to getting engaged had a few detours along the way.
My plan was for Meg and I to go exploring the countryside for a “unique” waterfall, that is, one that we had not visited together or one that we had not seen in some time.
Meg recalled a waterfall at the estate of Marie Zimmermann, who was famous for her metal works and jewelry design and who had a home and farm in what is now the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in the Poconos.
We can head there and then I can pop the question. And how perfect that Zimmermann was known for jewelry and I have a ring to offer.
Surely this was a good sign, right?
Except that Meg could not recall where exactly the Zimmermann estate was. She had been there many years earlier with a friend.
Maybe it was this way.
Maybe it was in the other direction.
Or maybe …
Of course, we were in West Nowhere and there was no cell service to be had so looking something up on our smartphones was not an option.
Throughout though, Meg was carefree and enjoying the pretty scenery and pleasant drive.
As for me, I was getting a major case of flop sweat from nervousness about popping the question and anxiety about finding a waterfall.
This went on for the better part of an hour.
By this point, I was ready to pull over, get on bended knee, use a watering can for a waterfall and declare mission accomplished.
We pressed on if for no other reason than we both were now motivated — for different reasons — to find a waterfall, damnit!
I recently tried one of those newly popular “escape room” attractions and let’s just say Houdini I am not.
If you enjoy puzzles, thinking on your feet and working with others under pressure, you will have a thrilling time.
With its hidden clues and riddles to solve, being in an escape room is like playing a real-life version of “Scooby-Doo,” except at the end you are not unmasking the caretaker as the villain who dressed up as a ghost to scare those damn meddling kids away.
For those unfamiliar with escape rooms, here’s the concept: You are locked in a room with your teammates (in my case, three friends) filled with props, decorations and furniture.
You scour the room for clues, which can take the form of scraps of paper with numbers or words, which in turn send you to other clues, and so on.
Finding the key (or the combinations for the locks) required using math, looking at messages that could only be seen under a black light, and relying on our smarts to solve problems.
You have to think creatively – and fast.
There are different themes for each room. In my case, my friends and I played “Classified.” The room had a Middle Eastern feel to the décor.
(My wife and younger son and I recently played at a different escape room in the Poconos and in that one the premise was we awoke to find ourselves locked in a cabin in the woods. That room featured a bearskin rug and deer’s head on the wall.)
In the “Classified” room, the orientation video described our team as being covertly inserted into hostile territory. We had 60 minutes to deduce the time, date and place of a terrorist attack.
Failure on our part meant the terrorist would win.
We had three “free” clues, that is, clues that would be given to us and not count against our time. For every additional clue given, we would have minutes added to our time.
If you ever played the highly addictive computer game “Myst” from years ago, you will have an idea of how immersed you can get into an escape room. Secret passageways, enticing clues and cryptic messages were all there.
And much like the hit TV series “24,” there was a monitor with a countdown clock showing how much time we had left.
As we progressed and the time ticked away, we grew more frenetic.
“Go over there!”
“Where is the flashlight?!”
“What was that clue again?!”
We had three of the four elements solved: The date, the place and the hour of the attack but we could not determine the minutes after the hour.
My heart was pounding. The mission was at stake!
In the end, we came really, really close but we failed.
Jack Bauer would have disowned us, but we had a helluva good time!
I am a mere Padawan to Mike, a Master Jedi of the outdoors.
On this day, Mike is hunting deer with a compound bow. Me? I am armed with a smartphone and a recorder.
This time of year is the beginning of the “chase” season. It’s the prequel to the full-on, raging-hormone-fueled rut in which male deer will range for miles seeking a one-night stand.
Before we set out, Mike inventories various noise-making devices, including a bundle of sticks in a bag that he rubs between his palms. The noise, which mimics the sound of two bucks banging antlers for territory, is designed to arouse their curiosity and draw them closer.
As Mike outfits me in a camo jacket, he explains that he washes his hunting gear in special fragrant-free detergent. He sprays us, including the bottom of our boots, with a scent-killing spray.
“The key to deer hunting is beating their nose,” he says.
The sounds of our feet kicking through fallen leaves and the sight of our breath, illuminated by our headlamps, are the only things disturbing the predawn stillness of the forest.
We stop and Mike takes out a long cord called a drag rope. At its end are thick strands that he dips into a small bottle of pungent deer estrus.
I drag the rope behind me to mask our scent and leave an inviting, c’mere-big-boy smell for bucks. The aroma of doe pheromone faintly clings to my clothes.
I learn a lot about deer habits from Mike. It’s all very “Wildlife: CSI.”
He points to telltale signs of deer activity that I walked right past: a clearing where bucks scraped away leaves and dirt and urinated to mark their territory or where one rubbed his antlers against a tree, stripping away some of the bark.
We’re in our perches by 6:22 a.m., a solid hour before sunrise. Although we are above the sight and scent lines of the deer, “it doesn’t mean you can sing and dance up there,” Mike says.
So I try to remain as still as possible. Hunting is not for the fidgety.
I hear the thrum of traffic from nearby Route 402. I also swear that several times I hear the heavy movement of leaves, as if something was approaching, but nothing ever appears in my line of sight.
Mike tells me later that with the way sound travels in the stillness of the woods, a deer or bear a distance away could have been passing through and it would have sounded like it was over my shoulder.