City Sanctuaries

Can't skip town this weekend? No problem

The Museum of Natural History, New York City     Photo: courtesy of the museum

I'M IN A HORRIBLE MOOD and I see no chances for improvement. Depression is climbing me like a strangler fig. Recently I read a piece on the op-ed page of The New York Times by Michael Paterniti, a fine writer and a past editor at this magazine, who says that the American road trip is dead. (This because of gas prices and other obvious reasons.) If the road trip is dead, so am I. Often the only thing that cheers me, here in densely populated suburban New Jersey, where I live, is the thought of driving straight to some unknown creek in Michigan or Montana and working my way so far up into the dog-hair pines that not even I can find me. Now that fantasy can no longer be played out in real life. Get used to it, Mr. Paterniti says.

If that's the case, I have one fallback. Sometimes the best I can do for physical consolation is to go into New York City and visit the Hall of North American Mammals in the American Museum of Natural History. For years I've been retreating there when longing overwhelms me. The Hall of American Mammals is dimly lit and echoing melodiously with grade-school groups. The animals in the exhibits are true works of art, beyond mere taxidermy, but what I come for even more is the landscapes—the American and Canadian and Mexican scenery in the exhibits' backgrounds. There's Mount McKinley behind the bighorn sheep, and the Kenai Peninsula around the Alaskan brown bears, and the immense horizontals of the Wyoming prairie in the American-bison-and-pronghorn-antelope exhibit.

A plaque on the wall lists the artists who painted the backgrounds. My favorite is one J.P. Wilson, about whom I know nothing but the name. J.P. Wilson seems to have specialized in subdued, brooding landscapes under darker skies. The wolf exhibit is his masterpiece. It is the darkest in the hall; it shows two wolves bounding along the margin of Gunflint Lake, in Minnesota's Boundary Waters, late on a winter night. A curtain of Northern Lights flickers behind them. The wolves have jumped a deer, whose fresh tracks you can see in the snow. They are looking in the direction the deer has run. A niche in the wall opposite the exhibit, maybe eight feet away, happens to be in the direct line of the wolves' gaze. You can sit in that niche on the marble floor in the museum's near dark and imagine yourself stranded and alone in the North Woods with only seconds to live before the wolves tear you apart. Here in the megalopolis, there are days when you'd be surprised how much better that can make you feel.

SEVEN MORE CITY SANCTUARIES

1. MOUNT AUBURN CEMETERY, BOSTON Climb to the top of the cemetery's 62-foot-tall Washington Tower for close encounters with red-tailed hawks and an unobstructed view of Boston's skyline.

2. THE HUNTINGTON LIBRARY, LOS ANGELES Twelve miles from downtown, the Huntington is a calm oasis with art collections and a 120-acre botanical garden.

3. LINCOLN PARK ZOO, CHICAGO While this haven for endangered wildlife, on the shore of Lake Michigan, greets the public at 9 a.m., the grounds open at day­break, making its 35 acres perfect for a wild morning run among rhinos and gorillas.

4. JAPANTOWN, SAN FRANCISCO Only a mile from Union Square, these six square blocks are loaded with authentic sushi bars, karaoke lounges, and gardens. Don't miss the Kabuki Springs bathhouse.

5. THE NOMAD WORLD PUB, MINNEAPOLIS At this hip, new West Bank watering hole, there's live music, ten beers on tap, and—the real draw—outdoor bocce courts.

6. DREAMY DRAW RECREATION AREA, PHOENIX Mountain-bike 60 miles of trails in this saguaro-studded preserve smack in the middle of the city, or scramble up to the 2,600-foot summit of Piestewa Peak.

7. THE BOATHOUSE AT FLETCHER'S COVE, WASHINGTON, D.C. Three miles upstream from the Lincoln Memorial, this 150-year-old D.C. landmark rents rowboats for floating and bass fishing on the Potomac River.

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