"I guess you could say that my life-long history of road-tripping started in the Meadowlands," he said. "It started out by trying to figure out how to beat traffic in a way that was kind of cool."
Sullivan's quest for cool put him on the road to the start of a literary hot streak. Since 1998, Sullivan has written an eclectic series of books that began with The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of the City, an extremely detailed observation of the region replete with tales of the mayhem and magic that can be found along the Hackensack River. His latest book, Cross Country, tells the story of cross-country road trip that the author made with his family that becomes a rumination on what is now a nation of roads.
Interstates leave drivers one step removed
A major facet of Cross Country is the rise of the Interstate highway system in post World War II America and its effects on its cities and culture. Two major local highways serve as examples of how both highways and the way drivers see the country have changed.
"The New Jersey Turnpike is amazing to me," Sullivan said. "The bridge near Snake Hill in Secaucus over the Hackensack River is designed so you can't see the river. It's designed to minimalize the landscape. The difference when you cross the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers on the Pulaski Skyway instead of the Turnpike is the difference between seeing an old Super-8 film and taking a jet plane across. The Pulaski Skyway is a very sensual experience. When I drive across the Pulaski Skyway, I fell like I'm on a roller coaster, and in the very middle I'm driving through the belly of a whale. On the Turnpike, which was one of the first modern super-highways in the country, I feel like I have to stretch and reach and risk my life to enjoy the view. That's what happened to the rest of the country. Highways in general became all about the car and are no longer public places where humans still interact. Now we just interact with road rage or hopefully with kind blinker usage."
A slow-road alternative
Sullivan has recently been advocating an alternative to superhighways. "I'm trying to start a slow-road movement," he said. "All around the county states are saying that to get rid of congestion, we don't want to build more roads because that just makes more congestion. We're also out of money to maintain these giant highways. Maybe we should figure out ways to build more pleasant roads, roads that you want to stop and get out and live and do business along."
As someone who has spent a lot of time driving around, Sullivan is starting to see alternatives being created.
"We've spent the last 50 years building roads that will precede demand that end up making demand for land. Another way to go is to retrofit roads. The Secaucus train station is in a way a kind of retrofit. They are saying we have a lot of use of this train station, so let's build on this using mass transit. I just read how development has picked up on the Hudson-Bergen light-rail corridor. People are moving to a place because of mass transit. That's completely the opposite of the Interstate idea. People are so fed up with sitting in their cars, and that is combining with the fact that people can no longer afford to sit in their cars. In the time you sit in your car listening to two songs on the radio, the price of gas has gone up another $12."
Anyone who has driven on the highways that lace through Secaucus knows that bigger isn't always better.
"I always remember Mayor Just of Secaucus taking about the trip on Route 3. It could take days to cross the river during rush hour, but if you take one of the plank roads, the trip ends up weirdly being quicker. Superhighways don't care. They think they're really super, but they're not really super."
Road trip suggestions
For anyone who wants to see the Meadowlands from a unique road perspective, Sullivan has a few suggestions.
"For a great adventure, take Fish House Road down underneath the Pulaski Highway," he said. "Then you've got to get up back up on the Pulaski Skyway and drive back and forth across it once or twice or maybe three times. That's just the most excellent view. You can see up north into the meadows, and then you look down into Newark Bay, which is just this huge inland sea that people forget about. Then you can imagine Newark Airport not as an airport, but as just beautiful reeds with soft sunset light shining down on it."
In Sullivan's eyes, there is always a glow about the Meadowlands.
"We had it so backwards," he said. "The Meadowlands turned out to be such an important place. The swamps are the ecological intestines that are cleaning and regenerating everything. People want to live in the Meadowlands after the mass pollution of the 1940's and 1950's. People want to run eco-tourism companies around here. This means that there is hope for the Meadowlands and hope for everywhere that we can get it straight. You just need more and more people to see it."
The subjects of Sullivan's work since he wrote about the Meadowlands are quite diverse, but for the author there is a unifying theme.
"It's all about looking at something that people think is banal or meaningless or not worth considering and convince them that's not the case," he said. "A person, place or thing like that can be great."