In New Jersey, It Yurts So Good

Watch your steppe: The yurts in Belleplain State Forest look alike, and squatting is discouraged.
Watch your steppe: The yurts in Belleplain State Forest look alike, and squatting is discouraged. (By Ben Chapman)
Belleplain State Forest
By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008

Evicted from a yurt in southern New Jersey -- how embarrassing. At least I wasn't traveling by yak.

The ouster was a simple misunderstanding, and fully my fault. Having arrived late at Belleplain State Forest the night before, I squatted in the first yurt I saw. The next evening, though, a park employee informed me that I had to move to my assigned lodging. I begged to stay -- I loved the lake views and encircling arbor; plus, all of my belongings were already stashed inside -- but it did no good. So I lugged my gear over two spots to, well, a nearly identical structure.

Since the time of Genghis Khan, yurts have been the mobile home of choice among nomadic cultures in Central Asia and Mongolia. Herders would roam endless miles of steppes in search of grassland, their round tentlike structures strapped onto beasts of burden. (This lifestyle prevails.) Constructed of a leather lattice frame and felt wool covers, the domiciles were easy to roll up, transport and reassemble.

My reason for visiting Belleplain was not to find good grazing in the Garden State -- I easily picked up canned spaghetti and water at a camp store down the road -- but for the novelty of sleeping in what looks like a giant muffin.

The park, about 30 miles north of Cape May, rents five yurts, which crowd together like a small village. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection acquired the quintet about five years ago, to "accommodate people who love to go camping in New Jersey," said spokeswoman Darlene Yuhas, as well as to expand the variety of camping options. (The park also offers campsites and lean-tos, basically cabins stripped bare.)

The structures, shaped like scaled-down circus tents, feature grasshopper-green vinyl covers that ward off the elements and three screened windows that let in breezes. A skylight frames the treetops and, at night, a sprinkling of twinkling stars. Furnishings are minimalist: two pairs of bunk beds and mattresses and . . . that's about it. Outside is cookout central, with a grill, picnic table, fire pit and an untamed landscape of oaks, poplar tulips and pines. Down a short path, a bathroom offers toilets, sinks, showers and much-craved electricity.

Though the yurts are already erected, some assembly is required. Mainly of the personal comfort kind. I had to organize my bedding (I built a queen-size bed by placing two bunk mattresses on the wood floor), start a fire for dinner and arrange all of my needs before darkness fell (extra blanket nearby? shoes clear of the pathway to the door?), when I would have to rely on a dinky flashlight and the moon for illumination. (In one moment of desperation, I did snap on my car's headlights.) Despite the prep work, the yurt wasn't nearly as labor-intensive as a tent. No poles, no dirt, no deflated ceiling.

"I like to be in the outdoors, but I don't want to deal with tents, bugs, the rain or cold," said Arlene Oley of Princeton, a birder from New Jersey who has been visiting Belleplain for more than 15 years. "And," her yurtmate, Sandra Escala, interjected, "you can stand up and put on your clothes without the usual gyrations." (Oley and Escala were inhabiting Yurt No. 1, and, yes, they were the reason I was turned out. But no hard feelings.)

Whereas I kept my yurt simple, the Jersey friends shared with me their interior-decorating tips. They hang lanterns from the latticework, creating a warm den glow, and set up a table and chairs for in-yurt dining and lounging. I peeked inside their habitat and secretly hoped for a dinner invitation if it started to rain. Indeed, the structures are big enough to accommodate a drop-in neighbor.

Belleplain State Forest gives visitors room to stretch and explore, without knocking oars or tripping over each other's hiking boots. During a morning hike near Lake Nummy, a former cranberry bog now used by swimmers, boaters, fisherfolk and waterfowl, my only human interaction was with an abandoned flip-flop. Trails twine through the park's 21,320 acres, part of the 1.1-million-acre New Jersey Pinelands. On a walk to the information center, I listened to the sweet arias of migratory birds, broken only by the belch of Canada geese.

The yurts are not the only interesting architecture around these parts. At Cape May Point State Park, for example, the 157-foot white lighthouse stands like a protective mother over beachgoers. Nearby, a World War II bunker hunkers down in the sand, an unfortunate smirch in the landscape.

For pretty, all I needed to do was set foot inside downtown Cape May, a National Historic Landmark since 1976. The scores of Victorian houses are sugary sweet with gingerbread trimming, princess turrets and ornate iron crestings, among other embellishments. The Mid-Atlantic Center for Fine Arts leads trolley tours of the neighborhood, which in 1878 was destroyed in an inferno and led to a mass reconstruction in the au courant Victorian style.

As we dizzily circled the blocks, our guide, Ginger, barely took a breath as she rattled off the names of homes, their frilly features and the fanciful histories that read like soap opera scripts. "They did a lot of moving houses in Cape May," she said, as we passed a home that had migrated from one street corner to another, then back. "You didn't buy a new house, you just put it in a new location."

After indulging in so much treacle, I started to miss my unadorned yurt, so basic yet so solid. Back in Belleplain, I went inside and started to organize my domain. I placed a flashlight at the head of my bed and opened one of the skylights. Those were all the flourishes I needed.

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