Another hurricane, another road trip. This time it was Superstorm Sandy that provided me the opportunity to visit the East Coast. I spent the majority of my time in New Jersey.
On my first day, a sign enticed me to leave the interstate and visit “historic” Mount Holly. I’m a sucker for anything that refers to itself as historic, but I’m also realistic, because I know that finding something truly historic, as well as interesting, is about as rare as finding a People Magazine without a Kardashian on the cover. But as it turned out, Mount Holly actually is historic. Its origins can be traced back to 1688. Hessian soldiers were garrisoned there during the American Revolution, and much of the architecture is from that era. It was well worth taking the detour.
Tuesday found me in Freehold, where I met John and Jo, an elfin couple in their middle sixties whose home had some damage from the hurricane. John has a collection of bumper stickers from radio stations all over America, and he is very proud of it. One entire room of his home is devoted to his bumper stickers, which cover all four walls like a patchwork quilt. On one wall I noticed a framed shirt that was autographed by Chubby Checker. John told me that many years ago he was a background dancer in Chubby Checker’s show.
After saying goodbye to John and Jo, I drove northwest to Princeton. It did not take me long to find what I was looking for – Princeton University. When I was a boy dreaming of the day I would go to college, I had a picture in my mind of what my college would look like. As I strolled around the campus in the afternoon sun, I realized that Princeton was the college in my daydreams.
As I walked the grounds where Woodrow Wilson and Albert Einstein had walked before me, I studied the faces of the young people hurrying between classes, and I wondered if they appreciated how fortunate they are to attend what is often considered the finest university in America. In all, I was on campus for less than forty-five minutes, but afterward I felt I had become a little smarter, and a bit more worldly, just by virtue of being there. Think how much improved I would be after four full years. It boggles the imagination.
On Wednesday a Nor’easter kept me indoors, but on Thursday I was out and about again. I had to go to Pennsylvania, so I chose a route that took me through Burlington, N.J. on the Delaware River. I had hoped to find some well preserved history there, but I didn’t, or maybe I was off my game and just didn’t see it. That happens sometimes. I did find St. Mary’s Church on the south end of Broad St., so it wasn’t a total loss.
Friday I found time to go to Washington Crossing on the Delaware River. And there I learned from an old gentleman in the Visitors Center that one of the most famous paintings in American history, the one that depicts General Washington standing tall and resolute in the bow of a rowboat, is a fraud. He told me Washington most likely negotiated the icy river on a ferry that operated where the bridge now stands, because he wanted to make the crossing with his horse.
Sunday morning I drove to Bordentown, another historic New Jersey township. I was beginning to understand that every town in this part of the country is historic. It’s nothing to see 200 year-old buildings almost anywhere you go. My part of the country wasn’t even settled 200 years ago. Church bells tolled as I walked the streets, and as I listened to them, it occurred to me it had been years since I heard the flock called to worship by the booming peal of authentic church bells. The last time may have been when I rang one myself as a young acolyte in Arkansas. In the Kansas suburbs we hear digitally recorded bells or, more commonly, nothing at all.
I travelled to the northwest part of the state on Monday, where I was surprised to find mountains of the Appalachian chain, and though it was picturesque, the light was bad and I did not stop to take any pictures. So my last day in New Jersey ended with a bit of a fizzle. But I drove a lot of miles, saw some interesting things, and I met some nice people. I have told friends that the people of New Jersey are nothing at all like their stereotypes. The New Jersey accent is real, you can be assured of that, but beyond that, I found them to be genial, friendly and polite. That is, until they get behind a steering wheel. Then something changes them. I can’t explain it.