Our 2011 Road Trip, Part 3: New Jersey Gothic


The Garden State wasn’t all bad, but I faintly recall my son not being the most cooperative photographer.

[The very special miniseries continues! See Part One for the official intro and context.]

After the brief stopover in Harrisburg, the next two hours and the next four interstates were less invigorating than I would’ve liked. The Pennsylvania Turnpike must have a monopoly on the state’s best scenery. Mostly we passed the time scanning the local radio channels and learning that the Pennsylvania airwaves are made of top-40. Fifteen channels seemed to be playing the same six songs nonstop, a statewide revival in honor of Katy Perry and Lady Ga-Ga, America’s new First Ladies or whatever.

Next stop was across the state line in New Jersey, in a verdant, elegantly sculpted community called Whippany. Judging by the slanderous slings and arrows that New Jersey has taken over the decades, we expected something like an all-white Boyz n the Hood or a low-budget adaptation of Dante’s Inferno. On the contrary, Whippany was glorious, well-paved suburbia. I love seeing stereotypes busted.

Sunday morning across the Pennsylvania interstates was such a non-obstacle course that we arrived in town over half an hour ahead of schedule. We exited right next to the Ford Mansion, a historical site of the sort that’s right up my wife’s alley — it once served as General George Washington’s headquarters during the Revolution. We hadn’t known about it prior to arrival because neither of us had bothered to research tourism in western New Jersey. All our Jersey efforts (mostly disappointing, at that) had been concentrated in its northeastern area around our eventual hotel. Ford Mansion was a pleasant surprise, then.

Hearing the mention of Washington’s name, my son, reclining in the back seat, sat up impressed, and asked in a nonchalant tone if we were going to see it. That’s his version of “Please, please, please can we see it?” He’s not much of an American history fan at all unless it involves George Washington. Their two votes outnumbered my only concern — being on time for lunch. I insisted on locating our destination first. I would’ve hated for us to get lost and be late as a result. Ten minutes away, we found our MapQuest endpoint. With 20+ minutes left on the clock, I decided to circle back and take a gander at this Headquarters thing.

A few frustrating one-way streets and at least one certifiably wrong turn later, we were more or less lost, as far as the Headquarters was concerned. I can’t possibly count the number of ways in which I was probably being put to death in my wife’s imagination.

(Anne’s rebuttal to this point of contention: “I actually began thinking of tortuous ways to end his life the minute he found our lunch companions’ home and began musing aloud how we should spend our extra time, such as ‘Maybe we can go sit in a McDonald’s somewhere.’ In the meantime, his son and I are sitting on the edge of our seats, as excited as Stewie Griffin at Disney World, thinking, ‘George Washington’s Headquarters! George Washington’s Headquarters!!‘ Finally, I vocalized in the most civil voice I could muster that, maybe, we might consider seeing that really neat historical site.”

In my defense, they were slow to speak and I needed a bathroom. Later we’d learn their guided-tour schedule wouldn’t have worked out for us anyway.)

I did an about-face and with a few minutes to spare retraced our way back to the residence of our lunch companions for the afternoon, a couple I originally knew via Usenet many a moon ago. Anne and I do enjoy the occasional offline meeting with folks who’ve entertained us through the magic of the Internets, and vice versa. We’d had another tentative offer in NYC at one point, but that one fell through. Better luck another time, perhaps.

For lunch our families did a mini-convoy out to Parsippany at the Jasper Chinese Restaurant. I was unreasonably skeptical at first because the Jasper we know in Indiana is a small town famous for their Oktoberfest and their German street names. This substantially less lily-white Jasper introduced us to the wonder and glory that is “dim sum”. The opportunity had never been offered to us before. I’m sure dim sum exists somewhere back home, but our fellow Hoosiers have never mentioned it to us. The dumb crumbums kept plumb mum on some dim sum.

Several scrumptious samples and one delightful conversation ensued. We remarked on the lack of resemblance between this part of New Jersey, its pop-culture reputation, and the factory-driven side we’d seen from the Jersey Turnpike the year before. They admitted that some parts in the east such as Newark were less than stellar, but those were largely outside our planned route.

After lunch our hosts then graciously guided us to Washington’s HQ, partly for more fun activity purposes, partly so Anne would let me live. This is part of that, slightly under construction.

Washington Headquarters!

Inside the museum, a happy helper boy informed us that you could only view the interior as part of a guided tour, given at the top of the hour. We’d missed the 2:00 tour by about 10-15 minutes. Waiting for the 3:00 tour would’ve meant pushing our introduction to New York City even further back into the afternoon. We were disappointed, but not inconsolable. The grounds are surrounded with plenty of trees and a few olde-tyme buildings suitable for ambling around and browsing.

Due to the decidedly not-New-York nature of Ohio and Pennsylvania, you’ll notice our photos of the first day-‘n’-a’-half are minimal. I do apologize for the text-heavy nature of the write-up so far. Please allow this half-group shot of Anne and me to suffice till the photographed portion of our travels commenced.


Nailed it on the second take.

Denied the tour, we completed our ambling, bade our hosts many thanks and farewell for now, and rejoined I-280 East. Whippany was barely an hour away from our hotel. It wouldn’t be long before we’d be within a stone’s throw of the honest-to-gosh Big Apple. The gleeful anticipation was killing us.

Well before that blessed moment, I-280 abruptly ended at a stoplight intersection that somehow had escaped MapQuest’s meticulous attention span. Without warning we found ourselves back on ordinary streets that fed us to the bilious stomach of seedy downtown Newark.

Our first impression of Newark was one long block party crossing a more decorative Boyz n the Hood with a big-budget adaptation of Dante’s Inferno starring the more diverse cast of Colors. Several blocks of teeming, hostile GON’-CUT-YOU rags-‘n’-tats ambience with the population density of downtown Chicago was amplified in all directions by countless walls made of edge-to-edge graffiti. The nuances and call signs were lost on us, but the most powerful gangs appeared to be Poor Kings (sighted on more buildings than any other name) and Patrick Patrick Patrick Patrick (tagged four times on a single building? Yeah, clearly a confident 800-pound gorilla you don’t criticize). The local traffic around us kept their windows sealed shut, their eyes straight ahead, and their pedals to the metal, all the better to rocket through unmolested. My son was privileged enough to watch an impoverished lady puking into a trash can while holding her lit cigarette high above her head. If this was their Sunday afternoon, I can only imagine the splendor of their Saturday night block parties.

We captured none of it on film because we didn’t want our cameras or any other devices visible. No way did we want anyone looking toward our windows and thinking “pawn shop display case”. I pressed on till I stumbled across Broad Street, which looked just major enough, and turned south in hopes of connecting with another interstate. Sure enough, two miles and several white knuckles later was an exit ramp to I-78. That got us back on track and away from any harm that we timid country folk might have been fearing.

The surprise Newark dash was a useful if unsettling experience, but we weathered it unscathed. With that under our belts, now we could act as if had, y’know, street cred. Now we were ready for whatever New York wanted to throw our way.

To be continued!

[Historical notes:

1. In the halcyon days of message-board life, our friends would sometimes indulge me whenever I wrote lots of paragraphs in a row with few or no pics to show off, so I had a larger comfort zone for taking a chance on a chapter that’s more words than pictures. Their enthusiasm attrition would be one of the minor sticking points that led to the creation of MCC, and lately I’m finding that strangers unfortunately also aren’t as excitable about paragraphs as they used to be, based on stats for MCC’s last several non-photo-gallery entries. I expect this chapter to be among the least acknowledged of all because these three pics are all we took in Jersey, except for one other blurry, off-center shot of Washington HQ not worth keeping. So if you’re actually reading the words I’m writing way down here in the italicized end-credits: well, hello there! YOU are what makes Planet Earth great. If MCC were large enough to have a fan club, I’d sign you logophiles up for the deluxe package for free.

2. You can tell we’re living in very different times because we rarely photographed or recorded the names of our meals. In some circles that’s now seen as cliché; to us, it’s just become another fun thing we can share with others who want to share the same kinds of fun things. If it makes a difference, I recall at least one of the dim sum dishes contained octopus.

2. Our benevolent tour guides aren’t pictured because I’m not 100% convinced they’d be cool with it. Trust me, though, they’re awesome folk.

3. If Sleepy Hollow lasts more than three episodes into its unnecessary fourth season without being yanked, the Ford Mansion is exactly the kind of New England hot spot I’d expect to see in a flashback. Assuming I were still watching by then.

4. Five years later, Newark remains the lowest of low bars by which all other scary vacation moments are judged. We will never, EVER forget.

5. Here in modern times Google Maps is usually useful on the go, but I still use Classic MapQuest for pre-planning our longer trips. For my purposes, the new version of MapQuest sucks.

6. Since 2011, our only other trip to include an internet meet-up was last November’s Colorado experience. Those get-togethers used to be a more common occasion for us. Pausing now for a moment of wistfulness.]

* * * * *

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for future chapters, and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email signup for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my TV live-tweeting and other signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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