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Excerpts of New Jersey Travel Diary
State 39 - NEW JERSEY 06 DEC 99 - 10 DEC 99


Self-centered Visitors Center

Not too many tourists visiting Washington Crossing State Park on this gray, rainy day. Ken parks Ruby in a vacant parking lot and we walk into an empty Visitors Center, so empty, and quiet that we feel as though we're trespassing and will soon be nabbed and asked to leave. No one sits at the desk to greet us. The place is dimly lit on this dreary day, creating a grim, gray countenance and making the place seem as somber as a tomb. We walk around calling out, "Hello! Anyone here?" After a few awkward moments with no response, an elderly man slowly rolls his chair from his desk, and to avoid having to get up from his chair, peeks his head around the corner of an open door. "Hello" he responds rather bored and unamused by our intrusion. "The exhibits are over there." He wearily points to the artifacts, and glumly returns to his work. We feel a bit uncomfortable, like we're intruding on his "real" work but proceed anyway and view the exhibits. When done, I return to the front desk to sign the guest book, which is in view of the old man's office. Timidly, I call to him through the open door to ask for a recommendation on the trails outside. My voice suddenly is of great interest to him. "Where are your from?" He asks almost gleefully. When I tell him I'm from Massachusetts, his face lights up. His whole demeanor changes as he launches into a story of how his ancestors were influential people in Massachusetts during the colonial days. Normally this would be an interesting story, but we just finished the museum, the sun is starting to come out, and we want to hurry up and tour Washington's trail before the sun goes in and the rain returns, as the weatherman had predicted. But now this old man will not let us go. Imprisoned in his stories, we search for polite ways to break free, searching desperately for a gracious interruption in his long, long, tale of how important his ancestors were. Just as we find a pause in his monologue, he hooks us into another long, drawn out tale. Finally, we break away, with heaps of apologies. We stop at the restrooms before going outdoors, and as we come out -- there he is! Waiting for us to come out of the restrooms to tell us more about his family. He's got Ken in his grasp, yak, yak, yak. So I interrupt, "Ken, we better get going. We're losing the sun." Ken says, "Sorry. I have to go, and releases his elbow from the man's tight grasp. "What's your hurry!" The old man demands as Ken picks up his pace, walking a little faster, and then breaking into a run. Ken is actually *running* from the guy while the guy (who previously seemed glued to his chair) scurries after him, begging. "What's your hurry?" "What's your hurry?" It's the funniest scene. Ken with all his camera bags flying around him as he frantically runs from this old man chasing him with more details. We escape to the truck and drive off to the other parts of the park. After we're done touring the area we shamefully discuss our treatment of that old man. But it was the weirdest thing. He didn't want to tell us anything about Washington, or the Crossing, or the park, or the exhibits. He only wanted to tell us about himself and his important ancestors from Massachusetts.

Jersey Devil

At the gift shop in the Navesink Lighthouse today we spy a book on the Jersey Devil. This is the second time we've heard the name, having first heard it at the statehouse when our tour guide pointed out a gargoyle-like creatures as the famous Jersey Devil. I was intrigued by the name, but our guide didn't know much about the subject, so now that I see this book, I pick it up to learn more. It's a great story. Kinda like the stories of Lock Ness Monster sightings. The intro to the book says it would be easy to dismiss this creature as fictitious but too many respectable people have seen him. People like government officials, police, and civic leaders. Supposedly the Devil's been around for 250 years and has been blamed for everything from diseases to bad crops to economic downturns.The history of the Devil goes back to one night in 1735 when a Quaker woman, some believed a sorceress, known as Mother Leeds, gave birth to her thirteenth child during a raging electrical storm. Some accounts say the child was born deformed. Others say the child was born normal and took on weird characteristics gradually, such as an elongated body, winged shoulders, a horse-shaped head, cloven feet and a thick tail. For centuries the Jersey Devils supposedly roamed the Piney woods area, wreaking havoc on the lives of local citizens. In 1909, after a string of Devil sightings were reported, scientific experts from New York and Washington DC were called in to explain the occurrences. Some scientists at that time thought the Devil a prehistoric creature from the Jurassic period that had survived in the limestone cliffs. Today's most recent theory, however, (and not quite as exciting), is that the Devil is nothing more than a sandy hill crane, a bird four feet high with an eighty-inch wingspan. The sandy hill crane has a bit of the devil in him as he gyrates when flying and is ferocious when cornered. Sadly I put the book down. Another myth spoiled by scientists. I hate it when mysteries are debunked.

Temporary cure for melancholia

I fall victim to melancholia today and am not in a very receptive mood when Ken and I approach the mile-long Boardwalk on Point Pleasant Beach along the Jersey shore. I sit in the truck and stare out the window, listening to the wind outside, reluctant to venture onto the beach on such a wintry day.The ocean waves are snowcapped. Along the boardwalk and on the beach old folks and young kids alike have their heads tied up in scarfs or wrapped in kerchiefs, their faces pinched against an angry winter wind that seems to be saying, "It's not summer anymore, you idiots. Go home!" Little babies' faces with cheeks as red as maraschino cherries peek out from fur-hooded snowsuits as thick as sleeping bags. No, the scene does not look inviting at all. Ken insists it will be fun as he pulls me from the comfort of the truck. Luckily Ken doesn't cater to my moods, and I'm so glad I have no influence over him because as soon as we go outside and join the other windswept boardwalkers and beachcombers I'm thrilled.There is a dazzling, colorful, musical excitement here. In fact, I do believe, the arcade-dazzled boardwalk with its fried foods and noisy bars is more exciting in winter than in summer.

Here's why. For one thing: fewer people to contend with. And the people who are here are of the adventuresome spirit. Everyone is smiling the self-congratulatory smile of one who defies winter's bluster. Piped in Christmas carols compete with traditional arcade music. Kites are flying in Old Man Winter's angry face. "Blow all you want, old man, it only makes my kite dance all the more." Young, old, rich and poor. All united in their common defiance against Old Man Winter, and in their unanimous adoration for Neptune and the sea -- in any season. An old woman -- God, she must be 80 or 90 years old -- sits at an outdoor cafe table, sipping coffee from a paper cup. Her cane rests on the side of her chair. She's dressed in Lilac, from head to toe. Lilac scarf. Lilac coat. Lilac stockings. Alone, Old Lady Lilac sits watching the people, smiling at the children, even at the tattooed teenagers with spiked, purple hair. It makes me think of the Liza Minelli song, "What good is sitting all alone in your room? Come, hear the music play. Life is a Cabaret, my friend. Come to the Cabaret." This lady does not sit alone in her room. Not even Winter can keep Lady Lilac indoors. She comes to hear the music play and see the sea dance wildly. I admire her. My heart swells with pride for her. "Good for you! Don't let the winter wind or the winter of your years extinguish your spirit." My eye moves from Lady Lilac to the others who share this winter boardwalk with us. Its so much fun to see all walks of life. Young parents with babies. Teenagers teasing and flirting with each other. As we pass an arcade I spy an automatic photo booth, the kind that people used to squeeze into and, for 25 cents, get a black-and-white strip of snapshots in four different poses. Haven't done this photo-booth thing since I was eight years old. I tug at Ken's sleeve. "Let's get our photos taken," I urge. Ken hesitates, pondering if this request is beneath his dignity. "How much is it?" He asks, stalling for time before giving me an answer. I check the price. It's not 25 cents anymore. It's two dollars. "C'mon." I implore. Ken agrees. And as we enter the booth a change occurs. Ken goes nutty, making a wacky face every time the camera light flashes and I suddenly become an uptight school marm. I freeze up and just stare at the camera like a deer staring into oncoming headlights. The last of the four shots, Ken grabs me by the ears and pulls me into the frame of the photo. We laugh a heartily, the kind of laugh I haven't laughed I was eight years old. It's such a wonderful day. Boardwalks in winter and automatic photo booths chase the blues away.

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