We spent nearly a week ambling up the Mid-Atlantic coast from Maryland’s Eastern Shore to the northern tip of the Jersey Shore. Highlights were the new Harriet Tubman National Park, an unexpectedly fun and free overnight at a Delaware casino, and helping celebrate in Philadelphia the launch of Dallas Morning News colleague Alfredo Corchado’s new book, Homelands.
The low points? New Jersey’s astronomical highway and bridge tolls, the crappy quality of the roads and the state law that forbids motorists from pumping their own gas.
Truly, Dallas’ downtown potholes have nothing on New Jersey’s (allegedly) paved passages. Driving through even some of the nicest of neighborhoods with a small trailer in tow rivals a wild bucking bronco ride at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo.
And what’s with that gas-pumping prohibition?
When we pulled into a gas station just outside of Atlantic City, an attendant appeared instantaneously to ask us what we wanted. G thought she was homeless and looking for a buck; we flinched when she asked for our credit card.
With a weary sigh of forbearance, she explained the law and pumped the gas, popping the credit card directly into the machine and handing us the receipt. We continued on our way, eyebrows raised, curiosity piqued.
The state’s ban on self-service gas stations dates to 1949, I later learned. It reportedly was prompted by concerns about the safety of consumers pumping petroleum themselves….
Motorists in other states must be smarter, or at least more pump-savvy, than those in New Jersey. Or maybe the powers that be in other states just don’t care about the safety of their motorists. New Jersey is the only state in the nation to still require station attendants to pump the gas for you.
These experiences, together with the fact that we paid $6.75, 44-cents and $8.75 in tolls in less than two hours of travel one morning, soured us a bit on the Garden State.
But I digress.
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Park in tiny Church Creek on the Eastern Shore of Maryland opened just last year. Operated jointly by the state and national park services, it’s a small, simple, graceful museum to commemorate a brave woman of almost unimaginable generosity and savvy. It includes a 125-mile memorial drive through key locations along the Underground Railway.
I remember Harriet Tubman vaguely from my high-school history books and, more recently, the debate over whether to put her likeness on the $20 bill. My appreciation of her faith, perseverance and leadership deepened tremendously through the experience of this museum.
Minty Ross (her birth name) was born a slave in 1822. She was beaten and whipped by her masters but managed to run away to freedom in the North at age 27. That her siblings and parents were still in bondage made that freedom bittersweet.
This illiterate woman used the stars and her innate smarts – not to mention uncommon courage – to make more than a dozen return trips to Maryland, risking her own life each time, and successfully guide 70 others to freedom, including all but one of her surviving siblings and, finally, her parents, who were then in their 70s.
She was called Moses in the abolitionist periodicals of the era.
It seems she never rested. She helped abolitionist John Brown recruit support for his raid on Harpers Ferry – at the very site we had visited a week earlier. During the Civil War, she devoted herself to the Union cause, working as a cook, nurse, armed scout and spy. Later, she became an advocate for women’s rights, living most of her adult life in Canada and Auburn, New York.
Harriet Tubman died in 1913, when my grandmother was a teenager, having lived into her 90s.
As much as we both enjoyed this museum, I worry for it. This museum isn’t on the way to anywhere. It’s 10 miles south of Cambridge, which has its own longstanding volunteer-manned tribute to Tubman that’s open a few hours every week. It’s nearly two hours from Baltimore, more than an hour from Annapolis.
We were there midday on a Friday and were very nearly the only souls in sight. As we were leaving, I was heartened to see a school bus full of teenage kids arrive. But two travelers from Texas and a bus load of kids a successful national park does not make.
Harrington Raceway and Casino
We don’t do many RV parks – too heavy with the Bingo crowd, not enough nature and a bit pricey for our taste. We prefer county, state and national parks. We’ve also had surprisingly positive experiences overnighting at various Walmart SuperCenters and Home Depots, even snagging an invite from fellow camper-travelers Chuck and Linda at a Walmart in South Carolina to visit them in their home this fall in Washington state.
We love the beautiful scenery at public parks and welcome – when available – water, electric and sewer hookups. But sometimes there aren’t any park spots available when we want them. Being self-contained gives us maximum flexibility and relieves any where-will-we-stay-next anxiety. We know we can go 3-4 nights if we mind our water usage before we need to refill our 25-gallon water tank and dump our black water. Power is never an issue, thanks to our solar panels, battery and propane tanks – unless we go for more than 2-3 days without sunshine.
All this explains why freecampsites.net is our new favorite website – and how we landed at the Harrington Raceway and Casino in Delaware one recent afternoon.
We’d spent the afternoon driving past miles and miles of cornfields in “the first state,” so named for being on Dec. 7, 1787 the first to ratify the U.S. Constitution. I love the big and bold motto of this small and oft-overlooked state: “Liberty and Independence.” We were surprised to learn that the area’s appellation was given by a 1610 explorer in honor of the governor of Virginia, Thomas West, Lord De La Warr.
We were just tired enough on this particular afternoon to postpone taking the ferry to New Jersey; the racino nearby had great reviews on the free-campsights website. It’s the site of the annual Delaware State Fair so there are plenty of water-and-electric sites available on the ground – for free.
The best part of the overnight? Strolling through the casino and settling in at the patio bar in time to catch the live late-night music.
This is clearly a hangout for locals. There were some tourists, probably from the other RV spots on the grounds, but most of the people crowding the patio and pushing their way to the bar were workers looking for a good time at the end of a hard week. The men had big hands and sported baseball caps and beards; the women glittered.
It was a perfect 74 degrees, the two excellent baristas were efficient and fun to watch, the fresh Orange Crushes on special exceptional (must have been the addition of that Cuarenta y Tres) and the Richie Fields band loud and lively.
We danced under the stars until nearly midnight. What could be better?
Total bill for the 24 hours, including a generous tip: $35.
The famed Lewis-Cape May ferry is impressive. It runs almost hourly and can carry up to 100 vehicles and several hundred people the 17 miles from Delaware to the southern tip of New Jersey. This was our third car ferry of the trip – the largest and, at $73 one way, the most expensive.
It was overcast the morning we took it, so the view wasn’t as great as it might have been. Still, we had the Delaware Bay on our left and the Atlantic Ocean to our right. We spent the 90 minutes from the upper deck dolphin spotting and watching the lighthouses go by.
The town of Cape May is lovely, known for its Victorian houses. Their bright colors and beautifully manicured gardens reminded me of the historic homes on Galveston Island.
We walked to the oceanside beach and were stunned to learn that the public beach isn’t really public. You have to pay to even walk on it. Anywhere.
In New Jersey, it seems, you pay extra for just about everything.
I love the movie Beaches. And nobody sings Under the Boardwalk better than Bette Midler. So Atlantic City definitely was on our trip to-do list.
It was 53 degrees the morning in June we set off to “DO AC.” Overcast, rainy and cold. I had to dig back into my clothes box in the car for the jeans and sweater I’d stashed away in March as soon as we’d hit 80 degrees/90 percent humidity in South Texas.
Imagine the Las Vegas Strip with a fair number of Texas State Fair carneys stirred in, sprinkled with huge Times-Square-style flashing video screens – all lined up for four miles of the ocean front on a hardwood-paved path 20 yards wide.
With loud music.
This is the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
Even on a rainy weekend day.
There’s more to Atlantic City than the boardwalk, of course. Recall that the U.S. version of the Monopoly board game was inspired by Atlantic City. It’s been home to the Miss America pageant since 1921. And the city claims to be the birthplace of the original saltwater taffy.
But it’s the boardwalk that dominates.
Everyone, it seems, needs an editor. How do I count the errors?
New Jersey does love its rules and regulations.
The weather kept the crowds away. Still, there were enough people battling the elements to make the people-watching worthwhile. I’d never seen the covered-chair-on-rollers before, for instance, that you could hire with the little man (they were all little and they were all men) to push you around for a fee.
It seemed a little pathetic – both that somebody would want such a service (why not just take one of the trollies?) and that somebody else would be reduced to making a living pushing a person in such a cart on such a day.
We bought a few trinkets for the grandkids and enjoyed walking from the Tropicana Casino to Steel Pier (aka the amusement park) and back, maybe three miles. We stopped for a drink at Tango’s Lounge, chatted up Sandy the barista who hopes to travel to Arizona when she retires in four-and-a-half years, and caught a few games of the French Open before it, too, was rained out.
Then we walked the half mile to where we’d parked the car and headed back to our campsite. I’m glad I can say I’ve been to Bette’s boardwalk. But with regard to “DO AC,” once is enough.
We had a blast in the City of Brotherly Love. We spent one day doing the mundane: G did some banking business, I got a long-overdue haircut, we stocked up on groceries. Plus, we checked out the Ben Franklin Museum in the heart of the historic district. All on our bikes.
Is there really any intellect more impressive during his era than Ben Franklin? (Besides, maybe, George Washington?)
The next day we ditched the bikes (Philly’s got too much vehicle and pedestrian traffic to make biking much fun) and took a Lyft back to the historic district. We checked out the Liberty Bell (G had never seen it), joined about 30 grade schoolers on a guided tour of Independence Hall, picnicked near the Signers Garden and enjoyed the Science History Institute.
Loved this quote on the wall of the Science institute.
Found this memorable plaque in one of the gardens; note the eloquent last paragraph.
And there’s great public art throughout the city.
The other buildings aren’t too shabby, either.
Then we spent a good hour at the Betsy Ross House. I love learning more about the living conditions and habits of famous people, even those, like Betsy Ross, who didn’t become famous until long after she died.
George Washington asked the young widowed Betsy Ross to make a flag for the new country. He brought the ideas of the red and white stripes and blue background with white stars. He proposed the stars in regimented lines; she persuaded him to allow placing them in a circle to suggest unity.
He wanted six-point stars; she advocated five-point stars. The video I took of “the seamstress herself” explains why.
Best of all, though, was joining DMN colleague Alfredo Corchado at the launch party for his new book, Homelands: Four Friends, Two Countries, and the Fate of the Great Mexican-American Migration.
It was a packed house and Alfredo actually ran out of books to sell and sign. The setting was an outstanding Mexican-food restaurant called Tequilas on Locust Street just west of the historic downtown. The owner, David Suro-Piñera of Guadalajara, is one of three friends whose relationship with Freddy is key to the book’s central theme – how Mexican Americans have influenced the United States and how the United States has influenced Mexican Americans.
All four amigos were at the launch party to speak briefly about the book. Even former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell – one-time chair of the Democratic National Committee – was on hand to say a few well-chosen words.
G and I were with Alfredo and Angela at the launch of his first book five years ago – Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent Into Darkness. The stars aligned to allow us to be together for the launch of this important book, too – halfway across the country from Dallas.
Back to the Jersey Shore
We returned to the Jersey shore and saw the highest price for gas so far on our trek, $3.19 along the beach just north of Toms River.
We drove through Toms River because Dan Fagin’s book of the same title so impressed me in 2013, the year we voted to award it the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. Journalist Fagin did an exquisite job of combining investigative reporting and historical research to probe this town’s cluster of childhood cancers and whether they were linked to water and air pollution.
Later, as we drove further north, we gawked at the opulent mansions north of Normandy Beach and around Navesink. The area around Atlantic Highlands, with its surprisingly steep, rolling hills, was lovely.
Did I mention that the roads in New Jersey suck?
We took the advice of the woman behind the counter at the local Post Office and bypassed the “Lusty Lobster” on the main drag to buy our fish at the little-known Belford Seafood Coop right on the coast. G was apoplectic with joy: Fresh stingray for two, monkfish (“poor man’s lobster”) for two and a dozen oysters. Grand total: $12.
We fairly floated to the Cheesequake State Park nearby, just south of Staten Island, where we enjoyed Atlantic oysters and skate in champagne sauce.
We’ve not yet decided how to negotiate New York. We have friends in the city but most are out of town. We’ve been many times to Manhattan and Brooklyn, as well as visited Coney Island and the Bronx. We may just bypass the city “this time around.”
One thing’s for sure, whatever we do will be an adventure.