We’re treating our kayaks like floating La-Z-Boy recliners, the three of us leaning back, legs stretched out on the decks.
Here on the Delaware River, New Jersey lies to our left, Pennsylvania to our right. It’s been several minutes since we’ve needed to paddle.
As Interstate 80 comes into view, we dip our paddles into the water to guide our boats around one of the thick concrete pillars of the highway overpass, the noise of cars rushing overhead crowding out the river sounds.
“It’s all right here,” says my friend Leslie.
Indeed. That is the best and worst of New Jersey summed up. With 39,000 miles of public roadway paving the 8,723-square-mile state, it’s easy to get to everything and, it can seem, hard to get away from anything. Though the Garden State ranks 46th by size, it is No. 11 in population. It bests Wyoming’s resident count 15 to 1.
My family moved from Brooklyn to suburban Jersey in 1972, just shy of my second birthday. Still, New York City ran three generations deep, and my heart remained across the George Washington Bridge. I rolled my eyes whenever Bruce Springsteen came on the radio.
Going “down the shore” was my only consolation prize. Beyond that, Jersey was a punch line and a place to leave. In college, any kid who dared ask of me “what exit?” got a snide smile in return.
As an adult, though, I started to soften my stance. During a stay at my parents’ house, a Web search turned up hiking trails at the Tenafly Nature Center, only ten minutes away. There I discovered trails lined with oak trees, hickories, and some experimental American chestnut seedlings; signs warning of bear activity; and a place out of eyeshot of local roads. Was the joke on me all along?
After an eight-mile float, we pull the kayaks out of the water near the Kittatinny Point Visitor Center in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Families crowd the beach. Kids in the river blast each other with water cannons and beach balls. Spanish-language pop music blares from huge speakers.
Earlier in the day, the parking lot had been jammed tighter than a mall the day before Christmas, so a park ranger had recommended parking across I-80 in what was, it turned out, a construction area.
In sand-covered flip-flops, Leslie and I squish off along the shoulder of the highway to get my hatchback. Every car in the construction area wears a parking ticket. This is Jersey-style tough love. Even a lazy float comes at a price.
The BBQs and laughter from the river continue at full strength to our right. My friends head home, and I drive four miles up Old Mine Road, trees thick on either side of the road that’s at times barely paved. At my campsite in Worthington State Forest, I’m suddenly immersed in a quieter New Jersey, the only human sounds coming from two campsites away and the late afternoon kayakers drifting by on the water below.
It amuses me to see my leaf green tent, where I’ve spent so many nights, set up here. Camping doesn’t mesh with the Jersey I grew up in: the malls, beach houses, highways, and 16-plex movie theaters. It’s hard to push away the thought of all those houses and people in nearby towns.
Relaxing back into my chair by the campfire, I look up at the night sky. Here, 74 miles from New York City’s light pollution, the stars poke through the darkness. Bullfrogs provide the evening’s sound track and, later, the light of my headlamp catches the evening’s final entertainment—tiny frogs hopping around, no bigger than my thumbnail. Camping in New Jersey starts to make sense.
By morning, the sky serves up a punishing gray. I consider abandoning my plan to drive to High Point State Park in northwest New Jersey, an hour away. The park’s website promises a view of farmlands and forest for miles and miles from the overlook, the state’s highest point at 1,803 feet above sea level. The dreary weather gives no such guarantee. Anxiety sets in, as if this experiment of mine can’t possibly go right.
Thirty miles from Worthington, on State Highway 94, the landscape opens up to fields, houses here and there, a baseball diamond in the distance. There’s room to breathe.
I’m moving along steadily when, finally, the stream of farm stands proves too difficult to resist, and I stop at Lentini’s. The baskets around the stand overflow with local corn and tomatoes. After choosing several ears of early season corn, I step up to the counter to pay. Pints of sour cherries, their skins verging on a translucent red, catch my eye. I try one, and the sour makes me wince.
The teen girl behind the counter quickly schools me, gently suggesting that my eye twitch is the stuff of beginners. “I don’t think they’re sour enough,” she says. She likes a full face-puckering sour, but she also offers one regular customer’s advice: Roll them in sugar and freeze them.
My passenger seat piled with produce, I drive on. By the time I get to High Point, my steering wheel is sticky with cherry juice. I park in the lot and make the short walk up the road to High Point Monument, a 220-foot obelisk that honors war veterans.
There’s no use trying to see past the day’s fog out to the Pocono Mountains or the Wallkill River Valley. Instead I focus on some bright pink wildflowers. After yesterday’s heat, the rain-day air comforts me. I get to my car just as it starts to pour.
Back at the campsite that evening, the rain starts again minutes after I set the corn onto the campfire grate. Though the husks are barely warmed, I rip them off and eat the corn raw. The kernels taste as sweet as the cherries were tart: a main course and dessert all in one.
The next morning, on Route 46 in the hamlet of Delaware, a bright red building adorned with white letters announcing “Marshall’s Country Store” looks like a promising place to ask for a breakfast recommendation.
The cashier hems and haws over my question, but the woman behind me steps up with a resolute “Uncle Buck’s in Belvidere.” Ignoring that kind of confidence would be foolish.
Upon settling into a booth at the Original Uncle Buck’s Diner, I look over the breakfast menu, deciding to skip the scrapple in favor of the “famous” sausage burger. The restaurant, with its beige and darker beige checkerboard floor and green stools and booths, seems down to earth, making me think there must be something behind the boast.
I’m surprised to hear a familiar voice saying, “I see you found it.” It’s the woman who recommended the place, Nancy Leeds. We jaw about New Jersey. She is fiercely loyal to the state—and, more so, this northwestern corner.
The breakfast defeats me. My guess: It’s famous locally as much for its size and calorie count as for its flavor. “You tapping out?” asks the waitress. Though my old favorite, the Jersey Shore, is waiting, I’m sorry to leave. These towns neighboring the Delaware River have grown on me.
I wend my way slowly toward Route 31 and the drive south. Along the way, the names of passing roads hint at the area’s history: Greenwich Street, Oxford Street, Brass Castle Road.
After several stops on Route 31—including a spur-of-the-moment paddle on a reservoir—a familiar bridge welcomes me to the Garden State Parkway, one of Jersey’s main speedways. The Driscoll Bridge spans the Raritan River and, at its peak, points the car’s nose just skyward enough to simulate driving into the clouds.
On this July Tuesday, I luck out. Cars move along, unsnarled by summer beach traffic. Blue skies accented by fluffy clouds tempt me to drive barefoot.
The unexpected sounds of drums and tambourines hit my ears, getting louder with every step. It doesn’t take long to find the source: Congo Square North, home to a weekly music gathering of the town’s finest hippies, misfits, and parents with toddlers.
A vibrant elderly woman, dressed in a kente cloth tunic, her hair braided through with fabric, holds court from her electric wheelchair. As people orbit around her, nearly everybody stops to say hello. She plays the role of hostess to all—the kids who race through, the tattooed woman cradling a ferret, and, yes, me.
I ask how long she’s lived in Asbury Park. “My whole life,” she replies. “I was a dancer.” And, with that, she stands up from her wheelchair and moves to the drumbeats.
I could stay and watch her all night, but I’m craving a touch of my Jersey Shore childhood, an arcade. It’s after 5 p.m., so $15 at the Silverball Museum Arcade buys unlimited play on 80 years of pinball history. My old pal, the KISS-themed machine, doesn’t hold up to memory, but I still can’t resist Galaga, my favorite video game from the 1980s. The next 40 minutes disappear into a haze of spaceship shoot-’em-up. Earning ninth and tenth spots on the machine’s high-score list feels more rewarding than it’s sane to admit.
After the arcade’s bells and whistles, the boardwalk is steeped in quiet. Just some women laughing. I look down from the boardwalk to see a crab slowly sidestepping along the beach.
One final stop. At long last, it’s time to forgive my parents for our decades-ago move to Jersey. I drive south—as far south as Jersey goes—to Cape May Point, where my mom meets me at my beach house rental.
Sitting at a picnic table on the deck of H&H Seafood, the basin in front of us loaded with crabs, I’m rambling on and on about the past days. About the sour cherries and the diners and a storm that soaked me while I was kayaking on a quiet reservoir the day before. My brain is in a New Jersey whirlwind.
This change—my new, true love of the place—shocks both my mom and me.
The next evening, my fingers still smarting from crab shell cuts, I go for a bike ride to the Cape May Lighthouse. I pedal past a vineyard, green grapes starting to hang heavy from the vines; a closed roadside stand that promises the owners will be back in the morning with fresh-baked bread; and a white horse, its mane looking like an old man’s comb-over.
I think back on the past five days. What exit? The whole lot of them. It’s all right here.
This piece, written by Jenna Schnuer, first appeared in the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can follow Jenna on Twitter at @JennaSchnuer.