South Jersey: Throwback to Another World
Sunday, August 31, 2008
Driving across the Delaware Memorial Bridge toward Atlantic City? Unless you're a problem gambler eager to descend into a slot-machine-induced coma, skip the Atlantic City Expressway and try Route 40. Meandering 60-plus miles across the Garden State from the bridge to the gritty gaming magnet once dubbed "the lungs of Philadelphia," Route 40 preserves the best, worst and weirdest of "South Joisey" for curious day-trippers and casino-bus refugees. Here's a mile-marker checklist for Americana-holics desperate to drive the Badlands that Bruce Springsteen sang about.
Mile 8: Cowtown Rodeo/Flea Market."I've been coming here for 20 years," says Will Goldsboro, 25. "And I never stayed for the rodeo." Tending a small table piled with hip-hop CDs, Goldsboro's lack of regard for American cowboy culture gets at the heart of Cowtown's dual nature: mother of all flea markets by day, rodeo on the national circuit by night.
Marked by an enormous, blink-and-you-won't-miss-it cowboy statue, Cowtown is, in the words of another flea market vendor, part of South Jersey's "antiques paradise," where busloads of visitors from as far away as North Carolina find deals on the bizarre at the bazaar. But don't expect little old ladies fussing over craft tables: Cowtown is a United Nations at the foot of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, offering a mishmash of Nigerian films, moldy books, jeans, Mexican food, Barack Obama T-shirts, old-fashioned lollipops, $2 too-big-to-drink tubs of lemonade and even pornography. But when the sun sets on summer Saturdays, the scene changes: Bargain hunters are replaced by thousands of rodeo enthusiasts eager to see professional cowboys compete at bareback riding, calf roping and steer wrestling. (The flea market is also open on Tuesdays.)
Mile 32: Padre Pio Shrine. In the shadow of a soaring modern structure that looks more like Eero Saarinen's St. Louis Arch than a shrine to a Catholic saint, volunteer Marie Amelio explains the canonization of Italian priest Francesco Forgione, a.k.a. Padre Pio (1887-1968). "He bled a cup of blood every day for 50 years," Amelio says, detailing the good father's miraculous works, ecstasies and stigmata, the bodily marks that correspond to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus. "Would you like to touch the relic?" Amelio offers a picture frame that holds a portrait of the padre, now St. Pio of Pietrelcina, and the tiny fragment of a glove -- propriety demands that stigmatics keep their hands covered, and this is a piece of a glove worn by Pio himself. If you touch the relic, Amelio utters a prayer, and somewhere, perhaps, Somebody listens.
This is a bit much for a lapsed Catholic, but the tepee-like open-air shrine erected by local Pio enthusiasts in 1997 makes for a beautiful pit stop even if you don't know an Our Father from a Hail Mary. One can set a spell on the benches around the statue of Padre Pio and browse the gift shop for Catholic kitsch. Best of all, the shrine is in a field and open 24-7.
Mile 55: Storybook Land. See that medieval castle wedged between an Aamco and a masonry supply shop 10 miles west of Atlantic City? Welcome to Storybook Land! Taking bedtime stories and nursery rhymes as its muse, this 20-acre theme park carved out of a densely strip-malled section of Route 40 has offered vacationing families an alternative to the same old day at the beach since 1955.
For a mere $21.35, you can take a turn on storybook-themed carny attractions, spring into Alice in Wonderland's rabbit hole and feed a few of the meanest geese this side of Canada. Children may flock to the merry-go-round, but eerie diorama re-creations of Sleeping Beauty's castle, the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe's shoe, the Three Little Pigs' houses, etc., are the source of Storybook Land's twisted charm. As soon as one wonders what child of the digital age could possibly be amused by an Eisenhower-era mechanized elf jerkily sawing wood in Santa's House, a gaggle of children shows up to shriek at the novelty.
Still, Storybook Land transcends camp. On an 82-degree August Sunday, the surprisingly cool, tree-lined property was free of the crowds and absurd prices of name-brand parks. The Gingerbread House snack bar offered greasy, cheap meals, and even the Christian "Chapel of Peace" (Storybook Land's strangest attraction if you don't count a monument to the Philadelphia Phillies' 1980 World Series victory) offered a small vacation from being on vacation. Swaddled in a crackly recording of organ music, one could, for a moment, believe one was in a magical land where children giggle delightedly, adults giggle ironically and no self-respecting teenager dares to tread.