So New Jersey is sharing the spotlight, and the Mall, with France at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. A bizarre combination, you say. Just about the only things Noo Joisey and France have in common, you say, are Bayonne and the fact that people in both places talk funny. Well, my mother comes from Bayonne, New Jersey, so I'm not allowed to draw any odious comparisons, and I wouldn't anyway. I've traveled all over the country and the world, and some of the prettiest sights I've seen are in New Jersey. Really.
To see them -- the quaint, Revolutionary War towns; the tidal wetlands where ospreys and herons live; the rolling farmlands and roaring rivers; the wide, white beaches and deep pine forests -- you've got to get off the New Jersey Turnpike, spiritually as well as physically. The Folklife Festival is celebrating the state's industrial areas as well as its farmlands, meadows, sandy beaches, marshes and pine forests, but if you're going to go there in person, you may as well smell the roses instead of the asbestos or whatever the factories along the turnpike are cooking up.
Get off even before you go through the toll gate just over the bridge from Delaware, and head east on U.S. 40 through Sharptown, where there's a Saturday-night rodeo as wild as any out west. You'll find such towns as Elmer, where there are mushroom farms beside the railroad tracks. This is pick-your-own-blueberry country, roadside- stand country -- what gives the state its license-plate nickname, "The Garden State." Earthy, working gardens. Truck gardens. Forget fancy flower gardens.
Or you could put up with the turnpike a bit longer and get off at Trenton, where you can take a trip along the New Jersey Turnpike of a hundred and fifty years ago -- the Delaware and Raritan Canal. If you want to "do" the whole canal, follow the Delaware River north to Lambertville, which is just as picturesque as the more popular, self- consciously quaint New Hope, Pennsylvania, but across the river and not so crowded. On the way, take a detour to Sergeantsville, a one-tavern town and the locale of New Jersey's last remaining covered bridge. At Lambertville, barges from the Pennsylvania coal fields crossed the rough river, clinging for dear life to a cable stretched across to the New Jersey side. Once across, they entered the D&R for a mule-drawn voyage all the way to the Raritan River and the port of New York.
Today, abandoned by the industry it was built to serve, the canal cuts a green swath through the state's industrial midlands. You can hike or bike the towpath or -- except for an ignominious few miles around Trenton where the canal runs through a culvert under a freeway -- paddle the canal in a rented canoe. On the way, you'll see the place where Washington crossed the Delaware, the spires of Princeton University and abandoned bridge-tenders' and lock-keepers' houses. The aqueduct that carries the canal across the Millstone River is a popular place for fishermen to stand and the bridge at Griggstown is a popular diving- off place.
Near the banks of the canal in Griggstown stands the home of John Honeyman, unsung hero of Washington's victory over the Hessian mercenaries in Trenton. Honeyman was an American spy who was also butcher to the British. When he told Washington that the Hessians had ordered meat for a big Christmas feast, the butcher-spy suggested to Washington that it might be a good night to attack. The rest is history.
Honeyman and his family were considered collaborators by their fellow Americans and after the war they lived in Griggstown under a cloud -- until Washington paid the family a visit to thank Honeyman for his contribution to the patriot cause.
If you follow the D&R to where it empties into the Raritan near the boathouse on the campus of Rutgers University, you'll be well on your way to what Jerseyites call "the shore."
"Tha shawwh" or, more usually "down tha shawwh," are magic words in New Jersey, signifying the long stretch of ocean beaches, spits and barrier islands from Sandy Hook to Cape May and conjuring up a kaleidoscope of contrasting images. Movie-star mansions at Deal and sedate, religion-run Ocean Grove. The grand old wooden hotels of Spring Lake, magnet for the lace-curtain Irish. The tawdry charm of the amusement park on the boardwalk at Seaside Heights and peppermint-striped Barnegat Light, in whose shadows are down-home bars shared by vacationers and commercial fishermen. The grande dame of the shore, Atlantic City, died and went to hell and came back as Las Vegas East, but there's also quiet Stone Harbor, home of herons, egrets and glossy ibises. And there's Cape May, where you can stay in a gingerbread landmark and find Cape May diamonds -- actually semi-precious quartz pebbles -- along the beach.
Behind the shore lies a whole system of saltwater bays -- part of the Intracoastal Waterway. The largest is Barnegat Bay, but there's also Little Egg Harbor, Great Egg Harbor, Jenkins Sound and countless other bodies. From pretty little towns such as Forked River, Tuckerton and Barnegat, you can rent a garvey -- which I never knew was anything special until the Folk Life Festival featured it -- and explore the marshy maze of inlets that are crawling with blue crabs. Behind the bays behind the shore lie the Pine Barrens, a vast tract of forests, ghost towns and legends criss-crossed by the Mullica, Tuckahoe, Wading, Oswego, Great Egg Harbor and other rivers. Many local outfitters rent canoes, and canoeists love the quiet, tea-colored rivers, lined by great stands of Altantic cedar and tiny pitcher plants. There are ruins of old paper mills and the restored town of Batsto, once a thriving producer of bog iron. Today, "Pineys," as the local people are called, still harvest cranberries in the bogs.
South of the Pinelands, where the Maurice River runs into Delaware Bay, in places with such evocative names as Bivalve and Shell Pile, is the world of the oyster and the oystermen. Some oystermen -- and women -- will be at the festival, demonstrating their art of oyster-shucking and their avocation of gospel singing.
Go to the Folklife Festival and listen to the singing and eat the oysters. But don't stop there. Hop in your car and head for the state itself. Whatever you do and wherever you go, get off the turnpike and explore.