Stunned by the Turnpike, another holiday traveler stumbles toward the threshold of the Vince Lombardi Rest Area. His lungs fill with sweet swamp air, his mind quivers with unimagined predicaments at unimagined speeds. He murmurs thanks for this roadside respite and wanders in past a bank of machines offering Crunchy Curls, pocket combs, wax lips, biorhythm analyses, then past the football memorabilia of Vince Lombardi, including a model of the old Green Bay playing field, rendered here in matchsticks by one William Becker Jr.
The traveler takes a seat in a long, airy dining room that could easily be renamed Windows on the (Dying Industrial) World.
He orders the burger platter and a cup of coffee (black, three sugars) and waits for the high to hit home. With a jolt, the blend of animal fat and caffeine rips through his veins. His pupils dilate, his heart clenches, his memories of miles past on the Jersey Turnpike run by his eyes, a phantasmagoria at 70 mph, trapped between 18-wheelers in Rahway, dodging the detritus of detonated tires near Dunellen . . . this traveler who is merely one of 150 million a year to attempt part or all of the Turnpike's 117.5 miles.
You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all that is here,
I believe that much unseen is also here.
Walt Whitman, dead and buried off Exit 4 in Camden, wrote these lines. He sought "to know the universe itself as a road." A shame that he missed the Turnpike.
The traveler could write his own song of the open road.
He has felt his sternum nearly implode with tension. He has choked on the perfume of a dump fire and pinched his nose shut. Blue and bursting, he tried breathing through a handkerchief dampened with after-shave. He saw shoes, shirts, belts, bicycle wheels and animal parts on the shoulder of the Pike in Linden and felt a desperate wonder: whence this garbage? And he knew the weird beauty of dusk over Elizabeth: a magnificent dollop of fire in a purple sky setting slowly behind the majesty of the refineries, leaving the Turnpike a mass of speeding points of nervous light.
The feel of speed at night: jets roaring to heaven from Newark Airport, boxcars rattling south, the endless stretch of the Pulaski Skyway, radio towers thrusting from the Meadows, remembered tales of gangsters shot, wrapped and dumped into the swamps, Springsteen on the radio singing ". . . there's an opera out on the turnpike," and the highway rising, a siren screaming and, running on rail beds next to the road, outpacing even the most amphetamine-stoked truck drivers: boxcars, boxcars, boxcars.
There is something beautiful about the bluntness of the Turnpike, the way it rips across the state without apology for what New Yorker writer and New Jersey partisan John McPhee has called "scenes that suggest gunshot wounds in an infected Uncle Sam." The New Jersey Turnpike is a good road, the busiest toll road in the country and one of the safest. The Turnpike is a machine, not a mistake, and its intentions are honest and usually fulfilled. It exists to move one swiftly on the ancient diagonal of the coastal plain and it does just that. The Turnpike tells no lies. If the Turnpike is ugly then the trace left behind from successful heart surgery is "an ugly scar" and Redford's moles or Streep's nose are tragic flaws.
In short, the New Jersey Turnpike must be understood to be appreciated.
And there are those who understand this road the way an Alaskan bush pilot comprehends his own particular corner of the Brooks Range.
Russell Kent, he of the fingerless gloves and Pennzoil-caked coveralls, is one such professional. He knows the Great Mother Road as well as anyone. His Jersey credentials are impeccable: he lives in Secaucus and pumps gas at the Vince. A rabbi of the road. To travelers willing to listen, he has wisdom to offer:
"Believe me, I know how people feel. It gets pretty tense out on the Turnpike.
"I had two Eldorados wheel in one day. Exact same cars. The two guys get out of their cars and one starts heading for the other. He looks crazy. He's furious. The angry guy picks up the other guy and he body slams his buddy right to the pavement. Almost killed him! Guy's head missed the curb right here by a few inches. Guy coulda died!
"It turns out the two of them were friends and they were headed back from vacation together in the Poconos. Maybe they fought over some girl. Who knows? You see some things on the Pike."
For Washingtonians and other southerners heading north, the Turnpike begins with the Delaware Memorial Bridge and the first tollbooth in Deepwater, N.J. Life at the first eight exits is relatively tranquil. Silos outnumber windowless industrial plants by a respectable margin. The atmosphere at those first rest areas -- the Clara Barton, the Whitman, the James Fenimore Cooper, the Molly Pitcher -- is as sober as a pilgrim wedding.
In a state defined almost as much by Turnpike exits as by counties and townships ("Hey, what exit you from?"), the real action does not begin until East Brunswick, Exit 9, home of the Joyce Kilmer Rest Area. From here on begins the Turnpike of legend: Carteret, Rahway, Elizabeth, Bayonne, Jersey City, the Kilmer, the Thomas Alva Edison, the Grover Cleveland, the William F. Halsey, the Alexander Hamilton and -- sweet arrival! -- the Vince.
"You hit this part of the road and it feels like coming home."
Those are the whispered words of Chris Humphreys, a motorcyclist, who wears a medallion of the grim reaper on his ragged vest and the crumbs of a rest area doughnut on his lap. His Harley is parked in the lot and he looks as though he could use a bag of Crunchy Curls and a Coke.
"I get to this part of the Turnpike on my bike and it's like I'm in a damn pinball machine," Humphreys says. "People have a strange idea of speed out there."
Speed kills. Those who barrel blindly past the industrial and transportational corridor from the Brunswicks to the Turnpike's terminus are missing a spectacular vision.
Past the Brunswick exit is the lovely, introductory stretch that includes the Raritan and Rahway rivers, a series of clay pits used to make bricks, and factories for Fedders air conditioners, Allied Chemical and GAF, which makes fertilizers and other fragrant delectables.
But all of these are mere bugles for the main event:
At Mile 99 of the Turnpike is Exxon's Bayway Refinery, a 1,500-acre mass of tubes and tanks and pipes, the third largest refinery in the country after plants in Baytown, Tex., and Baton Rouge, La. On cool days steam vented from the "wet gas scrubber" spews from twin stacks. Like candles on a holiday cake, flames spit from some of the taller stacks. The flames come from gases burning off from the "cracking tower." Bayway is followed by the Linden Generating Station, which has a system of turbines about half as powerful as Hoover Dam.
At Mile 100 or so, a brief flash of religion pokes through the industrial grunge: Greystone Presbyterian's triangular steeples, St. Patrick's twin steeples, the onion dome of St. Paul's Byzantine Catholic Church, the copper-roofed clock towers of St. Adelbert's.
This ecclesiastical series acts as an elaborate St. Peter's Gate to the most concentrated transportation corridor in the world. As you hurtle north along the highway, planes are landing a city block away on your left and freight trains are rattling down tracks to your right. To say nothing of the huge ships looming over the rails. Port Elizabeth and Newark are the dominant ports of the New York Harbor. Measuring by weight, liquor is the main import here. Bananas second.
Further north is the Pulaski Skyway, an engineering miracle named for a Polish general who led American troops to a number of victories in the Revolutionary War. The Skyway was once said to be one of the seven engineering wonders of the world. It stretches on and on, the latticework of the gods, a link between Newark and New York so sleek, so elegant that it can only be compared in delicacy to the traceries of iron ladders that wrap so many gas tanks at Bayway in their serpentine embrace.
If you are lucky, you will see all of this at sunset.
There is no sunset like a sunset on the northern Turnpike.
Bounding along the asphalt one late afternoon you notice the perfect roundness of the sun, its immense size, its brilliant color, more brilliant here, it seems, than anywhere else.
"It is quite extraordinary, isn't it," admits Henry Horn, a professor of biology at Princeton. "What, in fact, is happening, is that the particles in the air, the carbon and the imperfectly burned material, tend to reflect and disperse the shorter wavelengths and what comes through are the reds. Hardly anything but reds. And because of all the reflection, you can stare directly at the sun without burning up your retina."
The ecology of the Turnpike holds other surprises.
On the side of the road are what are commonly known as "European weeds." There are also the tall, impressive reeds with tassels called Phragmites communis. In the Meadowlands, the reeds are shorter and are called Spartina or marsh plants. Before salt water seeped into the Meadowlands, half the area was covered with tall cedars that provided shade for visitors and cover for bandits. In the industrial corridor, there are red-winged blackbirds, marsh wrens, muskrats, meadow mice, migrating ducks and geese and, over the garbage dumps, an occasional gyre of seagulls.
Consider, too, the contents of a random square yard of earth just off Exit 13 near the docks in Elizabeth. Here is a more mordant ecosystem: one extra-large 7-Eleven Slurpee cup, a mud-caked fan belt, dead sunflowers, empty cartons of Winston cigarettes, Pathmark raisins and Milk Duds, a shattered bottle of White Rock root beer, a carpet sample the color of fresh concrete, an empty quart bottle of Bud and a discarded multicolored golf umbrella that looks like a slaughtered peacock.
The Turnpike rolls on. Don't miss Snake Hill, a 203-foot volcanic rock that was once a lookout perch for Continental soldiers and later the site of a poorhouse, an asylum and a communicable disease hospital. Over the the radio antennae and Harmon Cove condos of Secaucus, Manhattan's shining peaks soon come into view. The Empire State Building shoots up its imperious nose, then come the Chrysler Building and dozens of International Style glass pillars in which deals are cut over the spoils of Jersey. New Jersey makes, New York takes. The old, old story.
The world appreciates the Turnpike, even if New Yorkers do not. A group of Indonesians recently traveled half the globe to study the Turnpike's management system. Visitors from Egypt, Japan, Scandinavia, Italy and Africa have come to New Jersey to study the highway, admire its contours, plumb its mysteries.
"The Japanese were especially fascinated with the service areas," says Gordon Hector, director of public information for the Turnpike Authority. One imagines a committee of Japanese urban planners roaming the Vince, marveling at the jolt provided by the burger platter and coffee (black, three sugars). You imagine them all humming Paul Simon's road song and "counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike," to look for America.
Hector has heard enough disparaging remarks about the Turnpike to fill a hefty encyclopedia, but, he says, "I can't let it get to me. Looking at it from the Turnpike's standpoint, we're not responsible for the areas we go through. The eight- or nine-mile industrial corridor in the north wasn't an invention of the Turnpike's."
New Jersey's celebrators (and there are precious few of them) usually look to the Pine Barrens, to the dairy farms, to the cranberry bogs for their vision of the state. They prefer seagulls wheeling over Atlantic swells to the forest of smokestacks, gas tanks and shipping cranes rising from the northern bog. They prefer forests of pitch pines in Hog Wallow to some elephantine mound of trash and rusting refrigerators. Their highway, if they admit to admiring one, is the Garden State Parkway, a relatively bucolic vision that runs the shoreline from Cape May in the south to the verdant neighborhoods of Bergen County in the north. The Turnpike, they contend, deserves its place as a source of cheap laughs for every second-rate comic who ran out of lines about his wife: Take my turnpike, please.
Dr. Irving Selikoff of Mount Sinai Medical Center has called the area along the north end of the Turnpike "Cancer Alley," and the name has stuck. Industry is long entrenched here. Standard Oil, for example, built what amounted to a small company town in Elizabeth at the end of World War I. If there is ugliness here, it is no fault of the Turnpike's.
"In most areas of the country, you find yourself driving around, not through, the most industrial areas," says Robert Hughey, the commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection. "I'm from Homestead, Pa., where the mills are, and the highways sure as hell don't cut through there."
The smell is no fault of the Turnpike's, either. The Turnpike, at age 32, is young compared to the smell that made Secaucus famous.
Until about 25 years ago, the worst smell in the Secaucus area came from the town's 50 pig farms and slaughterhouses. The most famous Secaucus pig farmer of all was Henry Krajewski, who ran twice for president of the United States as an independent populist. The pig farms have disappeared. The construction of the Turnpike was responsible for paving over a dozen of them and local laws banned the building of any new ones.
Now, the smell is purely industrial. Though officials say the air pollution problem has eased in recent years, the smell is still one of a huge bowl of egg salad left in the sun to rot. The odor is of sulfur, a byproduct of the more than 100 refineries in the vicinity of the road.
"It stinks to high heaven," says Russell Kent, the vicar of the Vince. "But at this point, it don't bother me none. Not when it's cold anyway. The cold cuts the stink. I don't worry about choking. I worry about freezing."
It's the great long night of a Jersey youth.
Two kids in love slam the doors on a brown Biscayne and set out on the Turnpike at sunset for the Meadowlands. They smoke and don't say much. She smells of Chloe' and powder. His sleeves are rolled way up.
They are off to hear Bruce Springsteen at the Brendan Byrne Arena in the Meadowlands. Springsteen is a kind of patron saint of New Jersey, and much as the Buddha had his Eight-Fold Path, The Boss has his roads. He knows the Wisdom of the Way.
For hours these Jersey kids stand and sway. During the Big Man's sax solo on "Jungleland," the guy hugs his girl hard. The last encore is "Thunder Road" and the lights go up. For a moment there is a feeling of blankness, exhaustion.
The stars are out over the Meadows and they can hear the traffic humming on the Turnpike. The city kids beat it for the Tunnel and go to Odeon or Danceteria or wherever it is these city kids go.
The Jersey kids head home.
They stop for dinner at an all-night White Castle. He once sat in the parking lot and watched three guys rob the register and beat up the cashier. The highway patrol stops in at White Castle now. The kids stand in line next to a cop whose leather straps creak every time he shifts his girth. The fluorescent lights are as loud as bees.
The kids get their bag of burgers and head for the car. Damned if the deejay isn't playing "Thunder Road" as soon as he twists the key. He hits the accelerator and she cranks up the sound:
. . . Show a little faith there's magic in the night,
You ain't a beauty but, hey, you're all right . . .
He punches the car into the fast lane between a trailer truck full of snowmobiles and an old Malibu with a back window made out of Handi-Wrap. There are little lights as far as you can see and there's a lot of darkness, and it's like being at sea and losing sight of land, snug and anxious at the same time. She opens the bag: the smell of meat and steam and the buns gone soft from the steam. He looks at her and she looks at him. The New Jersey Turnpike:
. . . Roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair,
The night's busted open and these two lanes will take us anywhere . . .