Trip 23 -- Diners of New Jersey Walk
Day 7: Princeton to Bordentown (Princetonian Diner, Town & Country Diner, Wisdom Diner)
Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Today: 36908 steps/28.77 km/17.88 mi/5h 54m
Total: 266574 steps/210.29 km/130.67 mi/43h 23m
It's cool and misty when I leave the Hyatt Place, and I decide a little breakfast at the Princetonian Diner, less than ten minutes away, would hit the spot. The place is two large rooms plus counter space; I seem to be the only guest in one of them until someone emerges from the bathroom. Still, I'm party number six for the day according to my check, and this is at 9:00, two hours after they opened.
The host leads me to a booth and the server almost stops him; she wants to make sure she's cleaned it. "I bleached that one," she confirms.
"I won't lick it," I say. I do, out of habit, lean my forearms on it, and then they smell of bleach.
The menu is only 1-1-trace -- just ice cream, rice pudding, or baklava for dessert, although under the beverages they offer vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry milkshakes and "specialty milkshakes" in Oreo and Recess flavors. It's not time for a milkshake (yet), but I have to ask about the Recess. It must be a kind of local cookie I've not heard of, or perhaps it's a New Jersey creation such as the fatwich, or maybe it has to do with college being on hiatus.
"You know, Recess, the candy with chocolate and peanut butter," the server says.
The white board at the entrance announces, "'Tis the season for pumpkin pancakes," and that's what sticks in my mind.
"They're good!" my server affirms.
They are. The pumpkin is more of a subtle flavoring, but the pancakes are fluffy as a pillow. They arrive with eight butter packets and three little syrup containers; all I need is one of the syrups.
I have two options for reaching the Holiday Inn Express in Bordentown. One is 14.7 miles along county roads. The other is 16.4 miles, with much of it back on the canal trail. I decide the extra half-hour of walking is worth it to enjoy strolling the towpath once more.
Signs along the trail indicate that the canal is stocked with trout, and I picture my dinner from yesterday poetically picked fresh from a bridge just minutes away, although I'm sure it was part of a bulk delivery. I pass Port Mercer, a community that developed around the construction of the canal and named after Hugh Mercer, a general in the Revolutionary War. "In 1900, Port Mercer was home to a saw mill, a coal yard, a lime kiln, a general store, and a hotel," a signboard informs me. About all that remains is the house assigned to the bridge tender, who operated and maintained the swing bridge over the canal.
I ponder these little communities sprouting up along the canal and then falling into decline, much as so many towns were borne out of the construction of railroads and then became defunct. I'm grateful to have recently walked former rail rights of way, and I'm impressed that the towpath has been maintained so well. The buildings may have been repurposed or demolished, but the canal continues to flow.
There's a canal and it runs through Trenton.
That's a canal built by Irish men.
Once it took goods up from Pennsylvania.
Now it's still flowin', till who knows when?
That manmade river,
No longer hoppin',
But not forgotten.
It still keeps rollin',
It keeps on rollin' along.
The work was painful,
The work was dirty.
That manmade river,
It just keeps rollin' along.
Dawn to dusk, they'd toil and whack,
Clearin' the forest with achin' back.
Build those locks!
Dig that ditch!
Earn a buck a day
And you'll strike it rich.
Crowded livin' and poor nutrition,
They worked until they achieved their mission.
The manmade river,
It just keeps rollin' along!
The problem with taking the canal route is that I have to cut through Trenton and pick up the trail again farther south, and Trenton doesn't have the best reputation. I see the litter as soon as I exit the trail on Whitehead Road: paper, glass, a box from a toy unicorn. Whitehead continues as State Street, where beautiful two-story brick rowhouses have fallen into various states of disrepair; some are boarded up.
There is art, however: The "Mooo'ndrian" is an orange cow statue built by nearby high-school students. The homes become wooden, and they've settled into slightly lopsided forms. People loiter in front of stores; others are chatting on their terraces and smoking. If I stood still for a minute I'd get high, though that's now a feature of parts of New York City as well.
I'll find out on the news later that last night a double homicide occurred on Mulberry Street, a few blocks away. If I'd taken the slightly longer north-bank canal route, I'd have emerged on Mulberry, where two brothers, aged eight and 16, were shot from the street in the second story of their building. They were the 34th and 35th homicide victims in Trenton this year; the record, set in 2013, is 37.
State Street, and then a left turn on Raoul Wallenberg Avenue, bring me to the Trenton Transit Center. They still have those wonderful Solari split-flap destination signs, showing the next six trains to come through. But the trains shown are from hours ago; the current ones are on the digital display. Does the old sign still work? I hope so; it's one of few left in the country.
It's strange to think that I'll pass through here on the way home next week, and as if to get ready, I buy my train ticket for the ride to New York. I walk through the concourse and then head south.
If there are things in Trenton, I've never seen them. I've been driven through the city once, and I've transferred to and from Philadelphia trains at the station many times. But I've never found a street with restaurants, or a main park, or museums, or people walking purposefully, or any of the other lifeblood of a capital city. Mostly it seems to consist of giant parking structures.
I do get to see the jail, though. I'm supposed to walk south on Route 129, which parallels the River Line light rail. But Route 129 is teeming with traffic, and it seems safer to walk through a lane on the other side of the tracks. Except that the lane ends at the next rail stop and the cross street crosses over Route 129, without intersecting it.
I see that I should be able to continue south on Third Street, but it proves to be the parking area of the New Jersey State Prison. I walk around the prison's perimeter, wondering whether the presence of the prison makes me safer or less so.
I get back to 129 and have to choose between walking somewhat illegally or very illegally. The safest place to walk would be along the River Line tracks -- goodness knows the service is seldom enough that I wouldn't have to duck out of the way very often. But they are clearly marked with "No Trespassing" signs.
Route 129 has a wide shoulder but a sign says "No Horses Bicycles or Pedestrians on Freeway." Is this the freeway? Farther down is the junction with interstates 195 and 295, but Route 129 itself doesn't feel like a freeway. There are traffic lights and crossing signals. I proceed south in the shoulder, facing the northbound traffic. I'll explain myself if an officer stops me. It occurs to me that someone could take me for a prison escapee, but I'm not dressed for the occasion.
I reach the end of 129 and its associated swirls of on- and off-ramps, and I find the correct oncoming lane to take me to safety. Traffic is thin here, and it feels more normal to be walking along the road. I reach the trail and look behind; there was no corresponding prohibiting sign in the other direction. I could easily imagine coming off the trail and turning, thinking it was a single lane and then suddenly finding myself walking on a highway.
This stretch of the canal trail, about 3.5 miles, takes me through Abbott Marshlands. It's much less populous than the area up near Princeton; I see only three other walkers, plus a cyclist who passes me in both directions.
I've been going for about five hours and could use a break; my feet and toes have had no issues during this walk, but the back of my right leg hurts periodically and doesn't want to bend. I stretch it a bit, and then I find a bench. It's a tiny, green bench, barely enough for one person, and someone has written on it "ACAB" and "Gay Rights." There's a slightly wider bench farther along, with the same messages.
I cross the Crosswicks Creek, and under the trestle bridge are the remains of the "Trestle Vessel," a coal-transporting boat from the Schuylkill Navigation System: The Delaware & Raritan Canal operated its own boats but also allowed others to use its waterways, much as railways sometimes allow other operators to use their tracks.
The trail ends and I'm in Bordentown, a surprisingly beautiful town rich in history. Joseph Borden began his mail-carrying ferry between Philadelphia and Bordentown in 1740, and the town became a layover town for travelers. In 1778, gunpowder-filled kegs constructed at Borden's cooperage were floated down the Delaware in an attempted attack against the British, an event that inspired the "Battle of the Kegs" ballad.
Other noteworthy Bordentown residents include William F. Allen, who helped to standardize time zones; the green clock tower above the old city hall is dedicated to him. And Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, opened the first no-cost public school in New Jersey, for six students who couldn't afford private school. She taught them in a little red brick building in Bordentown, and the experiment was so successful that they outgrew the building within two years.
Apart from that, Bordentown is simply a lovely little place, with buildings almost 300 years old, a park overlooking the canal locks, and plenty of restaurants. Its beauty is no doubt heightened today because it's unseasonably warm, and people are strolling and eating outside and walking their dogs.
Just as a reality check, when I reach U.S. 206 there's an adult bookstore and novelty shop, and then across the street is my hotel. I give the receptionist my name.
"That sounds like a powerful name," she says.
"I've never gotten that before," I say. "But I assure you, I don't wield much power."
I put my things upstairs and head up Route 206 to the Town & Country Diner for a little snack; it's just after 3:00, and I could use something before dinner. The menu is 2-13-1-1 (there's a page of cocktails, beer, and wine, for which I've not accounted yet), but two of those 13 pages are lunch specials and two are dinner specials. There are seven kinds of French fries, including "Green Bean Fries": "Truly Not Fries but Truly Delicious, served with Ranch Dressing."
I sit outside and ask what the soups are. One is vegetable but I can't for the life of me make out the other. I ask several times and it's something like "cream of potato leek" but I just don't understand what's cream and what's not.
I order a bowl of matzo-ball soup and a chocolate milkshake. "I know, I'm all over the place," I tell the server. But that's the beauty of a diner; there's no shame in ordering any combination of foods. That's why they're there.
The soup comes with two matzo balls and little dots of pasta. The balls seem a bit stale, but they have a nice firmness. The shake comes in a large metal cup and a smaller glass for me to pour it in, which apparently is the traditional serving method at diners.
I head back to the hotel for a brief Zoom meeting and a nap before meeting my cousins, Jan and Steve, at my third diner of the day. The Wisdom Diner is sleek and gray inside. It doesn't have outdoor service, but it's so nice out that we take the food to go and sit on the benches outside.
The menu is 2-8-1, including lunch specials available at any other time for an additional dollar. There's a bit of everything -- Greek, Italian, Mexican, plus the ubiquitous calf's liver and liverwurst sandwiches, which I can't imagine many people have ordered since 1955 -- and items whose names require explanation, such as "Oooo La La" (stuffed shells with vodka sauce), "Felix And Oscar" (crab shells stuffed with crabmeat), and "Chicken Yum Yum" (sauteed chicken, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, basil, wine, and parmesan over penne).
I get the veal parmigiana over linguine and it comes out saucy, cheesy, and crusty, just as it should. Steve has a pork kebab, and Jan has a big salad with chicken. We receive paper bags containing utensils and a couple dozen little ketchup and salt packets.
Jan has continued tutoring students for the SAT, partly online, and partly in person outside, though with smaller groups than before. Steve teaches high-school math, physics, and computers, from home, while a monitor supervises the students attending in-person classes. They've gotten used to the new teaching arrangement and learned to do it with success, but we all agree it's not nearly as good as being together.
They live a half-hour's drive away and have spent time in Trenton. Jan had a walk around for a couple of hours once while Steve dealt with some business in the government buildings (I haven't found those, either); she encountered beauty, restaurants, and other compelling attributes of a city. Clearly I need to give Trenton another chance.
Before we part, Jan gives me a challah roll and a freshly picked Stayman Winesap apple, which should provide the energy I need to start tomorrow's six-hour stroll down U.S. 206.
Go on to day 8