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Trip 23 -- Diners of New Jersey Walk

Day 1: Port Jervis to Wantage (Sussex Sit n' Chat Diner)
Thursday, October 15, 2020

Today: 48476 steps/40.19 km/24.97 mi/8h 16m

Hotels are booked, routes are planned, diners are plotted, and I know which train I'm taking early Wednesday. There aren't many to Port Jervis: two in the morning and then a six-hour gap before the next one.

Then the unthinkable: I get asked to play for a few classes at a musical-theatre school Wednesday afternoon. I'm glad for the work and miss making music that way, so I resign myself to taking an evening train and postpone my exploration of Port Jervis until Thursday. I'm surprised theatre classes are happening, but they manage it well: temperature checks at the entrance (mine registers as "Lo"), masks all around, and a giant fan and an open window next to my piano. I feel protected.

The school is way uptown and the class ends at 5:00. I can take a 5:34 or 5:38 train from Penn Station to connect with the Port Jervis-bound train at Secaucus. The 5:34 gives me seven minutes for the connection, the 5:38 three. I make the 5:34 with several minutes to spare and settle in. There aren't many people onboard.

5:34 comes and goes, and no one seems fazed. Have I boarded the wrong train? The platform signs at Penn Station are frustratingly unhelpful, indicating merely "Boarding" or "Last call" and not what time the train is leaving. And New Jersey Transit is predictably unreliable, or reliably unpredictable; 5:34 could mean anything up through the sports rundown on the six o'clock news. Whatever the case, at 5:36 I decide I must be in the wrong place and rush for the 5:38.

I make it, but it leaves four minutes late, and Secaucus is set up such that to get from the upper level to the lower level you have to go up a level, through a turnstile, and then down two levels. I see the rear end of my beautiful train to Port Jervis, like a dancer in a nightclub strutting away just as I approach to say hello.

The next Port Jervis train is in 34 minutes away, allowing me to enjoy the sunset from the underpass and see if I can figure out what happened to that first train. It was going to Bay Head, I remember. Not many trains go all the way there. I pick a station on the way to Bay Head (Woodbridge) and use the "Real-Time Departures" feature on New Jersey Transit's Web site to see whether it's running.

As I'm punching all that in, a survey pops up asking me to rate the site, earning it one star for that interruption alone. The site isn't any better when I finally get to the list of trains, since another pop-up complains that "Geolocation is not enabled. Please enable to use this feature." I have no idea what that means, but it doesn't seem to matter. I can see that the train is running four minutes late on the way to Woodbridge. I'd been on the correct train after all.

But eventually I'm under way, sitting in one of the old Alstom Comet V railcars whose old leather seats have been replaced. If there's any good news about the delay, it's that this train makes fewer stops than the one I missed. We'll go the 56 minutes to Harriman without stopping.

There are very few people on this train, and only three of us going all the way to Port Jervis. Two hours later, I exit, minding a gap large enough a small seal could fall through, and head for the Erie Hotel, a few minutes' walk away.

I'll be eating and sleeping there. The hotel was built in 1890 and served passengers from the Erie Railroad, which originally ran between Jersey City and Lake Erie and was later expanded and modified through various mergers. As cars replaced trains as the nation's preferred transportation, the railway fell out of use, and now Port Jervis is merely the end of a two-hour-plus commuter line from Hoboken rather than an intermediate stop on the way west. The hotel stands next door to the handsome old brick train station, which has now been converted into shops -- no doubt more money can be made from the building's current services, and no doubt commuters are happier with the abundance of parking near the dull platform a few minutes north.

Thank goodness the Erie Hotel lives on. Its restaurant has been renovated to that perfect where-and-when-am-I style: Photos of old Port Jervis festoon the walls, model trains adorn a shelf above, trophies are a testament to the kitchen's chicken wings, "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" is playing when I walk in. A sign promotes the upcoming gun raffle of the Slatestone Hunting Club: for $10 I can enter to win any of four firearms or $150 in cash in December, based on the New York lottery numbers drawn on the eight dates in question.

I sit at the bar; there's copious distance between my table and the next, and there's plexiglass separating me from the bar area. I order the prime rib with broccoli-cheddar soup and a Moscow mule made with hard cider. A bread plate arrives that more resembles dessert: cinnamon bread, pumpkin bread, and part of what seems to be a baguette. I've chosen penne rather than potato to accompany the prime rib, which is wonderfully rare.

While I eat, I fill out the registration card. The reservation system is pretty casual at the Erie; when I called a few weeks earlier I first asked for the rate ($78.06) and the cancellation policy ("We don't really have one"). The card asks for my name and my car make and model and I turn it in before I think to write "Alstom Comet V."

The bartender opens the book and says, "Oh, you're already in here. Well, it should be a quiet night."

"Are there any other guests?"

"There might not be."

"Will someone be here in the morning? I'm probably leaving around nine."

"No one will be here then. You can put the keys through the mail slot or leave them in your room. No one comes in until about ten."

So that's it? I'll be the only one in the building? It seems...eerie. (You knew I had to do it.)

She hands me the keys (real keys, thank you) to room five: one key for the "Guest Rooms" entrance next door, and one for my room. It's a perfectly adequate room, with four bars of wrapped soap, no shampoo, and the tiniest shower stall I've ever stood in (I have to angle my elbows up). A train passes by and it's fairly loud but not right on top of me. A light sleeper wouldn't be happy here. But I love it.

I take a little walk around the town and go to bed early; I have lots to do and want to get an early start. I realize I'm not the only one staying the night; there seems to be a party in one of the nearby rooms. But it settles down, and I fall asleep.

It's a fresh, foggy morning, as it often is in this part of New York -- anyone who looks at the regional weather on TV sees that Monticello, not far away, almost always has the lowest temperature on the map, by about 20 degrees. It's getting up to the 70s, though, so I put on a jacket and shorts and the air feels good. An hour later I remove the jacket.

I walk up to the Erie Turntable. A few old railcars are lined up, and one is atop the turntable, which was built in 1854 and in use for servicing engines until the 1980s. There are few such turntables left in the country, and this one is in excellent condition. It's here, the farthest north I'll be on this trip, that I start counting the distances and time I've walked.

Pike Street takes me across the bridge over the Delaware River into Matamoras, Pennsylvania. Immediately on the other side is a firearm and ammunition shop. Here a sign for the Matamoras Rod & Gun Club tells me that I can win cash on any day in 2021, with prizes ranging from $200 to $500; here the raffle tickets are a pricy $20. If I'd crossed the bridge a century earlier, I'd have had to pay a two-cent toll -- or twenty cents for a score of sheep or hogs "and so in proportion for More, or Less," according to one of the photos at my hotel's restaurant. It cost forty cents to take a large automobile over, or a quarter for a sled or sleigh drawn by a pair of horses, mules, or oxen.

I walk back through town and through the Laurel Grove Cemetery to reach the tristate marker under Interstate 84. Here's where New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania meet. The marker is a stump of a stone and I sit on top of it, straddling New York and Pennsylvania with my right leg in New Jersey. (Sources, among them Google Maps, say that the actual tristate point is in the river a few meters away, but I'm not in the mood for the swim.)

I enter New Jersey for good and walk along Route 23. I'm approaching High Point State Park; from the bridge to Matamoras I saw the obelisk marking the highest point in New Jersey, and I'm ready for the climb, at least mentally. It's three miles of ascent, but I don't mind; by now it's warm and clear, and yellow leaves are flying horizontally in the breeze, like birds. Trees stand in fiery orange.

The brief half-mile Old Trail, used by horses to bring guests from the Port Jervis station to the High Point Inn in the 1890s, takes me to Lake Marcia and the interpretive center. Mainly I want to visit the center to ask about the likelihood of seeing bears in the park later -- or, perhaps more optimistically, the likelihood of not seeing them. They've been making appearances with increasing frequency lately.

The visit center is closed, but at least the box of maps has a few nice color-printed copies inside, and I investigate my options. My lodging tonight is in Wantage, about 11 miles away along Route 23, but I had considered taking the Appalachian Trail for about five miles, which would add about 3.5 miles to the walk. On my new handy map I see that the Iris Trail is a little shorter and a lot easier, and that's what I decide on.

First I climb up to the obelisk, however. I've been to this place before, about 12 years ago. It had been one of those stretches with no days off except one, and on that one I rented a car with the intent to drive out to High Point State Park. Well, of course it rained and I could barely see the obelisk, let alone enjoy any view. I drove down and the rain stopped; I drove back up and it came back. I went somewhere else; I don't remember where.

But today is glorious, and from the top I can see the bridge in Port Jervis and for miles in all directions. Much of the view is forest; trees are dressed in green, yellow, and red, as if thousands of traffic lights have been hurled like confetti over the landscape (and somehow remained connected to the power grid). More poetically, it's like the small strokes of a Monet painting. There are even pink hues.

People are talkative at the top. One retired couple flew in from Florida yesterday; he's always excited to visit his childhood state, and I don't have the heart to tell him that if he's just in from Florida he should be staying home for two weeks. Another guy is from Port Jervis, and he's eagerly explaining that the marker at the top is an obelisk rather than a monument. "Everybody tells you it's a monument, but it's an obelisk," he says. "See the bell shape at the bottom, and the phallic shape at the top." I'm not sure why it can't be both -- it's a monument in the shape of an obelisk.

"The top here is sixteen hundred feet," he goes on. "The obelisk is two hundred twenty, so the highest point in the state is one thousand eight hundred twenty feet." (He's correct about the height of the obelisk, but a plaque attached to its side says we stand at 1,803 feet.) "On the weekends it's open, and you can walk up the staircase." I'm happy to have been at New Jersey's highest altitude and latitude (anagrams, no doubt you realize) in the same day.

I see a bird circling above the obelisk. "That's a vulture," he says. "If you see one with a white tail, that's an eagle. And see that open space?" He points down toward the interpretive center. "There used to be a motel. It's gone, but there are still cabins around. Big ones. You can bring twelve people in and spend the night. And the signs say the park closes at six, but it's not true. You just can't have a car. But you can stay the night, or stay late and walk out."

"What are these trees?" I ask, gesturing toward the colorful bounty below.

"Bushes," he says. "That's about as high as they'll grow, this far up."

"I see, we're above the treeline," I say. I meant everything below us, but he doesn't seem to be ready with that information.

"I'm sixty-one years old," he says. "My wife is Polish. I haven't had soup out of a can in more than twenty years. She always makes a fresh pot of soup. I've been hiking all my life. I can still hike like I'm thirty. But now I think about it more: Am I really up for that?"

"Nah, you've still got it." He's clearly fit and seems knowledgeable about the woods; maybe here's where I can get some information. "Are there a lot of bears around here?"

"There are," he says. "But they usually don't come near the trail. We've also got snakes."

"Yes, I saw a little one along the trail up here."

"No, big ones. Rattlesnakes. I came up on one hanging from a tree a few miles away. It was four and a half feet long."

That was a surprise to me.

"Well, I'd better find my way down. Good talking to you."

"Enjoy your walk!"

I descend the path I'd come up, part of the Monument Trail -- or should it be the Obelisk Trail? Then I follow the Appalachian Trail for a mile or so, pausing briefly to climb a wooden structure for more views, though they weren't as impressive as those from the top. The Appalachian Trail is narrow, rugged, and rocky, just as I remember. I've hiked brief stretches of it, but I've never been particularly interested in following its whole length between Maine and Georgia. Bill Bryson already wrote the book on that.

Across Route 23, the Appalachian Trail and the Iris Trail run concurrently for a couple of minutes, and then Iris veers to the left. This trail is easy to walk and easy to follow, and in its middle section it has views of a private lake.

I still wonder about the bears. Last month I sang "La vie en rose" to announce my presence; today I think of "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning." I sing it a couple of times as written, but a half-hour later I am singing:

There's a blazing white sun in New Jersey,
There's a blazing white sun in New Jersey.
The weather is calm and I hike with aplomb,
And if I see a bear, I'll yell out for my mom.

Oh, what a beautiful...daytime,
Oh, what a beautiful day.
I got a beautiful feelin',
I'll like this walk to Cape May.

Well, the best time to walk is in autumn.
Yes, the best time to walk is in autumn.
I don't need a coat and I still don't need pants,
And if I see a bear, I'll do my back-up dance.

Oh, what a beautiful daytime,
Oh, what a beautiful day.
I got a beautiful feelin',
I'll like this walk to Cape May.

Now the Sit n' Chat Diner awaits me,
Or the Double S Diner awaits me.
I bellow this tune as I scurry along,
And if I see a bear, I hope it likes this song.

Oh, what a beautiful daytime,
Oh, what a beautiful day.
I got a beautiful feelin',
I'll like this walk to Cape May.
No bears are comin' my way.

I finish the trail and turn left onto Deckertown Turnpike. I still have two hours to go before reaching a diner. My feet are putting up with it pretty well, though. I pass homesteads selling honey and farms with cattle, and the sweet smell of mulch pervades, so strong it seems about to turn into wine.

I merge back onto Route 23, and then I follow a parallel road through the borough of Sussex (settled either in 1732 or "about 1742," depending on which sign you read). On the sidewalk people are giving away produce; one is waving a sign that says "Free." I'm intrigued; I'm hoping there's something easy to walk and eat that doesn't have to be cooked.

People are putting the food into bags. "If you wait just a minute, someone can help you."

"Thanks, but I'd love just one apple," I say.

"That's all?"

"Well, I'm walking."

"You don't want a bag?"

"It's really too much."

She understands and hands be a giant apple. "Wipe it off on your shirt!" someone else calls out.

"Thank you, this is great!" I say, and I eat my first food of the day.

I reach the Sussex Sit n' Chat Diner (I don't know why there is only the one apostrophe) just before five. They have outdoor seating, under a tent and beyond. As I arrive, a police vehicle is out front, and someone's car has its rear smushed further forward than it should be. I sit outside the tent. In it a patron is soon smoking a pipe.

I order a Coke immediately and a Pepsi arrives, but I'm not disappointed. Through my mask I tell the server that I need a few minutes with the menu. She emphasizes that I don't need to wear the mask but she must wear hers.

"I'll try to keep it on when I'm talking to you," I say.

"It's not necessary. For a while the staff didn't wear them outside. But some people were afraid. So now we have to wear them, but you don't." This came out sweetly; there was no petulant tone, although she peeled her mask away from her face when she spoke, and when it went back on it didn't cover her nose and didn't really cover her mouth, either.

She sees that I'm wearing a T-shirt with a map of the neighborhoods of New York City. "Do you know New York City?" she asks.

"I live there." I explain my journey, much as I did to the people at High Point.

"Bless your heart," she says. She asks whether it's possible to row under the Henry Hudson Bridge from the Hudson River toward the city; she's been told there was no access. "We're kayakers," she explains.

"I know I've seen boats go through there. Sometimes I take the Metro-North Railroad up along the Hudson. It goes right along the water. When the train makes that turn out of the city, I feel totally becalmed."

We talk about other journeys. "My kids live in Oregon," she says. "Every year I take the train across the country to visit them. But not this year. You have to wear a mask the whole time. So I'm thinking of driving."

I examine the menu: four pages of breakfasts, four of lunches and dinners, and one of desserts. At the bottom of each page is the caveat, "Photos are for suggestion only -- Actual platters may appear different." Well, I should hope they'd be larger, for one thing. Another warning says that the restaurant is "not responsible for personal property or for damage to cars in parking spaces."

Certain options catch my eye: a "Heart Attack Grilled Cheese," with ham, bacon, and sausage; a "Mexican Quatro," with two mini-tacos, two taquitos, two sliced plantains, and deep-fried cassava; and a chicken "empañada" -- once they figured out the "ñ" in "jalapeño" they apparently decided it belonged in every Spanish word on the menu.

They also have a breakfast challenge: Finish four pancakes, two eggs, two pieces of sausage, home fries, toast, and a small juice (I just love that it's a small juice) in 30 minutes and it's free. Or finish a two-pound burger with six slices of cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion rings, and fries in 30 minutes and it's free.

I've forgotten how quickly I cool off after walking so long, and I put on a thin sweater. I decide on a bowl of chili and a "drunken chicken parmigiana sandwich," with vodka sauce.

The chili comes in a crock with such a thick layer of hard cheese you could use it to repave Route 23, and that's not a complaint. It has raw onions and may not sport the subtlest of flavoring but it more than hits the spot.

The open-faced sandwich has so much cheese on it that it's impossible to tell that anything lies beneath. When the server brings it, she carries in her other hand a jar of parmesan for sprinkling. "Nothing goes better with lots of cheese than more cheese!" I say.

She laughs. "Bless your heart."

She refills the Pepsi multiple times and brings water as well. I finish half the sandwich and bring the rest to the Rolling Hills Motel, 20 minutes farther down Route 23.

My feet think they're finished for the day and do not want to go those last 20 minutes, but once they get going they're doing all right. I pass the Double S Diner, which does not seem to be open. Throughout the day I've enjoyed fairly wide shoulders or even sidewalks, but there's a brief work zone with nowhere to walk except in the lane of oncoming traffic -- and it's now after dark. I wave the bag with my sandwich at the cars coming at me, and they move toward the center.

The receptionist looks to be in about the tenth grade. He sees that I've booked with Expedia (it's actually a free night from Hotels.com) and points out that the motel has its own Web site, with the use of which the motel and I would both come out ahead if I ever have a future paid stay.

"Do you want a Coke or a Sprite?" he asks. "I can hook you up."

I'm done with cola for the day, but "I'd love a Sprite. Thanks."

I have about a half-hour before it's time to play Thursday-night Scrabble. I win the first two and lose the last two, not bad after a 25-mile day. I finish the sandwich (fortunately the room has a microwave oven) and throw the last four French fries in the trash outside (unfortunately, it also has a mouse).

Go on to day 2