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Trip 23 -- Diners of New Jersey Walk

Day 2: Wantage to Newton (Hampton Diner)
Friday, October 16, 2020

Today: 27966 steps/22.23 km/13.81 mi/4h 32m
Total: 76442 steps/62.42 km/38.79 mi/12h 48m

The mouse says hello at 1:45 a.m., just as I'm preparing to publish yesterday's update. I'm not sure how to react. It's harmless and kind of cute; I just don't want it to make noise or scurry across the sheets while I'm trying to sleep. (Apparently they do, but why? Isn't it easier to go under the bed?)

There's no moving to another room; the sign said "No vacancy" when I checked in, and all the staff are asleep. I've put the remaining four French fries from dinner on top of the closest thing to a trash can I could find outside: a disposal for cigarette butts that has gotten much recent use. But I realize that other animals might find the package, so I bring it in and return it to the refrigerator.

It's not the first time I've had a mouse in my room. That was five years ago, at a resort in Madagascar that put more effort into the grounds and the restaurant than the rooms. There were mice in the closet and droppings all over the mosquito netting, and the toilet didn't work. They moved me into a vermin-free room, where I had frogs and a lizard instead. At check-out, the owner asked me to leave a review on TripAdvisor, and when I reminded him of the mishaps, he made the request again.

I get in bed and leave the bathroom light on, so I have a good view of the heater, from which I hear the critter rustling around. I turn on the fan to try to drown out its sounds.

It takes a while, but I start to doze off, only to feel the sheet tighten. I think it's settling and reacting to the fan, but I'm jumpy and jolted awake, to start the process again. Fifteen minutes later the same thing happens. It can't be the mouse, can it? It's a subtle sensation; surely the mouse would be more noticeable.

I turn on more lights. I read a little. I pack up all my things and get them off the floor; I put my shoes on the nightstand. The mouse protrudes every few minutes, from different corners and heights.

If there's a positive consequence to my company, it's that I'll want to leave early in the morning, possibly at first light. It's supposed to rain all day between noon and dusk, with sporadic showers before that. I have only four hours to walk; it would behoove me to do it all in the morning.

Maybe I'll stay awake. First light is at 6:44. Can I walk four hours after being up all night?

Eventually I do sleep, from around 4:30 to 7:30. I leave right away, without showering, which is a bit of a shame, since they've given me enough towels for a basketball team and Costco-sized bottles of shampoo and conditioner. The tiny soap bars resemble diner butter packets. I put the key in the drop box and set out in a kind of dazed triumph: This is the first time during either walk that I've managed to get moving before eight.

I retrace my steps through the brief construction zone and turn left onto Pond School Road. It's drizzling slightly, not enough to bother me. Most of today is on roads whose names could hardly be more compelling: Pond School Road, Beaver Run Road, Meadows Road. There is very little traffic; this hour is the domain of school buses.

I pass farms with boxes outside selling fresh eggs on the honor system. A rooster crows with such perfect phrasing it could be a professional sound clip. There's a large field with about 15 Hereford cows, with reddish bodies and white faces. They all turn their heads as they see me walk by, and they stare me down until I round the bend. I see that the field is much larger than I realized; there are closer to 60 cows.

Pond School Road has lots of creatures on view. I'm happily surprised to see a pair of fenced-in alpacas, then sheep, then horses. (The alpacas freeze until I'm out of sight as well.) The drizzle has slowed to the barest trickle and the air smells of sweet life in the plant and animal kingdoms. I'm now in the township of Lafayette. Lafayette, New Jersey, hm.

Lafayette, New Jersey, Lafayette, New Jersey,
Lafayette, New Jersey -- let me say it once again.
Lafayette, New Jersey, Lafayette, New Jersey --
Never heard of it before but now it's in my ken.

Many vehicles that pass me are yellow buses,
But they give me space, so I won't make any fusses.
I've seen cows and sheep but no hippopotamuses.
And the rain's not bad, so I gaily gad.

Lafayette, New Jersey, Lafayette, New Jersey.
Not Absecon, Ramsey, Camden, Wayne, or Montague,
But Lafayette, New Jersey, Lafayette, New Jersey,
Lafayette, New Jersey -- just passin' through.

Eventually the promised steady rain arrives. I'm armed with a pocket poncho that my dad's friend Joan (I now think of her as my friend Joan, too) gave me after my last walk. I unfold it; it looks like a transparent ghost costume. Not 15 minutes later I've figured out how to don it, and it does the trick, protecting my body and my backpack.

My feet are fine but my right leg is feeling the effects of yesterday's 25 miles. It's not keen on bending, so when Meadows Road takes me downhill, I put the tenderest pressure on it.

The center of Lafayette, so to speak, is the intersection of Meadows Road and Route 15. A sign marks the site of the LaFayette Foundry, built in 1836, which provided employment and caused the township to grow to a population of 927 in 1850, after which the business wound down and people left. In 2010, Wikipedia says, Lafayette had 2,538 people, the 469th largest population of all of New Jersey's 565 municipalities.

The twee establishments at the crossing include a gift shop called the Chocolate Goat, set in an 1832 stone building. I pop in for a snack of two Belgian chocolates filled with vanilla cream. (I don't stop the clock for brief stops such as this and the top of High Point. If my walking seems slow based on the times at the beginning of these reports, that's why. I do pause the clock for meals.) Other corners are the homes of gift shops called Sheep Thrills, specializing in wine, and Brick & Mortar, which beckons people from across the street with the sign, "If the chicken can cross it, so can you."

Then there are an antique shop, something labeled "Emporium," the Millside Cafe, and the old 1840s red mill building itself, now a 55-dealer antique market.

Meadows Road continues across Route 15 as Morris Farm Road. It soon blends in with Route 94, and then there's the fast traffic and insufficient shoulder I've come to terms with, sometimes a generous forearm's width and sometimes the span of a hand. I turn onto U.S. 206 and the traffic speeds up but the shoulder is comfortably wide -- you could drive an oxcart along it.

The Hampton Diner isn't much to look at from the outside, but it's busy. They have the distancing thing down well, using only every other booth and just two of the eight counter stools; I'm assigned one of those, and it has an ideally placed footrest to placate my right leg. I guzzle water and Pepsi and ponder the menu.

It's a 4-7-1 menu. Railroad personnel classify locomotives according to the arrangement of their wheels (a 2-8-4 locomotive has two leading wheels, eight driving wheels, and four wheels behind), and I've decided that it makes sense to classify diner menus according to the number of pages devoted to breakfast items, lunch and dinner items, and desserts. Yesterday was a 4-4-1. Today is a 4-7-1, plus a separate paper of today's lunch specials.

How do diners do it? How can one establishment reliably make burgers, steaks, lasagna, moussaka, meatloaf, fried seafood, fresh guacamole, French onion soup, crepes, pancakes, omelettes, and sundaes, all available at any time of morning, afternoon, or night? How can they stock it all? Diner food is almost always pretty good; it's never sensational, but I've never had a bad diner meal.

This menu has an eagle and an American flag on the cover. Inside I find 12 burger varieties, including a "lumberjack burger" with two patties, cheddar, swiss, pickles, mustard, ketchup, and mayonnaise. Even if I liked mayonnaise, I couldn't imagine all those condiments together. There are Yankee pot roast and "Isaac's meatloaf." The "Mr. Muscle Omelette" is six egg whites with grilled chicken and spinach. And there are "classic diner sandwiches" such as "tunafish salad." I remember Pat Sajak long ago remarking, "We don't say 'steak cow.' Why do we say 'tuna fish'?" Well, "tuna fish" -- this is the first time I've seen it all as one word (not good in Scrabble, but the anagram "unfaiths" is) -- bears virtually no resemblance to real tuna, I've come to respect.

This menu has a similar disclaimer to yesterday's, that the actual dishes may not perfectly resemble the photos. I guess I understand, but it's sad. Americans like to complain. I can imagine a diner demanding a discount because the pictured waffle had ten strawberries but the plate contained only nine.

I go for one of the specials, a hummus, avocado, and turkey club. It comes with soup or salad, and I pick the matzo-ball soup, which isn't as salty as expected considering its almost neon-yellow color. It's tasty but even a little underseasoned. The sandwich comes in four vertical quadrants, like kebabs. Between them is a large portion of excellent, crisp French fries. The sandwich also has bacon and is a bit dry; it could use more hummus. It is also unwieldy and tends to fall apart, but the flavors and textures come together well.

I finish it all except some of the bread and a few of the fries, and I walk the last ten minutes to the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Newton Sparta. It's perched on a hill with views of the strip-mall sprawl of U.S. 206. My legs do not want to do these ten minutes, either. But I try to appease them with a hot bath (the tub appears to have a jet feature, but the buttons don't work), a nap, and a generally lazy afternoon.

I call the Rolling Hills Motel. "I stayed with you last night in room fourteen. I'm not asking for compensation, and I'm not posting a review on Tripadvisor, but there was a mouse in my room. I'm just telling you so you can try to do something about it, hopefully humanely, before the next guest checks in."

The person at the other end isn't the high-schooler from last night. "Oh, my God," she says. "The housekeeper was vacuuming, and the mouse ran out. We all screamed."

"Oh, good, I'm glad it left," I say. Mainly I'm relieved that a mouse is a rare enough occurrence to elicit screams from the staff. It's not as if it's a rodent-infested dump; my experience was an anomaly.

"I think, now that it's getting cold, it was trying to find someplace warm," she says. That makes sense. If only I'd thought to open the door and try to coax it out. Or had a vacuum cleaner handy. We have a good laugh and say goodbye.

I look at Facebook and it's one time that the algorithms have conspired to do something wonderful. A friend I performed with years ago is now an expert mountain climber and has posted an article in which a plaintiff is shamefully suing the would-be guide of a Mt. Everest expedition because the guide canceled the trip due to an extremely dangerous, precariously positioned ice block similar to one that killed 16 Sherpas a few years ago.

One commenter on the post catches my attention; it's the name of someone I met 21 years ago in Mongolia. We shared a van with two Japanese travelers from the capital to the 13th-century city of Kharkhorin. The last time I saw him, I was headed back to the capital and he was walking toward Tsetserleg, 100 kilometers from Kharkhorin, hoping to catch a ride. Could it really be the same person?

It is. He made it to Tsetserleg after all and now runs an adventure company in Brooklyn. We plan to meet and discuss our travels.

Applebee's is really the only option for dinner within a mile, unless I want to go back to the diner or take my chances on a pizzeria whose phone line is perpetually busy and may not have indoor dining. Of all the national chains, Applebee's is at the upper end of the bad ones; there'll be cheap drinks, at least, and it's next door to the hotel and I get 10 percent off with my room key.

It's near its current legal capacity of 55 people; there's room for me but the next bar patron, several minutes later, has to wait for someone to leave. I have a margarita, which is served in a martini shaker from which I'm to strain it into a martini glass. The product is tasty if a little sweet even for me (and I hate when margaritas are too sour); the process is strange. At least there's more in the shaker to accompany my Caesar salad, which arrives seconds after the order is keyed into the computer.

The problem I've had with Applebee's, I think, is that they lay the sauce on too thick. I go with a Bourbon Street-inspired steak, with sauteed mushrooms and onions, garlic mashed potatoes, and broccoli. The description promises a buttery garlic sauce for the steak; I notice the butter more on the broccoli. The steak has been cooked several minutes beyond rare and it takes me a while to notice the Cajun seasoning, but it does have some personality after all, and it's not too saucy.

Applebee's has a promotion where one can add 12 fried shrimp to a steak dinner for $1 -- and that's only 90 cents due to my temporary Applebee's Executive Platinum status. How can I say no? My margarita finished, I try the logical accompaniment to steak, the Halloween-themed Dracula's juice, a combination margarita and daiquiri.

The rain has stopped, tomorrow is to be sunny, and I'm ready to enjoy sleeping in a room in which I'm the only mammal.

Go on to day 3