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Trip 23 -- Diners of New Jersey Walk

Day 3: Newton to Budd Lake (Spring Diner, Andover Diner)
Saturday, October 17, 2020

Today: 35605 steps/27.34 km/16.99 mi/6h 10m
Total: 112047 steps/89.76 km/55.77 mi/18h 58m

My room at the Holiday Inn Express in Newton faces east, and once the sun rises above the hills, my room is suddenly in a spotlight and I'm awake. I don't mind; I've slept fitfully, and I turn over and lazily contemplate getting out of bed. It's around half past seven.

I don't need to leave so soon. Today is a fairly short walk, and I hope to time it such that I can listen to "Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me" during the first two hours, then have lunch at the Andover Diner, then continue walking as I tune in to my cousin's daughter's bat mitzvah. If the world were in a healthier state, the family would be in California this weekend.

I dawdle and shower, although I don't really need to; I washed up after my bath yesterday. But it feels good. The hotel has a basic breakfast, but all I want is a cup of apple juice, which I collect on the way out.

I'm interested in comparing Newton, New Jersey, with my hometown of Newton, Massachusetts. Well, for one thing, it has about an eleventh the population (around 8,000 versus almost 90,000). A sign near the Holiday Inn Express says, "Welcome to Historic Newton -- The County Seat. Home of Henry Boresch, Father of NJ Wrestling. Home of the 2017 State Football Champions. Home of the 2012 Boys HS State Soccer Champions."

I walk down U.S. 206 a few minutes and soon see that Newton is a very appealing little town, with a tidy central green, "A Birthplace of Democracy," according to a marker. The green is on a hill, at one end of which is the Sussex County Courthouse, and was used for events such as corporal punishments, entertainment, and community meetings. Until 1858 people would vote in elections by gathering and positioning themselves up or down the hill to indicate their preferences.

After passing the wooden doors of the Newton Fire Department and Newton Fire Museum, I find myself in front of the Spring Diner. It's a small box of a place on the corner, adjacent to a used-record shop. I'm not particularly hungry, but I'm running early on time, so I go in. It smells of ketchup and at the front end the news is shown on a TV set smaller than some I've had on airplanes. At the back is the counter area. With the hostess's permission, I choose a booth.

The menu is 2-4-1 and has a surprisingly full breadth of options for such a small place. I go for a Greek breakfast wrap, a refreshing variation with gyro meat and feta cheese. The accompanying tzatziki goes on the wrap and on the home fries. Behind me the staff are discussing their search for a haunted house. My server claims nothing scares her; she sees right through the acting and starts discussing the actors' makeup with them.

A short distance away is Station House Plaza. Newton was once a stop on the Sussex Railroad, which began as the Sussex Mine Railroad, whose purpose was to carry iron ore from the nearby Andover Mine. Trains stopped running from Newton in 1966.

A sign in front of a house says "Newton Strong" and depicts a Native American; another sign says "Keep the Brave in Newton Braves." The Newton High School Braves football team may soon change their logo in light of recent discussions of cultural sensitivity; I think it's time. Nearby is a line of about a hundred people waiting to do business at the Motor Vehicle Commission.

Soon after the narrow-gauge railway ceased operations in 1966, the tracks were removed and the right of way converted into a trail, and that's where I spend most of today. The Sussex Branch Trail ranges from barely a bicycle's width to a full railcar's, and it's occasionally muddy, but it's beautiful and well-kept, the trees creating an orange and yellow canopy. The sunlight penetrates with varying success, creating a flickering effect. For a while I don't see people on the trail, but then it becomes surprisingly crowded, with bicycles, dogs, and a horseback-riding lesson coming through. We all make room for each other and acknowledge the perfect weather. Is there anything I'd rather be doing than walk this trail?

"Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me" is a repeat of old segments, some of which I missed the first time around. There's an interview with Dan Riskin, an expert on the 1,400 species of bats; he discovered that vampire bats could run when he put them on a treadmill and increased its speed. "Top Chef" judge Padma Lakshmi explains how to make a meal out of the legs of eight pack rats (you boil them until the tails fall off). And the release of the "Cats" movie has had all the cats' buttholes dutifully removed, but apparently a version lurks that contains them.

Well, that's the music that plays in my mind, then.

Midday: not a sound from the railway.
Now the trains are a memory; I am walking alone.
In the sunlight, the leaves are crackling under my feet;
Each one sports its yellow tone.

Memory: stations gone, tracks abandoned.
Do you miss that old music, when trains sounded their horn?
It's a comfort to hear the whistle piercing the night.
Now the path has been reborn.

Dogs and bikes and horses pass;
With each one there's a greeting.
Half a moment for each smile's bestowment --
Acquaintances are fleeting.

Forward, I march on through the daylight.
It's a slow, steady rhythm;
All of nature's aglow.
And I ponder, with every swishing step that I take:
There's no better way to go.

To my delight, the Andover Diner is easily accessible from the trail; I was afraid they'd be separated by a fence and I'd have to backtrack to the previous intersection. I'm full from breakfast, but I'm in the mood for something sweet. The menu is 2.5-4.5-0 -- just a couple of desserts hidden at the bottom of the last page -- but there's plenty to satisfy a sweet tooth in the breakfast section. I order the M&M pancakes and a chocolate egg cream. The drink could use a bit more fizz but the pancakes are well-crafted, with plenty of chocolate hitting all the way to their edges.

I finish just as it's time to sign in for Anjali's bat mitzvah. Prayers are chanted through my headphones, and they're a poetic soundtrack to my progress along the trail. She delivers an inspiring speech about the need for true equality among our country's people. I reach the sparkling Cranberry Lake and almost stumble into a backyard gathering -- the trail has gone to the left and downhill without warning. I find it again, and for a brief time it's only the width of a bicycle tire before it opens up again. On one side is another lake with swans; on the other is a snapping turtle, motionless but alive; someone has just moved it off the trail for protection.

The service ends as I reach a sign for the Iron Mine Trail, and some quick research reveals that the detour will deposit me farther down the Sussex Branch Trail in a half-hour. Well, why not?

There are a fair number of people on the trail, which climbs steeply and passes a cave and some rusted remains of mining equipment. There are a few switchbacks and the blue blazes are easy to follow, until near the end, when they direct me to turn right. There's no corresponding obvious place to walk, but I tramp through anyway, figuring I'll see the blazes again eventually. I never do, but I soon hear voices, and I emerge back on the Sussex Branch Trail about 50 feet south of the end of the mine trail.

The trail ends and for the next few miles I walk through the International Trade Center, an office park with a helicopter pad, a commuter train station, and buildings spaced out every quarter-mile or so. Surprisingly, there's a good sidewalk for the whole length, until I reach the last of the buildings -- apparently the planners believed that people might wander the vast distances within the complex but would never want to cover on foot the last half-mile to the hotels and restaurants on U.S. 46.

That's my plan, of course. The highway has no sidewalk but, incongruously, has a bus stop and a pedestrian signal at the entrance to a mall. Beyond that is a single house -- an inhospitable place to live, if you ask me -- and then I suddenly see the sign for my lodging, the Super 8. I'm in the unincorporated district of Budd Lake, part of the township of Mount Olive.

There's a party going on in the full parking lot. People are setting off sparklers and someone is strutting around in a dinosaur costume. A child slashes at it with a toy sword. Children are running around the corridors of the hotel, too, making the sort of moans and grunts normally associated with a trip to the emergency room.

But across the highway is tranquility. There seems to be a plot of what will eventually be Christmas trees, beyond which is a new development of homes. The sun is setting. The view is a strange cross-section of life, but it's a reassuring one.

Go on to day 4