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Trip 23 -- Diners of New Jersey Walk

Day 9: Southampton to Hammonton (Red Lion Diner, Shamong Diner)
Friday, October 23, 2020

Today: 41904 steps/33.80 km/21.00 mi/6h 15m
Total: 346278 steps/275.03 km/170.90 mi/55h 13m

Two challenges stand out when I check into a hotel: how to find the local TV channels and how to get the shower to something resembling a decent temperature and pressure. The regime at chain hotels these days is to foist upon guests a hotel channel with useless information such as shopping options. It comes on every time you power on the set, whereas what you really want is for the set to return to the same channel you were watching before (as happens at home) or, at least, show you what's being broadcasted. Some TV sets now take the absurdity further and make you choose between live TV (which should always be the default) or on-demand or streaming services.

Independent motels are usually better than chains. They don't have the setup to try to be fancy. There's still a learning curve -- finding the channel guide can be a challenge, and the local channels aren't always where they should be -- but at least the set can generally be assumed to return you to what you were watching if you dare do something as shady as turn the set off and back on again.

For two days I've managed to find Fox 29 Philadelphia's "Good Day Aftershow," a bit of local news and culture that airs from 9:00 to 10:00 a.m. Most of the stories are pretty insipid -- yesterday's dealt with '90s expressions such as "Talk to the hand" and "Wazzup?" -- and the personalities, Alex, Mike, and Karen, appear in their own sections of the screen in such outsized statures that I feel like my morning ablutions are being observed by Tommy Tune.

Today's program caught my ear, however, so much so that once I got the shower on and resigned myself to its sloppy spraying geometry, I left it running and paid attention. Mike was trying to convince the others that the proper pronunciation of "foliage" was "FO-lij," whereas Alex and Karen stood behind the usual three-syllable version.

They then brought up a recent article by BestLife indicating the country's most hated states. Number one is -- you guessed it -- New Jersey, owing to its population decline in 2018 and its condemnation by people from New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut and its own people as well. Number three is California, and number two is Texas. "Texas could have been its own country!" says Alex.

"And probably should be," says Mike.

Regarding New Jersey, they said, people think of the swamps, but it's "really a beautiful state."

"Also the roundabouts."

"That's true. There is a lot to hate."

"But there are a lot of trees," Mike says. "And those trees are covered in..."

The others don't pick up his cue.

He gives in. "FO-lee-ij."

Then they discuss Pennsylvania's most popular villain (Frankenstein), and I'm ready to shower before it overflows.

When I'm clean, there's a more serious story playing. Today, 850 empty white chairs are set up on Independence Mall, each representing ten Pennsylvanians who have died of the coronavirus.

I leave the hotel and cross the roundabout -- they're better for traffic, but they result in a lot more walking and focus for pedestrians -- and not five minutes later I'm at the Red Lion Diner. Leo the lion guards the entrance, and the building looks like a miniature version of an Atlantic City casino. The place even has its own rewards program.

The normal menu is 2-10 with desserts printed on a table tent; main meals include a saltimbocca saute, a Tennessee ribeye, and a "petite filet mignong" with shrimp in Jack Daniel's sauce; at least the typeface isn't Univers. The brunch menu they provide me is five pages of morning-focused options, two of which are repeated on the full menu. The diner consists of several rooms; I'm shown to one in back, where I'm the only customer. Fox 29 is on the TV set, but not the audio. Instead I hear piped-in versions of "It's My Party," "Poor Little Fool," and, just for balance, "Foolish Little Girl." I almost expect guests to arrive in Studebakers.

I decide on the Jersey waffle: pork roll, cheese, and eggs any style (I'm never good at this but I order them over hard) atop a waffle; the dish was "featured on Fox 29." I try the waffle and it's dry; I try the pork roll and it's too crisp and salty; I try it with the cheese and eggs and it's too bright.

The genius in the dish, I learn, is that you must add the butter and syrup and eat everything together. The proportion of ingredients has been carefully calculated such that there's enough of everything in each bite, and when you get waffle, pork, cheese, egg, butter, and syrup all at once, it's a balanced combination of sweet, salty, fluffy, crunchy, and gooey. Once I give in to that, as one does trying to enter cool water and finally deciding to submerge oneself quickly and completely, I enjoy the concoction tremendously.

One other guest has been seated in the room with me. The server has forgotten her side of bacon but promises to retrieve it right away. "Just regular, not in the fryer," the patron requests.

Then she starts talking to herself. "Young Girl" comes on, and she says, "That's nineteen sixty-eight." She looks it up. "Yes!"

Soon I start doing the same thing. I've looked up the BestLife article to see where other states are on the list, and I exclaim, "What's wrong with Michigan?" It's number six. New York is number 11. I'm scrolling to see where my birth state of Massachusetts is, and I approach the middle of the list, surprised it's not hated as much as I expected. Surely it's not in the bottom half, is it? No, it just makes the cut, at number 25. "Haha, of course," I say.

I could spend the morning next to the deafening traffic of U.S. 206 again, but instead I take a couple of crossbow-shaped detours that add no more than ten minutes to the trip. I divert to the little township of Tabernacle and am relieved to see the speed limit drop from 55 to 25 (I'm not likely to hit either of them). A blue sign points to what appears to be a barn with a basketball net outside but is in fact the Medford Farms Baptist Church. The leaves of white-ash trees have turned burgundy, and those of red maples are deep red.

I pass farms with goats, donkeys, chickens, and geese. A sign marks the site of a one-room schoolhouse in use from 1860 to 1920, but the parcel is overgrown and no sign of the building remains.

The Shamong Diner isn't open for meals (except for phone orders), but a side window allows people to order and receive ice cream. There are plenty of options in the 0-3-3 menu -- no doubt there are copious breakfast offerings in normal times.

Each year I have one big sundae, and I never got around to it this year. Now is my chance. I ask for a banana split with chocolate, pumpkin, and cookie-dough ice creams and toppings of hot fudge, peanut-butter cups, and crushed cherries.

I receive a container with three tennis-ball-sized scoops and all the extras, somewhat oddly in a one-to-one arrangement -- the peanut-butter cups are over the cookie dough, the cherries are over the chocolate, and the hot fudge is over the pumpkin. But the flavors do wonders; the pumpkin is surprisingly rich, the chocolate surprisingly refreshing. Everything is under giant stars of whipped cream, which I don't particularly need, and the portion is so big that I forget it's a banana split until I find the fruit several minutes later. It's just what I need to get me to my hotel in Hammonton.

You're standing fourteen miles away.
And I am ready for my stay.
I know you command a deeply reverent awe.
And who could be worthy? C'est moi.

A night in your fabled town would be unmissable.
To sleep in your bed is humbling, to be sure.
Walk your streets, I should praise your cars.
Eat your food, I should thank my stars.
I must humbly show that my gratitude is pure.
Whoever may tempt, your people are unkissable.
I'll bow with respect, be someone you will like.
But why in the world
Do I in the world
Lack energy for this hike?

Shamong! Shamong -- it serves me a split.
A sundae second to none.
And soon I feel I'm fashioned of steel.
Shamong, you're number one.

Your flavors I shall fav'rably judge,
Your pumpkin is rich with cream.
And when they're high with piping-hot fudge
I'm living in a dream!

Shamong! Shamong -- I'm now fully fit.
No one could fill me with dread.
So here I stand, with confidence strong,
Amazingly sure I'm where I belong,
And ready to forge ahead.

Google Maps says that I should leave 206 and take Willow Grove Road and Burnt House Road. All is well until Burnt House turns into 3 Bridge Road; a sign says "No Outlet" but I'm to follow this to the next intersection. I trust the instructions.

The asphalt goes away just after I pass a utility worker nailing a number code to a pole. Then it's a dirt road for about a mile and a half through forest. The colors are brilliant; I'm constantly in awe at the juxtapositions of reds, yellows, oranges, and purples. But it is a through street, to be sure.

I reach the paved Atsion Road (Atsion itself is a ghost town a couple miles in the wrong direction) and I'm meant to take the next right, onto what the map calls Ephriam Road. It's not signed as such; it's another dirt road leading to a campsite in Wharton State Forest. I'm in total solitude -- which isn't bad, since the Shamong Diner and the general store next door, where I bought water, didn't have public restrooms -- and it's an abrupt contrast from the bustle of U.S. 206. Two pickup trucks pass me, one in each direction, and that's all the human life I see.

The road becomes more sandy than dirty; the map indicates that the name changes to Sandy Causeway Road, but there is no sign to that effect. A jumble of intersections on the map suggests a town, but it's more of the same sand and dirt, and there are no buildings or people. I turn right onto what's called Fleming Pike -- surely something with that moniker means fast traffic and paved lanes, but instead the road becomes even less of a road, sandier and lonelier.

This area of the state, the Pine Barrens, is a giant ecosystem renowned for the sandy terrain I've been crossing; the area was never fully developed because of the unsuitable soil. The Pine Barrens or Pinelands cover 22 percent of the state, and Wharton State Forest itself is enormous at 122,880 acres.

I'm walking parallel to an abandoned railway line. The railway was part of the New Jersey Southern Railroad, a plan to connect New York with Baltimore via a series of rail and ferries. Through acquisitions, the rails were used for various purposes including access to Atlantic City. Service fizzled out in 1957, and the line along which I walk was abandoned in the 1970s. But years ago, many rail systems crisscrossed the state. Today New Jersey Transit runs from New York to Trenton and along the coast from New York to Bay Head; the separate Atlantic City Line runs from Philadelphia to Atlantic City and has no connections with the others. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have all these old lines in service?

I follow Google Maps to the letter, even though various more-prominent tracks veer off in various directions. At times Fleming Pike is no more than a narrow trail, impassable by common vehicles due to roots, water, even a trunk blocking the path. For more than an hour I see no one, and it's just sand beneath my feet.

Finally I emerge into farmland. There are horses and cows, and dogs bark as though it's their life's mission to sample my leg meat. Fleming Pike is now paved, and there's traffic. After that solitude, I'm grateful.

I still have an hour before I reach the Rodeway Inn in Hammonton, a facility whose purpose I don't fully understand -- not many people walk from Shamong, I imagine. Who else is staying here?

I'm glad the place exists, though. There's not much for dinner around, just a corner shack called Mr. Bill's, but I'm looking for something more than sandwiches and burgers. I see a couple of wineries nearby. Maybe they're serving something -- worth a shot.

Sharrott overachieves. The winery not only serves food but has entertainment this evening. I call in advance and am seated on the lawn along with about 20 other parties; there are also firepits and under-the-roof seats. I have a flight of three of their wines: the Barrel Reserve Chardonnay, intense and buttery; the Chambourcin, mellow and spicy but more suited to a Christmas party than a dinner; and the appropriately sweet Riesling. I eat a bowl of shrimp bisque, breaded eggplant with ricotta and mozzarella that comes out a little cool, and brisket sliders that go nicely on mini-baguettes. I want a glass of their crisp Vidal, but their bottle prices are only twice the price, so I go for the whole thing and will take it back to the Rodeway Inn.

The music is two singer-guitarists, performing that too-common "'66, now" song and "99 Red Balloons" (perhaps the same set list turned upside-down), along with "Run-run-run-run-runaway" and Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper's "Shallow." Late in their last set, it's "Cat's in the Cradle," and that's unfair. It's not my life at all (my dad always was, and still is, there for my brother and me), but it's powerful, and too much for people who drink wine and listen to lyrics. The pair sound excellent, however, with good harmonies, surprising guitar riffs, and unexpected segues, but, like most guitarists, they insist on the gratuitious button at the end of a song even when everyone knows it's over.

The servers are attentive and running around the lawn, carrying armsful of several bottles at a time. The women next to me are lining up their photo shoot. They have a tripod and are eager to capture their night out ("I only post, like, once a year on Instagram"). They don't quite get it right the first time, so they have to set up the apparatus, along with the free app that takes continuous photos, and pose once more. I almost offer to press the button for them, but I'm afraid they'll be so picky that I'll never get out of there.

I do leave, eventually, while those around me are figuring out the effects of all those bottles: "Why does my hand look big?" My server mentions something about a 20-percent discount and I don't understand why; I assume it has something to do with ordering a bottle. She says something about a Marcia Weinstein and that it doesn't match the name on my card...I'm still confused, but I pay and sign, and then I walk 20 minutes through the night back to the Rodeway Inn, the confluence of today's songs playing in my head.

Go on to day 10