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Saturday, Nov. 12, 2005 - 12:37 a.m.

Traversing New Jersey on U.S. 46

Back at the start of the summer, I wrote that I had five additional things I wanted to accomplish, an addendum of sorts to my 101 in 1001 list (which I shall be updating here shortly). While I did get to Yankee Stadium, I didn't wait in the ridiculously long line for Monument Park, and it turns out you can't really photograph the old ballpark because the actual old ballpark lies beneath the 1976 renovation -- nearly 30 years of coats of paint and other off-season improvements make the ballpark look like a 1970s project than the nearly-90-year-old historic site that it is. I've just never felt the pull of history there as I have at Wrigley Field or Tiger Stadium, two venues that preserve the charm of the old with little ammenities of the new.

I still haven't walked across the George Washington Bridge, but I can do that sometime, so long as I bundle up for the winds across the Hudson. The weekend in Maine won't happen and the climbing of the monument at High Point State Park will have to wait until next spring as well, because it appears that the site is closed for the winter. I know this because I did make the drive west on U.S. 46 until the signs disappeared and left me in the farmland hills of western New Jersey.

And I managed to pick the perfect fall day to do it.


Wednesday, November 2

The road begins like many New Jersey highways -- spilling off of a bridge or rising from a tunnel from New York City, Pennsylvania or Delaware. As cars and trucks spew from the span of the George Washington Bridge, one of the first signs points them onto Route 46. For the first hour -- and 40 miles -- it's like any other northern New Jersey highway: stoplights, car dealers, discount stores and boarded up shells of old businesses. The four-lane continues like this through Lodi, Garfield, Clifton and Little Falls. It's not until you pass -- you guessed it -- a mall, Willowbrook Mall, in Wayne do you get a hint of the old 46, at least old 46 not enveloped by sprawl.

You can't ever escape Today, but as you continue further west, the retail areas are clustered together, the Wal-Marts and Home Depots set back from the road, adjacent to one another or facing off across a sea of a parking lot. As 46 skirts Denville, Mountain Lakes, Rockaway and Dover, the hills become more sweeping, the trees more lush and the road ever so slightly more open.

As 46 crosses I-80 for the last time at Netcong, the winding route on my map earns the designation of a scenic route. On the page, green dots line the orange highway from Budd Lake -- which I skirt to the south, glancing at the choppy whitecaps -- to Hackettstown, where 46 makes a right turn at a traffic light downtown and becomes, for the first time, a true, two-lane, small-town main drag. David's Country Inn, with its classic two-story facade and second-floor front porch encapsulates Americana and 46 continues as a tree-lined, literal Main Street through town. In a quarter-mile before the next traffic light, I pass three churches, at least equal to, if not more than the number I'd seen in the previous 60 miles.

Almost 80 miles from its GWB beginning, Route 46 ends as it began, intersecting with I-80. But first, from Hackettstown, it's a winding two-lane through the country, tree-flashing shadows of New Jersey afternoon have a strobe-like effect as the road winds like -- and alongside -- the Pequest River through the townships of Independence and Liberty as well as the villages of Vienna, Great Meadows, Townsbury, Buttzville, Manunka Chunk and Delaware.

Just north of Belvidere is where 46 turns north, mimicking the curves of the Delaware River in the eye socket of the New Jersey silhouette. At the end of 46, I crossed over 80 to pick up 94, a state route that runs diagonally northeast across New Jersey to New York at New Milford and on into Warwick.

This was one of those times where you're driving along a country road, taking in the sights as quickly as you can, when you notice a striking, vibrant tree up ahead. As you near, and then pass, you see the stone wall, the house, the blue sky, the yellow tree next to it -- and only then do you notice it's a great picture. You continue down the road, half a mile, a mile, looking for a spot to turn around so that you don't have to slam on the brakes while the pickup is tailgating you. But then you go back, park across the street and snap a quick shot, and you know it was worth it.

I followed 94 up through Newton, then to Frankford and Augusta on 565 (the country road) and U.S. 206 before turning north on 23 to make for higher ground -- the highest, in fact: High Point State Park.

As the elevation climbed, though, the leaves fell. Not before my eyes, but a few days, a week ago. I just missed the peak on New Jersey's peak. Instead of the fiery roadsides and lower hills I passed earlier in the drive, the landscape is an iron belt, a rustic meld of golds and russets, the late afternoon sun enhancing the glow. The wind whips cold as if on the open plains of the Midwest, but this is a biting mountaintop wind with the rustle of trees and the clanging of the clasp against its bare flagpole as the overriding sounds.

Any hope of climbing the monument -- a 220-foot obelisk atop the 1,803-foot peak -- will likely have to wait until spring, since it seems clear that there is little chance of anyone wanting to be here in winter. So I'll turn around now and head home, south and east down 23 -- that seems to be my most direct route, at least for a while. I suspect I'll grow tired of the two-lane as I near the sprawl and I'll turn south on 513 at Newfoundland, following the scenic green dots to 80, where I can cruise on home efficiently across those last 20 miles.

Approaching Newfoundland -- I know it because of a sign or two, but no more than that -- I am ready for the turn onto a more pastoral woodland road than the developed pockets I've just come through. But after the turn, I'm not ready for the small train depot that sits just off the road to my right. When I see it, however, I recognize it immediately.

From The Station Agent.

I doubled back for a quick picture and then pushed on home through the growing dusk, sliding onto I-80 and into traffic, watching the workers slogging through the rush-hour traffic in the other direction. I was heading east, toward New York, the skyline sparkling as I crested high points on the highway until I came back down onto River Road, the lights shimmering off the surface of the Hudson and my day-long circut complete.

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