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Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2002 - 12:42 p.m.

NJ Lighthouse Challenge, Day 1

"Nothing helps scenery like cheese."

I don't know how we came to that conclusion, but Casey and I are pretty firm in our belief of the statement. Derived from Mark Twain's assertion that "Nothing helps scenery like ham and eggs," it came up on Sunday, Day 2 of the New Jersey Lighthouse Challenge 2002 — and event that is sure to become Mark Burnett's next big endurance race/reality TV hit. The premise is simple: Visit all 11 of the Garden State's seashore beacons in two days. When Casey told me about it in August, I immediately announced my intensions of tackling the challenge, and she signed on for the trek. In all, we covered approximately 534 miles in roughly 19 hours of driving and stopping from Friday night through Sunday evening. We packed lunch Saturday morning, eating it in the car (to get out of the chilly October wind off the Atlantic) in the Barnegat Light parking lot. We saw some of the same people on our Saturday stops (the truck with NJ plates reading "WSTNCUP" and the family with the "Bassett" hound) and others on our Sunday stops (the guy with the broken foot, the girl with hideous patchy jeans). And with the exception of the straight-up-the-Turnpike dart home Sunday, we covered roughly two-thirds of New Jersey's perimeter, from Englewood Cliffs south along the Hudson and Atlantic coast to Cape May, then up the Delaware Bay and River to Trenton.

This is our story.

Friday night

I managed to escape from the office shortly after 6 p.m. despite the fact that hardly any of the pages for the magazine that were supposed to be shipped hadn't, but it was Dylan's night to stay anyway. Casey and I pulled out of the parking lot and found ourselves behind Brooke, one of her coworkers who lives down near Little Silver, but we separated when she took the Turnpike's western spur and we went with the eastern route. Maybe she knew something, because we ran into annoying congestion at the toll booth, and then again after it as those dozen lanes merged into three.

Once in Little Silver, we fawned over the cat, which is just as big a reason to visit as any other, while Dave and my mom both made comments asking if Casey and I had lost weight. I never checked.

Dave, Casey and I went out to Ichabod's to eat and drink and look at Dave's pictures from his trips in his yuppie photo album — a Dell laptop computer, plopped down on the table between Casey and Rudy (who, along with his girlfriend Mary, also joined us; Tom and Jen arrived a little later).

Saturday

The day started off with a great sign: I arrived at Frank's barber shop about 7:45 a.m. and was the third person there, which was my limit as far as waiting for a haircut and hoping to be back home by 9 a.m. so Casey and I could begin the Challenge. Inside, I sat down and poured through Sports Illustrated. By the time the second man in line settled into Frank's chair, the waiting list had grown to 10 people, further boosting the impact of my early arrival. By 9:15, Casey and I were cruising...

To the Rumson Market for sandwiches and drinks. Casey chose a Nantucket Nectars blueberry tea because, "I hear anti-oxidants are good for fighting germs," she said.

"Yeah, I'm against oxidants too," Bill joked as he bagged our lunch.

Out on SANDY HOOK, all the cars heading north along the lone road toward the tip of the peninsula resembled a sweltering summer morning rather than a brisk autumn one. Rarely are that many cars out on the Hook on a day like Saturday, unless there is some sort of event going on, such as the Lighthouse Challenge.

At 9:40 a.m., we parked and followed the crowd to America's oldest lighthouse and perhaps the one of the 16 I've visited to which I've been the most. It's a close race, really, between Sandy Hook and Twin Lights. I imagine Maine's Pemaquid Point must be third. We went into the tiny museum/gift shop to get our trading cards, the official "documentation" that will tell the volunteers at each stop that we've been to the others. While standing on line for the opportunity to climb the tower (which I've never done, in part because before the renovation, it was not open, at least not regularly), one of the volunteers walked to the back of the relatively short queue and told those waiting near us, "From here it's about an hour-and-a-half wait" because to climb the tower, you had to endure the guided, 30-minute tour in a group of eight.

"Uh, no," we said, and stepped away from the line.

Before leaving, I snapped the necessary photos and took Casey into the nearby mortar battery to point out the spot where scenes from the indy movie A Better Place (produced by Scott Mosier and Kevin Smith and featuring Jason Lee in a small role) were shot. I recounted several childhood stories, including one in which Walker and I climbed the hill into which the battery was built and emerged in another "courtyard," from which we could easily walk into one of the tunnels through the opening that wasn't barricaded. Down another path on the way out, we came to another door, still open and accessible, through which Matt, Dave, Will and the rest of our grade-school gifted and talented program classmates spelunked on one of our Monday afternoon outings back in the 80s. It's still got standing water in the dark corridor.

As we drove off the Hook and reached the bridge over the Shrewsbury River, the traffic light turned red and we were stopped by the opening drawbridge, as we had been on the drive out. So after a summer during which I avoided this open bridge — and any others, if I remember correctly — we're sitting there for the second time in a 45-minute span. And for some reason (perhaps it was "Take Me Home, Country Roads" coming around on the CD), Casey laughs at the memory of Chad Lowe's "John Denver face" from the final scene in that bad TV movie made a couple of years ago.

So after two bridge delays and another on the narrow road up to the parking lot while we wait for some of the exiting cars (including the first sighting of the "WSTNCUP" truck) to pass, we hit TWIN LIGHTS at 10:20. Both towers are surrounded by scaffolding, so I figure they're not open to visitors, but after picking up our cards from the barn housing the giant rotating Fresnel lens (the first of half a dozen we'll see on the trip), we're told that BOTH towers are open. Normally, only the north tower — the round one — is open. So we climb up the short staircase to the square south tower and see a completely different view, including one of the soccer game on the field just behind the parking lot. Casey hears the shouts of one team's coach and wonders, "Is that Coach McGuirk?!"

After Twin Lights, the Challenge begins in earnest. It's a 45-minute drive to the next one, SEA GIRT, near the southern boundary of Monmouth County. We pull up on the street at 11:24. In the street, yellow lines not unlike those in downtown shopping districts are painted on the pavement perpendicular to the curb, with short legs pointing in to form boxes, as if demarcating a parking spot. Only these are there to show you where not to park because they cordon off driveways. Backwards down.

The charm of the Sea Girt lighthouse lies in its location: At the end of a street, just feet from the sand, among residential homes in a rather tony Jersey Shore town. The entire house is a museum, with the library or reading room off the front foyer seemingly still decorated as it once was, with books on the shelves, chairs to sit in, and photos on the wall. Upstairs there's a line to get into the light tower, which fits only three full-size adults comfortably. When Casey and I first climb the ladder into the perch with the beacon, we're alone and steal an excited kiss, like two teenagers whose parents have walked into the next room. Our solitude is short-lived, as a mother and daughter soon join us. Looking down at the houses and surrounding streets, I spot the WSTNCUP truck parked along the beach pavilion.

Casey and I descend and pop back outside, returning to the sign-in table to get the free plastic baseball-card page holders, which were promised to us when we reached our third lighthouse. Then a volunteer sees me with my camera and asks if we'd like our picture taken outside the lighthouse, so we strike a pose beside the sign.

It is here we first spot the Bassett.

The lighthouses along New Jersey's ocean coast are clustered more closely than those on the bayside, but it still takes us more than 90 minutes to get from Sea Girt to BARNEGAT, the state's poster beacon by virtue of its spot on the Shore to Please license plates. From the Parkway, we have to drive east on Route 72 for a few miles and then, once on Long Beach Island, it's eight more miles (just like Detroit) to the northern tip, where the lighthouse is.

We arrive at 1:10 and lunch in the car until 1:27, according to Casey's notes, and while eating I notice in the rearview mirror that the WSTNCUP truck is parked behind us, and a couple with a Mitsubishi with Texas plates that we had seen at Sandy Hook pulls away. The bottle cap to Casey's Nantucket Nectars reads: "Juice Guy Gary Keimach believes he will never have his own Nantucket Nectars bottlecap. He is mistaken." I love it!

After we've each taken half a dozen bites of our sandwiches, I notice a yellow substance on mine: Mustard. Bill had labeled Casey's, the one with mayo and mustard, "M&M" — "This is the one with M&Ms," he joked — but had MISlabeled them. So although she was eating the M&M sandwich, it was, in fact, devoid of the M&M she requested. The mustard didn't bother me so much as the mayo. Casey, apparently, didn't notice the lack of her condiments. After we switched, she did. "Oh yeah, much more flavorful," she said. For desert, we open the tin of Animal Crackers I brought along, and my first three all come out headless.

Barnegat Light is the northern most of three "sister" lighthouses on the South Jersey Shore ("Can I go swimming?" — Meatwad). Its tall, cylindrical shape matches that of Absecon and Cape May lights, yet each one is painted differently. A lighthouse's shape and paint job are purposely varied, so that they can be distinguished during the day by passing ships, who use (more in the Olden Days than now) the lighthouses to mark their progress up or down the coast; these are their "daymarks." Similarly, each lighthouse has a unique (and one-of-a-kind, as the display at Sandy Hook described the Statue of Liberty, which is also, technically, a lighthouse) beam so ships could tell where they were along the coast in the midst of darkness. Lights flash at different intervals, or they rotate, or, in the case of Absecon, I believe, is fixed. Lighthouses in North and South Carolina (like Cape Hatteras) are also relatives of New Jersey's three sisters.

Casey and I enter the tower and climb the 210 bright yellow stairs to the top, stopping at the various archways with the windows to rest or let descending visitors pass. These "rest areas" were built to allow the lighthouse keepers somewhere to pause when carrying heavy buckets of oil up to the beacon. Outside at the top, the wind whips through us, but we have a fine view of the inlet, the town, and the Atlantic. And the Bassett! We passed it later, near one of the picnic table shelters, getting acquainted with an airedale terrier.

From Barnegat we head south on Route 9, which is vastly different down here from its northern points in Freehold and Newark. Here, it's a two-lane country road winding through beach towns with sandy soil and blinking traffic lights. Around one bend, a big white sign at the end of someone's driveway reads, "DAVE — TURN HERE!" with an arrow, so I turn around to take a picture for Dave. So he'll know where to turn. We think he should drive down there, park in the driveway, knock on the door and say, "What??" With two question marks for effect.

At 2:50, we come to TUCKER'S ISLAND LIGHT, which is similar to Sea Girt's in that it's basically a house with a powerful beacon and Fresnel lens in the attic. The Tucker's Island light is now part of Tuckerton Seaport, a still-in-development historical "village" that someday hopes to grow up to become New Jersey's mini version of Connecticut's Mystic Seaport, kind of like the way Foxwoods has become Connecticut's mini Atlantic City. Here, a nice old man volunteer offers to take our picture on the steps of the porch, and we let him. Inside, three giant photos along the wall depict the 1927 scene when the original Tucker's Island Light FELL INTO THE SEA! Erosion had eaten away at the shore, all the way up to and under the foundation of the light. When a storm came along sometime during 1927, the keeper knew it was the end, so he and someone else witnessed the whole thing. The first photo shows the lighthouse standing in a storm, high waves pounding its eastern side. The next has it at roughly a 45-degree angle to the sea, with the final frame showing it splashing into the surf. A volunteer pointed out that a fourth photo showed the building on fire, set purposely so that it would not pose a threat to ships entering the harbor.

After seeing the family of the Bassett! (I think it always needs to have the exclamation point behind it, since that is how Casey and I react whenever we see a Basset hound or a Bassett Tessa) but not the Bassett! itself, we walk along the pier past all the little buildings built as part of the seaport. They're cute little replicas of the kind of shops that would have been present in a seafaring village of yore — blacksmith, decoy maker, pub, hotel — though many are not yet built. A map showed the existing buildings, those next to be built, and those planned for future expansion. Outside the clam house, Casey got to rake for clams (or their shells rather) in a sandbox!

After browsing through the gift shop, the most extensive of the entire weekend, we hit the road for the drive to the final stop, Absecon at the northern tip of the Atlantic City peninsula. Heading north on Route 539, I notice what looks like a rope or bungee cord in the road, but I see it too late to avoid it. Just as we're about to drive over it, it appears to flop in the wind of the previous car to pass. Or not. "I think we just ran over a snake," Casey says. "Yeah," I answer, "I noticed that." Ick. But then we get a good laugh as we pass a tavern with a sign out front declaring, "Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder." How come we hadn't thought of that already?

Visitors do not sneak up on Atlantic City. The high-rise casinos do not pop out from the middle of nowhere. Exiting the Garden State Parkway, AC-bound drivers head east on the Atlantic City Expressway across the flat marshland of the region, and the casinos are visible nearly the whole time. I've been to AC only once in my life, as a 10-year-old baseball card collector when Mom chaperoned a trip to the national card convention for Will, Matt and myself. We boarded a Holiday Travel bus (are they still in business? The local garage, where we got on the bus, closed down years ago) on a day trip to the casinos. With it came a roll of quarters, so after our day at the card show at Convention Hall (where we saw Joe DiMaggio but did not pay the 50 bucks for an autograph), Mom played the slots while we waited for the bus to pick us up. She won about 30 bucks after only a few quarters.

Anyway, we made our way along Pacific Avenue, plopped down some money for the deed, and put up a few houses. No! HA! That's Monopoly! Instead, we passed Caesar's, Wild Wild West, various Trump buildings and Showboat to Rhode Island Avenue, where, at 4:30 p.m., we parked in front of some low-income housing and walked to ABSECON LIGHTHOUSE, located on the corner of Rhode Island and Pacific on a fenced-in tract of land with scraggly grass not unlike a inner-city vacant lot. To distinguish itself from Barnegat, which is painted maroon on its top half and white on its lower, Absecon is mostly white with a black band approximately two-thirds of the way up. Or halfway. Somewhere. Only it's not white, we realized inside, but rather yellow — a very light yellow. Over the years, various organizations and governments (the city, the state) have owned the property and painted it different colors. It was orange with a black band, yellow with a black band, white with a red band, white with a blue band (the city's colors, from when AC owned the property), white with a red band again, and now yellow and black since the 70s. Or maybe early 90s. I forget.

We skip the climb up Absecon because of the admission fee to climb (five bucks or something, and it is another 210 steps!) and simply walk around the scraggly grass while I complete my second (I think) roll of film. Before heading to the hotel in the hamlet of Marmora, located within Upper Township (which is north of Middle Township and also Lower Township — no, seriously), we drive south through Ventnor to Margate City, where we come to Lucy the Elephant, another famous Jersey Shore landmark. It's closed, but we spend a few minutes taking pictures, commenting on her physique and making Moulin Rouge references. "All you need is love ..."

Sometime before 6 p.m., we check into the Econo Lodge in Marmora, a tiny town with — as far as we can see on our stretch — a Wendy's, a pizza place, and a couple of car dealerships. In fact, pizza joints are one of the businesses we see regularly on our trip, just like KMarts, Fleets and (though not surprisingly) McDonald'ses. I think Italians settled every single town in the state of New Jersey, and somewhere along the line, they or their descendants opened a pizza parlor. Not that I'm complaining — it's what we had for lunch on Sunday.

But this Econo Lodge, a motel-style facility, was set back in a field off of rural Route 9. Immediatly upon entering our room, it was confirmed that our suspicions (which I'm sure we both held privately) that this was not built as an Econo Lodge but rather bought by the franchise. It likely used to have hourly rates. When making the reservation online, I went for a room that had a refrigerator, figuring we might have drinks or something we'd want chilled. But the only rooms with refridgerators were also the Jacuzzi Rooms. We walk in to find a jacuzzi near the bed, with a waist-high wall of distortion glass blocks separating the tile from the carpet. There's a mirror on one wall near the jacuzzi, and more distortion glass blocks making up the back wall — which was also the bathroom wall, so that when you went into the bathroom, anyone still in the room could see, rather clearly, your silhouette. And, unfortunately, all jacuzzi rooms are also smoking rooms (which I hadn't realized), and there were no non-smoking rooms available, so we were stuck with it. Luckily, Casey's travel candles masked the smell quite well.

We went out and got Wendy's for dinner, bringing it back to the room to eat. We watched Seinfeld and MTV's Becoming (this time it was Kelly Osbourne) and then a behind the scenes/making the something of Kelly Clarkson and the World Series until 10 p.m. That's when Casey went to sleep and I quietly laid in bed, rooting for Notre Dame against Air Force.

By the time the game ended at 1:30, Casey was fast asleep, the Irish had run all over the Falcons while stopping them any time they tried to mount an offense, and I was quite happy.

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