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Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2002 - 5:20 p.m.

NJ Lighthouse Challenge, Day 2

Sunday

Waking up at 9 a.m. to make sure we hit the free breakfast (with bagels about as good as Lender's-esque bagels warmed in a hotel toaster with individual packets of cream cheese can be), we were on the road a little after 10. We did 266 miles that first day (plus Friday night coming down to Little Silver from Bergen County).

Our first stop was a nice one, HEREFORD, another light-in-the-attic style lighthouse like Sea Girt and Tucker's Island. We pulled into the only open space in the tiny, six-space parking lot at 10:48 a.m. We could've paid $4 each for a short tour that included the top, and we could've spent $7 each for admission to both Hereford and Cape May, but we decided to save the four bucks two combo tickets would've cost and skip Hereford (we did climb Cape May). Hereford is more charming than Tucker's Island because it's more rundown. It's in the midst of ongoing renovation, so someday it will be restored and refurbished, but now the peeling paint and worn wood give the landmark a nostalgiac look. With gardens surrounding the lighthouse, leading down to the beach, Hereford is perhaps the most picturesque stop on the tour. While some of the bulbs were still in colorful bloom, it was no doubt more spectacular only a week or two ago; springtime must be downright stunning. We wandered among the flowers and trees, along the paths in the lawn and out to the small boardwalk that looks out across the sand to the ocean. In one corner of the yard a gate led to the "Shade Garden," and we walked in to a small, almost circular spot beneath a canopy of evergreens and bordered on one side by the gazebo in the yard. Casey sat for a moment on a low, one-foot high stone bench that was cold and a threat to give her hemorrhoids.

From Hereford, off we went through Wildwood along New Jersey Avenue to Rio Grande, which took us back to the Parkway. Having grown up with the Garden State Parkway as a limited-access highway able to whisk us off to points north and south (and other highways to take us west), it was surreal to come to Exit 11 (which we did before Hereford, but I'm mentioning it here because I like it better here) and have to stop at a traffic light. For a few miles at the southern end of the Parkway, the guard rails and barriers disappear and it's just another two-lane state highway. But getting back on after Wildwood, we went through a toll booth and I remarked about the nerve of the state to charge us 25 cents to travel on a highway with traffic lights. Only it wasn't; down south of Exit 4, it goes back to a limited-access road.

And then we came to the end. I thought of that commercial where some schulb's computer tells him he's reached the end of the internet. Up north, the Parkway "ends" only in the sense that northbound drivers leave New Jersey and enter New York, where the road merges into interstates 287 or 87. But down here, signs warn "Parkway Ends" and, sure enough, next to a traffic light sits a small marker: "Mile 0." We bear right onto Route 109 north; had we stayed straight, we'd be on 109 south. I note that here we are, roughly 109 miles from Exit 109, my home, on Route 109.

Anyway, there we are on the backroads of Cape May County. It looks like Nantucket here, actually, with country roads and small towns on a spit of land surrounded by water (surrounded on three sides here). Banners hanging off the lamp posts in West Cape May advertise the West Cape May Lima Bean Festival, which we missed by only a day. Lucky are those who started their Lighthouse Challenge in South Jersey on Saturday and got to experience the craziness.

CAPE MAY LIGHTHOUSE, a sister of those in Barnegat and Atlantic City (for those of you with short-term memories, see the previous entry), is beige (a "beigey-sand" color, according to Casey). We arrive at 11:35 a.m. and I pay the $10 for the two of us to climb up, and on the climb I begin counting the steps. I lose track at one point, but it does not matter — back at the bottom, we read about the six "rest areas" built into the tower, and the display mentions that there are 30 steps between each one. I do remember that there were also 30 steps between the last rest area and the top; therefore, 210 steps, which also applies to Barnegat and Absecon.

At least we got something for our 10 bucks. At Barnegat, there was nothing at the top; at Cape May, there is a volunteer (whose shift ends while we are there, and another arrives to take his place, kind of a no-frills "re-enactment" of the changing of the night watchman from a lighthouse's pre-electric days). Cape May also has displays at the top, including the cabinet wherein the lighthouse keeper would keep all he needs for his stay through the night. (They worked in four-hour shifts, the keeper and the two assistant keepers, back in the day.) In fact, whoever was on watch was required to keep his eyes on the light at all times. So no flipping through nudey magazines up there. Actually, several of the lighthouses' displays spoke of the government agency that oversaw all of America's shoreline beacons. It was not uncommon for the government to require keepers to return their homes (which were owned by the government, after all) to original, no-frills decorating styles; or to confiscate books or magazines it found unacceptable and replace them with suggested reading material.

Stepping out onto the walkway, a small sign attached to the bars declares "NO SHOUTING." Another visitor asks the volunteer why (in part because none of the other lighthouses had the same warning). The reason is because "it carries farther than you'd think," he says. Cape May is known as a prime bird-watching spot because of its location in the midst of so many migratory paths.

Westward, ho! If you know the outline of New Jersey at all, you know how Cape May is a little tail sticking out the bottom of the state. The lighthouse is on the southern tip, but more to the western side of the cape. So from there, we drive north along the western edge of the cape and then westward along the southern coast, all on Route 47. Because of the roundabout route, we turn onto Lighthouse Road — which came up in the directions for about six of the lighthouses — and pull up at EAST POINT LIGHT at 1:15. It's a brick Cape Cod-style house (with the light in the attic) with a marsh pond directly behind it (we pull up to the back; the front faces the bay). A camper trailer houses the volunteers handing out the cards — and a grill on which they cook kielbasa and hot dogs for visitors. We skip the line to get into the house and climb to the top, partly to skip the $2 donation as well as the time we'd waste just standing. Instead, we walk over to a stone-and-cement model of the lighthouse sitting on a trailer nearby. It has real glass for the windows (they open), real stone for the foundation, cement for the walls. A local resident built it over the summer, basing his model on old photo graphs of what it used to look like. An article from the local paper written the previous week accompanies it, and the photo shows the maker's cat (Sammy) emerging from the front door (the scale of the model is something like 1.5 inches equals a foot; or one inch is 1.5 feet). Another photo shows the maker holding his dog (Tiny), with the cat sitting beside the model. I don't remember the guy's name. Naturally.

On the drive out along the road on which we came in, we pass once again a sign for a residents, presumably, that reads, "CHICK'S ROAD ONLY" and chuckle. We also see a sign for the Cape May County Mosquito Commission, and I wonder aloud why Bruce Springsteen never incorporated the Mosquito Commission into a song. (Imagine his husky voice:) I got Mary pregnant/and man that was all she wrote/For my 19th birthday/I got a job with the Mosquito Commission and a wedding coat.

Hungry, we eat more Animal Crackers as I drive and start looking for pizza joints to stop for lunch. The first we come to, in or just outside of Bridgeton, is closed, though the liquor store to which it seems attached is open. But we skip it. In Hopewell (which is different from the bigger Hopewell up near Princeton) we stop at Hopewell Sub and Pizza. Roughly 90 percent of all business in Hopewell incorporate the town's name into the business name. While it takes the fine, fine angst-ridden teens of Hopewell 20 minutes to bring us our two plain slices of pizza, I watch a family at a booth near us finish their post-church meal. A black mother, two sons, and likely her mother are dressed in their Sunday best. One boy looks about 14 and a basketball player, the other seems about 6, though I'm no good at gauging such things. The younger one asks about why some people live in mansions while others don't. Or something. I wasn't eavesdropping that closely. "Everyone's home is their mansion," Mom explains wisely. "Some people just have bigger mansions because the Good Lord blessed them to be more successful."

At about the same time the family finishes and leaves, I look out the window to see two boys dressed in black and carrying skate boards crossing the street and heading for Hopewell Sub and Pizza. One is noticably bigger (taller, huskier) than the other, kind of like the bully and his sidekick in A Christmas Story. We alertly watch our valuables when Hopewell's skate punks enter Hopewell Sub and Pizza, order and sit down in the booth across from our table. But they cause no trouble.

After our lunch, we arrive at FINN'S POINT REAR RANGE LIGHT at 3:08 p.m. It's set back a considerable distance from the shore because range lights are a pair of beacons, one taller and farther from the shoreline, the other closer to the water. Ships charted their position by taking note of how the lights lined up — if the further one was in line with the nearer one, they were at point A; if it was to the right of the nearer one, they were east of point A; if it was to the left, they were west of point A.

Again, a small viewing platform requires that we wait for our turn to climb, but it's free, so it's not a problem. This light is a steel cylinder with girders for support, rather than a free-standing work of masonry. The black tower is quite dark and I count 130 steps (including the 10 on the ladder that leads to the top) to the beacon. Two young volunteers help visitors up through the hatch and answer questions (I quiz him on how many steps there are, and to confirm my count). Finn's Point is thickly wooded, and had more trees turned color, it would've been a spectacular blanket of color below. As it is, we can see the Delaware Memorial Bridge leading to, well, Delaware; a nuclear ("nukeLEar" not "nukUlar," despite what the President says) power plant; and other stuff off in the distance.

I'm intrigued by Finn's Point National Cemetery nearby, but I'm also tired and there's only one more light to go, then a two-hour drive home, so I save it for some other time. If there is another time.

At 4:04 p.m., we pull up to our final stop, TINICUM REAR RANGE LIGHT, which is similar to Finn's Point, only where Finn's Point sits among trees and marsh grasses in a remote area, Tinicum sits among gravel parking lots and baseball fields near Paulsboro. It's $2 to climb this lame light, with its likely view of houses and the Mobil oil refinery along the river, where the site of the former front range light sits. So we skip it and simply walk around it so that I can use up the last few shots on my fourth roll of film. While this is happening, Casey spots the broken foot man for the third straight lighthouse and we (WOAH! The SimpleText document just told me that it's too large — combined with Part 1 — to accept any more text! I've reached the end of SimpleText!) run into the girl with the ugly patch-segment jeans that we saw at Finn's Point. I also notice two of the volunteers who were at the table in Cape May. Tinicum is something of a letdown after all the impressive and quaint lighthouses we've seen during the past two days, but we also ironically get the best weather of any hour on the tour: The sun breaks through the clouds, offering blue sky and a bit of warmth, just as we're ready to hit the road back home.

Cruising back up 295, across 195 a little way, and then up the Turnpike, we pull up in front of our building at 6:16, an hour and 57 minutes after leaving Tinicum. From the Econo Lodge in Marmora to our front door was 268 miles, just two more than from our office to the motel. Ah, symmetry.

What a great use of my day at work: I did what I needed to do, and yet I also made two elaborate entries (though most of the first entry was written last night while I was here, but it's the same thing).

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