New Jersey

Thursday, 14 November 2013 15:30
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Cape May Point lighthouseBack to where I came from.


The past couple of weeks have been another ‘intermission’ of sorts in the trip, as I was returning to the area where grew up. This meant that I wasn’t really going to see a lot of stuff that I wasn’t familiar with already, so in the sense of the road trip there wasn’t quite as much adventure and discovery going on. It’s still fun to go back to familiar places though, and I had the added fun (or weirdness, depending on your perspective) of going back to those places in basically the same car that I drove in high school. It was a little odd to be speeding on the same roads I got speeding tickets on as a kid, but I’m all for a little nostalgia.

Heading south from PA, I went over the Delaware Memorial Bridge and into Salem County, NJ. The peak of the fall season was definitely past, but there were still some bright spots to be seen. I retraced a lot of the back roads of my youth toward Mom’s house in Vineland, NJ. Mom’s house is also the house I grew up in; we moved there when I was only a couple months old. I’d seen Mom in Lancaster for Halloween so it wasn’t a ‘long time, no see’ situation, but still fun to get together in the old house. Mom had arranged for dinner with my uncle and cousins the following evening, and since I wasn’t going to be around for Thanksgiving this year due to my new lifestyle as a professional hobo, we opted for me to make a pre-Thanksgiving meal with turkey and all the fixin’s. It was pretty tasty…I do likes me some Thanksgiving, so it was nice to have the opportunity to get a good one in, even if it was a few weeks early.

The marshes of Salem County, with a few migratory guests A little late fall color Color + car

I went a little deep on the "deep dish" pie

In addition to dinner, I also had a pretty good honey-do list for my Mom, so I spent the next day or so fixing appliances and tuning up computers and doing a bunch of stuff around the house to get her back on a level playing field with the household gadgets and goodies.  I also had the opportunity to have a good dinner with my oldest friend Chris, where we caught up on everything from personal life to politics to movies and everything in between. It’s always nice to have a friend where you can just pick up wherever you left off the last time you got together, whether that was five minutes or five years ago.

Sunset at Parvins State Park When the light is right, you gotta use it Same sunset, different angle

The next day, I went on a bit of a NJ safari. I was headed up to Long Branch in north Jersey to have dinner with another old friend whom I’d worked with for many, many years, but since I had a good drive ahead of me, I figured I’d take the scenic route. (I know you’re all shocked by me taking the long way.)

I drove up toward Long Branch through some of the wilds of New Jersey, including the blueberry fields of Hammonton , the cranberry bogs of Chatsworth, and the Pine Barrens of Wharton State Forest. I passed through Batsto, a Revolutionary War-era iron manufacturing facility,_New_Jersey , and through Asbury Park, home of Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band. However, my goal for the evening (pre-dinner, anyway) was to make it up to Holmdel, NJ, home of the original Bell Laboratories.

A spillway in the Pine Barrens Cranberry bog, post-harvest More Pine Barrens scenery

 For a very long time, New Jersey has sort of been the official joke state of the US (“Hey, you’re from Jersey? What exit?”), and recent pop culture items like “Jersey Shore” and “Real Housewives” haven’t done much to alleviate that reputation. However, it wasn’t always like that. New Jersey was one of the original colonies, and it’s famously where Washington originated his Delaware crossing. It played a big part in the Revolutionary War, and a century or so later when the industrial revolution got into full swing, it was a popular headquarters for big corporations, including the largest corporation in the world, John Rockefeller’s ‘Standard Oil’ (which was later broken up by trust-busting laws into Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, and Unocal.) As technology moved forward, New Jersey remained a hub of discovery, being home to the Wizard of Menlo Park, Thomas Edison, as well as Bell Labs/AT&T (which also got busted up into smaller companies later.) The transistor, which is the bedrock component of all modern computers and countless other devices, was invented at Bell Labs, as was the laser. A large number of Nobel laureates hailed from NJ, and Albert Einstein’s office was on the Princeton campus. Harkening back to that scientific heyday, I stopped by to visit Bell Labs (now Alcatel/Lucent, sadly) the site of one of my favorite true science stories:

Back in the late ‘50s, physicists and astronomers were turning greater attention to trying to figure out the origins of the universe. Georges Lemaitre had posited the rough outlines of the “Big Bang” theory in 1927, where the universe as we know it today expanded from a singularity into…well, everything. It was a good theory, but hard physical evidence was a little thin at the time, as they were just getting going on it. Another physicist, Robert Dicke at Princeton University, surmised that if the Big Bang had actually happened, there would still be ‘echoes’ of it today, almost 14 billion years later, and that due to time and distance, those ‘echoes’ should appear to us as microwave radiation if we could detect them. Dicke and his team of hysicists at Princeton University started working on figuring out how to pick up that faint signal in an actual experiment.

Meanwhile, 40 miles up the road, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson at Bell Labs had been working on the problem of how to bounce signals off of passive satellites in orbit to extend the range of communications, as the whole communication satellite thing (that we more or less take for granted today) was really getting rolling around that time. They had built a very large directional horn antenna up at the Holmdel, NJ laboratories to work on using ‘passive’ reflector satellites to increase communication distances. In their efforts to achieve solid, clean communication capabilities, they decided to expand into radio astronomy, and they’d been running tests to try to eliminate noise from the amplifiers and electrical circuits, cut down on atmospheric interference, and generally optimize the performance of the antenna to as great a degree as possible. However, they kept having one really nagging problem—no matter what direction they pointed the antenna, there was always this low level of noise and interference in the signal. Since they surmised it was unlikely there’d be a signal actually coming in from everywhere, they figured something was up with either their amplifier circuitry or the big horn itself. They rebuilt amplifiers and replaced components, re-made connections and replaced wiring and connectors, pointed the horn at New York to eliminate “urban noise” as a source, and even went so far as to crawl into the horn and scrape all the bird droppings off of it. Still, after all that, they still had that background noise, seemingly coming from everywhere in the sky at the same time. Stumped, they called a friend of theirs at MIT, who showed them a research paper from the physics team at Princeton describing something very similar to the “noise” they were getting, so they called Princeton.

After listening to them explain their problem for a few minutes, Dicke told them they could quit scraping bird poop off their gear, as it wasn’t a problem with their antenna. He turned to his colleagues in the room and said “Boys, we’ve been scooped.” The engineers at the Holmdel  labs had inadvertently discovered the cosmic background radiation, and had become the first humans in history to actually see physical evidence of the Big Bang. Interestingly, in the paper that theorized that we should be able to detect some background microwave radiation, P.J.E. Peebles had suggested that it’d probably take a really big antenna to catch it, and had even specifically suggested that the bit Bell Labs horn antenna at Holmdel might be just the thing for that. However, since nobody could just Google “I’ve got an interference problem with my giant horn antenna” at the time, that never came to the attention of the Bell Labs guys, and they just blissfully carried on with their communications development until their chat with the guys at Princeton.

Cosmic-level revelations in New Jersey, of all places.  Who’d have thought it?

I drove past the new Alcatel/Lucent building and out into a field on the hill behind it where the antenna was set up. The sign said “Escort Required”, but it was after hours and nobody was around, and I didn’t seen any gates or anything, so I drove on up. There it was, just sitting out in a field, with a little plaque explaining what it was. Nobody was around and the sun was setting, so I got to spend some really nice quiet time up close and personal with one of the most significant scientific and engineering instruments in history. It was probably my biggest science geek moment on the whole trip.

The Holmdel Horn, with commemorative plaque Another angle on the horn The business end A Datsun for a little scale

 I left the antenna once it got too dark to see it anymore and headed toward my dinner engagement about 20 miles away. Unfortunately, I was a little preoccupied thinking about my recent brush with the cosmos, and for the first time on this whole trip, I ran out of gas on the way there. Kind of embarrassing, actually. Since I was only a couple of miles from the restaurant at that point, I coasted into a nearby office building parking lot, left the car there, and walked the rest of the way to dinner.

We had a great time catching up on things, and afterward a friend of my friend’s came by with a couple of gallons of gas in the ‘ol lawnmower can and gave me a lift back to the car. We dumped that gas in, fired up the car, and then I drove up to a nearby gas station and topped it off. All things considered, it was actually not that big of a deal. It certainly beats running out of gas in the middle of Nebraska, in any case.

After returning to Mom’s house, I jumped back on a couple remaining items on the honey-do list, and then visited a local car show ‘n shine that was going on in a nearby grocery store parking lot (across the street from my old junior high school.) It wasn’t really an official “show”, more of a “show up and park” thing, and it was mostly muscle cars and hot rods. I shined up the car a little and parked it out on the outskirts of the event, where it actually attracted quite a bit of attention. Somebody could probably make a bit of money bringing clean, rust-free west coast cars out here and selling them, as I received more than a few offers to buy the car on the spot. I also ran into my uncle and cousin; he was there in his ’39 flathead Ford, and we got some lunch while hanging out. We also saw the local SCCA guys there, and through them were able to arrange for me to get out on the New Jersey Motorsports Park track the next morning and take a few pictures.

An old restored Vineland police cruiser, courtesy VPD Plenty of Corvettes in attendance Some desktop wallpaper for you Chevy fans Nothing says "New Jersey" quite like a 9/11 tribute Corvette

 The weather the next day got a little interesting. It dipped down below freezing that night, and the forecast was for snow flurries that day. It was probably as cold as I’ve seen so far on the trip, but I headed out to the track anyway, where I hooked up with the director of operations. We took one quick lap to scout a few photo op locations, and then one slow lap where I stopped and took a few shots. It was pretty fun to have the car out on a track—I will have to look into a roll bar and some other goodies when I get home and maybe think about doing some track days.

Turn 2, I think. Lovely weather. Turn 11 Under the bridge

I did a little more South Jersey exploring after the racetrack, as I was pretty close to the other “Jersey Shore”—the west coast of NJ on the Delaware Bay. This waterfront is quite a bit less glamorous than the east coast, as it’s largely a combination of marshland and commercial shellfishing. The shellfishing industry here (mostly oysters and clams) used to be really big business back in the 1940s and 1950s, and it shows in the names of local towns like “Shellpile” and “Bivalve”. The streets and yards and parking areas here are made up of crushed clamshells, and oystering boats line the piers. The industry more or less completely collapsed in the late 50s when a combination of over-fishing and habitat degradation due to pollution just about wiped out the oyster and clam population in the Delaware Bay. It quickly became pretty evident how important the oysters were to the health of the bay as pollution levels rapidly increased as the oyster population dropped. It was estimated that back when the oyster population was healthy, they filtered the entire volume of the bay every four days or so. However, without oysters around in those numbers anymore, the bay just got dirtier and dirtier. Conservation efforts started in the 60s with greater controls on what waste could be dumped into the bay, as well as tight limits on how many oysters could be harvested and by what methods they could be taken, as some of the older methods destroyed the oyster beds and prevented younger oysters from growing to replace the harvested ones. Similar controls were put in place by the states on the other side of the bay (Delaware and Maryland), and by the late 90s, the oyster population started bouncing back and the bay started getting cleaner. However, NJ towns like Shellpile , Fortescue, and Port Norris did not bounce back, as their main source of revenue had been gone for too long, and the continuing restrictions on fishing and harvesting pretty much assured that the industry would not be as big as it once was for many decades to come, if ever. There are still a few boats down there oystering and fishing, but it’s not the fleet it once was. That’s really good for the oysters, but not so great for those towns.

Sky, sea, and sand. A neopolitan mix of a gray day. Delaware Bay coastline in Fortescue, NJ Storm fencing not doing much
An oystering boat. Note power rake on the front for pulling up shellfish. Conch shells, post-harvest Another look at the conch harvest
Hurricane Sandy pounded the Bay communities pretty good, too Nobody has been home here for a while Former living room
Reading material still where it was pre-hurricane I'm guessing this is not going to be habitable again For some reason, I can't get away from Spider Man
An early November snow flurry Chilly seagulls The ubiquitous crushed shell parking lots

After my morning by the bay, I went back to Mom’s house and got packed up, then said my goodbyes and headed south toward the shore. The plan was to crash in either Cape May or Wildwood for the night, then catch the ferry over to Delaware in the afternoon, where I’d get back to roadtripping in new and unfamiliar areas.

Sunset en route to the shore Same sunset, different creek

I reached Wildwood at sunset and got a hotel there. It was obviously well after Labor Day, and Wildwood had become that sort of ghost town that seasonal places turn into in the off-season. On the plus side, it was pretty quiet, but it was a little spooky in a post-apocalypse kind of way. I got a good night’s sleep, then wandered around the boardwalk and beach a bit in the morning. The contrast between this place at the peak of the summer season and the shut-down state it’s in during the fall and winter months is pretty jarring. As a kid, Wildwood was the place you went if you wanted to get into some trouble in the summertime, as seemingly the entire population of South Philly showed up there on the weekend, and it really did become “Jersey Shore”, just like in the show. In the off-season though, it’s just boarded up shops and blowing sand.

Jersey Shore in the off season More like the reality TV version Adventure Pier
Wildwood has some of the widest beaches on the coast Good advice North Wildwood, Wildwood, and Wildwood Crest if you're wondering

It was still pretty cold and very windy on top of that, but otherwise it was a crystal clear day as I made my way down to the Cape May/Lewes Ferry. As far as I can tell, this will probably be the last ferry I’ll take on this trip, although I suppose there may be something down in Florida or Louisiana. The boat was only about a third full (again, mid-week, off-season), and the wind was throwing up 3’-5’ seas, so while it was a quiet trip, it was not without a pretty good amount of pitching and rolling. I made sure the parking brake was set really well, then retired to the upper decks to watch Delaware come into view.

The remnants of a WWII concrete ship at Cape May Point A walk through the sand For my sister to hunt for Cape May diamonds
Cape May Point lighthouse WWII anti-submarine gun emplacement, Cape May Point En route to the ferry
On the ferry Not a lot of cars on board for this trip 50th Anniversary
A little rougher than we saw on the Canadian ferries Getting into Delaware Long shadows at the end of the day

Next stop: Maryland and Washington, DC


#1 Mom 2013-11-15 03:23
Just want to say I so appreciated your stay in NJ. Thanks so much for all the help around home..
#2 SJMike 2013-11-15 06:04
Glad you got the into the track for some pictures.
+1 #3 laceytrynn 2013-11-15 07:05
Yay for New Jersey! I learned some stuff from your post that I didn't know before… and it's nice to see pics from home… and I found a Cape May Diamond in that pic :-)
#4 Mom 2013-11-15 07:47
@laceytrynn...I am learning a lot also, told him that this morning..

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