New Jersey Part I: Flanders

When we were back in Rhode Island, our neighbors were from New Jersey. We quizzed them about what we should see in the Garden State and they gave us lots of good ideas. Based on their information, we decided to make our first stop in the northwest part of the state. From this location we would easily be able to get to New York City to the east, and the Poconos to the west (neither of which is IN New Jersey). Finding a campground in this area was very difficult. There really weren’t any to choose from.  We found a spot in a town called Flanders and made a reservation. Based on the reviews, we weren’t expecting much… but we were extra disappointed when we arrived. Can you say dump?

Fla-Net Park was by no means a vacation destination. It was a trailer park. Probably 90% of the campers were occupied by full-time residents. The school bus picked the kids up around 8 every morning. The dogs barked all day after their owners left for work in their loud diesel engines. The first motors fired up every morning around 5:00, and the last ones to leave got away by about 6:30. After a bit of observation, we determined that most of the occupants were line men who had come to the area after Super Storm Sandy.  Apparently, infrastructure repair projects were still in the works. There were two dumpsters in the park and both were overflowing when we arrived on a Tuesday. One of them was never emptied during the entire week we were there.

We had spot #M3. The sites were spaced more like they belonged in a truck stop. Our spot was so tight that we couldn’t even spend time outside because their sewer connection was so close to our front door. The smell was overwhelming. This means we really couldn’t open windows either because the stench spilled straight into my kitchen. The park did not have cable and our DirecTV signal was blocked by campers parked on a hill above us. No television. Not even over-air channels. We would have happily left, but we had nowhere to relocate, and our reservation was non-refundable. I don’t mean to complain, but the worst part was that the daily rate was on the high end of our budget.  I’m not sure where the owners put their earnings, but they most certainly did not reinvest any of it into the operations of the park.

After we got the bus settled on the first afternoon, we tried to walk the dogs around the park. That took about 5 minutes. There was a wide open space of grass behind a graveyard of dilapidated campers in a “storage area” at the bottom of a hill in front of our bus. Piper and Cessna were desperate for more exercise, so we departed the crumbling roads of the campground and tried to “hike” into the adjacent wilderness. Actually, it turns out that we were hiking in a humongous drainage ditch that happened to be dry at the moment. We had started out at the bottom of the ditch, so we trekked up a steep hill of unmanaged grass that came to my knees. With every step I was waiting to find a snake or a rat under my feet. When we finally reached the top we found ourselves in the parking lot of a Chili’s and Macaroni Grill. As I tried to discover the silver lining of our current adventure, I told Mike we had a $25 gift certificate to Macaroni Grill in my wallet. We could have a complimentary dinner there one night to pass time. Chili’s would also have televisions in their bar area, so we had a place to watch football when Saturday afternoon came around. The dogs wouldn’t be able to join us for the Texas game, but I would be able to walk across the parking lot at half time and let them out for a bit.

Our first full day in New Jersey was predicted to be the best weather for the rest of the week. There was no reason to hang around Fla-Net, so we hopped into the Honda and headed for The Poconos in Pennsylvania.  I had gone online and found a few waterfalls that were about an hour north of us. We thought we would take the dogs on a hike and see some beautiful scenery while we were at it. We were off to a late start because it had taken longer than intended to do the research and find out where to go. The drive up to the northern boundary of New Jersey was pretty with fall foliage along the road.  We even crossed over the Appalachian Trail again, but we didn’t see any hikers this time.

I’m not an expert in geography, but from what I can tell the Delaware Water Gap is part of, or next to, the Poconos.  A water gap creates the border between New Jersey and Pennsylvania where the Delaware River cuts through a large ridge of the Appalachian Mountains. The land is primarily designated as a National Recreation Area. Since our brilliant political leaders had shut down the government during this time, there wasn’t much going on in the region. Mike was the driver. I was the navigator. The dogs enjoyed the views from the back window.  We made a couple of unscheduled stops on our way north. First we stopped at a money machine where we could get cash with no fee.  Then we unexpectedly passed a Honda Dealership, so we zipped in to get a new set of windshield wipers we had needed for a while. After I got us lost a couple of times, we finally reached our first destination around 3pm.

Dingmans Falls is managed by the National Park Service, so it was closed.  No problem. We parked our car near the road and walked around the locked gate. There were several other cars parked in the area so we figured we would see other tourists along the way. There was also a sign that said ‘no dogs’, but who was going to come kick us out? We walked in on a long narrow road that ultimately led to a visitor’s center and a trailhead. The landscape was gorgeous. The path through the woods was a wooden boardwalk, so the walk was easy. About 20 yards into the trail, we passed Silverthread Falls. This was a tall skinny waterfall that only flowed after rain. Lucky for us, it was flowing on the afternoon we were there. We snapped a few photos and then continued along the path to find Dingmans Falls at the end of the line. We walked along a flowing stream dotted with rocks and boulders. We were in the shade of the forest and all the trees were bursting with yellow and orange leaves. The sun was shining bright up in the sky, which made it seem like we were in a sparkly wonderland as it filtered through the branches and spilled out into pockets of light all around us. It really was one of the most beautiful walks we had been on in quite some time.

We heard the rushing of the water long before we spotted the second highest waterfall in the state of Pennsylvania. The water dropped about 130 feet into a large pool of water. There was an observation platform at the edge of the water pool, and then there were steps that led up to the very top.  We were there for exercise, so we started climbing the stairs. I don’t know how many steps we had to conquer to make it to the top, but our legs were tired and we were breathing hard when we got there. In reality, the view was much better from below. I think there were a couple of other trails that embarked into the wilderness from that spot, but it was getting late and we didn’t want to get lost in the forest at sunset. We turned around and reversed course.

By the time we made it back to the car, it was after 4:00. We had planned to drive in a big circle back to the campground and our next intended stop was Raymondskill Falls, located south along the Delaware Water Gap. By the time we found the next destination, it was even later and we did not know how long it would take us to walk that path. We decided to skip that one and the next, Bushkill Falls. I would have been disappointed, but we weren’t planning to visit Pennsylvania until NEXT summer. We would just put this area on our wish list and come back to stay for a longer visit in the future.  We made it back to the Monaco just after dark. I hadn’t planned anything for dinner, so we left the dogs at home and walked across the parking lot to burn our gift certificate at Macaroni Grill (thanks Brad and Angela).

Melanie and Bob are our mutual friends who originally introduced us. Mike and Bob have been close friends since high school in Garland. Melanie and I played on the same tennis team in Tyler. Bob’s sister, Lori, lives in New Jersey. She and Mike were in the same grade (Bob is one year younger). Lori’s husband is also named Bob. His family has a restaurant called The Lamplighter which has been in business for the last 30 years. We had always planned to look them up when we got to The Garden State, so now was the time. We googled the restaurant and found out it was located 8 miles from our camp! We couldn’t have planned it better if we had tried.  Mike sent Lori a text and we planned to meet at the restaurant in Chester on a Friday night.  This was definitely the best perk of our stay at Fla-Net Park… we got to talk to other humans besides ourselves for a change.

When the time came, we drove over to The Lamplighter for dinner. Neither of us had ever met Lori’s Bob, and Mike hadn’t seen her in decades. We really weren’t sure what faces we were looking for when we walked through the front door. We told the host we were there to see Lori. It turns out that we were talking to Bob, the owner. She was en route, so he took us to the bar and served us a couple of drinks. The place was crowded during the dinner hour, but he was so gracious. He took the time to sit with us and answer all of our questions about New Jersey, even though he could have been doing a number of other things related to his business instead. Once Lori got there, we sat down at a table and had a delicious dinner. Mike had the largest slab of prime rib I have ever seen and I had one of my all-time favorites: veal piccata. It was perfect.

It seems like the evening passed in the blink of an eye. They talked about old times in high school. We talked about mutual friends of Bob and Melanie that we all knew. They gave us advice on things to do and see when we went into New York City. Before we knew it, they were ready to close for the evening and we were the only people left in the restaurant.  They wouldn’t even let us pay the bill! We felt so bad because we were not looking for a free meal, so Mike left what we guessed would have amounted to our total tab as a tip for the waitress. She was happy and we felt slightly less guilty.

The next day was a big day for us. Texas played at noon. As planned, we spent several hours at the Chili’s bar watching the game. Luckily it wasn’t on Longhorn Network that week! The best part was that we won! We went back home after the victory for a quick power nap and then drove north to Dobbs Ferry, NY later in the evening. We had made plans to catch up with more old friends. This time it was one of my high school buddies.

James and I had been in the same class at Westlake in Austin and we both went to UT after graduation. I ended up pledging Kappa Delta Sorority and he was in the Sigma Chi Fraternity. I took James to almost all of my sorority parties because he was the best date EVER. We were always just buddies, so I was constantly guaranteed a good time with no drama. He was (and is) the quintessential perfect gentleman, we had great fun together, and I was certain I was not going to be mauled at the conclusion of each evening. It was the perfect scenario. We lost touch after college and he ended up moving to New York. He met Sasha from SoHo. They got married and he has been there ever since. Thanks to Facebook, we got back in touch several years ago. He and Sasha live in Irvington, NY, which was a little over an hour from our camp. He is a singer-songwriter on the weekends, and it turns out he was playing at an art gallery exhibit near his home that Saturday night. We drove over to see him, meet Sasha, and hear him play. The evening turned out to be tons of fun. Another band called The Party Faithful was also playing that evening, and the music was great! Even though we got a chance to visit before the show, and again in between sets… it wasn’t enough time to catch up. As we reluctantly left to make the drive back home, we planned to see them again on Monday (Columbus Day). Since it was a holiday, they didn’t have to work that day. We talked about meeting somewhere in the middle for lunch, but they offered to make the drive to Flanders. They wanted to see our “house”, so I offered to make chili and we made it a date.

We finally made it to New York City on the last Sunday of our time at Fla-Net. On Friday night Lori and Bob had assured us that driving into the City would be no big deal on a Sunday. Until talking to them, we had planned to drive our car to a train station in Jersey City, park the Honda, and then take the PATH train into the World Trade Center or 33rd Street. If we drove ourselves all the way into Manhattan, we would be able to take the dogs and we could be gone from home longer. We wanted to make it as inexpensive of an outing as possible. There is so much to do there; we had to select one activity. We chose Central Park. The weather was beautiful, so something outdoors would be the most enjoyable way to spend our afternoon in The Big Apple.

The most direct route from where we were was via I-280 to the Lincoln Tunnel. We still are not sure why we listened to Lori and Bob. If this trip was something that they classify as easy, they are TOUGH people. I’ve said before that motorists in the Northeast drive like maniacs. As we drove east the number of maniacs on the interstate began to multiply exponentially.  As the roads became more crowded, the drivers became more aggressive. It was like we had accidentally entered a NASCAR race. This was not a ‘Sunday drive’ by any stretch of the imagination.  This was full on automobile warfare. Every man for himself. Thank goodness Mike was driving. I would have turned around and gone home.  He probably would have to, if I had suggested it out loud.

As we approached the tunnel, the number of cars remained constant but we all came to a grinding halt. Now we were in a sea of frustrated maniacs. Why did we decide to do this again?  We crawled through the tunnel and it got worse when we came out the other side. I’m not sure why the City even paints stripes to designated lanes on their streets. There are no rules, there are no lanes. It doesn’t matter what color the streetlight is flashing. It doesn’t matter what regulations are posted on the street signs. As Sasha pointed out later… the majority of cab drivers are from third world countries, and that is how people drive in New York. That girl is a smart cookie. I wish we had talked to her before this trip. She also told me later that they really don’t take the tunnels; they prefer the bridges. More good information that we could have used ahead of time.

Before we left the house, I had located a parking garage online and plugged the address into my GPS. I wanted us to have a specific destination as we made our way into the belly of the beast.  I was going to be the navigator, and I was not interested in ‘winging it’ once we got there. My directions told me to take the second right after we emerged from the tunnel. It took us 45 minutes to go 2 blocks. The lights would turn red, but cars would keep driving into the intersection. Cross traffic could not pass, so they would block the lane when their time came to crawl 10-inches forward.  Honking was not helpful, but that didn’t stop anyone.

We finally made it to the parking garage. We were so happy to get out of the car; we didn’t even ask how much the parking fee was going to be. The parking attendant ordered us out of the car and screeched off to a lower level (we actually had to yell at him to stop the car when he took off, so we could get Piper and Cessna out of the back). Geez. Getting around on foot was much better. Central Park was two blocks to our north. It seemed like everyone in the City was there enjoying the weather and smoggy air. Piper was a mess because of the horse –drawn carriages. Remember the white face horse in Tupelo? Well, he was just begging us to give him another chance at one of these equines as they clopped by us every six seconds. We walked along the path between East Drive and 5th Avenue. We passed the pond with the remote control sailboats. We passed the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When we made it to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir we decided to turn and make our way back south along the paths between West Drive and Central Park West. We passed The Lake which was full of row boats. We passed Strawberry Fields, and suddenly I couldn’t get that damn Beatles song out of my head. We passed Tavern on the Green, but it was closed for renovations.  We came out at Columbus Circle. We decided we needed a bit of happy hour before we would be brave enough to get back in the car and jump back into traffic wars for the drive back home.

A place called the Redeye Grill was located at the street level near the entrance to our parking garage. We were parked at 7th Street across from Carnegie Hall. They had outdoor tables set up, but it was slightly chilly in the shade of the buildings as the afternoon grew later. No one was outside, and it was early for dinner – so inside was relatively empty too. I went in and asked the hostess if we could sit with our dogs outside to have a couple of drinks and possibly some appetizers. She told me it was illegal to have dogs outside, and then she yelled over to a waitress and asked her if she wanted to serve us on the patio. The waitress answered “not really”. So I asked if we could just sit out there and I could come get our drinks myself… We haggled back and forth. I was sweet as southern pecan pie – which was very difficult to pull off. Finally, they relented and told me the grumpy waitress would be out to see us in a moment.  Score!

We each had two drinks. I had two glasses of wine. Mike had two beers. Piper plotted an attack against every horse that passed us on their way to Times Square.  Cessna sprawled out on the sidewalk and took a nap in the middle of the chaos. We decided against appetizers for fear the server would have spit in our food. Our bill came to $68 dollars.  Yes, $68 for four drinks. How do people afford to live in that place? We paid forty more dollars to pick up our car after 2 hours. I said Hail Mary’s under my breath all the way back to the ‘tunnel of hell’. Mike took on the persona of a taxi driver in Bali. We miraculously made it out of NYC without a scratch on the car. Must have been the prayers.  The first thing Mike said to me when we got back to the Monaco was “do you want a martini”? Hell yes, I wanted THREE martinis… through an IV!

When the time came to leave Fla-Net, we couldn’t pack up and get moving early enough. The trailer park was certainly the worst we had stayed in to date. However, with all that said, I’m glad it was one of the stops on our tour. We got the chance to reconnect with old friends, and that opportunity was worth more than each of the drawbacks combined. When I thanked Lori for taking the time to come meet us for dinner, she said “of course, you are family”. This from a woman I had never met before. When James, Sasha, and their daughter Teah left our house after lunch on Columbus Day, it was as if only one week had passed since we were the ones in college. I loved his family, and he liked Mike too. Each of us was so happy to see that the other had turned out happy after we were “all grown up”.  Mike and I had been ecstatic about the chance to talk to someone else besides each other. There had been many more silver linings on this stop than our gift certificate to Macaroni Grill or game day at Chili’s. Silver linings that really mattered.

 

The big waterfall at the end of our hike in the Poconos.

The big waterfall at the end of our hike in the Poconos.

My friend James and the lead singer from The Party Faithful.

My friend James and the lead singer from The Party Faithful.

Central Park, NYC

Central Park, NYC

No TV at this stop, so we had to watch the Texas game at Chili's. The parking lot was adjacent to our park, so we just walked over. Not very glamorous or 'local', but the drinks were cold and the food was hot!

No TV at this stop, so we had to watch the Texas game at Chili’s. The parking lot was adjacent to our park, so we just walked over. Not very glamorous or ‘local’, but the drinks were cold and the food was hot!

So much fun seeing my buddy James, and his lovely wife Sasha.

So much fun seeing my buddy James, and his lovely wife Sasha.

Why in the HELL did we think it would be no-big-deal to drive into the City?

Why in the HELL did we think it would be no-big-deal to drive into the City?

How is this for a beautiful view during our walk in The Poconos?

How is this for a beautiful view during our walk in The Poconos?

The first waterfall on our hike in The Poconos.

The first waterfall on our hike in The Poconos.

 

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