In Retrospect A Cadillac Wasn’t The Right Car To Take Offroad

Admit it.  We have all done some pretty bizarre or boneheaded things in our days.

If you haven’t, I bet you’re not all that much fun.

Yeah, I said it.  You’re not that much fun.

We all know someone who decided to launch a trash can onto the roof by putting it on top of a piece of fireworks then lighting it in their front yard.

We all know someone who used to build go carts in their back yards.

We all know that neighbor who insists that Raccoons are great pets.

All of that happened in my own childhood in my own sheltered suburban upbringing in the fabled city of Cherry Hill, NJ.

So get off your damn soapbox and hear the story of one of my own boneheaded trips.

You see, I like to travel.  Truly.  I like to get out and explore and see things not necessarily in my own backyard.  I used to go on my bike and ride out of my protected neighborhood to the wild place called Woodcrest Shopping Center.  It would take me out to Berlin Road, then over the I-295 bridge and the NJ Turnpike Bridge.

It was a world away, and it made me feel like I achieved something in my own pre-teen mind even if it was only a mile and a half off from the house.

Later when I got my first car, we started to explore.

I’d go down to a semi-adjacent town to visit a friend.  Somerdale, NJ.  An older settled burb that was a little less Wonder Years than my own home.  It felt different. 

We’d go further on until we got hooked on going offroad.  I still have my third Jeep Wrangler, but the first was a CJ-7.  The CJs were a rough buckboard of a car that were so uncomfortable that I traded it in on a compact car in Indianapolis after going for a visit one year.

But while I had it, I discovered the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

South Jersey is nothing like what “You People” think of when you think of New Jersey.  No closely settled homes in rows where you might get a good meal on a Sunday afternoon, those places have their own charm, if you grew to know them.  They’re also kind of polluted, since they are too close to New York City or Philadelphia.

The Pines are where the roads turned to dirt.  There never was a real reason to settle these areas since the soil was basically beach sand and you couldn’t farm other than Cranberries.  If you look from the skies all you see are pine trees, berry bogs, cedar water rivers, and small towns in the middle of a vast “empty” area.

But if you explore them, you find a beautiful forest unlike any other place that was surprisingly easy to get to.  They’re latticed like a good pie, Cris-crossed by groomed fire-trails so that when the dry summer season hits, the fires can be stopped before they burn down those little towns.

You really didn’t need a Jeep to go through those areas, but it helped.

We’d drive down to the Carranza Memorial and see the monument to the man who died flying back to Mexico to speak in New York about the children’s fate back in the pre-war era.  Those same children saved their pesos to build that monument.  Now, you can get there and picnic easily since the state built a small parking area.

From there you can hop on one of those sand trails and drive almost all the way to the Jersey Shore without ever touching tire to tarmac except to cross over the road.  We’d stop at Apple Pie Hill to take in the view from the highest spot in South Jersey, a whole 205 feet or so, plus the fire tower.  On a good day you can see Atlantic City, Philadelphia, and if you are really lucky and it is clear, New York City was just in view.

Beautiful spot.

But most of that time I did it in my Honda Accord that predated the Jeep.  A 1978 Honda.  You had to hope it didn’t break because parts had to come from Japan directly, and it rusted out by the second year in the front quarter panels because they designed little pockets for water and debris to sit in and corrode.

Surprisingly I didn’t get stuck.

When Mom got her new car, I knew I had to go explore with it too.  Great.  Me and two of my friends piled into Mom’s Car, an early 1980s Cadillac Sedan deVille D’elegance and headed out.

Mind you, since Jim was living in Medford, NJ, a beautiful suburban town on the edge of the NJ Pine Barrens Preserve, we knew we were going to see what this puppy could do.

Great, lets go to Atsion Lake.  Beautiful place where you were supposed to be able to see the Milky Way if the night was clear.  I never did.  I always believed it was a myth living in the light polluted areas near Philadelphia all my life.

But we got there.  Easy to get to, open two lane black top and we could open it up.  Nobody else there anyway.

I got a gallon of Pump Water for a girl I was seeing at the time since she always raved about how sweet the water was there.  It just tasted like iron to me so I let her keep the jug.

After boring ourselves, we hit the sugar sand road that went east toward Long Beach Island.  Not such a good idea.   The first couple miles were great.  We wallowed past a pothole or three, but nothing really tough.

See that’s the problem.  Eventually those roads became the road less traveled.   Bringing a full sized Cadillac on a sand trail made no sense to anyone but us.  The pines closed in on the trail and eventually it got so that the trees were just on each side of the road. 

Beautiful spot but you just knew you weren’t in the right car when driving on the road felt more like you were going through 6 inches of snow.

When is the last time you saw a Cadillac going through a 6 inch snowfall before the snowplow hit?

You guessed it.  About five miles from Atsion Lake, we wallowed to a stop.

Jim said it first: “You’re stuck, Bill”.
“Yeah I know, lets see what happened.”

I was wheel hub deep in white beach sand.  That big Caddy buried itself to the transmission.

I popped the trunk and began to dig.  It moved easily and we were able to free the beast and back out of the road.

“Not a good idea, Guys, lets head back to the lake!”

We all agreed and got everyone back home.   I rolled into the driveway around midnight.  Mom was fast asleep as was Pat.  Giving the car a quick hose down, I washed away most of the evidence.

Mom drove the car to work the next day not knowing what happened.  She did have me hose down the driveway and ask how all that sand got onto it.

“Sorry, Mom, I don’t have a clue.”

Lets just say it was my education leaking out onto the driveway.   We never did the Caddy again.  The Jeep worked fine when it arrived, and until then we fed our offroading needs with my buddy’s CJ-7.

Now that CJ … that’s a story in itself.

But people do ask me why I keep my Jeep.  Because of times like that.  When I do go back to visit friends and family in New Jersey, I intend to do that trip.  It may be the last time I get a chance to go offroad, but trust me, I’m looking forward to it. 

In the Jeep.

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Bats in the Morning Walk

I had a long conversation last week.  One of those “Catch Up With Good Friends” conversations that covers some of the bases, and you only realize that you wanted to share more once it was over.  Joe was my programmer when I worked at Temple University, but he and his family are family to me, even now after being away for 6 years.

He was talking about his love of Astronomy and how he was looking into hooking up a video camera to his telescope.  Nice hack turning your telescope into a TV camera.   Since there were few stars in the Suburban South Jersey skies that I grew up in, Astronomy was one of those things that was rumored and never quite seen.  Sure people in other parts of the world got to look up and see the Milky Way but it was something I only experienced when I took my Jeep out to Apple Pie Hill, climbed the fire tower on a clear night and looked up while my jaw dropped to catch mosquitoes.

This is a view from the top of the tower on a clear morning.  I need to drag my sister out there some day…

I was thinking about this conversation when I walked outside today.   Waking up well before the dawn at 5AM, I stepped outside and let Lettie water the lawn.  Feeding her, we went out to greet the morning.  There were about 5 stars out at that time of the morning.  I’m sure there are more at other times of the day, but for the most part, there are few.   After all, Wilton Manors, FL, is pretty close to the Geographic Center of the South Florida Sprawl.

Walking around my neighborhood listening to the story of how Martin Frobisher discovered Iron Pyrite for Queen Elizabeth I in Northern Canada while looking for the Northwest Passage, I watched the skies as my dog watched the ground for interesting smells.

Hearing the Posh British Accent in my ears, I noticed a dark flash and an odd sound to the Audio program(me).  At that point I got to see the Batman Signal framed by a pair of palm trees when I scanned toward where I had just come.  There were two large bats fluttering around hunting for their morning meal.  These were the size of a medium song bird, but clearly bats as the supersonic “Nick! Nick!” sonar sound was bouncing off of objects in the skies.

Martin Frobisher had reached Baffin Island and flying Bats had found their meal.  Neither were common sights in South Florida.  Luckily the Bats are healthy, there certainly are enough flying around the morning skies for them to eat. 

Wet Memories of Ponds Gone By

Today I woke up and managed to get the dog walk in before the weather changed.  Three hours later, it is 5 degrees colder at 51, still raining, and windy.  The skies are grey and the wind is coming in off the front that is settling in.

Sunny Florida indeed.

It’s winter and there’s always tomorrow.  It will be cool and sunny at least.  It got me thinking that this is the kind of weather that we would have when I was growing up in Cherry Hill, NJ in April instead of Wilton Manors, FL at what is statistically the coldest week of the year.

Much to the parent’s annoyance, it would be days like this that Pat and I would get on our jacket and our old clothes and go out to play in the yard.   In the rain, we’d have big puddles that would drain to the Cooper Creek behind the house.  We called it The Crick in the South Jersey accent of the day and it was a draw.  Just like any children of any era, they’d be drawn to the edges of the body of water and go searching, coming back covered with mud but happy with the latest adventure.

Over the years, we explored The Field until it became covered with baseball diamonds, and the gently descending prairie there of tall weeds.  In summer there were Blackberries to be picked and we could hide among the tall grasses until the afternoon wore down until dinner and the mosquitoes chased us away.

Toward the bottom of the field was a spring.  It was reliable and there was never a time that it had dried up.  Feeding The Crick, it was a source of entertainment for all the children of the little suburban neighborhood.  Winter it would freeze solid enough for us to go out with our shoes and skate across it.  One kid or another would be brave enough after testing it for strength, and that would be all it took, we’d all be out there sliding across with our smooth bottomed shoes until tired.  There were always one or more felled trees to use as a bench to rest, and many afternoons would be spent there sliding around until it thawed.

Once the Spring season finally arrived, the tadpoles would begin to hatch and that brought more entertainment.   We had the chance to watch the little things grow and catch them so we could see them closely.  What we would do with them was to look at them, marvel at the speckles on the tail that would be “eaten” away as they grew, look for legs to let us know that they were developing into a mature frog.  Our little pond full of tadpoles would become full of frogs that would be again caught and looked over.  We wondered whether that frog had been caught months before as a tadpole and if it remembered us.

The baseball fields got built and since they need a flat layer of ground, the big trucks came in and leveled the place so the little leagues could move in.  This was all before we realized how productive a marsh could be, nurturing the natural and the minds of children to find out the life cycles of the creatures within.  The fields got built and table flat, but they also left a bit of a cliff to climb.  We now had to get around the cyclone fence to get to The Pond and up to the table of land that was the parking lot that overlooked the left over bit of wetland.

What Man builds, Mother Nature will wear down.  Sometimes over long stretches of time, other times in an eye blink.  The fields were built in Spring, and by Summer, the edges which were not planted with any retaining grass, had silted up most of our precious pond.  By the time that the silting had stopped,  the wetlands were much more dry, the pond had shrunk to a sliver that was maybe a tenth of its former self

Over the years, we stopped going to The Pond.  It wasn’t really enough area for us to skate, the kids who were all within a year or three of each other were now into their teens, and it ceased to be a draw.  I remember that our little group of children now would instead of hovering over the natural, went up to the hill that overlooked the little league fields and watch over it for a while like a bleacher.   This hill was the berm that was built up when the State of New Jersey built I-295 from Delaware to its then end at Moorestown, three or four miles North.  We knew that we were 32 miles from Delaware because the mile marker on the southbound side of The 295 was in our own little world, overlooking our homes and what was once the prairie.  We still could use the hill for sliding down it on sheets of cardboard as if they were toboggans, but the area just wasn’t as fun now that it was a managed baseball park.

Luckily that kind of construction would be less likely.  A habitat that was left over would be called a Preserve and left to be natural.  The pond would be a protected area so that slivers of the endangered natural New Jersey would not be swallowed up.  The entire neighborhood was once a farm and that little area was left alone because it just wasn’t dry enough to be farmed.  So when the homes were built there, fill was trucked in and we had a time where we could enjoy what was left for children to explore.

Even on the cold raw rainy days of April, New Jersey has a lot of land that were left as a preserve.  When I got too old to explore the pond, I started driving.  After a series of cars, I got my first Jeep and did what every Jeep driver tried to do, I went off road.  New Jersey is a beginner’s paradise of off roading.  You don’t have to go and destroy the natural habitat in New Jersey because the Pine Barrens are set aside for you to enjoy and are laced with fire trails.  There’s a large network of abandoned roads, railroads and sugar sand fire trails to drive over and I was able to sate my needs for visiting the natural by not destroying the lands.

When ever I had someone from out of state make their predictably tired New Jersey Jokes, I would insist that those places that everyone cringes over are “Up North” and in the New York Suburbs “North of Exit 9” on the turnpike.  Next weekend, I’d drag them kicking and screaming out to The Pines where we’d invariably explore until we’d come across a “Cedar Water Creek” and marvel that there were fish, frogs and fowl in this place that was special and set aside from such things as a developer’s plow and baseball diamonds.

The thing that is so special about the New Jersey Pine Barrens that was unintentional is that it is so accessible.  You could go off road in a Cadillac Sedan deVille if you wanted to in New Jersey, I know that because I took Mom’s Caddy back there.  You didn’t have to shred the land, someone already graded the roads and you could get in and see what it looked like before we got there simply by looking out the window and away from the trails.

Without major equipment you can’t drive across the Everglades.  It’s more heavily protected, but airboats go through it every day.  I can’t imagine driving through the Everglades, but I have driven through the Pine Barrens to get home when the Atlantic City Expressway was jammed simply by getting off at one of the exits, driving through Hammonton to get to the custard stand and going That Way to Atsion Lake and through Medford home.  Each time I did that, I’d have another person with me saying they never knew how beautiful New Jersey could be.

It is all in the view.  Sometimes the best view is out the window of a Jeep Wrangler going up a trail at 30MPH.

The Automotive Equivalent of a Burqa

A car tends to be a choice here.  A very complicated choice.  You weigh your life priorities, what you intend to do with the thing, narrow it down to some  few models, and then make a choice from that.  If you are lucky you can walk onto a lot and just get what you want and not get robbed too badly.

I drive a Jeep Wrangler.   Not a very efficient vehicle, but fun to drive.   I don’t have children, I rarely take anyone anywhere other than my dog.   I got it because I had a friend who had one back in the 80s and really enjoyed the times I shared in it.  So I bought my first and since I would take public transportation I would shrug off the 18 Miles To The Gallon it got, and drove it to places like the New Jersey Pine Barrens, Apple Pie Hill, Atsion Lake, and the “back way” to the Jersey Shore.

That Back Way could save hours and was an almost straight as an arrow shot through some thick forests of pine, on a Fire Trail that was unpaved at about 40 miles to the hour.

I don’t drive much now, and I don’t intend to.   It does drink gas rather quickly by today’s standards, but when I commuted it wasn’t so expensive that it felt like the relative cost to the environment of buying new and efficient outweighed the fact that I have a nine year old car with 42,000 miles on it and can get at least another 10 years at this rate.  

I just don’t drive much.

Cars do tend to fit your personality though.  I could have driven a long list of off road cars and for the little bit that I would go to the top of that Fire Tower at Apple Pie Hill so I could look at Atlantic City, see Philadelphia, and the lights of New York City from the same spot, all would have worked.  The trails in New Jersey are very easy to drive and I did it once in Mom’s old Cadillac Sedan De Ville.

There are some cars that blend into the background.  The Automotive Equivalent of a Burqa.  These cars tend toward the appliance mindset.  I have to go somewhere, I need the room, and I’m going to do it while I cart about my stuff.   Stuff could be the two-point-three children, the Car Pool, or just the little old man with a Fedora driving 45 in the fast lane on the interstate.

When I first learned to drive, we would be on the lookout for a “Hat Car”.  That would almost invariably be a Chevrolet Nova or Dodge Dart or similar.   A Sedan car driven by that old man with a Fedora, or a little old lady who you would see the top of some blue hair and perhaps white gloves.  Always driven way too slowly for traffic, and something to get around. 

I don’t really drive enough to see that sort of thing.  I would notice that if you had an old Camry here, they almost invariably had a Haitian flag or a sticker from a small Caribbean or Latin American nation on it.  Driving 35 in a 45 zone on Powerline Road in the Fast Lane and choking traffic back.   The Modern Hat drives a 10 year old Toyota Camry or a similar Ford Taurus.

They can be boring but not really anonymous.

I have a neighbor about three houses down.  I truly enjoy them, their children, and the times I’ve spent chatting with them were truly times well spent.   They’re wonderful people… they also drive a Burqa.

One of their vehicles are a Burqa.  They also have a big Dodge Ram Pickup, a real “Cowboy Cadillac” of a thing to haul their Air Boat.   It is Friday Morning and if they’ve got the day off, they’ll be driving down the block shortly with the Air Boat in tow to go west to Weston and launch for a day of Fishing.

I’m jealous but I can’t picture myself doing that.  I’d be miserable slapping Mosquitos and getting everyone annoyed as I turn brown then red.  Rehydrating yourself with Bud Ice can be fun though…

So what is this Automotive Burqa and why do I call it that?

They also have a Navy Blue Chrysler Grand Caravan. The Penultimate Minivan.  It has a “Salt Life” sticker on the back and I have yet to figure out what that means.  There are the stickers for each of the kids, a soccer ball sticker has been on it and a university logo from some local university that slips my mind.

Now, Mind You, I am sitting in my house low in the living room and while windows are open I can not see the street or their car down the block.   I have a very vivid memory of that Burqa, er, car, and I also have a mental block.

You see every time it drives past me, I realize that some person in that car is waving at me.  I can never put to mind who that person is.   It always happens once they have completely passed me.   I think it is the fact that the minivan is so much of the background of culture that this, the only one within blocks, just immediately falls into a black hole of my mind and I simply don’t see it.

They’re great people and I truly enjoy having them and their kids as neighbors but pile them in that big blue black hole and they’re invisible!

I laugh at myself and am embarrassed to say, I just don’t see them.   Nice people though, and I’ll have to tell them this story once I get past my own shyness…