Thursday, July 7, 2016
Reaching the Halfway Point: New Jersey
is #25 in the quest to run 10K all 50 states
While driving across the bridge to Bayonne, N.J., I began to detect an odor that was halfway between basil and a fire at a tire dump.
"Just great!" I thought, from behind the wheel of my new (to me) 2012 Subaru Forester, assuming it was the car burning coolant, or window washer fluid, or something. "Well, at least I found out while the dealer will still cover any fix."
But it wasn't my car, which was on its first extended road trip under new ownership. I found that the source of the odor was the Hackensack River, which forms Bayonne's western border. It really does smell like basil and a tire dump fire, with notes of spoiled ginger and rotting shellfish at low tide.
So it was with a sense of relief that I commenced what turned out to be a 7.1-mile loop around Bayonne, a community of about 65,000 people crowded onto a peninsula that juts into the heart of the New Jersey industrial docklands west of New York Harbor.
Ah, New Jersey, land where citizens are forbidden to pump their own gas. I came to keep alive my "once-a-month" state run streak, active since December of last year. If successful, the run would put me at the half-way point of completing this extended project.
Bayonne is a community of single-family homes crowded onto small lots. Streets are arranged in a grid pattern, with corner stores everywhere. And good public transit options. Example: Manhattan is within easy reach via New Jersey Transit Light Rail up to Hoboken, then PATH trains under the Hudson.
Bayonne's eastern flank remains the site of heavy-duty petrochemical industry, and the southern tip is dominated by the massive Bayonne Bridge, opened in 1931 and spanning the Kill Van Kull (one of the world's busiest shipping channels) to Staten Island.
The iconic span is currently being rebuilt to keep the graceful main arch intact, but to raise the roadway about 60 feet higher to accommodate larger cargo ships now passing through the Panama Canal. If that process is of interest, check out this thorough and informative article about the whole process.
But on this sunny, dry and windy Saturday, my route was entirely within the community's residential core. Starting on East 12th Street, I would run counter-clockwise, more or less, and mostly on the outer avenues, taking advantage of the lack of busy cross streets on the sides closest to the water.
The highlight would be an extended stretch of park fronting the Hackensack River, giving me a chance to really get that special odor into my lungs. Driving into town, with its incredible diversity of small residential and commercial buildings, and almost complete absence of national chain stores, I felt I was in a place with character.
Why Bayonne? (Now there's a question I bet I'm not the first to ask.)
Well, it was close to Staten Island, which is where I was heading afterwards to visit a friend and take a shower.
But also, one of my Fordham classmates, Richard Szemiot, grew up in Bayonne. Years later, for his first foreign trip, he joined a small group of us visiting Thailand. And everywhere we went in that exotic land, he found some way of comparing what he saw to Bayonne. Example:
"Richard, what do you think of that sunset?"
"It really takes me back—it looks like the sunsets you'd get from the Bayonne Bridge."
Since that trip, I've been eager to visit Bayonne and see how it reminded me of Thailand.
So I should not have been surprised when the first part of my route along Avenue E took me past this place:
I headed north up Avenue E as far as about 50th Street, then crossed over to the other side of town to run along the Hackensack River, planning to use what seemed to be a bucolic network of walking paths, at least when viewed using Google Earth.
One surprise: Bayonne has hills! Well, surprisingly steep inclines, anyway. It's not San Francisco, but there's a definite ridge running along the spine of most of the peninsula. (Guess that's way it's dry land and not part of the bay.)
Another surprise: the river paths aren't accessible from where I wound up. They're blocked by gates festooned with PRIVATE PROPERTY and NO TRESPASSING signs.
But still, I was glad I came to this corner of Bayonne, as it turned out to be the scene of some actual drama.
While jogging cluelessly along West 54th St., I saw people gathered on the sidewalk up ahead. A mild commotion was ensuing over...a new puppy! A young child was holding the dog's new leash as family members and neighbors made a fuss.
Well, how about that? The scenes you come across on the streets of Bayonne.
But before I could finish that thought, the puppy got loose and darted out into the street—directly into the path of an oncoming car!
This prompted screams from the sidewalk as adults held back the child (who'd dropped the leash) from chasing after the mutt, who was excitedly sniffing a bush across the street.
So I heroically veered out onto the pavement and motioned the driver to stop (which he'd already done) as a family member retrieved the dog.
I tried to think of the Spanish words for "My work here is done" but instead just waved to the family and went on my way.
I did finally reach the Hackensack River, but only through the semi-manicured grounds of Steven R. Gregg Park, a 100-acre spread laid out along the shoreline.
It's a pretty impressive urban greenspace, with roadways and walking paths looping through groves of mature shade trees, all of it leading down to the riverfront, which is laid out with Beaux-Arts flourishes. Think Greek temple on a minimalist budget, with a big helping of Atlantic City boardwalk along the riverfront itself.
Although the view is dominated by container ship unloading facilities on the opposite shore, it's a nice place, with a freshening breeze carrying the now-familiar odor ashore in great gusts.
However, you can't escape these alarming signs, which are posted simply everywhere, in English and Spanish:
I have to say, it's the first time I've seen signs warning of brain cancer from the use of recreational lands.
What's going on is that the whole areas of Newark Bay remains polluted from chemicals used in the production of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Turns out the dioxins can accumulate in shellfish to the point where they're poisonous.
Apparently people still go out "crabbing" in the area, and the results can be deadly. Hence the signs.
After exiting the park, I headed down shadeless Avenue A for the final push. Among the highlights of this area: Bayonne High School, done in the Gothic style popular for education buildings in a bygone area. They really don't make 'em like this any more:
It was now mid-afternoon. With more sun than clouds, not even the basil-scented breeze could keep me from feeling like I was overheating. I was in fact acquring a good sunburn, but that wasn't apparent until later.
Glad to find my car parked where I'd left it, and unmolested. (Compare that to what happened to me in Boston last April.)
The final tally: 7.1 miles in 1 hour and 43 minutes, or a pace of 14:30. Good enough!
And now—anyone hungry for crabs?