Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Sprung from Cages Out on Highway 9

Tramps like us, baby, we were born to walk.

Mac and I were determined to walk the beach today, come hell or high wind and, quite honestly, it was a little bit of both. No surprise, it was deserted, because no sane person would choose to walk when it's this cold and the breeze is gusting to 25 mph. Our goal was Morey's Pier, an amusement park 2.3 miles down the beach, for no other reason than I'd never seen an oceanside rollercoaster.

Along the way there, we came across dozens of conch shells and while they were no big deal to Mac, I'd never in my life seen so many fully intact conchs, making it impossible to leave them laying there, if for satisfaction's sake if nothing else. Final tally: 9.

I stuck a few in the front pocket of my pullover and carried a few more, all the while on the lookout for a plastic bag to aid the cause. She was skeptical I'd find one, yet somewhere past the tidal pools and before the dump trucks busy moving sand into bulwarks in anticipation of the Nor'easter due to arrive this Monday, there it was, imbedded in the sand and calling my name.

And while the bag definitely made it easier to wrangle them (I could remove the conch nestled in my armpit), that fierce wind whistled through the holes in the bag like a keening bird, not to mention that bag was some kind of heavy as we made our way across a beach of constantly blowing sand to the concrete boardwalk along motel row.

It was practically a ghost town, with street signs swinging and squeaking in the wind.

We took our wind-burnt faces to the Blue Pig Tavern as much for its roaring fireplace as for its appealing lunch menu. Part of Congress Hall, a classic Victorian hotel, the Blue Pig claims it's been providing hospitality since 1816, yet the couple seated at the table next to us by the fireplace vacated theirs in a matter of minutes while we reveled in its warmth every moment until we left.

The way I see it, you weather the Wildwood winds, you earn a table by the fireside for as long as you care to stay. I hated leaving just as a server was stoking the fire with three fat logs, causing an uprising of sparks and renewed energy in the flame.

But we couldn't linger because we'd bought tickets for a trolley tour of Cape May's Victorian architecture and didn't want it to pull away without us. As it was, we got lost a couple of times walking to the meeting place, eventually arriving last while all the other tour participants patiently awaited our arrival.

That's right, we were those tourists.

Our trolley tour guide was not only knowledgeable and enthusiastic, but scored points by beginning the tour with black history, explaining that during an especially awful storm that united bay and ocean, hundreds of houses were destroyed or badly damaged. It was doubly tragic because it occurred during the days of urban removal and since the area was predominantly black, most building remnants were demolished, sending 2/3 of the black population out of the area and 1/3 to West Cape May.

Fortunately, a few African American buildings were saved, a tiny Baptist church, the Franklin School and the summer home of a wealthy black Philadelphian. It was news to me that many of the 19th century houses here were built by well off people from Philly who'd come and spend "the season" - July and August - in Cape May.

Two months? What kind of a summer season is that? Now I understand why I was born south of the Mason Dixon line.

Our guide explained that these people called their enormous Victorian houses "cottages" and considered themselves "cottagers," both phrases borrowed from French royalty and their desire to have smaller rustic houses they could "escape" to.

Cottages these were not.

Another piece of unexpected intel was that back in the 1950s, almost all the cottages had been painted white (with green or black shutters). Cape May got national historic landmark designation in 1976, but the town put no restrictions on paint colors for houses, which goes a long way to explaining the kaleidoscope of colors and patterns on any one house. Even balusters changed from one level to the next.

Easily the oddest architectural detail was the knockout bathroom, essentially a loo on stilts attached to the side of a house. We saw a half dozen or so, each looking like a box with bird legs and no architectural roots to the house. We were learning so much.

Then there was the humor. "In the '70s, Cape May fell into disrepair and everyone started going to Wildwood," our guide explained with utter disdain. "Wildwood!" Since we're staying in Wildwood, Mac and I are well aware of the architectural differences between it and Cape May, but only a native could make it sound so low rent.

Gorgeous gingerbread-covered Victorian cottages aside, the highlight of learning about life in old Cape May was hearing about the Iron Pier, which had been designed with an opera house at the pier's end so that patrons could listen to the intoxicating sound of opera set to waves.

If that's not a romantic notion, I don't know what is.

But it wasn't all turrets and pink shutters, either, we learned. Turns out Cape May was second only to Daytona for auto racing on the beach, with 20,000 people lining the boardwalk to watch a race that included Henry Ford back in 1905.

After the trolley tour, we set out to see the Cape May lighthouse, but made a hard right when we saw a sign for Higbee Beach. Our tour guide had spoken about the beach because the three recent Nor'easters had caused railroad tracks to be uncovered right on the beach and at low tide, they were visible. It's been enough to inspire the locals to trek down there to see them for however long they last.

A guy in the parking lot (his car sporting one of the N.J. "Shore to please" license plates) told us it was a 20 minute walk and to follow the left path to see the tracks. Mac and I trudged along sandy trails through a maritime forest, unable to locate the tracks after 20+ minutes.

I was ready to give up and go back, but she insisted we take the beach trail ("We're not gonna walk this far and not find those tracks!") and, sure enough, there were the rusted railroad tracks coming out of the beach, as groups of intrepid visitors snapped photos. Once they began to clear out, I asked Mac if she'd take a snap of me. Almost immediately, she guessed where I wanted my picture taken.

"Too bad we don't have any rope," she laughed as I laid down across the tracks on a wooden trestle and she snapped away. Too bad is right.

Rather than return the way we'd come, we decided to brave the beach along the bay, watching the ferry head out in choppy waters. We know from experience the queasy ferry feeling those aboard were probably settling into right about then. Put your heads down and close your eyes, kids, it'll be over soon enough.

We finally made it to the lighthouse, only slightly worse for the wear after our second beach walk into the wind of the day. What's clocking ten miles battling the wind for walking veterans like us? What was notable was the more than a quarter cup of sand we found in each of our shoes once we got home.

Despite our tour guide's distaste for Cape May's redheaded stepchild, we stayed in the 'hood for dinner tonight, settling in at the Dogtooth Grill where, it seemed, half of Wildwood had landed:  families with soccer-playing children, a firefighter, a couple who never uttered a word to each other as they ate through steak, ribs and fried chicken.

Neither of us could resist the allure of Cape May Salts, the local oysters our blond server said were raised on the point (see: where we'd spent most of our afternoon). Enormous, although not quite as briny as Chincoteague's Old Saltes, they gave us a sample taste of a Jersey shore wave since it had been far too cold to experience the real thing.

But it was the combination of slurping my first local bivalve just at the moment when Springsteen's "Born to Run" came on the sound system - "The amusement park rises bold and stark" - that put the exclamation point at the end of our "shore to please" day.

Fireplaces, conch shells and roller coasters, oh, my. My sole regret? Not having any rope.

Although, come to think of it, that does make it easier to save myself.


  1. Yay! You're back, and better than ever.

  2. You're very kind to say that, Professor B! And thanks for noticing.

  3. Ah...the hounds, (your following), are back on your trail. Good isn't it?

    I to -- had my conch moment. However mine was on Assateague Island, due north of "the Hook". Instead of a bag, I carried a cheap, promotional backpack, courtesy of the Sierra Club. Soon after encountering dozens of conchs -- then hundreds -- my pack was splitting wide open. It's seams undone I threw a dozen or so back. Finally after walking several miles we arrived back at the car exhausted. Still a good two dozen or more were added to the collection. I still luv'em but my thirst for them is gone.


  4. Amen, Carroll, they were heavy! The next day, I found loads more but only kept 10 of them. I'll have to let you know if my conch lust is sated for good.