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New Jersey Highlands inspire love of the state | Di Ionno


Motorcycling through the backroads

Canistear Road jumps off Route 23 in the southwest corner of West Milford and for the next seven miles it twists upward into Vernon as it climbs higher up Wawayanda Mountain.

The road changes names several times. It becomes Barry Drive past the intersection of Breakneck Road - a named that speaks for itself. It's called Barrett Road as it soars like an asphalt rope to heaven through Wawayanda State Park.

At the top of the mountain is where the "Oh, my God!" moment comes. The sudden view of Vernon valley to the west and the Warwick (N.Y.) black soil farmland to the north is breathtaking in the true sense of the word. Your wheels are on the ground, but you're at small plane height - 1,470 feet above sea level, to be exact.

And on the descent come the cautionary words posted along the paved downhill slopes that wind through the New Jersey Highlands: Trucks Use Low Gear.   

They mean motorcycles, too. And cars with manual transmissions. Because on the thousands of miles of the break-neck roads that twist through the New Jersey Highlands, sometimes the acrid smell of overheated brakes is almost as powerful as the whiff of the nearby dairy farms.

I know. In the two weeks, I've clocked almost 2,000 miles over these roads on a motorcycle: along the Walpack-Flatbrook Road in the deep hardwood cover of the Delaware Water Gap; through the S-turns of Route 23 up to and down from High Point; on the straight roads through Hunterdon farmland that gently change elevation like a kiddie rollercoaster, and where one-lane bridges meet you at every turn of a meandering mountain creek.

It is these places where you meet New Jersey, the Garden State. And New Jersey, the Land of 1,000 Lakes. And New Jersey, the Mountain State. The New Jersey of Dutch barns and Moravian stone houses. The New Jersey of goat bleats and coyote howls. The New Jersey of rafts and kayaks and little lake bungalows. Far off the Turnpike, this is the New Jersey of no exits - the New Jersey of an eternal, enjoyable ride.  

I'm not the kind of columnist who normally writes about my vacation. After all, who would care about how I liked all the places I can't afford to go?

The last time I wrote about an extended absence from this space was after motorcycle crash No.1 in 2009. That one left me on a walker for four months and with a hardware bin in my right ankle, and a concussion that felt like ginger ale bubbles fizzing in my head for a few weeks.

The six fractures in my rib cage didn't require pins, brackets or screws, but my trauma surgeon, Rich Schenk, put the agony in perspective when he said, "People with broken ribs never complain much about pain anywhere else."

I only wrote that as a thank you to the people who put me back together, and the readers who missed my columns.

Motorcycle crash No. 2 came a year later, but I didn't write about it. First, I wasn't hurt -- except for more fizzing bubbles. Second, I didn't want my family to know I bought another motorcycle.

As Forrest Gump's mama said, "Stupid is as stupid does." Some say I couldn't be stupider for buying yet another motorcycle. I say you learn from your stupid mistakes, no matter how stupid you are.

So a month ago, I got myself a little Honda - a 300cc tame machine very much unlike the 1500cc monster that bit through  my ankle.  

The idea was to get back into riding in the safest, most conservative way: taking it easy on the roads less traveled I first discovered on four wheels.

That was 20 years ago when I did a series for this paper about New Jersey's longest and most scenic inter-county roads. 

These are not the direct-route interstate, or state highways. They are the 500-series roads, that meander from town to town. They follow rivers and skirt mountains. 

Some are modernized stage routes that connected the rural villages of New Jersey. Each of them is a road of discovery. They take you through state history and culture like somepage-worn atlas of old mining towns, mill towns and cow towns.

That series turned into a book called "Backroads, New Jersey" and a lifetime of appreciation for the state so few people ever see.

This year, with a new motorcycle and two weeks of vacation during hot but dry weather, I went out to reconvene my cornering and braking skills, and rediscover, intimately and with awe, the often overlooked natural beauty of our state.

I say intimately because in the last two weeks alone, I rode more than 1,856 miles of Highlands backroads - miles filled with not only "Oh My God!" moments but with great pride in this place we call home.

If that number sounds high, it is not. It is exact, with the miles tallied by a trip odometer. And like any vacation, I only wish there were more.

Mark Di Ionno may be reached at mdiionno@starledger.com. Follow The Star-Ledger on Twitter @StarLedger and find us on Facebook.

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