So you’re heading up north to Connecticut for that trip to Grandma’s, and when you reach the great city of Wilmington, you’re presented with a fateful choice:
Take I-95 up to Philadelphia, through Trenton, then take US 1 into NYC?
Or cave in to temptation and cross right over that Delaware Memorial Bridge onto the New Jersey Turnpike?
After all, you think, it’s a straight shot to NYC, and it’ll probably be much faster. And nothing of note happened the last time I took the Turnpike, right? Plus it’s only $6.50, less than the cost of one of those quarterway-decent sandwiches at McDonald’s.
With those flimsy justifications in mind, you give in to temptation, make the exit for the bridge, and cross the point of no return.
You dumb schmuck. Now look what you’ve done.
You leave the toll plaza for the bridge, and go right into the toll plaza for the Turnpike. It looks like some kind of 1980s airport terminal, complete with control tower, which appears to have managed, through some freak of entropy or time travel, to aged some 150 years since it was constructed 30 years ago. As those E-ZPass snobs rush by in the E-ZPass lanes, you’re given an entrance ticket by some ticket machine probably designed and installed by Edison himself. You speed off and onto the Turnpike proper.
Sure, for those first ten miles of Turnpike, you’re still feeling pretty confident about yourself. Look at the time I’m making, you think. I’ll be off this road in no time! Ha, look at those cowards bailing at the Clara Barton service station!
Such foolish thoughts are fleeting, though, when you realize you haven’t seen an exit in those ten minutes, or indeed any sign of civilization at all besides the service station. Sure, cars and trucks and buses are rushing by all the time, but where did they all come from? Surely these cars with Jersey plates didn’t all come from Delaware, right? There are no exits around from them to come from though, only trees. Miles and miles of trees.
Isn’t New Jersey a very densely populated state? you think, as you pass more trees. Evidently people from New Jersey live in trees or something.
Questions such as these have no readily available answers, of course, so to distract yourself, you think about the lines on the road. Look at those lines, you think. They’re slightly thicker than they are on most other roads. Isn’t that odd?
Distractions like these are fleeting, and about when you hit Exit 2, it finally hits you. You’re going to be on this road for another two hours. Oh dear.
Crazy, half-formed escape plans begin forming in your mind.
Could I bail and go through Philly? No, that would require going through the desolate wasteland that is Camden, where the parking spaces outnumber the cars by a factor of twenty, and roving bands of half-crazed neo-highwaymen roam the streets waiting for an unsuspecting out-of-towner to pounce on.
Could I just make a 180 and head back home? No, grandma is expecting you, and she makes such nice French toast. Plus, there’s a jersey barrier in the way.
You got yourself into this situation, now you’re going to have to see it through.
As you head further north, you begin to notice the number of trucks on the road is increasing. Exponentially. As in, every ten miles you see about 1.5 times as many trucks as before. And they’re big trucks. Big trucks with hazmat placards on them.
This, of course, inevitably leads to the classic Turnpike traffic jam.
Benjamin Franklin discovered that lightning was electrical in nature, and by extension, he realized that electricity could give off light. It was with that in mind that he had large electrical “REDUCE SPEED” signs built in 1780 to slow down the invading British. After the war, they were left to rust in place until 1950s highway engineers designed the New Jersey Turnpike to make use of the already-existing Enlightenment-era signage.
At least that’s the only reasonable explanation for the condition of the lighted signs on the Turnpike, urging you to “RED CE SPE “ for “CO ESTIA “ ahead. The nearby changeable speed limit sign, designed by Leonardo Da Vinci on a napkin during the Renaissance and constructed in Rome over 500 years ago, flips down to 45, then 35, then 25. You’re going to be here for a long time.
As you nudge your way through endless tractor trailers, you begin to note what the hazmat placards actually say. “CORROSIVE” reads one. “FLAMMABLE GAS” reads another. Then there’s that 53’ trailer with six placards on it, with warnings from “RADIOACTIVE” to “EXPLOSIVES 1.1A”. Of course, the inattentive driver of said tractor-trailer begins to move into your lane, and you’re forced to dodge between the oil tanker and the truck full of poison to prevent some kind of atomic explosion.
Twenty miles of twenty-mile-per-hour traffic later, and you’re out of the jam. The cause? Nothing, apparently. Traffic clears out for no apparent reason. By this time, of course, there are about three trucks for every one car, not to mention the buses.
Now you’re back up to 55 miles per hour, but this isn’t any better. There’s still no sign of civilization, only trees. In fact, so far there has been almost nothing to suggest that New Jersey is a populated area. For a moment near exit 7A you saw a warehouse, but it was fleeting. No matter how far you go, the road looks the same. If it weren’t for the changing exit numbers, you could swear you hadn’t gone anywhere. You drive on. Endlessly. Monotonously. If it weren’t for the erratic truck drivers, you could do it in your sleep.
All this changes at the split. About 30 minutes before New York City, the Turnpike splits, with trucks and buses only allowed in the outer lanes, to free up space for regular cars.
This is when you make another fatal mistake.
I’ll outsmart the system, you think. I’ll avoid the traffic by using the truck lanes!
The only problem with your clever plan is that everyone else has the same clever plan. (Great minds think alike, I suppose.) So now the outer three lanes are packed with traffic, and the inner three are totally empty. Whoops.
Crawling forward at under ten miles an hour, you hit the first landmark that tells you you’ve reached North Jersey: Joyce Kilmer Service Station. Nature has been calling quite urgently over the past hour, and so you plan to pull off there for a restroom break and to get some gas for the rest of the trip.
As you pull into the exit ramp, you are caught almost immediately in the line for the gas pumps. Great.
Half an hour later and you’ve covered the 500 feet to the turn-off into the parking lot. You pull into a parking spot near the Sbarro and run inside and try to find the restroom, conveniently located at the third door on the left down the second hallway after the secondary entrance to the Burger King.
It’s grimy, it’s ugly, and it clearly hasn’t been cleaned since Viking explorers led by Leif Eriksson built the service station in the early 1000s AD. But the next service station isn’t for miles, so you grit your teeth and get it over with.
You run back to your parking space, get in the car, and drive to the pumps. After another 15 minutes of waiting, you finally reach the pump, get out, and reach for the gas pump before being yelled at by an attendant.
Self-serve gas stations are illegal in New Jersey. An attendant has to pump the gas for you. So you tell him how much gas you need and then try frantically to remember if you’re supposed to tip him or not, and if so, how much you’re supposed to tip. You lean over the dashboard, trying to look at other people being served to see if they’re tipping, to no avail. You put down the sunroof and poke your head out the roof to look, but still can’t see anything. The attendant yells at you again.
Fine, you think. If you wanted a tip, you shouldn’t have yelled at me that much, you reason, and you so you speed off. With the gas pump still attached to your tank.
It falls off, of course, onto a cigarette that someone threw out the window, and catches on fire, triggering the gas station fire suppressant system that covers the entire service station in two feet of thick foam. Lucky you that you made it out in time.
Rejoining the main highway after only briefly pulling over to put the gas cap back on properly, you pull in to the center lanes, away from the trucks. The Turnpike looks radically different now: the trees are gone, replaced by smokestacks, warehouses, and oil refineries. The trucks are safely contained in the truck lanes. The signs all look different too: they all have changeable destination plates.
These plates were considered quite progressive when Emperor Hadrian had them installed in 127 AD, but since then they have only been altered twice: once to change the toll rates from Roman gold coins to US dollars, and once to change the language to English from the original Latin after Vatican II ruled that road signs should be printed in the vernacular.
You roll up the windows to keep out the foul North Jersey air, which is frequently compressed, bottled, and labeled as CO2 for the paintballing industry. You set the air conditioner to “recirculate”, and hope against hope that you can make it out of Jersey before you run out of breathable air.
Traffic beings to thicken as you approach perhaps the highlight of the trip: Newark Airport.
Newark Airport’s runway 4R parallels the highway at a distance of 700 feet. Runway 29 runs perpendicular to the highway, with the touchdown markings less than 500 feet from the highway. Both the FAA and for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority say this is more than enough room for the airplanes to maneuver safely around the Turnpike, and you ought to be comforted by that fact as large FedEx cargo aircraft roar overhead at less than 30 feet, smothering the highway in jetwash. As you weave through the onslaught of airborne Priuses and Smartcars which proved too light to withstand the wake vortex from such a large aircraft, you reflect upon what a wise decision it really is to own a Hummer in the suburbs.
After a mind-boggling array of overpasses, underpasses, under-overpasses, over-underpasses, and the three and a half feet of clearance under the Pulaski Skyway, you hit the toll, and it hits you. It’s not $6.50 any more, no, it’s $9.05. You just paid a full nine dollars and five cents for that trip. That trip cost you your sanity; that trip took three hours of your life from you; that that nearly caused the destruction of a whole service station. Now they expect you to pay for it?
Unfortunately you don’t have much choice. As you approach the toll booth, constructed by the Alexander the Great in 320 BC, you hand the attendant the exact change, and speed off, determined to get off this mad highway, resolving to cross the Hudson at the Tappan Zee instead of dealing with the pseudo-Turnpike leading to the George Washington Bridge. With this in mind, you exit the Turnpike, at long last, and get on the Palisades Parkway, giving you another hour of endless trees, albeit with fewer trucks.
When it’s time to come back from Grandma’s, you’ve forgotten your lesson already, and you do it all over again in reverse. Such is the curse of the New Jersey Turnpike.