July 20, 2016 – Sun, 80 degrees
Miles Today: 51
Miles to Date: 13,325
States to Date: 34
Sorry Cape Cod, sorry Miami, sorry Port Christian, sorry Malibu. The most beautiful beaches in the world are along the Jersey Shore. Over one hundred miles of pristine sand bar that include areas of natural preservation, fabulous mansions, and honky tonk boardwalks. I rode south along Ocean Blvd and Route 35 on a perfect beach day of crisp sunshine and steady breeze with the intoxicating scent of the salty sea, overburdened every so often by the smell of greasy fries and deep-fried Oreos. Forty-five years ago I moved away from this strip of sand where I was raised. I am surprised how little these places have changed, how familiar they still feel.
Mansions that rival the Hamptons line Ocean Blvd in Deal.
As a child, the Convention Center in Asbury Park was the swankiest place I’d ever seen. In 1965 we drove 25 miles to see the opening of The Sound of Music at the elegant Paramount Theater. Asbury Park nosedived just as Bruce Springsteen made it famous. By the 1990s it was a collection of halfway houses, going down, down, down. But as the locals relate, ‘the gays moved in,’ and saved the place. It’s not exactly South Beach, but it has an upbeat charm.
Immediately south, Ocean Grove was founded as a Methodist Chautauqua-style camp with a massive revival hall. People still vacation in the rows of tents and small houses with grand porches.
There is miniature golf, of course, and newer houses that still harken back to porch tradition.
When I arrived at Mantoloking, I began to see the effects of Hurricane Sandy. Along the ten miles to Seaside, bulldozers replenish beach sand, construction crews rebuild mega-houses, and house-lifting companies raise salvaged structures.
Several people told me the boardwalk at Seaside Heights wasn’t what it had been, but I found it exactly as I remembered, a titillating concoction of suntan lotion and cigarettes, sweet taffy and sausage with onions. I had a frozen custard cone from Kohr’s, creamier than any frozen treat on earth.
My hometown, Toms River, is famous for three things: the environmental/chemical damage that Ciba-Geigy inflicted, the epicenter of Hurricane Sandy, and Little League. I grew up in the abandoned gravel pits that the town deeded to Little League to create baseball fields for tiny boys. We spent hours trying to coax infield grass from the sandy earth. My father was a coach; I got hit by more balls than I caught. After two years, one hit, and dozens of errors, I retired to scorekeeping and running the concession stand. I proved talented at both tasks. I scored our way the Toms River’s first state championship and made enough money selling Twizzlers to buy my first guitar.
In 1998, Toms River won the Little League World Championship. Today, those snarly gravel pits contain seven beautiful baseball fields and a clubhouse that includes indoor batting and pitching stalls. I watched a practice in session. The coaches are so patient. The boys, and now girls, are so small. But in their minds, they are all major-league stars.