05 August 2016

A Ride Along Another Canal: A Path To Memory

Today it was Vera's turn.

I took my green Miss Mercian mixte on a ride to, and along, the Delaware and Raritan Canal towpath.  I used to pedal along that path when I was a Rutgers student; last year I rode it for the first time since those days.

Today I rode it just a week after pedaling and walking by the  Canal St. Martin through what has become a district of young artists and animators--and interesting, quirky restaurants and cafes--to the city's "little Africa".  Years ago, I also pedaled a section of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath near Washington, DC.  Like the D&R towpath, its surface (at least on the section I rode) is dirt and clay, with pebbles in some areas. A section of the St. Martin has a path with a similar surface, while another part is cobblestoned.

Towpaths along canals were constructed so that horses or mules could tow barges from the shore. Even if their surfaces are not paved, they make nice bike lanes as well as hiking trails because they are usually table-flat, or close to it.  The engineering that went into building them--not to mention the canals themselves--has seldom been bettered.

It's interesting that one reason we like to ride along canals is that they seem peaceful.  Their still waters reflect and refract light in sometimes-painterly sorts of ways, whether the canal courses through Paris residences or old factories in New England--or winds through stands of trees and follows railroad tracks in central New Jersey.  One often sees couples riding or walking, or simply sitting, along canal banks:  Canals and their paths are often among the most romantic sites in their locales.  

I also find it interesting that some canal towpaths are seen as "natural" sites.  Along some parts of the Delaware and Raritan, as well as other canals, trees and other vegetation have reclaimed the land from the remains of abandoned factories and other structures.  Areas along canals have also been turned into, or become, sanctuaries for various animals and birds.  But as lovely as all of those animal habitats, and all of the flora and fauna, are, they are no more "natural" than the canal itself. 

In saying what I've just said, I do not mean to diminish the aesthetic or recreational value of such sites.  I just find it ironic that we now ride along canal towpaths like the Delaware and Raritan to get away from the sometimes-dreary, or even grim, industrial and post-industrial landscapes those canals helped to create, or were built to serve.  

In fact, the city of New Brunswick--the locale of Rutgers University, located at one end of the canal--is such a place.  I don't know whether the term "post-industrial" had been coined by the time I attended university there, but it certainly would have fit:  A number of large and small enterprises had gone out of business or simply left:  Johnson and Johnson was threatening to do the same.  In fact, even some Rutgers administrators, and New Jersey state officials, talked about abandoning the Old Queens campus and moving all of the university's facilities across the Raritan River to Piscataway, where Rutgers already had some of its research laboratories as well as a residential campus.

Instead, they decided to "revitalize" the city.  In essence, they made it just like the downtowns of so many other cities, with all of the same chain stores and restaurants. (I mean, what town worth its salt would do without Starbucks, right?)  So it doesn't look as run-down as much of the town did when I lived there, but it has all of the character of a Sunbelt suburb.

And, of course, my favorite places--except for one--are gone.  Those places include what remains, to this day, my favorite music store I have ever encountered:  Cheap Thrills, on George Street. The prices were indeed cheap, which allowed me and many other students to buy albums (vinyl!) of all of those esoteric bands and kinds of music we learned about from each other.  

(That shop, and a Pyramid Books, which I also loved, were part of the Hiram Market district, which was designated a historic district, then de-designated because, as one architect put it, the area didn't fit into Johnson and Johnson's "clean desk" mentality.)

The only "old favorite" of mine that remains is a restaurant called Stuff Yer Face.  Of course, the menu includes all sorts of things we couldn't have imagined in those days. It also has a bar with an enormous beer selection.  Back in my day, they didn't (couldn't?) sell alcohol, but we could bring it in.  Of course, most of us did!

I ordered an Original Stromboli, for old time's sake.  The young woman who took my order and the one who brought it to me were, no doubt, not even born the last or first time I ordered one.  It was every bit as good--and unhealthy--as the first one I ate in 1979 or thereabouts.  A bargain, frankly, at $6.75. 

At least there was that--and the canal towpath.  They made the ride more than worthwhile.

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