I went to college in northern New Jersey at a small place called the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Arts. I went there for three years, graduated, and continued working as an artist for both a small art studio and, later, Marvel Comics. I lived there until I just couldn't stand it any more and in 1996, on my 25th birthday, I left. I didn't know where I was going but I knew I couldn't stay there anymore. So, I packed up my newly aquired Jeep Wrangler and set out on the road.
The last time I set foot in New Jersey was 2003. And, after going, I swore I would never go back.
I guess "never" for me lasts about, oh, six years or so.
As I crossed the Tapan Zee bridge in New York state and headed south on 287 I snapped a few shots from the driver's seat of the mini-van my parents had graciously allowed me to borrow. It was an odd feeling seeing the sign come up saying "Welcome to New Jersey". There was no turning back now.
My first stop on the journey was at my friend Chris Wichtendahl's house in Denville. Another old college buddy, Rob Kelly, was going to meet us there and we were going to spend the night. I got to meet Chris' daughter, Sage, who I hadn't seen since she was still in diapers. She's now eight and we hit it off immediately. I think I made a new best friend in her when she said to me, "I like you...you're just like me!" From an eight year old, I take that as a high compliment.
Rob, Chris, and I hung out most of the night until Rob and I fell asleep on his couch. I used my sweatshirt as a blanket. When Sage came out the next morning and asked if that was what I had used she told me she had tons of blankets in her room and she was too warm all night. I told her not to rub it in.
Chris went off to work and Rob and I were left to our own devices. We travelled west to Dover, the town we both gone to school in. We dropped by the school and saw how they had choppped the whole building in half. What used to be the school's parking lot was now a brand new Walgreen's. As much as nothing in that town had changed at all this new building was an odd sight. We went into the downstairs art store of the school and I ordered some new inking brushes. Unfortunately, the ones I have been using for the past fifteen years have been discontinued so I had to opt for a different model. We'll see how those work out when they arrive at my door in a few weeks.
Rob and I stopped for lunch at a local diner (the one thing I miss about New Jersey is that every town has a local diner and all of them are great...the west just has nothing to compare). We caught up some more over lunch. Rob had to take off early to get back home to south Jersey so he could email a client some sketches before the end of the business day. So, I was once again alone and making my way through more of my past.
I visited my first art boss, Mark McNabb. I had called him a few times with no answer. I figured I was close enough that I'd hate myself if I didn't try to go to his house and knock on the door. Luckily, he was home. I haven't seen him in six years and a lot has happened in his life since then. We sat on the couch of his living room and he told me stories. He's a great and moving storyteller and the time passed quickly. Before we knew it he had to get his daughter off to soccer practice and I was out the door once again and back on the road.
From the town of Lake Hopatcong I travelled south. I travelled through Morristown and Bernardsville. I hit the southern part of New Jersey and travelled west into Pennsylvania. Another friend of mine, Christine, had moved from north Jersey down to a town west of Philadelphia with her husband and, now, five kids.
Her house was beautiful as I arrived. She came out to the driveway and gave me a hug. She said the kids were excited to meet me. Christine is a fan of the art I do and, from what I can gather, in her kid's eyes, I'm some sort of rock star. They all wanted to get out of bed and see what this "famous" person looked like. Her oldest eight year old son loves the Jake Maddox books I do so I brought along the eight newest books for him. He now has a pile of them that he is reading through. He is the first one who asked me, "how did you get so famous?"
Her other kids slowly came down and peeked around corners at me to see what this God who walked among men looked like. I just had to laugh. They were all so cute.
I met Christine's husband, Chris, who was a great guy. They told me I'd have to sleep down in the basement that night. I was fine with that. I figured a cot on a basement floor would suit me fine. So, they led me down the stairs. What I saw was amazing. Their basement is bigger and nicer than anywhere I've lived in my whole life. I could easily move myself and a few friends in and still have more space than I know what to do with. So, sleep was easy.
The next morning I drew with sharpie markers all over the kids, giving them each custom tattoos of whatever they wanted. Then I accompanied Christine and the kids to Walmart to get some food for the Eagles Football game the kids were going to that night. I have never been in a Walmart with five kids before. It was quite the eye opener. I was constantly doing a head count to make sure no man was left behind. But, when the mini van door closed on the way home it seemed like everyone was accounted for.
I left Christine around three in the afternoon and made my way back through Philadelphia into south Jersey to see Rob again and share a dinner before I headed back towards Maine. After a great dinner and stories to tell Rob of what I had seen and heard in the last thirty hours I was once again on the road, heading north.
I left south Jersey around seven that night. The last boat from Maine to the island was an 11:30pm boat. With eight hours of driving in front of me I knew I'd never make it. But, the plan was to drive as far as I could and then figure it out from there. My Mapquest directions had me drive right up the Jersey Turnpike and I passed signs for Freehold and New Brunswick. I hit Newark and watched the planes come in. I hit New York City and went across the George Washington Bridge, through the Bronx, and into Conneticut.
And then I hit something I wasn't prepared for. I figured traffic would be light at ten o'clock at night. Maybe New York might get a bit backed up but once I hit Connecticut I figured I was home free. Nope. I didn't take into account night time road work where they funnel three lanes of traffic into one lane. The first trap I hit like this took me two hours to go three miles. But, I didn't mind. Where was I in a rush to anyways? I was going to miss the boat no matter what I did so I might as well relax. For part of the wait I watched Star Wars, Episode One through a mini van's back window in front of me. Once I got through a few more of these funnels I was home free.
But, I was getting tired. I ended up stopping at a rest stop on the Massachussets Turnpike and sleeping on the seats in the back of the van. It was a little tight but it's moments like that that make me thank God I'm not a big guy. Amazingly, I slept for four hours and woke up around 5:30 in the morning.
Then it was back on the road for the final push to Maine.
I arrived in Maine just in time to miss the 7:40am boat to the island and the next one wasn't until 9:15. I found a grocery store and bought myself a breakfast of a yogurt, bagel, banana, and milk. I sat in the van, watching the people start their days, eating my makeshift breakfast.
I caught the 9:15 to the island and before 10am I was back at my parents house. A quick shower and I hit the sack.
It had been a long, but very fulfilling and fun, four days. And I didn't vow this time that I would never return to New Jersey. So maybe this time I'll just stay away a year or two.
The Deep Desert Survival Suit
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