There is a feeling I get when I hit exit 10 on the Garden State Parkway, where the road begins to fade out, and traffic lights start to intercept an increasingly thin stream of cars. It’s almost chemical, the nostalgia that sweeps me back to a time before paychecks, college, and even smartphones. It’s the turn-off for Stone Harbor, one half of the so-called Seven Mile Island where I grew up vacationing during the summer with my family, a place I know practically as well as the suburbs I grew up in.
My father chose the destination on a lark back in the early aughts; someone he worked with had a small house there and recommended it, citing, among other things, its uncomplicated, mostly unpretentious charm. The town was nearly two hours from our home in northern New Jersey—and it was utterly unknown to my friends, most of whom vacationed with their families on the ever-popular Long Beach Island. Stone Harbor and its tony island sibling, Avalon, were instead the province of Philadelphia’s Main Line broods, who could reach them in far less time. But my dad, a Philly native, felt right at home among the crowd there; and after a while, my mom, my sister, and I did, too.
For 15 years, the four of us returned to Stone Harbor for a week, usually in late August, after the thickest crowds of June and July had dropped off. (My older brother, who was then ping-ponging around the world, never joined.) We developed a fail-safe Saturday-to-Saturday routine: drop off our bags at the shabby-chic condo we nearly always stayed in; pick up wide-handled bikes at the rental shop; hit the beach for hours on end (or in my case, the bookshop); and then get dinner at one of the local restaurants reachable by two wheels, like Mack’s Pizza, where we’d order a whole Wildwood Pie (so named for a neighboring city), drowned in sausage, onions, and green peppers. Afterward, we’d wait in line at the ice cream shop Springer’s, my dad and I both ordering scoops of our beloved mint chip; then, if the mood struck, we’d all play a round at Club 18, the best of the town’s three mini golf courses.
I couldn’t enjoy an experience that was now colored so ineffably by the past
Even now, I can still rattle off a long list of my—our—favorite places around town where weeks of my adolescence played out. I can still feel the salt breeze in my hair as I bike up and down the broad expanse of Second Avenue, the island’s main drag.
In May 2017, after a four-year struggle with lung cancer, my dad passed away. We didn’t return to the beach that summer, though my fiancé and I did try for the one thereafter, renting out a little room in a motel for a few days. But everywhere I went that weekend, I wept. I found memories wherever I looked: at the hole-in-the-wall bakery where my dad would pick up oozy cinnamon rolls at 7 a.m. each morning; at Lee’s Hoagie House, where I imagined him dismounting his bike, a faded Yankees cap on backward, ordering an oil-slicked sandwich to revive him after hours under the sun. Instead of standing barefoot on the balcony of our condo at Regis Harbor, watching families saddled with beach gear mosey past, I picked up stones from its shaded garage to place on my dad’s grave, in keeping with Jewish tradition. I couldn’t enjoy an experience that was now colored so ineffably by the past.
So I began staking out other escapes, primarily in upstate New York—easy, two-odd-hour trips to quiet destinations that made me feel rested and whole. In contrast to my Stone Harbor summers, I’ve found myself drawn to the winters upstate, when everything is sublime and snow-dusted; in pandemic times, especially, the chance to breathe in fresh air and luxuriate in the silence has proved a powerful tonic.
I’ve become a seasonal regular at diners and thrift stores in no less than six quaint, rusted out towns, developed enough familiarity with their quirks to bear a resemblance to someone who belongs there. These days, I scarcely ever have to check Google Maps before heading out to dinner because I’ve committed the main roads to memory. My fiancé and I even got engaged in the shadow of Kaaterskill Falls—though the excitement was tempered somewhat the next night when, on our way to a celebratory dinner at Brushland Eating House, our Toyota sedan couldn’t make it over one icy mountain road and we were forced to call 911. We’re still laughing about it. In many ways, we’ve made the experience our own. It’s no longer a place we go once every few years; it’s our place.
Last July, however, I decided that I was ready to see Stone Harbor again. I needed an easy escape: something comfortable and worn-in that would free me from the dredges of Zoom life with minimal legwork.
When my fiancé and I arrived on a late Friday afternoon, I was happy to default to muscle memory. We picked up a set of rental bikes, threw our bags on the motel bed, and hit the beach, just as the sun began its long descent into the bay. We were, somehow, all alone as a mythic spell of God light illuminated the shoreline. I dug my toes into the sand, and looked up. New things are wonderful and often necessary, I realized, but sometimes what’s old is just right.
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