LONG BEACH ISLAND, N.J. - The end of this past May and early June I spent at my brother's home in Moorestown, N.J., a town founded more than 100 years before the American Revolution, a town steeped in a history of family names that had stepped off the Mayflower as though it had landed yesterday.
Traffic there is nuts. Insane, really. The constant hum of traffic from I-295 and the New Jersey Turnpike never seems to end - not until you head east on State Rt. 70 to Route 72 to Long Beach Island, one of several barrier islands stripping the New Jersey Intracoastal Waterway.
Cross the bridge to the island and the first thing you see is a surf shop off to your left. I didn't go to the Pacific Northwest this year, but a day to the Jersey shore was just about as good.
A strange thing happens once you cross through the Pine Barrens to the shore though. All of a sudden, for whatever reason, people get nicer. Gone is the sour Philly demeanor and the homicidal Jersey turnpike driver and in their place are people who acknowledge you and, oh my . . . look at you . . . and wave . . . and smile?
I had to check my whereabouts. Had I actually taken a wrong turn and ended up in Pacific City, Ore.? Or maybe even Gold Beach? Or had I not even left home? Was I in Iowa?
No. According to the map, I was in Surf City, N.J. And there it was, right on the water tower - SURF CITY, as recorded by Jan and Dean. But no, this was Surf City, the town. And it was in New Jersey.
I turned to my sister, a West Coastie, who shrugged. "I guess it's still New Jersey," she surmised.
I couldn't believe it. It looked exactly like a lot of West Coast towns I'd seen - Cannon Beach, Nehalem, Lincoln City. Only this was the Atlantic and not the Pacific. All of the sudden, I wasn't missing the Pacific Coast quite so much anymore.
As we drove toward lunch at Ship Bottom (yes, that's actually the name of a town), I noticed the major industry on Long Beach Island, a spit of land 17 miles long and averaging four blocks wide and maybe three feet above sea level, stretching it, was contractors who would come and lift up your house and build a higher block foundation underneath. While there were a good number of homeowners who had chosen that option, most of the homes were shake-covered walkouts, many with a ship's bell, old dory, a life preserver or a shank of thick rope threaded through posts in the front yard. The nautical themes were ubiquitous.
We went south to Beach Haven Heights and there the road ended. Just as you might see on the West Coast, the trail through the state park was closed for plover nesting. We were able though to look off to the south and see the Atlantic City skyline, misted in the heavy surf that gave more than one surfer a challenge.
We visited with some folks - locals, mainly - who had been coming regularly to this place for most of their lives. We all agreed that it was as beautiful as anything we'd seen on the East Coast.
As we backtracked and headed north, the older part of the island appeared. The highlight there was the Barnegat Lighthouse, built under direction of Lieutenant George G. Meade in 1856, a government engineer who later distinguished himself in the War between the States when he was promoted to brigadier general, defeating General Lee in the Battle of Gettysburg. That's the same General Meade, incidentally, who established a cavalry fort in 1878 to protect the new settlements in the northern Black Hills of South Dakota, now known as Fort Meade just east of Sturgis.
Hurricane Sandy hits
This all changed this week.
After Hurricane Sandy, National Guard members went house-to-house on Long Beach Island, combing for survivors.
"Anybody that stayed there was an idiot," said my brother Dave, who runs a towing service in Moorestown. "A lot of houses got destroyed."
Dave said Sandy's 100-mile-an-hour winds coughed up a 14-foot storm surge that swallowed the coastal islands. He said though that Long Beach Island had been completely evacuated.
Further inland, Sandy's impact wasn't nearly so severe. In Moorestown, 10 miles east of Philadelphia, Dave said four inches of rain fell between Sunday and Tuesday and a small tree was down in his backyard.
"It rained pretty steady" with winds from 60-70 miles an hour, Dave said.
Hopefully, people will rebuild. There will no doubt be some changes, though, from the way building was done before.
There's one thing I'm pretty certain about, though.
General Meade's lighthouse is probably still here, watching over the island.