Exit Zero: Cape May, NJ

I grew up in New Jersey – the northeastern part, which is basically one gigantic suburb of New York City. Despite having lived there for 18 years, I never made it to the bottom-most tip of the state, Cape May. I had always heard it was “different” and “charming,” but because it isn’t really on the way to anywhere, the opportunity to visit just didn’t present itself.

Last week, however, after having spent a month in NJ, I designed a escape route to the south that involved the Cape May-Lewes (Delaware) ferry, making the very last town of my home state the perfect first stopping point on my journey.

For most of us Jersey natives, the ubiquitous half-joking question “what exit are you from?” got old by the time we were in middle school. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of useful information contained in the answer. New Jersey is traversed by two major (we’re talking TWELVE-lanes-at-the-Raritan-River-Bridge-kind-of-major!) highways, the Garden State Parkway (GSP) and the New Jersey Turnpike (NJT). Almost everyone lives off of one of these – or at least near enough to one of them that an exit number is a good rough hometown locator.

Cape May is literally “exit zero” off of the Garden State Parkway. I first found that out by Google mapping my directions to get there. What I did not realize until I arrived, however, is the degree to which the town has adopted “exit zero” as a slogan, and how fitting it really is.

Most highways don’t have an exit zero. Maybe a one, or a two, but not a zero. After all, in most places an “exit zero “would be another state’s border. The Garden State Parkway does have an exit zero – only it’s not really an exit. Up until a few miles before Cape May, the GSP is a divided, heavily trafficked superhighway with EZ-Pass governed toll booths that allow you to cruise down exit ramps at 35mph. Upon reaching Cape May, the highway just sort of peters out. You don’t really “exit” so much as you just stop being on an interstate. You end up at a traffic light, of all things, with a couple of gas stations and a sign directing you to the ferry and to downtown. Before you know it, you’re in a residential area.

Zero is not really a number, as mathematicians will tell you; it’s the absence of quantity. And exit zero isn’t really an exit. It’s a non-exit. And, Cape May is not really New Jersey in many ways, which is why I think the residents may have adopted “exit zero” as their slogan. It’s a gorgeous, tranquil town dominated by what my mother used to call “gingerbread” Victorian houses – the ones with lots of ornate woodwork and multi-colored paint schemes. While there are a few mini-golf courses and skee-ball parlors, the beach is notably lacking in the neon and adrenaline-fueled energy of most other Jersey shore towns. Yes, there’s salt water taffy, but there are also several wildlife preserves and the hard-core birding scene that accompanies them. There are beachside motels, but they appear to be outnumbered by historic B&B’s. I visited an alpaca farm outside of town which was adjacent to a fruit orchard and a vegetable patch, reminding me that once upon a time someone dubbed New Jersey “The Garden State” for a reason, and it wasn’t the joke then that it is today. There’s a little bit of a surf break and a lot of cruiser bike riding. During the May weekend that I was there, I can happily say that the pace of life was very non-New Jersey. People were walking and talking with each other – or just respecting silence. No one seemed to be in a hurry, there was a marked lack of aggressive driving and the cursing that accompanies it, and I do believe I saw a lot less cell phone use than I’ve gotten used to seeing elsewhere in the state. Most of all – there’s color, and lots of it. You just don’t see lime green houses too often in New Jersey.

I’m guessing it’s these qualities that have led citizens of Cape May to adopt the Exit Zero moniker. It’s as though they’re saying, “sure, we’re in this state, but we’re not of this state. We’re going to hold onto New Jersey’s good and leave out the bad. You can come and visit us, but we’re at the end of a dead end road on a dead end peninsula. Don’t expect to GET anywhere from here.”

Way to stake a claim down there at the southern tip, Exit Zero.  Be the non-Jersey Jersey.

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