“Prairie Dawn and the Symbolism of Unanimated Beauty”

by Lauren Johnson

Stockton New Jersey is the addendum set of The Little House on the Prairie, and I moved there in the Spring of 2008 into an old farmhouse surrounded by acres of preserved historic farmland. We moved here following a short stint in North Carolina with the purpose of escaping New York, which we did (though just barely) to get more acquainted with sustainability. And although our purpose was met (me working on a goat farm making chêvre and my husband installing solar electric), we also got a great taste of Southern economics, which swiftly kicked us out of Durham like Old McDonald’s stingiest pony. That winter, my husband was offered a business partnership and before you could say hushpuppy we had our belongings packed up and crammed into a 9×12 U-Haul.

While my husband got set up staring his business, I spent time in between job searches on a 12-speed mountain bike that was about two sizes too small for my 5’9’’ frame, riding around back country roads past alpaca farms, streams with secret fishing holes, old time general stores, and red wooded covered bridges.

One of my favorite longer rides took me (on a seat post raised to maximum height so I could extend my legs), to the Prallsville Mill where I could connect to the infamous tow path that runs parallel to the Delaware river. The tow path is set alongside the canal, which was used back in the day for smaller boats to carry supplies into the towns situated along the river. Biking on the tow path was like sailing down the Delaware, except dryer. Riding along, you can look down the bank at your side and see it right there next to you – a cerulean liquid glass ocean accompanied with the sound of the sand crushing beneath your tire like an ebbing shore.

This stretch of the Delaware not only offers gorgeous sights, but also many chances to see things from the other side. A host of bridges line the banks, connecting New Jersey to Pennsylvania where a stroll to the middle lets you feel the true meaning of ‘interstate.’

The Town Line

We were exhausted. Another night of unpacking had rendered our patience and backs useless, so we ditched our pile of half-packed boxes and called it quits to devote the day entirely to the drone of summer, which included relaxing, being lazy, and soaking up the heat, so I proposed starting things out with a long leisurely walk. About ten minutes in, the fun of pounding the pavement quickly turned into more of a broil than we had bargained for, and before we knew it, our t-shirts were completely sopped with sweat. Our long leisurely summer walk soon took on a new purpose: to find some ice cream. Urgently.

We had only lived in Stockton for about a week but we already had a pretty good idea of where to go to get a decent cone – soft serve more specifically (i.e. the best type of ice cream. Ever.), but it was difficult to find a place that did it right. As luck would have it, we were fast approaching our first option. Upon arrival, I became immediately skeptical of a café that went by the name of “Cravings,” (my initial reaction conjured up images of pregnant ladies double fisting pickles and brownies into their mouths late at night), but in learning they had soft serve cones I knew I had to give it a go. We approached the cheesy plywood cut outs of dancing burgers and cones that stood as if carnival mirages in the desert as we searched for our treasure. As we entered, the A.C nearly knocking us to the floor, and as we stepped up to the counter, our two cone request was met by a wincey and guilt-laden response of,“ Sorry, machine’s broken.” Our mouths suddenly felt even more like they were full of sand. Bummed out, but not discouraged, we continued on our trek, down the street to the center of town to the Stockton Bridge to try our luck on the Pensie side.

The sun had grown hotter, and the pedestrian lane on the bridge ached in the heat. As we reached the middle, we paused to look over the railing at the water below, which, despite being so shallow, still seemed like a tempting jump.

Soon after we approached the other side, there it was. Like bees on spilled soda they swarmed in droves around the little sliding glass window, like talk show hosts with microphones holding onto their cones. Dilly’s Corner: Ice Cream, Burgers, Shakes and Fries (in order of importance).

We hopped in line, ordered our cones and ventured to a cool wall under a shady tree, which we hoped might quell the melting. Licking the drips off the salty backs of our hands, we enjoyed the best ice cream we had all summer.

The Dog and the Toll Bridge

The current from the water that came over the lock on Bull Island was strong enough to pick you up and swiftly carry you downstream if you got too close to the center. This was the very reason the more daring chose to swim here – which for some reason tended to be Latinos.

We parked the Jeep in the gravel lot and carried our towels with us down hill, saying buenas tardes to the picnickers.

Once we got to the bank, we began picking our way across the stones, occasionally flipping one over to look at the jelly-coated shells stuck underneath. We waded first to our ankles, then to our knees, trying to resist the stern tug of the water which felt like pushing the same poles of a magnet together. Continuing to wade in deeper, one is suddenly faced with the decision to lay back and surrender to the current, or resist it and tear your feet up on the rocks below. I decided to let go.

Letting the invisible fins float me along, I swiftly cruised downstream several yards before I was able to put my feet down as the current carried me to a shallow point. The ride was swift and somewhat scary because of the powerful current, but fun nonetheless so I pulled myself out to do it again. After a few times doing this individually, we took turns anchoring each other just outside of the current, holding onto each other’s arms and letting the current slide over our sides.

When it was time to get out, we decided that the fastest way to dry off was to just take a walk in the sun, so we wrapped our towels around our waists and headed towards the Bull Island foot bridge.

On our way we caught up with a red-leashed Saint Bernard with a five pound stick (possibly a log) in his mouth. We asked the woman walking with him what his name was and she replied with a name appropriate to his size. We walked along with them both over the bridge. The water below was low, and clear enough to see every stone. As we were peering down, our attention was diverted by a great wet thud. The Saint Bernard, with nothing short of an afterthought, had dropped his great stick. “That’s just about where he leaves it every time,” she said, unthreading his leash off his collar. We reached the other side of the bridge where, to our surprise, she began ascending the steps to a small stone house that began right where the last iron beam of the bridge ended. “Here we are,” she said, letting the dog past her through the screen door. “You live here?” we asked. She replied, “That flood we had a few years back — I got up every hour at night to look out the kitchen window to see where the river was and at one point it was only six inches below the sill! But I stayed put!” She smiled, continuing inside, “You both have a nice day,” and stepping in, quietly closing the screened door behind her.

Icebergs: Letters from Mom

The sun was heading down just as I was getting out of work. After pulling a full day in front of the computer, I needed some fresh air, so I pulled my scarf up around my chin and ventured towards New Hope to stretch my legs and head to the bank to deposit a check I got from my mom that day inside a card that read, “For the parking ticket you got in New York – stop putting it off!”

I thought it was cold when I first got outside, but after walking for a few minutes I realized it was really cold – frozen booger cold. Frozen tongue and eyeball cold. I picked up the pace to keep my blood moving and got to the New Hope Bridge – the concrete paneling sounded like porcelain crunching under pressure. But as I walked along, I realized that the creaking and cracking sound was not coming from the surface I was walking on, but far down beneath it. Looking down at the water, I saw the most spectacular visual accompaniment to this sound: hundreds of oblong disks had formed on the waters surface and were cruising steadily down the river. They were about the size of the tops of kitchen tables, whose colors were arranged like the spectrum of a bubble with edges laced with snow and their centers opalescent and tinted with blue, black, and green. The casual sound of these temporary disks were beyond any sound to compare, except perhaps the gravelly hiss of a milkshake going up a straw, the thick intentional movements of a short bicycle, or the sounds and shapes of warmer months that can’t come soon enough.

Lauren Johnson lives in Hunterdon County NJ with her husband, two cats, 10 chickens, and a dashing Rhode Island rooster named Ben. She received her BA in Language and Literature from Bard College, and currently works in publishing for a regional health magazine. Her latest fascination is playing the mandolin and harmonica at the same time, composing well-written complaint letters to faulty establishments (like Girl Scouts of America), and imagining that she is watching a movie about herself, being herself, but reading from a script (of which she wrote).

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