Hating New Jersey is hating America, because all of America is inside New Jersey. It’s the fourth smallest state, but it has Alpine celebrity mansions reminiscent of Beverly Hills, run-down cities that would fit inside the rust belt, Cape May retiree communities you’d expect in south Florida, a poor man’s Vegas called Atlantic City, overpriced river-view condos not unlike in its neighboring New York, beachside towns where Jersey Shore is very far from exaggerated, politicians that make fictionalized Jersey criminals seem tame, white trash, Weird NJ subjects — and that’s only scratching the surface. Unless you’re making a crack about how confusing the turnpike is, a joke at New Jersey’s expense is a joke at our nation’s expense.
Adam Abada and Zach Baker, two guys who skated from Boston to New York in 2012, followed up “Backstreet Atlas” with a ten-day skate through their home state. “The Backstreet Atlas Guide to New Jersey” premieres at Kinfolk Studios in Brooklyn tomorrow, but until then, here is a quick conversation about their journey.
Is there anything you learned on the skate from Boston to New York that you took into consideration when planning this one?
Zach: We knew how far we could skate in a day, which is about thirty miles.
Adam: There was no worry about whether or not we could do it. Our friend Everett Brown walked from Philadelphia to New York in three days, so that was an inspiration behind this trip.
Z: Yeah, he’s an artist.
Was there always an idea of doing another long distance skate?
Z: The pace of skateboarding long distance is something people respond to in a good way. We got to meet people in a different way than if we were walking or on bikes.
A: Something about telling people you’re skating through piques their attention. People seem more down. They’ve heard of bike trips; you could bike to Philadelphia in a day, so it’s easier for them to understand.
Z: It’s what skateboards were created for. They get you from point A to point B. They’re for traveling, but it’s still hard for people to fathom them being used for that.
A: That’s the thing about skateboards — they make distance real. The way we uncovered places on the Boston trip seemed like a cool thing we could do in a state that we were both from. There was less risk because we both knew New Jersey better than the middle of New England.
100 miles also seems a bit friendlier than over 200.
A: It ended up being the same amount of distance as the Boston skate because we zig-zagged across the state.
To me, New Jersey is a one-state overview of America. You literally have every sub-sect of American culture stuffed into one densely populated state, and I can’t think of anywhere else that I’ve been where it changes so drastically in a matter of miles. How’d you plan out the route and choose the parts you wanted to focus on?
A: What’s crazy is how much there is. There’s a balance between showing what’s quintessentially New Jersey, and what’s more unknown. We allocated time for Newark because we have friends there, we knew we had to go to Trenton because it’s the capital, we had to go to Camden because it’s a notorious city.
Z: We wanted to check out northwest Jersey and the Delaware Water Gap but couldn’t work it into the trip.
A: Geographically and ethnographically, there’s a lot in New Jersey. The ethnic diversity is crammed into the places closest to the city. On the first day, skating from uptown [Manhattan] to Newark, we hit a Senegalese pocket, a Vietnamese pocket…
Z: Newark was the only familiar place to me. I hadn’t been to any of those places in central or south Jersey, and that’s where we spent the majority of our time.
A: The Pine Barrens ended up being the most exciting part of the trip. I knew that this protected national forest took up a quarter of New Jersey, but had never been there in my life. You always hear about them and there’s all those stories…
That episode of The Sopranos…
Z: Yeah, the one where Paulie and Christopher think they killed the Slavic guy, go to bury the body, but he ends up being alive and runs away in the forest.
A: That actually wasn’t shot in New Jersey because the state didn’t like the image of The Sopranos. The landscape of the episode is nothing like the actual Pine Barrens. It’s hilly, sparse and rocky. The Pine Barrens are flat and densely covered in trees.
Z: The woods are the woods, but it was interesting to see the sort of people we met. There’s full Piney Pride out there.
What are they like?
A: They’re full country people — farmers who live in or around the Pine Barrens. You think the woods are the woods, but these are a half an hour away from Philadelphia and feel like the absolute middle of nowhere. I have felt more close to things in parts of the deep south than I did in the Pine Barrens.
Z: It didn’t feel like it was a part of New Jersey.
How long did it take to get through it?
Z: Two days. We camped in the woods.
What was the starkest contrast of the trip? Was it a place like that compared to say, Newark?
Z: We were in Trenton that morning, and in the Pine Barrens at night.
A: Yeah, not that I’ve been to every state capital, but Trenton is the saddest state capital I’ve ever seen. I don’t want to talk shit because people live there, but it definitely didn’t feel like a place where a government was situated. We were hanging around all the government buildings and nobody cared about what we were doing. No bust, at all.
Z: Then you leave, and it’s a bunch of farms, pine trees…
Were the Pine Barrens the biggest surprise?
A: The smoothness of the roads all throughout New Jersey was the biggest surprise.
Z: The only hard part was the first day, skating from the city to Newark. The roads are so shitty that they’re practically unskateable. Once you get out of what most consider to be north Jersey, there wasn’t a single issue with the roads.
New Jersey is a place with a million stereotypes. Having slowly skated through the state, did any stand out as particularly true or untrue?
Z: Every New Jersey stereotype applies and doesn’t apply.
A: I wouldn’t have seen the state through this light if I didn’t skate through it. Like, people from north Jersey know nothing about the Pine Barrens. People think of Jersey as either suburbs of New York or Philadelphia. There are many parts of the state that are not urban and not full of 9-to-5ers. For instance, north Jersey has like full inbred tribes that you don’t hear about.
Z: I think a lot of the stigma comes from the turnpike. It’s great going through Jersey by a means where you’re not on it because that’s literally the ugliest part of the state. If we were huffing turnpike fumes, we wouldn’t have made it. The most frequented paths in the state — from Newark Airport to New York — are just land that’s been bulldozed over and over.
Obviously there is also a lot of folklore about New Jersey, like the Weird NJ magazines and random pieces of pop culture. Did you consult any of that in planning the trip?
A: We touched on the New Jersey Devil. It’s just some farmer’s wife in Jersey that gave birth to the devil. It was a story people in the Pine Barrens told to their kids so they wouldn’t stay out late.
Were there any parts of the state that completely defied both stereotypes and what you expected just based on having lived there?
Z: There were these dudes outside of a bar in Fort Dix…
Z: Fort Dix is a military training facility. We stopped off at this bar after a full day of skating through the Pine Barrens. Adam gets a couple of beers, films some stuff, talks to some people. I go out for a cigarette, and a dude comes out after me saying, “A couple of ex-military guys in there are getting pretty nervous. They think you might be terrorists.”
A: To be honest, I didn’t feel like it was particularly shitty. It could’ve happened to me anywhere. If anything, I was impressed, like, “Oh this kind of stuff goes down in New Jersey? It’s as diverse and crazy as anywhere else in the country.” It was a place where I never imagined that sort of stuff went down. It put me out of my element for sure.
Z: The people in Jersey were still more familiar to me than people I’ve encountered in say, Nebraska.
A: For me, they were less familiar. I think because I expected them to be more familiar.
Is there anything you guys wanted to do that you couldn’t get the time for?
A: There are a lot of rappers from New Jersey. We wanted to touch base with some New Jersey rap landmarks. It also would’ve been nice to kick it with more women. It’s hard, as two dudes skating around, to get women to talk to you. It’s hard to get anyone besides dirty skateboarders to respond.
Z: I wanted to go to to Ann Van in Hilsborough, Atlantic City, and the house in Long Branch that Springsteen wrote “Born to Run” in. We also wanted to check in with Freddy and the Domestics squad.
A: You can do anything you want in New Jersey. You can go and uncover cool stuff wherever you are, even in the place you think you know everything about. You don’t even need a skateboard. If you poke someone and ask them, it uncovers more than you expected. How vehemently hated Jersey is really shows how it has everything.
There’s enough shit in Jersey that if you look hard enough, you can find something that offends you, and use that as an overview for the entire state.
Z: The idea isn’t to be like “Fuck Iowa, what does that place have?” What we’ve learned on these trips is that every place has cool stuff if you take your time and look for it. Iowa probably has a ton of cool shit.