A Journey Through Hell on the Jersey Turnpike, Where Young David Remnick Mistook Trash and His Ego for the Postmodern Sublime
On the New Jersey Turnpike, someone has always been there before you. That’s what it is: the rut left by civilization marching onward, over and over. In June, I caught a ride home with some colleagues down the Turnpike, during which I read essays in environmental studies. Stuck at a rest stop (the Walt Whitman) in order to wait out a torrential rainstorm, I Googled “New Jersey Turnpike History” to see if anyone had done any landscape writing about it.
Someone had, in December of 1984—a hotshot writer for the Washington Post by the name of David Remnick. The headline was “The New Jersey Turnpike: A Love Story,” but it more accurately would have been “American Male Writer Thinks It Actually Kicks Total Ass That We Are Destroying Ourselves Because It’s American as Hell.” It is a warm cotton blend of Charles Bukowski and prestige cable dramas with complicated male protagonists, the type of writing that inspires the Guy In Your MFA. It is as 1980s as neon and shoulder pads. It is a story so stupid it sent me back to the Turnpike to try to write something different.
Remnick—a 28-year-old up-and-comer at the Washington Post, with a Princeton degree—writes in the narrative style of someone bent on demonstrating facts can move like fiction, on making the readers of a daily newspaper feel like they’re reading some real writing. (Considering his place in the world today, he seemed to have guessed correctly what the public would admire.)
One would think I, a nascent writer in my own 20s, would be sympathetic to Remnick’s striving. But even in this respect, I feel no sympathy whatsoever. His attitude is banal nihilism with patriotic after-notes. He presents a random guy (possibly…the writer himself?) pulling into a rest stop, to eat a burger and drink some coffee cloaked in extremely masculine prose; travels through the majesty of heavy industry, meditating on the premise that this road and the pollution it produces are great and truly American; calls a pile of trash “ecology”; quotes Bruce Springsteen lyrics; patronizingly celebrates a gas-station employee as a hardened, macho, indifferent soul; and finally describes teenage love and rebellion in terms that would come off as more authentic if it were reproduced scene by scene as a storyboard for a car commercial.
Lord, give me the confidence of a straight white male Ivy Leaguer writing about the true aesthetics of the common man from his journalism job with good benefits. Lord, give me the arrogance to pretend to be simultaneously populist and countercultural when I write an essay that serves the social and economic interests of the ruling class, the status-quo makers, by telling the rest of us schmucks that our self-destruction is at least poetic and unfortunately maligned.
Why care so much about one bad story from thirty-some years ago? There has to be some way to differentiate between the past and the present. I was born into a time in which we face imminent ecological and environmental collapse, and the generation holding power continues to thwart any attempt at saving ourselves. The Turnpike is not a love story and it never was one. The populism of the 1980s too often elevated that which was killing us to a state of art. Where luminaries such as John Brinkerhoff Jackson used genuine landscape writing to encourage us to be passionate observers of the world, postmodernist pop landscape writing is all projection, a fusion of nostalgia and the Freudian death drive. (Isn’t it great to be an American? Isn’t it great to be slowly killing yourself for the experience?)
Books and PBS specials like architect Robert A.M. Stern’s Pride of Place (sponsored by Mobil) praised the destruction of our old growth forests because it gave us the Shingle Style and the suburbs, the truest of American architectural institutions. Landscape writing like Remnick’s eulogizes the interstate, sings hymns of the masculine power of infrastructure. As Don Dellilo so wonderfully encapsulated in his 1985 satirical novel White Noise, the Reagan years were an endless parade of consumerism and sneering ecological self-destruction; at the same time, stories like Remnick’s reiterate a real belief that destroying the world was a pleasurable side effect of quotidian Americana.
Under this aesthetic spell, Remnick believes himself charitable and humble enough to make the lowly Turnpike something worthy of praise. He compares its ugliness to “Redford’s moles or Streep’s nose,” as if the public, rather than being drawn to great actors, had had to overcome its aversion to non-conforming facial features to watch Redford and Streep. Nor are the horrors of the Turnpike its benign and superficial features, like its rest areas or signage. They are places such as the DuPont Chambers Works plant, home of the infamous House of the Butterflies, where workers went insane chasing invisible bugs (and later died) as they prepared the lead for the leaded gasoline continuing to poison the earth decades after it has been phased out. Some things cannot be aestheticized away; the smell of sulfur and the sensation of a thick smog are not elements of some abstract, absentee “nature” that can be pastoralized; they are facets of mankind and of its rapidly approaching self-destruction.
Perhaps my feelings of helplessness and animosity toward the Turnpike and Remnick’s story come from the fact that I lack that most fundamental American agency: the ability to drive a car. America treats not being able to drive as if it is some kind of crime whose punishment is inconvenience and lack of access. Throughout my life, I have been dependent on others to get to places too far to walk to. I have always traveled at the same exact speed as everyone else, just as it was before the car. My journeys have always been collective ones, where I am a passenger, helpless save for the ability to take in the world as it passes by.
I am proud of these circumstances. I credit my passenger-hood as the reason why I am the way I am; I credit it with why I am a writer of some success in the first place. I credit it with why I love the world and aim to learn as much about it as humanly possible. When you drive, you are more unlikely to notice change. When you drive, the landscape becomes only what is in front of you, out of necessity. When you drive, you cannot spare the second it takes to look to the side of the road and notice the difference between a maple and a tulip poplar, or that both have been smothered by kudzu or porcelain berry. When you drive, you cannot spare the moment it takes to assimilate the disparate elements of your surroundings to derive any sense of place, because driving is about going through rather than being. Perhaps the worst crime of driving is how, unlike previous modes of transportation, other travelers are transformed from strangers, with whom you share a collective experience, into enemies guilty of the crime of inconveniencing you. As the great environmentalist and eco-socialist Andre Gorz wrote on the irony of car dependency in 1973:
People rushed to buy cars until, as the working class began to buy them as well, defrauded motorists realized they had been had. They had been promised a bourgeois privilege, they had gone into debt to acquire it, and now they saw that everyone else could also get one. What good is a privilege if everyone can have it? It’s a fool’s game. Worse, it pits everyone against everyone else. General paralysis is brought on by a general clash. For when everyone claims the right to drive at the privileged speed of the bourgeoisie, everything comes to a halt, and the speed of city traffic plummets—in Boston as in Paris, Rome, or London—to below that of the horsecar; at rush hours the average speed on the open road falls below the speed of a bicyclist.
Even though I could theoretically sign up for driving school, at this point I refuse to be complicit in the institution of driving; to be sucked into a nationwide addiction that makes cigarette smoking look mild. When the world comes to an end, I will at least die knowing I did my very best to not be complicit, even though our individual choices have little impact considering the blame rests on the 100 companies, most of them fossil fuel companies or their investors, responsible for 71 percent of global emissions. (Look, Ma, I fought! I did volunteer work with habitat restoration, avoided eating meat; I didn’t drive; I wrote this angry essay!) But this is the epitome of Pyrrhic victory, little more than an etude for impetuous, self-indulgent anger—the anger of someone who has neither power nor agency; anger that exists because it’s better than the alternative of helpless dread.
In a time of such helplessness and dread, the least I can do to make myself feel better is to 1) tell the David Remnick of the 1980s to go fuck himself, and 2) craft another narrative about the same landscape, the same road, in a way that acknowledges the dark and upsetting reality we face. So, like many self-important writers, I took a trip somewhere to write about the journey.
Where the Delaware Bridge meets the ground, there is a small patch of solar panels at the foot of a towering, blinking metal mass: the first of many oil refineries along the New Jersey Turnpike. (This quite accurately sets the mood for the rest of this bleak, depressing journey.) As for the bridge itself, there is no better testament to the triumph of man and his modernity than careening above an expansive landscape. It is a vaguely religious experience that reinforces the idea that we have agency over the natural world and its inconvenient geological impediments. (This is the high point of the trip; your faith in both man and technology will only diminish from this point on.)
The bridge diminuendos into a crime scene spanning a hundred years. It is Dupont’s Chambers Works plant, home of back-to-back industrial nightmares: the freon that ate a hole in the ozone layer; the early synthesis of Tetra-ethyl lead. TEL, the key additive in leaded gasoline, was produced in this plant’s infamous House of Butterflies, so named because the workers, who were going insane from acute lead poisoning, would swat at the annoying phantom insects interrupting their work. (Back in Baltimore, around the corner from home, a pair of swing sets wilt behind a makeshift fence. Stapled to its orange plastic is a sign saying that the park, in which children were happily playing the week before, is closed because inspectors discovered high lead levels in the soil, attributed to the remnants of leaded gasoline.)
The plant passes by at 60 miles an hour. The other passengers are buried in their headphones, unfazed. It is hard to believe that this is a road that has been written about kindly. But I am not of the generation for whom the highways were only a few decades old and a symbol of freedom. The “mother road” is an abusive parent, whose maternal envelopment transcends embrace to become smothering. Far from unloosing youthful agency, the interstate is a jute rope of mundane convenience that strangles the country and its ability to do something, anything, before it is too late.
Like all great American highways, the New Jersey Turnpike is mostly a long trek through a litany of suffering—both that of other people and of the planet, now in the twilight of its habitable years. Rest areas with the names of famous people begin with Fenwick the writer and end with Lombardi, the football coach. (This juxtaposition is rich with very obvious cultural allegory.) The early part of the route is innocuously mundane, as if recovering from the trauma of what lies at the end of the Delaware Bridge. Behind a green barrier cloaked in invasive vines, fallow farmland alternates with tree-barren exurbs. Occasionally, a cheerful little town can be made out between the foliage, passing by quickly in a moment of sonder, during which one wonders about the complex lives of the residents of such little places. These are the towns with only a single gas station, treated by Republicans and postmodern novelists alike as the center of the universe. Americana is defined by that which lacks density.
If you are plant blind, which most of us unfortunately are, the Turnpike’s bank is a mere blur of tranquil greenery. In truth, it’s a botanical trench-war, wave after wave of invasive plants out-invading each other. The bristles of the region’s white pines turn brown as they are slowly strangled by vines that will stop at nothing until they form a single hellish organism. Every hemlock has been reduced to toothpicks by foreign pestilence. The salt marshes, once proud bastions of biodiversity, are clogged with aquatic pests devouring every visible square inch of water. Far from a picturesque prelude, the first stage of the Turnpike is a stretch of ersatz nature, the kind that fills every ecologist and botanist with dread.
The main fixture of the next stage of the route sleepily seeps into the foreground from behind the vegetation. In the diverse color palette of white and beige emerge monoliths of an absurd scale—distribution centers, with dozens of tractor trailers suckling at their numbered bays like little piglets. The new logistics economy is as inscribed on the landscape as the much rhapsodized decaying heavy industry it replaced. Perhaps the centers are less written about than the old mills and factories because of their lack of interesting visual features, the epitome of un-architecture, windowless as to not expose passersby to the toil of the joyless work transpiring inside. The new economy is fractal, big boxes in which other boxes endlessly replicate, a matryoshka doll of parcels destined for other places.
By the time you reach the Molly Pitcher, the logistics landscape accelerates into one long stretch of alternating warehouses, not even bothering to hide themselves behind trees. A forest that sprang up after the completion of the road, still in its toddler years, is mowed down wholesale in the periphery. Concrete trucks pour their slurry into a collective monumental slab. So much for the hours of banally picturesque fields and churches promised in other writing. Some geese graze outside a massive tomb built solely for the dispatching of synthetic dog bones. Ah, nature.
Past Joyce Kilmer, the little towns that make you feel like everything is going to be OK start to reappear. Traces of urbanism begin to emerge out of big-box and marshland. Knotweed devours a hillside. A billboard advertises bouquets of roses that can last a whole year. Thickets of Ailanthus transform the New Jersey roadside into a nondescript jungle. What was before a languid ride begins to gather speed. An intangible sense tells you that past the embankments and fences lie other people, potentially lots of them. Mid-rise office buildings and foam-clad hotels alert you to a bleak world beyond the road. The sound barriers grow taller.
A river soars beneath your seat. Suddenly, and all at once: infrastructure.
First it is the oil tanks, which say “Drive Safely,” thereby cynically inviting you to prolong their usefulness. Graveyards of tractor trailers and a few older warehouses pepper the in-between space, a mediation between the economies of fulfillment and need. Somehow you missed the stretch in which the trees completely vanish.
A train longer than your attention span composed of tanker cars (black, the color of extraction) races you on one side. It is slow but will win in the end. The first glimpse of hell comes in the form of the hulking, cartoonish smokestacks of a power station, the PSEG Linden plant. But this is really only an appetizer for the main event: the Linden Cogeneration plant, a massive sprawling Moloch of tubes, smokestacks, scaffolding, and small smoldering lights that glow bright even in the daytime. Even in the most resilient deniers, such a scene arouses the realization that man is in fact evil. Rare are the places that promise death around every corner in their very architecture, but the Linden plant is one of them. As it billows plumes of at least three different colors into the groggy sky, the very stock image of air pollution, large letters assure passersby that it is, in fact “…Energy Efficient…”, “…Environmentally Advanced.” The ellipses imply a quote very obviously taken out of context.
Thirty-three and a half years earlier, a writer for The Washington Post gleefully details the uniquely brilliant red sunsets made possible by excess carbon and imperfectly burned material. He describes, with great cheerfulness, the intermittent marshland holding together a manmade wasteland, and how it is home to blackbirds, geese, small mammals, and seagulls, as if such creatures could not survive in a world without heavy industry. He spends more time rhapsodizing about “…a more mordant ecosystem: one extra-large 7-Eleven Slurpee cup, a mud-caked fan belt, dead sunflowers, empty cartons of Winston cigarettes, Pathmark raisins and Milk Duds, a shattered bottle of White Rock root beer, a carpet sample the color of fresh concrete, an empty quart bottle of Bud and a discarded multicolored golf umbrella that looks like a slaughtered peacock.” Somehow, a pile of trash is held to be a biting commentary, whose contents tell us more about the human condition than the great bellowing monster in the foreground responsible for a near future in which spring and autumn become mere legends. You will tell your grandchildren about the times when the leaves used to burn with colors more luminous than a million Anthropocene sunsets, in the same way your grandfather told you about the last vestiges of the American Chestnut.
The Washington Post writer takes this time to smugly assert that his worldly appreciation for the banal ugliness of the Turnpike is the true picture of America, unlike those New Jersey-ites who “…prefer seagulls wheeling over Atlantic swells to the forest of smokestacks, gas tanks and shipping cranes rising from the northern bog. They prefer forests of pitch pines in Hog Wallow to some elephantine mound of trash and rusting refrigerators.”
He offers up that the ugliness of the “Cancer Alley” of the Turnpike is not its fault, because it only happens to run through the carcinogenic landscape created long beforehand. Somehow he relays anecdotes from Turnpike workers who may or may not be fictional describing the smell of sufuric air pollution to be not particularly alarming or bothersome, before concluding with an anecdote about two teenagers in love and how the road is their home even though it has unfairly been called ugly and mean.
In 2018, a warehouse for frozen goods featuring a cheery polar bear (oh, the devastating irony of it all) promises its own future as a simulacrum, a copy for which no original exists. Towns and their old industries, collapsing into rusted constructivist sculptures, blitz by. A freight train carrying coal cars sludges along beneath a rusting bridge. The concrete panels decorating the side of an on-ramp are fractured, shedding like scales. The only greenery is the weeds emerging from cracked asphalt beneath adjacent roadways. Trucks wait patiently in line to enter an elevated roadway seemingly colliding in the distance with towering multicolored cranes, an infrastructural pageant made blurry by haze. The air, already thick with newly fallen rain, becomes milky with smog, and the port’s endless city of containers is a welcome splash of color. On the left, planes take off from Newark Airport. You remember numbly that some airplane fuels remain leaded. Warehouses, refineries, oil tanks, trains, planes, and automobiles—the whole affair is like a Richard Scarry book co-authored by Edmund Burke. The sheer scale of it invokes the notion of the word sublime when it was used to describe the violence of the French Revolution, and the once-cold impenetrableness of the Alps; the sublime of pain and danger confused by the Washington Post writer as being truth and beauty, a mistake that could only be made by a self-indulgent cynic for whom truth and beauty are naive damsels in need of a healthy dose of masculine realism.
Railway hubs form a taxonomic diagram in the filthy mud beneath you. The bus diverges from all the action to take a brief reprieve above the marshland. This gives the Upton Sinclair in all of us time to absently wonder: Within each of these terrifying industries and infrastructures, how many have died? How many have lived stories of suffering that are too long-term and mundane to even warrant a Wikipedia snippet?
An old refinery rusts away, proud of its hard work. The whole air still reeks of sulfur. You make out the smudged silhouette of New York City, but in the foreground, smokestacks and decrepit bridges form a second skyline, a great juxtaposition of past and present. It is one of those scenes that both acts as and yet defies documentation. It is a landscape of necessary terrors, new and old. An iron bridge still carries cars and equipment across marshland, a remnant of the 19th century, like modern capitalism, bleeding out. A postmodern train depot, the Secaucus Junction, is a mordant reenactment of Old Penn Station. In order to prove that it is in fact newer and has not been replaced with Madison Square Garden, the tops of its Palladian windows are not semicircular trapezoidal, as if to say that history is worthy only of caricature.
By the time you get to Lincoln Tunnel, the landscape, as if permanently behind a rain-drenched windshield, begins to blur and collide, becoming pieces of rocks and trees, marsh, and faraway, disjointed industrial buildings rehabilitated in the eyes of passersby by their proximity to the city. If you look behind you, that carcinogenic pageant resembles a distant skyline of its own, obscured by fog, the collision of carbon and light lends the bucolic appearance of an Instagram filter. At the point where you are unable to tell if the grogginess is yours or the landscapes, the bus turns a corner, and then there is nothing but Manhattan. The horrors that make life there comfortable are now safely obscured by cliffs peppered with old houses and new condos. You slow into a toll booth. On the right, through the pylons of a deteriorating bridge, the stuff of postcards.