I am going to Washington Crossing State Park, at the site where George Washington and his frozen troops landed after crossing the Delaware from Pennsylvania on that famously blizzardy Christmas night in 1776. To get there I drive south on New Jersey’s Delaware River Scenic Byway.
The Byway is marked by signs, posted along the route, that depict the landscape in a 1970’s color scheme. On the signs, the road, canal, towpath, and river unfold like alternating ribbons of brown, lime, and warm blue. In real life, the colors are less saturated but the view is much the same: beside the road is the narrow canal, then the raised towpath with its skinny paved walkway, then the rain-swollen Delaware.
I’d done the parallel drive on the Pennsylvania side, and in my memory it is fairy-tale lovely, dotted with ancient single-lane bridges and old houses standing inches from the road. The Jersey side feels wilder than that, sparser; between town centers there is just the river on one side and open space on the other. Occasionally a narrow house appears, constructed wholly or partially of heavy stone. Sometimes two or five of these cluster together, as if for defense, their upper stories or shutters painted in muted shades of mustard, red, purple, or green.
In Frenchtown, a row of shops in deep autumnal hues curves into a cozy corner, hinting at an older way of life in the early days of the New World. In Stockton, I feel like I’m wandering around a frontier town, past the little train depot and rustic, two-story inn overlooking the main road. But everything here has been subtly re-purposed to accommodate upscale, artisanal tastes. In Lambertville, visitors crowd the sidewalks in front of restaurants and boutiques, but I’m the only one who turns onto the quieter residential streets. These, with their slim brick sidewalks and neat rectangular houses with brightly-painted doors, throw me back to the Colonial era; I envision them populated by women in wide skirts and men in silk stockings. All these towns end where the Delaware begins, at blue-green bridges carrying slow-moving traffic and vista-seeking pedestrians over the river to Pennsylvania.
All these towns, too, make me feel, against all my better judgement, almost optimistic about America again, for a minute. I am only a momentary tourist, flitting across the surface of their reality like a badly-skipped stone. But they seem so tolerant, so solid, so balanced between successful and humble, so steeped in history but not bogged down by it.
When I reach the park, it is getting close to late afternoon, and the temperature is dropping. I follow a winding drive through serene wooded acres, past a few people walking dogs. I park beside the Johnson Ferry House, which a sign tells me is “the only existing structure within the park that witnessed the Crossing of the Continental troops on December 25-26, 1776.” The building, red and white with a gambrel roof and too many doors and windows for its modest size, looks like it was built for Strawberry Shortcake. But it was just a ferry house, like those found in river towns across the Colonies, where travelers would stop to eat and maybe stay the night before continuing on. The sign says: “The house was used briefly by Continental troops and officers and possibly by General Washington.”
From the Ferry House, I follow the path that leads to the bridge across the river. I walk to Pennsylvania above the grey Delaware so I can walk back, approaching New Jersey as they did on that icy night. Cars rattle slowly by as I hurry along the wooden walkway. The river here is not wide as rivers go, but it’s wider than I had pictured it; the walk along 877 feet of bridge is long enough for me to worry as I walk about the sturdiness of the boards beneath me, to marvel at the coldly majestic river, to notice my socks slipping down in my shoes, to wish I would reach the other side already.
Sometimes the distances of the Revolutionary War, like the houses, are charmingly small. It’s amusing to imagine world historical figures discussing strategy in a tavern that resembles a dollhouse, or to realize that battles that decided the fate of nations took place on a patch of ground you could cover in a quick stroll. But then, in your amusement, you find yourself confronted with the width of a river or the way a road elongated in your mind as you imagine walking it, in a storm, with no boots.
The walk back to the Jersey side feels even longer; I cross the bridge, then the elevated walkway back into the park, and then I follow the path back to the Johnson Ferry House.
We all know the story, or the vague outline of it, even if we never really learned it in school. They struggled across the ice-choked river, all those men, horses, and guns, in boats they collected on the Pennsylvania side. They assembled in New Jersey in darkness, in columns, and trudged through snow and sleet on slippery roads towards Trenton. Their password was “Victory or Death.” Surprising the Hessian mercenaries holding the town, they found themselves, after a bloody morning battle, victorious. They were desperate before, dispirited; now they – we – had reason to hope. Maybe we could actually win this. Maybe this crazy, bold, problematic, and unprecedented idea might become a nation.
The easy lesson would be that when America feels in existential peril, it’s comforting to remember that in the moments we think of as most gloriously foretelling our future success, the people who were there were just as confused and afraid as we are.
Another lesson would be that the era of little white ferry houses and grand ideas is over, and our future is written not on the historical markers of our state parks but on the peeling paint and rusting metal of the tunnels and bridges we traverse to get to them, or sinking in the marshy industrial hinterlands of the great cities we pass along the way.
Or maybe there is no lesson.
I stay that night in one of those anodyne suburban mazes where chain hotels congregate and wide roads bend and loop around bland office parks. My hotel seems to have been designed by someone who has never had to stay in a hotel, and its parking lot can only be accessed from a truncated street that starts at a cul-de-sac and terminates at a dead end. But its address is Scotch Road. Scotch Road was here in December 1776; Continental troops marched on it, on their way from the ferry landing to Trenton.
I don’t think about this then, or the next morning, when I’m driving across the hulking and improbable and probably crumbling George Washington Bridge. (I only think, why do the trucks go on the top level?) But later I think, we are formed by this history, whether we learn from it or not, whether we care about it or not. We are bound by it, even in the places where it seems to have been erased. We are always, whether we know it or not, at that pivotal moment, crossing the river, blinded by the snow. We could die, or we could win.