Author Puts Cranbury on His Trail Map: a Q&A with Neil King
By Gale Scott
Editor’s Note: As part of book project, writer Neil King decided to walk from his home in Washington, D.C. to Manhattan. He put Cranbury on list of stops. Gale Scott caught up with him by phone a few days later as he hiked across Staten Island.
Q: How was your visit to Cranbury?
King: Beyond fantastic. It was Audrey Smith, Karen Kelley, Peggy Brennan, John Chambers, and me. I heard the whole of Cranbury’s unique history. What made Cranbury what it is was being the midway point on stage routes and the people who had spent the night there, or almost spent the night there.
Q: What did you learn that you hadn’t heard?
King: We talked about the forces that had preserved the place, and how Cranbury got the highways re-routed and though took some commerce away it helped preserve it starting in the 1960s. That was when Cranbury had that awakening moment and didn’t allow things to ruin the town.
Q: You’re walking the trip, but why?
King: I’m on a slow observational walk. I left March 29 and today is my 21st day. The whole premise of the walk was that between Washington and New York, the I-95 corridor is defined by things that you normally speed by. My mission was just to take it slow and see what I found along the way, including weird or funny things. I’m sending out daily accounts to people on an email list. It will be a book and I’m in touch with several publishers.
Q: What are your impressions of our town?
King: It’s one of the best-preserved towns in the country. I’m not saying I discovered it.
Q: But how is it unique? There’s so much history along your route, there’s a lot more in Princeton, right?
King: What I wanted to see in Cranbury was the weird encroachment of warehouses so near this historic town. I did spend a weekend with friends in Princeton, and walked through Grover’s Mill, and along the way its exactly the contrast–all that pristine farmland that’s there for a reason, so in some ways it was walking through the last gasp of the 19th century. Cranbury itself is just steps away from Rt. 130 and that’s where things shift.
Q: What did you do at the Wall Street Journal?
King: I covered diplomacy, intelligence, trade, and globalization. When I left in 2016 my beat was global economics.
Q: Did you leave voluntarily?
King: Yes. I was restless and wanted to do other things. Now I am feeling utterly free and privileged. I’m a different person.
Q: Did the COVID-19 pandemic have an effect on your trip?
King: Just around the margins, not much.
Q: Are you camping out and cooking along the way?
King: No. I’ve not slept outside. No rules like that. I stop and recharge my batteries. I’m staying in motels sometimes, and I’ve eaten in restaurants. And sometimes I’ll accept short rides. Right now I’m walking in Staten Island.
Q: How did you get there? Walk across the bridges?
King: No, I stayed last night at the Raritan Yacht Club in Perth Amboy, it has a history that will be in my book. It figures into the evolution of the leisure class, the idea of weekends, the creation of the fun industry, yacht clubs, and baseball teams. Anyway, I found a guy with a boat and he took me across the Arthur Kill.
And it wasn’t my only boat trip.
Q: There was another one?
King: This is one of the funny asides. In Cranbury, I told the gang that when I left I wanted to interact with the warehouses, to see if I could get under the NJ Turnpike, but I saw that the brook takes up all the space. So Peggy Brennan called her son Tim and next thing I know we’re at Brainerd Lake with a kayak. I paddled up to all this stuff blocking the way; there was a logjam. I had to portage twice. Peggy took my 19-lb. backpack and told me that when I re-emerged on the other side of the bridge she’d give it back and pick me up, and she did. It was part of what I’ve learned, if you push on the Matrix it responds to your prompt with whimsical and aspirational things. People I’ve met along the way didn’t dismiss what I’ve been doing, they totally embraced it.
Q: Have you been stopped by the police along the way?
King: No. Of course if I weren’t a 61-year-old white man that might be different.
Q: Any brushes with authority at all?
King: When I knew I planned to be at the Edgeboro Landfill I reached out to authorities there I told them I wanted to walk to the top. They had guys take me up, and they were hilarious, very excited to do it.
Q: What are your next stops?
King: I’m due to get to Jersey City and then a friend will meet me with a kayak and the next stop is Lower Manhattan. From there I’ll walk to the Upper Westside where my wife and I have a small apartment. On Friday, I’ll finally take off my backpack in Morningside Heights.
Neil made it. Shortly after we spoke, the weather turned cold with high winds that made the kayaking too dangerous. He did his final leg in a Boston Whaler.
Neil says he expects to hear soon from a publisher–and plans to visit Cranbury again.