Driving down New Jersey Route 539, the traffic-laden central part of the state begins to give way, slowly, to the more open road of the southern stretch, less crowded and therefore less stressful.
Though the morning ground was sugarcoated with frost and the air held a see-your-breath chill, the March sun has warmed the terrain. I can see the steam rise as the sun burns the moisture from the asphalt.
My window is open to catch the sun as I travel through the Piney Barrens, connecting the dots on two-lane highways to construct a back way to the ocean. The goal is important, but so is the process. The aroma of cedar, juniper and pine as they awaken from a dormant winter fills my head.
A massive flock of northbound geese, vacating their winter home presumably on the Chesapeake, arise from behind a ridge of scrub cedar to my east. Barnegat Bay and the surrounding farmland make a convenient rest stop on their journey to their breeding grounds, hundreds of miles to the north.
Spring has already come to the Virginia peninsula where they winter, but up here, it is still a promise waiting for fulfillment. The sheer size of the flock makes me stop my car and get out to watch them, as their constant communication with each other fills the air, driving away any other sound.
The air is beginning to lose some of its fragrance; the acrid scent of salt marsh is shoving aside the sweet aroma of the evergreens. Of itself this is not a pleasant smell, but it’s an essential piece of the ecosystem. Anyway, it means the ocean is relatively close by.
I have managed to use back roads to get to the northernmost tip of Brigantine, a protected string of barrier islands just up the coast from the chaos of Atlantic City. Camping is allowed here, but it has to be the primitive kind — no motor homes. Scuba and snorkeling are also allowed, but you have to bring your own gear — no dive shop on the refuge.
As I’m easing the car into a parking slot, a gray heron wading through the shallows to my west raises his head and looks directly at me. It’s one of those moments that transcends species, bringing creation together. The rolling waves embrace the harmony of the universe.
Clyde Davis is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Portales and an instructor at Eastern New Mexico University. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org