When The News Journal reported that federal grant monies will be used to improve access to sites along coastal Route 9, I shuddered a bit. My friend Patti and I recently spent a day toodling down the scenic byway, a tick off my bucket list of things to do in the First State.
I think it was precisely because of its meandering inaccessibility that we enjoyed ourselves so much. Small towns, farm fields, and wetlands unfurl along either side of the road, a narrow twisting ribbon of asphalt that hugs the Delaware River so faithfully it’s easy to lose the trail if distracted. We went miles without encountering another vehicle, pulled over randomly to take pictures, and stopped to explore wherever we felt like it. No other road I’ve driven kept me content below the speed limit; driving it was like traveling back in time as we slowed to the tempo of a simpler era,
Hardier souls make the trip by bicycle, but we pulled out of my driveway at 6:30 a.m., armed with coffee and a complicated set of directions hastily printed off the internet. The Coastal Heritage Scenic Byway – a designation conferred by DelDOT as part of its State Scenic and Historic Highway program – is a two-lane road that officially runs from Old New Castle to just below the Dover Air Force Base, a 52-mile stretch that winds along the Delaware River and Bay Estuary.
Deciding to pick it up at its most unscenic part, we slipped through the less savory sections of town, stopping for a moment at Old Swedes Church before crossing the 4th Street Bridge where 9 and 13 split. Once past the industrial/urban stretch that leads to New Castle, we touched down just long enough in the historic city to photograph the Court House and the pier, a five-minute flyover before twisting our way back onto River Road and a surprisingly peaceful loll to Delaware City. (Truth be told, we choked a bit upon seeing housing developments sprouting in the marshes near Dobbinsville.)
We hit our first traffic jam at the approach to the refineries when a long train pulling huge black tankers screeched across the rails in front of us, halting three cars for about 90 seconds. Once we entered town we felt the modern world slip away as we criss-crossed the sleepy streets, admiring the historic homes and making our first exploratory stop at Fort Delaware. Quiet as a grave and just as forlorn, the former Union fortress that housed Confederate prisoners during the Civil War felt tired and sad, so we continued down to the picnic area along the river. There, the lumbering waterway slid past the shore, framed by trees and scattered picnic tables. Peaceful and beautiful, we almost expected a tall ship or canoe to glide past.
Upon leaving Delaware City, we were disappointed to find the Reedy Point Bridge closed, and the detour caused us to miss the most enticing segment of the trip, according to our directions. “The scenic stretch culminates with the crossing over the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal high above Fort Dupont State Park and the waterway below. From that vantage point one can see the beginnings of the Appalachian Piedmont, the state of New Jersey, and the canal bridges at St. Georges.” Instead, we took Route 13 over the St. George’s Bridge. The return to 2012, short though it was, was disconcerting. Jumpy and nervous from the modern pace, we exhaled mightily when our tires reconnected with Route 9 via Port Penn Road.
Driving past tawny wheat fields rippling with ripe grain, Patti and I looked at each other, confounded. Corn and soybean we understood, but who knew Delaware grew so much wheat? In the flat, fertile lands along Route 9, wheat thrives and because it’s sown in winter, it rarely suffers from catastrophic drought the way corn does. 85,000 acres were planted this year, as compared to 190,000 acres of corn, according to the Delaware Department of Agriculture. Farmers were busy harvesting the crop, cutting huge swaths of it and piling the gigantic bales into building-sized stacks. We encountered our second traffic jam in wheat territory, stuck behind the largest farm machine I’ve ever seen in my life. Obviously used for harvesting wheat, its boat-sized blades were folded up on both sides like you see on heavy-duty landscape mowers. After trundling along for a few miles, the considerate farmer pulled off to the side of the road when the coast was clear to let us pass.
In Port Penn, I stopped the car three times to photograph in that lovely town. I had to refrain from knocking on the door of a house whose cottage garden was in full flower. Pink, purple, and rose-colored poppies rioted against the pale house wall while a healthy vegetable garden prospered on the corner lot. Bold and inspiring, this unknown gardener had planted it all in her front yard for everyone to see. We wanted to stay in the charming town, but instead we turned south, headed for Bombay Hook.
Signs appear out of nowhere on Route 9 and if you can’t read them on the first pass, you simply pull a U-turn. Patti and I mastered the U-turn on this trip, double-backing at the slightest hint of intrigue. Cedar Swamp Wildlife Area announced itself with a somewhat shabby plaque urging visitors to follow a rough road into a darkened forest, like Dorothy at the end of the Yellow Brick Road. We rose to the challenge, spurring the four-wheel drive onto the narrow road where traffic dwindled to a few pick-up trucks. Trees enveloped us on either side in deep green, transforming the road into a long tunnel lighted with morning sun at either end. Here and there, an unpaved spur jutted off into a meadow or got swallowed up in more darkness. It soon became abundantly clear that the “wildlife area” part of Cedar Swamp Wildlife Area, which is comprised of four tracts of land totaling 5,500 acres, was code for hunting grounds. Signs along the road announced rules and regulations, and suddenly the unpaved spurs made perfect sense, as did the deer stands evident through the trees. We pulled another U-turn at the locked gate entrance to the main part of the swamp and steered for Bombay Hook, where the wildlife was sure to be considerably less troubled.
It took three tries to enter Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, Delaware’s most famous site for observing migrating birds. (Perhaps that’s one of the sites the federal grant could improve with better signage.) Route 9 is part of the Atlantic Flyway, a strip of coastal land used by hundreds of species of migratory birds, and Bombay Hook is its crown jewel. Late June, however, is not exactly prime bird-watching season. It is, however, prime time for flies. The day’s rising heat and humidity released thousands of them, as if from captivity. Walking from the car to the visitor’s center, we swatted absent-mindedly at them, naively intending to walk the shortest loop after a bathroom break. Inside the store, we should have had at least an inkling of the problem by observing the many different kinds of insect netting for sale. Once outside, water bottles in hand, we started for the trail only to dash madly back to the car within 10 seconds, slamming the doors and screaming, “Don’t let them get in!” As we sat huddled against the attack, hundreds of buzzing, frenzied green flies batted against the windows, crazed to get at us. I felt like Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” when she took refuge from deranged seagulls in a phone booth as they smashed against the glass. We drove an abbreviated loop around the park, plagued the entire time by the flies. A lone heron in a tree snag spent the entire time we observed him scratching, stretching, and fluffing feathers. We knew exactly how he felt.
Having survived what we perceived as a life-threatening diversion, we decided comfort food was in order and followed our noses to a second breakfast. After a stop for honey outside Dover where the beekeeper welcomed us into her house and fetched jars of dark elixir from her cache, we pulled into the Magnolia Diner, the ostensible end of our journey. It had taken us five hours thus far and nothing but pancakes and eggs would do. Hauling ourselves back to the car after a proper gut-buster, we decided on a final stop that involved abandoning the coastal route for a quick dash up Route 1 at midday. We had intended to visit the John Dickinson Plantation but had the bad luck to choose Tuesday, the day it is closed. I stood at the entrance gates willing someone to appear and open them just for us. Alas, no. We finished up at Smyrna instead.
Why Smyrna and not Dover? Perhaps because of the magnificent houses that line the more prominent streets. Perhaps because of the newly restored Smyrna Opera House where we received that private tour we so missed at the Dickinson Plantation. Perhaps because there’s a great bar called Sheridan’s right in the middle of town that just may have been the best way ever to cap a road trip.