One thing that always gets me excited is discovering new things right in my own backyard. Being surrounded by Wal-Marts, ShopRites, Wawas, and CVS-versus-Walgreens intersections, it’s easy to feel cramped in South Jersey and get tricked into thinking that suburbia has nothing new to offer. I mean, my daily lunch walk takes place across the street from my office in a housing development for seniors 55+. I make the same loop day after day after day on the glaring white sidewalk, out and back, cul-de-sac to cul-de-sac. The mailboxes are adorned with interchangeable “tattoos”; one dotted with snowflakes and ice skates for the winter, hearts for Valentine’s Day, and now tulips and bunnies for spring and Easter. I cross the busy road to return to my office, dodge the rainwater-filled potholes in the parking lot, and settle back into my swivel chair for another afternoon of editing.

My commute to work is no more exciting, but one day last summer–I guess as the caffeine from my Starbucks tumbler kicked in–I noticed a tiny little sign next to the Wheelabrator Waste Management site (I KNOW, doesn’t my commute rock?!) that said “Wildlife Refuge, open dawn till dusk.” Each day I drove by the site at 50 miles per hour, all I could catch a glimpse of was a long driveway from which giant trash trucks rumbled in and out. A large garbage-processing facility loomed in the distance, and I took the wildlife refuge sign to be some kind of joke.

Eventually my curiosity got the best of me, and I scrambled to Google to figure out the mystery of the refuse/refuge. Well, it turns out the waste management facility operates a legitimate nature trail alongside its plant! The site is actually noted for its bird watching opportunities, but it’s also just a nice wooded route for a long walk. My husband and I spent a few hours there one summer afternoon, walking through a wooded area, emerging onto a long dirt path, and finding little wooden watchtowers erected along the way, perfect for viewing the Delaware River, the Philadelphia skyline, the bridge, and airplanes descending into Philly International. I have lived in South Jersey my whole life, and I still think it’s so cool to stand on a beach in New Jersey and see Philadelphia right across the river. Further along the path, we stumbled on an entire bunch of bananas (?!?!?!) sitting on the beach, still intact yet very green.

 

Yum yum weird beach bananas.

So yeah, new discoveries! That same day, my husband introduced me to Red Bank Battlefield, a sprawling park on the banks of the Delaware and even closer to the airport. I am obsessed with watching airplanes take off and land (I could never drive to NYC; I’d be too distracted going through Newark!), and I was so excited to find a spot just a few minutes from home where I could see things like this over and over:

 

It's a bird! It's a plane! Errr...

This past weekend was really sunny and outdoorsy feeling, so my husband suggested returning to Red Bank for more plane watching. We filled our tote bags with books and magazines, grabbed some snacks, and lugged our beach chairs into the trunk. However, when we arrived at the park, it became painfully obvious that a sunny day in March does not equal sit-on-a-riverbank kind of weather. Despite the sun, it was windy, chilly, and just too uncomfortable to sit still. I tried to tough it out, not wanting to ruin the adventure, but my husband knew I wasn’t happy and suggested a different adventure instead.

A new adventure? Right here in South Jersey?

My husband works not too far from the park and told me of a manatee mailbox along a nearby highway. We are slightly obsessed with manatees (and pugs and lobsters), so this piqued my interest. But how exciting could a manatee mailbox be? Look, I know about the mailbox “tattoos,” and I don’t see how one with a manatee could be anymore exciting than one with a Thanksgiving turkey or Santa Claus.

He promised this would be worth it. It was.

He wasn’t kidding. It’s a freakin’ manatee mailbox. Not just a mailbox with a manatee on it. A manatee on a mailbox. Remember, we live in South Jersey. This may be normal in South Florida, but in New Jersey this is tourist-attraction potential.

The fact that it’s in the shape of one of our favorite animals is also what made the mailbox so awesome. My husband and I have running jokes about manatees; we “adopted” a manatee once; and we could spend hours watching the manatees float idly in the tank at the Living Seas in Epcot. It’s a bit of a “relationship” animal, in that when either one of us sees one, we think about the other.

The funny thing is that I actually pass this mailbox on my commute home every single day. It’s a bit removed from the highway, though, and if you’re not looking for it, you’ll never spot it. But now I know about it, and every time I drive by, I crane my neck and strain my eyes to catch a glimpse of the curvy gray sea cow holding onto a box of catalogs and bills with his sturdy concrete flippers.

It’s just another surprise in my own backyard, a diamond in the rough tucked among oil refineries, industrial parks, and waste management facilities. How can you not smile when you see this every day? 🙂

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