Band on the Run: The Defiant Nature of Rte 4, Fort Lee, NJ

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life.

Fort Lee, NJ seemed to have the closest and most reasonable hotel we could get that was near to Manhattan without yet crossing the bridge (or tunnel). Seems to me that accommodations on the other side of the bridge go up about three hundred percent and so we decided to make our “Two Nights in New York” actually be one in New Jersey, one in Brooklyn.

We stayed at a little hotel called the Courtesy Inn in Fort Lee, NJ, just before the George Washington Bridge. It was on Route #4, a smaller highway that leads to the I-95 and holds the requisite number of hotels for travellers like us. It’s kind of an ugly service road, to be blunt, but I did find something unique about this particular roadway: its defiant nature.


Yeah, you wouldn’t think so, but nature has come on full force on this motorway. The center of the highway is filled with sumac and goldenrod, wild grape vines and tall grasses that have been so long neglected that they have started to form a canopy across the center meridian that cascades over the left lane.

There is an abandoned gas station here as well. It’s almost unrecognizable from the road as what it once was as a result of the overgrowth. Perhaps this is how the world will look when we’re all gone. (Yeah, that seems to be my current theme and I’m sticking with it.)

The Courtesy Inn was a trip in and of itself. Filled with mirrors on every surface, I nearly had a heart attack when I woke up and was staring at myself on the bed in the mirror on the ceiling. Strange to see yourself first thing in the morning, actually, and it rocketed me into consciousness and far from the dreams that had been so consuming just moments before. I packed up and put my stuff in the van and told Lyndell I was heading for a quick walk.

She waited in the van as I backtracked down the motorway past a car repair place and a functioning gas station until I reached the abandoned lot. Only five minutes or so from the hotel but it seemed like I was walking into another world. If I could block out the constant rush of traffic behind me, I could easily have been in a remote town that was being reclaimed by Mother Nature on all sides – but, in this case, three of the four sides.

The old gas station and auto center was boarded up and the asphalt was cracked everywhere. The weeds and trees were popping up through the cracks, lining the lot with green. Even the fences around the lot seemed camouflaged by the weeds as they grew in and out of the metal weave. I took some pictures over the fence, rusted with time, and then kept walking to the next lot, also abandoned, that wasn’t blocked by a fence.

As I approached the boarded up structure, I almost jumped out of my skin when I noticed a foot sticking out from behind a gap in the building. The foot had a shoe on it and looked like it was just resting on the sidewalk. My heart rose to my throat but I reminded myself that I was in clear view of the whole busy road and it was the middle of the day. That was enough to settle my nerves and so I stepped a little closer and saw that between this small outer building and the larger building, there was a small causeway in which a man was sitting on a lawn chair reading a newspaper. He almost jumped out of his skin when he saw me too and his paper crackled his surprise.

I just smiled and moved farther into the lot, away from his spot, but not without noticing he was wearing a garage work shirt with his name patch over the left pocket and had a lunch box open on the pavement beside him. I took a few more pictures on the other side of the lot before coming back in his direction. I asked him if he worked there and he said yes, but then pointed to the garage up the way, closer to the hotel we had stayed at. I realized that he did not speak English as a first language when I asked him if this was where he took his break and he just stared at me uncomprehending. I didn’t pursue it, just smiled and took my leave. I felt as though I was invading his quiet time. This was his spot and I was just an intruder.

I walked back to the hotel parking lot feeling moved by the redefinition of space from a commercial lot to a partial park, from a public retail space to a private hide-out, from asphalt to green in likely just a handful of years.


Nature is so powerful. Doesn’t take long and our lifeless creations crack open and get replaced by the life that belongs.

Right on.