I’ve fallen in love. Like hard. For my family’s newest duty station. It’s an unexpected love affair, as I’ve been to this state and base before. Both passing through and on a TDY (Temporary Duty) mini vacation, I’ve been to New Jersey. I had some mixed experiences when we got our orders — I knew we’d be happy enough at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst (JB MDL), but I was not prepared to fall head over heels for JB MDL and beautiful New Jersey!
Let’s rewind to my first experience of New Jersey … it was 2009, and we were en route to Hanscom AFB in Massachusetts from Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, Nevada. It was a long trip, but we were young and without kids. We were moving two small sedans, two big dogs, our trusty Nokia phones, and a fistful of Mapquest printouts. Sure, in that year GPS devices were available for cars, but we were young and poor and had a backup road atlas.
The journey went well with stops along the way to see family and friends. On the last day of the cross-country trip, we were driving from rural Pennsylvania up to Massachusetts, and I had decided that we would “pop into Brooklyn” to have a meal with my oldest and dearest girlfriend and her husband. At the time, I didn’t realize how foolish the idea of popping in anywhere around NYC was.
While trying to look at Mapquest directions while driving and using our cell phones on speaker in a walkie talkie like fashion, all of a sudden our big main highway split into MANY big main highways and we were many lanes over from where we needed to be. We were flung into my first ever cloverleaf exit off the highway and onto a business route in Jersey City. It was raining and somehow still smoggy. It was grimy and busy. I’m a city girl, but this was more city than even I was used to. We pulled off at a gas station to look at maps and collect ourselves.
While I was busy pouring over the atlas, my husband went to get water only to find a sign by the bathrooms that said “non-potable water.” He came back and said incredulously, “Have you ever seen a place in America with non-potable water? Where are we?”
We were in Jersey City. Rainy. Concrete. Industrial. Jersey City. As we pulled back on the roads we could see Manhattan. It had those streaming beams of light that happen sometimes when it rains. I call it “God Light” as it looks divine. Like a beacon of a place we couldn’t quite reach because we were stuck in JERSEY! Then we hit the Lincoln Tunnel at rush hour, and thus fully formed my opinion of New Jersey. Bad. Crossed off of my mental list forever.
But a year later, my husband had training in New Jersey. We had a newborn son and didn’t want to be apart if we didn’t have to. So we joined him. We took one of his off days down at the shore. We stumbled upon Surf City. And I couldn’t believe how pristine the beaches were! We had Rita’s Frozen Custard and dug our toes in the perfect white sand. Wait, do I like something about New Jersey?
Another year and another deployment cropped up which meant more training. So back to Jersey we went. A dear friend babysat our kiddo, so it was just us. I spent my husband’s school days going down to the shore and up to Philadelphia. We went to the USS Constitution Museum, and I cried tears of awe at all the history around us. It was wonderful.
Maybe New Jersey wasn’t so bad. So when we got our orders to New Jersey last year, I decided that I was pretty much, mostly, kind of, excited, I think.
Which brings me to now. I am silly in love with New Jersey!!
We have lived here one full year, and it has felt like home faster than any base we’ve ever been to. Not necessarily more so, but definitely faster. Joint Base MDL is nestled in South (Central, there’s a lot of debate about that central bit so I’ll leave it here in parenthesis) New Jersey’s horse farm country. It’s what I would call a rural base, as it takes 25 to 30 minutes to get to the closest big box store. Something that most people don’t realize about New Jersey when they’ve never been here is how green it is! It’s the Garden State! My mind always went to The Jersey Shore TV show on MTV that showcased wild parties and young beach life, or the smoggy city-ness of Jersey City, Newark, or Trenton.
There’s a whole lot of state outside of those stereotypes, and honestly those stereotypes aren’t that accurate anyway.
JB MDL is a big joint base, and because it is so large, the base itself has many family-friendly conveniences.
It has three pools, two outdoor and one indoor, two major playground parks, a hopping FSS (Force Support Squadron) that plans amazing things like free concerts and base-wide picnics among other incredible morale events. One of its parks has batting cages, go-karts, and mini golf attached to it!
The library has a story time that is led by a real life Mary Poppins-kind of lady– seriously she is magic with a group of toddlers. For littles there are for-pay activities coming out of the woodwork, like Zumbini, Sign Language for kids, and my personal favorite Tinkergarten. All of these ae run by passionate and loving stay-at-home moms just hoping to connect and grow the youngest demographic of this base.
The youth center is bustling with sports and activities for toddlers up to teens. And there is a come-as-you-are playgroup put on by Family Advocacy every Wednesday that stole my heart from day one. Free bread is offered every week regardless of rank through the Red Cross, and there is a well-stocked and even more well-run thrift store. Though I’ve never used it I’ve been told there is a passenger terminal with a busy Space A itinerary.
I could go on and on, but suffice to say this base is a solidly good community with so much to do. Bonus: There is a Starbucks and a Dunkin’ Donuts, so no matter where you pledge your coffee allegiance, you’re set.
Places to Visit Nearby:
Outside of the base are rural farm towns, cute farmers markets and wineries, mom and pop taverns that are not only tasty but feel like you’re being served by a loving relative.
If you go even farther than that, Philadelphia is only a 45-50 minute drive. You will find its historical Elfreth Alley, Betsy Ross House, USS Constitution Museum, and iconic Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. To the more contemporary fame, there are the Rocky Steps that lead up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and LOVE Park.
There are about a hundred other museums and attractions, most of which participate in the Blue Star program which makes them free to military troops and their families from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
More Places to Visit Nearby:
New York City is a little more than an hour drive, but Hamilton Station is only a 30 minute drive from base and the train will take you straight into Penn Station in midtown Manhattan. It’s so easy it should be a crime! Parking is affordable and the train station offers deeply discounted tickets for active duty military members and their families. It runs about $14 round trip per person. I have neighbors who have gone multiple times together to take in as many Broadway shows as possible while they were stationed here. And I had a Champagne brunch at the Plaza with my sister one Sunday, because, why not?
Also a little less than an hour away is the shore. The thing about the Jersey Shore is that it can be whatever you want it to be.
You want wild, casinos, beach bars, and nightlife? Atlantic City is your place. You want a cute, idyllic beach cottage community with adorable shops and cafes? Cape May is your best bet. From the family friendly Long Beach Island to the uninhibited party scene and silly fun boardwalk of Seaside Heights, New Jersey beaches have it all. There is even a “military beach,” Sea Girt. Accessible only with DOD ID through a National Guard base on the shore, it is this quiet little hamlet that has free parking and a peaceful and beautiful beach.
I didn’t know I was a beach girl until we moved here. But put my toes in the sand and a drink in my hand and I’m never leaving.
Here in New Jersey I can be a horseback riding farm girl who picks my own produce and takes my children on weekly farm tractor rides. I can listen to live music and sip local wine while on a cool country date night with my husband.
I get my fill of city days and attractions, and when that gets to be too busy we slow down and take in the shore.
We delight in the close community feel of base events and then take the occasional long weekend away sightseeing in Washington D.C. (3 hours away), up to the mountains in the Poconos (2 hours away), and Boston (5 hours away).
Being stationed at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst is the definition of having it all. And I’m a girl who likes to have it all. I may always be a Texas girl at heart, but consider me a Jersey girl convert!