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One for the Road: Return of the roadhouse

By Shadow

It was Sunday of the Memorial Day weekend, a three-day holiday from work for many Americans. The Layton Hotel Tavern’s inaugural Country Music Festival, featuring a new outdoor beer barn and band pavilion, was taking place that day. The hour-long ride north to Layton had me pondering love and loss and change. Seemed like everyone was having parties, but I wasn’t feeling in much of a celebratory mood.

Memorial Day was originally intended to honor the men and women that died while serving in the U.S. military. Many observe the holiday by visiting cemeteries or memorials or participating in parades. Eventually, Memorial Day began to signify the unofficial start of summer, hence the family picnics and such.

This holiday, though, always has a rather sobering effect on my psyche. I think about some of the guys I grew up with that served in Vietnam and although the ones I knew made it back, they all eventually died from the effects of Agent Orange. And I think about my dad who proudly served in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II, passing away in 1974 due to a service-related disability. My mom worked in the Pentagon under then-General Eisenhower, and she’s been gone for over two decades. And more names and faces, both veterans and civilians alike, came to mind as I rode through the remote rural areas of Northwest New Jersey.

Intermingled with my thoughts of people long gone were mental images of some of the riding destinations where we used to hang out—places that were shut down, sold, or just not in existence anymore. Big John’s in Newfoundland, where we’d normally go on summer holidays for their customer appreciation parties, closed several years ago. Not far from Big John’s was the Mountain Rest Inn in West Milford, another place that closed a few years back. I remembered the good times on Sunday afternoons when the roadhouse crew would fire up the grill outside and we’d hang out at the picnic tables, listening to the band through the open back door. The Mountain Rest Inn first opened 75 years ago, and by the time I started hanging around there about, the second owner, Bob, was running the place. He was a gregarious character that sometimes used his bully pulpit in between band sets to deliver long-winded, rambling, animated, patriotic speeches. No one minded. We liked Bob. Many of us actually agreed with some of his rants but chose not to express our views in such a public and dramatic fashion. I remember—and I know this sounds weird—one sunny afternoon when he invited me to peek inside the back of his van to show me all the new T-shirts he’d designed for the inn, each with some sort of patriotic motif. After he died in 2012, one of his sons took over but also passed away not long after and for a while, there was no one to run the place. For a while it seemed like all the old roadhouses were slowly disappearing from the North Jersey landscape.

When I arrived at the Layton Hotel Tavern, I saw a country bar that had been completely renovated on the inside, and set up for parties and concerts outside. Horseshoe pits were in full use near the beer barn. People spread blankets on the grass or sat on hay bales or planted themselves at one of the many picnic tables, watching kids run around and play near the creek. The Bandit Band, the first of three to perform, was kickin’ out some fine country music, there was a full buffet with grilled burgers and dogs and pork chops and chicken wings—it was an all-American affair for sure.

I was pretty sure the Layton Hotel Tavern would be motorcycle-friendly, and a pretty good clue was the bunch of bikes I saw in the parking lot when I pulled in. My thinking was further confirmed when I met the owner, a friendly young man who told me that he’d already rented the outdoor property to several motorcycle clubs and organizations for private parties during the riding season. And the tavern was one of the waypoints along the local American Legion Riders Tri-State Summer Tour.

The energetic, crowd-engaging second band, Nash East, was halfway through their early-evening set when rain clouds began to hover so I decided to hit the road before we all got a good soaking. By the time I got back on my bike and pointed her south, my mood had improved considerably. This place had real possibilities for a regular riding destination (the backroads and the scenery in that part of the state are fabulous). Based on the day’s experience, I was reasonably sure it would be a fun place to stop for a meal and some liquid refreshment.

The temperature had cooled down just a bit as the horizon revealed a golden glow. It was my favorite time of the day to be on the road. I began making plans to ride up to J&S Roadhouse, the new name for the old Mountain Rest Inn, where the current owners Steve and Jamie have made some much-needed improvements to the place and still cater to bikers and anyone else who enjoys live music and a pleasant afternoon out in the boonies. And I’d like to check out a few roadhouses that I’ve ridden past on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware Water Gap. Although I miss some of the places that are no longer in business, there are probably lots of others to take their place if I’m willing to expand my horizons. Much as I miss the old spots, it can be pretty cool to start new traditions.

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