I love Hunterdon County, New Jersey, where I live and work. It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth, with farms, forests, rolling hills, and charming small towns. Halfway between New York and Philadelphia, it’s off the beaten path, yet close enough to those cities to make theater, museums and any other cultural activities one might want easily accessible. Drive for less than 2 hours east, and you are at the wonderful beaches of New Jersey. Go an even shorter distance west, and you are in the mountains of Pennsylvania.
While there are many enchanting towns (some mere crossroads) within the county, those along the Delaware River are the best known. The canal and towpath that once made them trading centers for the export of agricultural products have been repurposed into a delightful recreational area, offering a route for hiking, biking, and accessing tubing and other activities on the river. The factories that produced paper, pottery, and multitudes of other goods are now filled with artists, craftsmen, and purveyors of antiques.
Hunterdon County is celebrating its 300th anniversary this year, and there seem to be events from house tours to parades to concerts to historical and cultural lectures almost daily. The committee of volunteers organizing these events has been tireless, and the rest of us, in our individual towns and businesses, have learned to work around their schedule in planning our own activities. The event of the day today was a talk and book signing by Elizabeth Gilbert, whose most recent novel has been weeks on bestseller lists, and whose 2007 memoir, Eat Pray Love cannot have escaped anyone’s notice, especially after Julia Roberts played the author in the film version. I was privileged to be the bookseller for the event. I had not met Liz before, and was glad to have the opportunity to spend some time with her both before and after the event. “Liz” may sound overly familiar, but she has become such a part of the community, and I know so many people who are friends or acquaintances of hers, that I find it hard to refer to her more formally.
Liz lives in one of the “river towns,” Frenchtown. She and her husband have a business there, “Two Buttons,” a shop full of items they have found on their world travels and sell from a resurrected ceramics factory, a remnant of the glorious industrial days of the area. She does her writing at home and helps at the shop in between.
The talk this afternoon was about her concepts of creativity and inspiration, and outlined the “story behind the story” of each of her books. The question and answer period was full of the usual “How do I get published?” questions. I was impressed with how forcefully Liz told one questioner that the key is persistence. He seemed a little shocked to hear that she had gone through six years of rejections before her first short story was published. She talked of her determination, taking each rejected manuscript and sending it out again, working constantly to improve each one. I have heard many similar stories from published authors, and am still amazed at how many aspiring writers think that typing “The End” means publication next week.
But the question and answer that prompted this post had nothing to do with writing: “Why, after traveling the whole world, and having the means to live anywhere you want, did you come to Hunterdon County?” Liz said that several years ago she visited a friend who lived in another small town on the river. As she explored the area, she thought, “How did I not know this was here?” Before the travels that formed the basis of Eat Pray Love, she had lived in Connecticut and New York, and had visited New Jersey, but had missed this little gem in the western part of the state. She knew that this was the place where she wanted to make her home. And she did.
It was a wonderful afternoon. I finally met Liz Gilbert, who everyone else seemed to know. I sold lots of books. But most of all, I saw the place I moved to thirty years ago more by accident than plan through the eyes of someone who chose it above anyplace else on earth. It was a perfect reminder of how fortunate I am.