Walking the New Jersey Wilderness

Albert Vetere Lannon

© Copyright 2019 by Albert Vetere Lannon

Photo of Jersey wilderness.
Recently a friend returned to Tucson from visiting a daughter in southwest New Jersey. That reminded me of the many days I had spent in the South Jersey Pine Barrens, an improbable wild place smack in the middle of the New York-Baltimore/Washington-Philadelphia megalopolis. And of when, in 1970, I had hiked by myself some 77 miles, exploring ghost towns, touching civilization only by choice.

I was introduced to the pinelands by my surrogate big brother Carl Herrmann; he lived across from me on New York’s East 12th Street and was five years older. Learning to get attention any way I could while my parents were consumed with the Red Scare years and Dad’s Smith Act arrest, trial and imprisonment, I caught and kept snakes. So did Carl. He introduced me to snake-hunting upstate New York, and in the Pine Barrens.

We hitchhiked south for my first Pine Barrens overnight when I was 13, with rucksacks, blanket rolls and canned food. We stayed in the ruins of an old railroad station at Pinewald, and fought off mosquitoes, scaring ourselves with stories about what was going on in the dark sanitarium we could see across the lake. In the morning I counted 100 bites on one arm and quit counting. We went there often, hitchhiking through the Holland Tunnel and down Route 9, and later the Garden State Parkway, to Toms River. We usually set up camp in or near some abandoned silos in South Toms River, a segregated African American community.

Six hundred and fifty thousand acres, a thousand square miles of wilderness! People, some descended from Revolutionary War-era times, about 15 per square mile in small towns compared with as many as 50,000 per square mile in the congested north. Free-running rivers, lakes and cranberry bogs, the Thanksgiving staple replacing bog iron, charcoal, glass, sand and clay mining as the area’s economic mainstays, along with blueberries. And even the legendary Jersey Devil....

My 12th Street paisan, Johnny DeMaria, came when he could get away from helping on his father’s ice truck. Once, Johnny and I hitch-hiked separately to meet at the Dover Deli for our ritual fresh ham and cheese sandwiches with a bottle of RC Cola. Big thunderstorms were rolling in and sleeping out wasn’t an option. There was a big old house across the street with a wrap-around porch. We went to the back door and knocked. A white-haired elderly lady opened the door and we explained our predicament and asked if we could, please, sleep on her porch, out of the way. She said, “Oh, I live alone and have rooms with beds. Come inside.”

We were New York street kids in motorcycle jackets who didn’t know how to accept such kindness, and gently refused. The porch was fine. In the morning we awoke to the smell of frying bacon. Eighty-year-old Mrs. Frorier was cooking us breakfast!

It was guaranteed that I would revisit the Pine Barrens when I was working for the International Longshore & Warehouse Union, the west coast union‘s one-person Washington office. It was the end of August, 1970, that I took a vacation week to make the hike, fortified by Henry Charlton Beck’s books on Forgotten Towns. This time I would know about those ruins with names like Batsto, Mount Misery, Old Halfway, Gravel Switch, Harrisia, Martha Furnace, Ong’s Hat, Double Trouble. I would visit many of them on this trek and keep a journal so that I would remember accurately. It was not recreation time; it was re-creation time.

Day One - Saturday, August 29:

We drove up from our home in Columbia, Maryland. My first wife, Elaine, and our two children, Deirdre, age 5, and Erik, nearly four, would leave me in South Toms River and continue on to stay with her folks in New York City. They would return in a week to pick me up . My pack weighed 40 pounds, and I had decided to go on the protein-only quick weight loss diet to get rid of some of the pounds I had accumulated in DC. Too many Welsh Rarebit and Bloody Mary lunches.

I turned the car around near the end of the road. Deirdre and Erik, anxious to escape, ran to the fine white sand of the track that I would follow, and began digging. As I shouldered my pack, three local youth came walking up to ask, “Where you going?” Walking, I said, see some of the places I went to as a kid. One of the boys asked, “You gonna follow the tracks?” I said, Yes. “Ain’t nothing down there but pine trees,” he said, and the other two giggled. White folks’s craziness. They went on their way. Elaine brushed the kids off; I waved goodbye as they drove away, and turned to face the trail. It was real now.

There was silence at first on this hot day, except for the creaking of my pack frame and the thump of my boots on the sand. It didn’t take long for the pinelands to adjust to my presence. Catbirds and towhees called, grasshoppers jumped out of my way, and there were flowers everywhere. Small, and hard-looking, blue, yellow, purple and orange. Dry-looking ferns rose from the sand on both sides of the track. I stopped to rest and drink, knowing that there was plenty of potable water in the barrens.

The shallow Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer creates a vast reservoir with some 17 trillion gallons of pure water due to its filtering through the sand. It feeds Delaware Bay, the Pine Barrens lakes and rivers, and the Jersey Shore, a summer destination for many of the megalopolis’s more than 30 million people.

The track soon paralleled an old railway grade, the rails long gone. The sand was softer now, and walking more difficult, especially in my new boots. In moment of self-will-run-riot, I had not bought proper hiking boots, but good-looking suede pull-ons. They were on sale, but I had to settle for a half-size too small. Big mistake.

I moved to walk on the cinders of the railway grade, trying to match my steps to the spacing of the rotting ties. That proved impossible, so it was back to the sandy track. I checked out an open space, finding some broken pieces of Hanley English Porcelain dishes, and an old abandoned blue car with red rust spots around the many bullet holes. The moist smell of swampland came to my nostrils.

I sat down by a washed out bridge over a concrete waterway running with water brown from the nearby cedar trees, chewed on some jerky, had a long drink from my canteen, and listened. A crow called and was answered, a bullfrog croaked, a catbird mewed plaintively. Whirligig beetles swam next to a mat of tiny white flowers in the water, dragonflies zipped by, and a small fence lizard walked on the concrete.

I felt a blister was forming on my right foot, and stopped at the ruins of a burned house, probably a victim of the disastrous 1963 forest fire that had consumed a big chunk of the barrens. It was the same house, I realized, where we made water stops on our teenage explorations. I dropped my pack to poke around in the rubble, and a deerfly bit through my shirt, stabbing my right shoulder with pain. One of our reptile-hunting locations, the pigpens, was at the edge of a swamp near the United Clay Mines. Ruins attract rodents; rodents attract snakes.

Nearby was this house where an elderly African American couple lived. We often stopped to ask for water and they were always accommodating. One year we came and the old house was empty. door open, a washed cup and saucer in a drainer on the sink. I found two 1909 volumes of State Museum Reports, and a volume of Robert Browning’s poems.

We never caught any snakes around the pigpens, but did see a box turtle while she was laying her eggs. And sometimes saw a tiny Anderson’s Tree Frog, creamy green with a yellow stripe, and a loud, goose-like QUANK! The Anderson’s Tree Frog, aka Pine Barrens Tree Frog, seems to inhabit only two places, the Pine Barrens, and a spot in South Carolina. The Pines are the northernmost range of several prized snakes, notably king, pine and corn. It also has fence lizards, and the elusive little Coastal Plains milk snake. And the Jersey Devil....

After a brief rest in the shade, I headed for the United Clay Mines. I had hiked four and one-half miles when I reached the clay mines, past some crumpled foundations and a stand of apple trees. Yellowjackets buzzed around me. I had once been stung for no reason --and where no one should ever be stung! -- while answering a call of nature in the Ramapo Mountains, and was sick and swollen for three days!

I took my empty canteens and went to the dig sites which collected water. A red squirrel scampered ahead of me. It had been a dry summer and the water was low and cloudy, perhaps stagnant. I filled a canteen and added purification tablets. I picked and ate some wild blueberries while a monarch butterfly flew by. Blueberries and butterflies and evening. I was tired, and happy.

I strained the gunk from the canteen I had filled and set up a little pot to boil water for coffee. Ripping up a splintery old railway tie, I built a small fire in a sandy depression I dug out. I put a sirloin steak I had frozen and wrapped in foil on the hot fire, hearing it sizzle as I laid out my ground cloth and sleeping bag.
Despite yellowjackets attacking with each forkful, I enjoyed the meal, the coffee masking the taste of the purifyer.

The sky was clear and the air cooling as dusk settled over the pinelands. A cloud of gnats passed me, crickets began a chorus, and mosquitoes did their crazy dances. I pulled on a hooded sweatshirt, rubbed insect repellant on exposed areas, and stretched out on top of the sleeping bag. Dragonflies whizzed over me, whippoorwills called to each other, toads began trilling, and birds flew hurriedly home as the sun sank below the tree line. The mosquitoes came closer.

I slid inside the sleeping bag, looking at the darkening sky as stars appeared, listening to the night songs. I was uncomfortably warm, and aware of a sound I couldn’t identify at the edge of my hearing. Then it was a high whine as a mosquito probed my defenses. I slapped at it...and fell asleep.

...Waking to the distant whump of Fort Dix artillery, the whine of mosquitoes, whippoorwills calling, legs sweating, clouds like upended mushrooms racing across the star-flecked sky...and again waking groggy to mosquitoes attacking, smearing myself with repellant, the stars now hidden behind a heavy gray curtain...and again the mosquitoes...and again....

Day Two - Sunday, August 30:

I awoke in the pre-dawn, moonless darkness as a little brown bat flew overhead and a whippoorwill called in the distance. Mosquitoes danced. I dressed, spread out the sleeping bag to air, and prepared a small fire to cook dried eggs and some meat bar for breakfast. I was on the move just as the sun rose behind the clouds, feeling surprisingly alert after my fitful night. I felt good, despite my throbbing toe.

A large brown hawk flew off as I headed towards the lost town of Buckingham, passing an old cranberry bog with a swift-running cedar-water stream bisecting it. I filled my canteens and chewed some jerky, fortifying myself for the eight and one-half mile trek to the remains of the forgotten town. I followed the old railway line, as I would do today until I reached Highway 70. I passed the hamlet of Keswick Grove, where a large doe leaped out of the woods to cross the path in front of me

This morning the deer flies and black flies, locally called pine flies, decided to take me on. The insect repellant that was advertised to work for hours lasted about one-half hour. Pine flies spurred me to walk faster, but their attacks soon began. I slapped at them and knocked my eyeglasses off. I discovered that they traveled with me on the crown of my hat, waiting.

I approached Route 530 and drew up short when I saw a snake in the brush. A flattened head and yellowish-brown body brought rattler to mind. I approached the reptile cautiously, and realized it was a harmless hog-nosed snake, about two and a half feet long. It began hissing, so I dropped my pack and got my camera ready; the hog-nosed snake puts on quite a show to frighten off predators.

The serpent flattened its head and upper neck, hissing loudly and moving with menace. It struck in my direction repeatedly, with its mouth closed. They eat toads, had long teeth to deflate their prey, and could inflict a painful bite...but they struck with their mouth closed. After a few minutes of bluff, the snake went into its second act.

With mouth open and tongue dragging in the dust, it twisted and contorted in death agonies. On its back now, belly up, writhing and twitching and then perfectly still. Dead. Except that to be dead the snake believed it had to be on its back. I turned it over, and it immediately flipped back to be belly up.

I left the hog-nosed snake and crossed the road just south of Whiting, passing the convergence of the Pennsylvania Railroad and Jersey Central RR tracks. A yellow warbler flew off to my right, followed by a low-flying covey of quail. A pair of gray squirrels scrambled up a tree. I flipped over a board to see what might be living under it, and a gang of banded hornets rose. I set a record for running uphill in soft sand with a forty pound pack, but I didn’t get stung. I knew I couldn’t really outrun them, so they must have attacked my pack. Lucky for me, and a good omen for the week.

Tall spruce trees marked the approach to Buckingham. I had drunk four quarts of water so far today but was sweaty and thirsty, and my feet hurt. A mid-day avian chorus welcomed me to the remains of the town. I poked around the remaining foundations, finding some decorated bricks and broken old bottles, one perhaps hand-blown. In one place there was a pile of melted glass, remnants of the 1963 fire.

Buckingham was founded in 1880 by John Buckingham and grew up around his lumber camp. White cedar was in demand for ship construction, and a town grew up around the saw mill. For 15 years Buckingham was a prosperous enclave in the pinelands, until tragedy struck. Mosquitoes drove John Buckingham’s cow crazy one day, and his young daughter was trampled and killed. Shattered, Buckingham closed the mill and was himself dead within a year. The town was soon forgotten.

I shouldered my pack and walked on, stopping at a green house in a clearing, a pen full of hounds clamoring at my approach. Eyes stared at me from behind curtains as I knocked on the half-open door and a grizzled, but not old, man opened it and invited me in. While I filled my canteens from the pump at his kitchen sink, Jimmy Fisher introduced me to his young boys, Joel and Johnny Emanuel. They came every weekend to run the hounds.

Jimmy Fisher was amazed that I had walked from Toms River, “That’s some walk, I tell you...Not me, I tell you....” We exchanged information about Buckingham and he asked if I had been to the terra cotta works yet. That was on tomorrow’s agenda. “These here are nice woods,” he said. ‘cept for the motorcycles comin’ down, tearin’ up the woods, ruinin’ ever’thing.”

And hippies too,” added young Johnny Emanuel. I just smiled. It was noon, and they wished me good luck as I left, the hounds resuming their complaining at my presence.

The sun was mid-day hot. The path rose and fell, turning from easily walked packed sand to foot-slogging soft. Little black-barred grasshoppers kept the path ahead in continuous motion, and an evil-looking black wasp dared me to come close. I stepped to avoid anthills. With the exception of mosquitoes and pine flies, I had no desire to bring destruction with my steps. They were here first and this was their turf; I was the intruder. With the birth of my children I had a new reverence for life, be it bug, bullfrog or butterfly – except for biting flies, mosquitoes and yellowjackets who have yet to convince me that their existence is justified.

No reasonable campsite presented itself during the grueling afternoon hike, so I rested often and pushed on, passing a locked gate to a blueberry farm, a padlocked barracks for migrant harvest workers. There were fences on both side of the track. My feet hurt, but soon I saw a bridge hazy in the distance, Route 70. There were dozens of people at a small lake at the bottom of the slope away from the highway, and they told me anyone could swim there. I set my pack down behind a wall under the highway overpass and changed into a bathing suit. I used my Finnish work knife to open the big blister on my injured toe.

I set down my canteen, boots and sweaty clothes on the gravel shore and plunged into the cedar-water lake. I swam and rubbed myself clean, frolicking, forgetting my exhaustion. I filled the canteen and rinsed out my clothes, wrung them out, and returned to my campsite under the overpass to spread them out to dry. I lit a can of sterno to heat water for coffee, and opened a can of salmon for dinner. I salved the raw spots and blisters on my feet and applied moleskin strategically. I had walked 13-1/2 miles today, and I was tired. It didn’t take long to adjust to the sound of traffic passing overhead. A pair of doves flew into the shady area, saw me, and almost crashed into each other turning to flee.

Getting ready for sleep, the cooing of doves nearby growing louder than the rush of tires above them, I applied bug juice, but there seemed to be fewer mosquitoes here. A motorcycle stopped on the far side of the wall, soon joined by a half-dozen others. Only one wore a crash helmet, and no one smiled. I felt a sense of silent menace, but they soon swept off. I heard children’s voices coming from somewhere in the woods, and I thought about mine in the Big City. I fell asleep, feeling safe in my hidden camp. waking to a mosquito attack, and drifting back into slumber while an occasional car rumbled overhead, stirring the doves.

Day 3 - Monday, August 31:

I awoke just as the sky was beginning to lighten, gusts of wind pelting my face with raindrops. I snorted aloud at my luck in choosing a campsite out of the rain, disturbing a dove with the sound. The rain was just ending, and I was dry. I went out from under the overpass and a cottontail rabbit ran off into the brush. The brush was wet, but the ground was barely moist. A crow called in the distance, and doves stirred as I cooked eggs and coffee for breakfast.

I was just a few hundred yards away from the home of piney legend Asa Pittman, in the hamlet known variously over the years as Gravel Switch, Hanover Station, Hanover Farms, and just plain Hanover. With each name had come a brief bust of activity: charcoal loading station, marshalling yard for log shipments, cranberries, blueberries and sand, a planned resort that never happened.

Ace Pittman, grizzled old native of the pinelands whose ancestors helped settle the area, had been struck by lightning three times. He was a snake-hunter, and knew exactly where to find them. Big city herpetologists whose searches were unproductive often ended up at Ace’s house to buy a pine, king or corn snake. Carl Herrmann befriended him and sometimes brought him exotic gifts during his years as a reptile keeper at the Staten Island Zoo.

I was walking alongside Route 70 now, a mile to go before I turned onto Mount Misery Road. Cars zoomed by, truck drivers waving and a boy throwing me the peace sign. The roadside was littered with beer and soda cans, and with Marlboro cigarettes hard packs. I turned onto the paved road, my feet unhappy with the hard surface. Mount Misery, like the Forked River Mountains or Apple Pie Hill, is a misleading name for a rise only 125 above sea level at its invisible peak. Scrub pines and stark skeletons of dead trees pushed in on both sides. The air was steamy as the sun broke through the overcast, and my sweat attracted a pine fly.

Rounding a curve I saw the rough-hewn buildings of the Methodist Center. Charlie Klein was the Center’s caretaker, and lived there with his family year-round. I first met him on a family camping trip in the barrens two years earlier, the same trip that Erik wandered off on to discover wild blueberries. I had written to Charlie a few weeks earlier.

I filled my canteens from a fountain and sat on a bench to wait for signs of waking life. Soon a screen door opened and Charlie came out, his clothes loose on his tall, thin frame. “Hi,” he said, “how’s it going? Wondered when you’d be by. Be with you in a minute,” and he set off to do some early chores and rouse the few staff left from a summer camp session that ended the day before.

His spouse Meg was up in her robe and making coffee when Charlie and I entered the house. I played peek-a-boo with five-month-old Heather in an infant seat set on the kitchen table. Meg excused herself to dress and I used the moment to call Elaine collect in New York. They were fine, I was fine, I would call again Thursday morning from Batsto. Meg returned to pour coffee, her blonde hair brushed over her sparkling face.

The pines almost got wiped out last week, Charlie told me, an oil truck flipped on Route 70 about two miles from the overpass. If it had caught fire it would have been Goodbye Lebanon State Forest and Hello Jetport. A new jetport serving the Northeast megalopolis was actively being discussed. New York wanted a fourth airport, preferably in North Jersey, but legislators from that densely populated area objected and proposed the pinelands. There was a continuing campaign in opposition to the developers, what Charlie called the “real estate rapists.”

Charlie and I walked to the site of the Revolutionary War-era site of the Mount Misery Inn, passing a thick, exposed vein of bog iron. South Jersey bog iron was the source of colonial iron ore until the discovery of iron ore and coal in Pennsylvania.

It’s been a bad year for rattlers,” Charlie said. He pointed to where a suspected den had been, and where he thought it had moved to. Mount Misery hosts the only known timber rattlesnake den in the pinelands, but it seems to share an anomaly with the tree frog. While Crotalus horridus had light and dark variations, it lacks the rust stripe down along a yellow back that its southern cousin, the canebrake, has. The canebrake rattlesnake was considered a subspecies, C.h. atricaudatus, but is currently not while scientists continue to argue. Further south, in Maryland, the snake is pure horridus.

The Mount Misery Inn remains are little more than a double brick wall set into the hill. Charlie scraped a bit of mortar with a fingernail and crumbled it. “See how soft? Used local sand. The bricks are South Jersey clay too. A lot of people have been taking bricks,” he continued, “I suppose people’ll say I’m a Pine Barrens eccentric, but I don’t want a lot of people coming in and ruining it.”

As we walked the sand road down the hill toward a cedar swamp a pickerel frog jumped out of my way. Charlie said he counted almost a dozen tree frogs on the road after a rain one night. He pointed out a bunch of wild grapes and told me Meg had been cataloging the local plant life. The Inn, he said, was home to a piney family until the 1963 fire, but all remnants of the surrounding town were long gone. The Inn served as a stagecoach stop past the turn of the century, with a tap room for thirsty travelers and lodging upstairs.

George Upton turned the hill into the unofficial charcoal-making center of the pinelands, and provided funding for Charles Pittman, an ancestor of Ace’s, to develop the town of a hundred homes, with a church and store along with the hotel. The area was first claimed by Peter Bard, a native of France who was appointed Justice of the Peace in 1717. He bought and sold land for saw mill, iron works and timber-cutting sites. The name, Mount Misery, is from the French misericorde, which means mercy. Maybe because of mosquitoes....

As we walked back so Charlie could begin his work day, he made a remark about students. “Now they’ve got the right to vote,” he said, “they’ll find something else to protest about.” Here was a young guy, far from the confrontations of a war-polarized nation, who worked with -- and praised -- students who were doing research and archaeology in the pines. How, I wondered, could a society survive such polarization, such anger, if it manifested itself even here? National leadership which promised to bring us together instead drives us further apart, so hate and fear grow, fanned by those who supported a war they didn’t have to fight in, or resented the continuing struggles for equality of black Americans, or saw student radicalism as threatening their profits.

A high breeze pushed big puffs of cumulus clouds into shifting forms against the blue sky. I waved goodbye to Charlie and set off down Mount Misery Road heading for Bullock, stopping to rest and chew some jerky just inside the Lebanon State Forest boundary. A station wagon passed me, the driver returning my wave with a blank stare. Several buzzards circled overhead, and a rough green snake flicked its tongue out by the side of the road. My feet hurt. I came across a library book on First Aid, this edition published in May, 1965, but checked out to John Harlan on September 26, 1950 ?!

A wind blew out of the north and held the heat down as I ate lunch with Bullock a mile away, and then it would be another mile to Pasadena. At the forgotten town there were a few remains in the brush, and a couple of hunting club buildings waiting for New Jersey’s week-long deer season. I followed a sand road alongside the railroad tracks, perhaps the remains of Anthony Bullock’s ill-fated toll road. After a false start down a side path, I took the right one into the thick and green woods, walked the mile, and the red-brown concrete structures rising from the forest floor once again amazed me with their size.

This was Pasadena, sometimes called Wheatland, where kilns were built by the Pasadena Terra Cotta Company to fire pottery and building materials. Bird song mixed with shimmering leaves played by the wind. A long-legged black wasp drifted by as I climbed in and over the kilns, exploring the huge structures which rose some seven feet and were 100 feet long. Burrs attached themselves to my pants and I sat on top of the most intact kiln to pick them off.

Fire claimed the life of owner Bill Clevenger in 1872, and his wife soon after. Some said it was Bill’s ghost that set the fire that took her; others swore it was robbers looking for Peggy Clevenger’s reputed horde of gold. The fire which finally closed the terra cotta works occurred just after the turn of the century. The town passed into oblivion soon afterward.

Monarch butterflies led me out to the glare of the sandy road. My canteens were empty now, and I decided to brave the No Trespassing signs on a little house. There was no response to my repeated knocking, so I walked around back and found a faucet and hose. I filled the canteens and went on my way. Further on I looked at my map, judging that I’d walked ten miles today.

Following the path which paralleled the railroad tracks, I approached a pond and a pair of loons rose from the path, shrieking as they plunged into the lily-pad lined water. My eye was drawn to the sun reflecting off something gray and white through the trees off to my right. I stopped and looked, and saw what appeared to be a train. I pushed through the brush to find a dozen railroad tank cars and several boxcars on their sides and upside-down, couplings twisted and broken. Graffiti shouted of teen romances along with obscenities and peace signs. I later learned that they were transporting fine white sand when they went off the tracks the previous year, and were just abandoned, the tracks rerouted around the wreckage.

I cut back to the path and continued south to Woodmansie. There I found four hunting club buildings, all posted with Keep Out signs. A rusty iron cross with an aluminum tag read: Here lie two of man’s best friends – Slingshot and Marshmallow. I filled my canteens from an outside pump and decided to spend the night behind the big white barbeque of the Sportsmen’s Protective Association. I laid out my groundcloth and sleeping bag.

Woodmansie was named for an English immigrant who arrived in America around 1800, landing at New Stockholm. That settlement of Swedish and Finnish colonists was established on the Delaware River in the mid-1600s. Under attack by the scourge of the pinelands, they abandoned their ferry crossing, and the port was renamed Moschettoesburg.

I dined on freeze-dried pork chops flavored with a little hot sauce and two cups of coffee. While the sun was still up, I went exploring, following a gravel road into the pine forest. Just up the road was a giant skeletal structure, steel girders rising from concrete foundations, a set of narrow-gauge railway tracks entering the building. The factory, I later learned, had been constructed during World War Two, but the war ended and the factory-to-be abandoned.

I continued on to a gravel pit used for target practice, shells littering the ground. A pair of doves flew off, followed by a dozen quail rising up and flying low into the woods. Returning to camp I made another cup of coffee, opening my last can of sterno. A chilly breeze kept mosquitoes down. I zipped the sleeping bag while whippoorwills sang from the edge of the woods. The night was moonless and I located the evening star. A fox barked sharply as the night chorus tuned up with chirps and trills and buzzing. I had walked over twelve miles today and fell asleep immediately.

And was awakened by mosquitoes, clouds now obscuring the stars and the night air comfortably moist and warm. Or was I dreaming? I awakened again under a cold, star-studded sky as the thunderous rumbles of a train passed on the Jersey Central tracks, a shriek of metal on metal as it curved around the wreck. I snuggled into the sleeping bag, wriggling my blistered toes, and slept.

Day Four, Tuesday, September 1:

The train returned just before dawn, waking me from a sound sleep. I waited until sunrise to get out of my sleeping bag and prepare breakfast, then packed and began what would be a long walk to Lake Oswego, via Chatsworth. I had just reached the edge of the road when a state trooper pulled up to ask what I was doing. I explained my journey, told him I hadn’t broken into any buildings, and pointed to where I had slept. He nodded, Just so you weren’t inside.

I set out on the sand road alongside the railroad tracks, savoring the coolness of the air. The sky was clear and blue, with white cumulus puffs moving gently. I crossed Route 72 on the railroad trestle while a monarch butterfly led the way. I felt good, despite my tired feet and their blisters.

The map showed a water tower on the way to Chatsworth, and soon I saw it in the distance. As I got closer I saw that it was part of a larger building complex, with brick and corrugated metal structures. A floppy-eared black dog howled at my approach. The wind rustled the corrugated walls and ceilings as I set my pack down. Doves and pigeons stirred uneasily as I began exploring. Narrow gauge railroad tracks with several ore cars entered the factory. Large racks of clay cones were near furnaces and machinery I couldn’t begin to guess at.

I carefully stepped around a hornet’s nest and climbed out through a broken window, and the dog met me with renewed howling. I turned to face it, and it retreated. Following her with my eyes, I saw fluffy young pups staring curiously at me from a pile of rubble under a peach tree. I continued around the building, looking for some clue as to what had been done there. As I climbed over a brick pile to leave, I saw a little house with a television antenna on its roof beside a giant furnace with steel doors. I called out several hellos with no reply and continued on.

Suddenly there was a roar of engines and I had to clumsily leap to the side of the road as two teenagers on trail bikes charged by without slowing or acknowledging me. Their shattering passage left fumes in the air, and I thought with disgust that I wasn’t likely to see any life along the rest of the trail. Yet, not two minutes later and with the smell of carbon monoxide still in the air, a Fowler’s toad blinked at me from the side of the road, the first of three. Given half a chance, nature reclaims violated areas, but too often that half a chance is not there.

I entered Chatsworth, a town of some 300 people and the largest settlement in the pines. I passed the old railway station in whose attic Carl had caught a large corn snake. Johnny and I then noticed some subtle rustling sounds overhead and we aimed our flashlights up. Hundreds of little brown bats began stirring, and we made our way out over what we now knew were piles of bat guano. We decided the station was a way station for migrating bats. Looking in a window now, I saw bunk beds jammed into a small room. The old railroad station was now housing for berry pickers, a way station for migrating humans.

I walked the main street sidewalk to Buzby’s General Store where I bought a pair of cotton socks and a diet soda from Mrs. Buzby. “I could understand bicycling,“ she said, her eyes twinkling, “but walking...?” I asked if she had any sterno and she didn’t know what it was, but an elderly man wearing a neck brace came over and told her it was “canned heat.” She looked in a box of seldom-requested items but found none. I asked about the factory I had just come through, and she said Superior Zinc had opened for a year before the war ended and then shut down. I took my soda and went outside to sit on a bench and drink.

The man with the neck brace came out and introduced himself as Jim Kittell. He was the caretaker of Superior Zinc. “Yep,” he said, “that was my dog. You see her pups?” I nodded. “I live out there, comp’ny’s been payin’ me for 30 years to keep people from goin’ in and hurtin’ themselves.” The clay cones, he told me, were used in a zinc reclaiming process. The ore came in from North Jersey, and in tailings from other plants. I thanked him for the information, and now it was time to move on.

The road was paved the rest of the day’s trek, and I wouldn’t have minded cheating a bit and hitch-hiking, but no vehicles came along, so I walked. I stopped at the Chatsworth Cemetery, noting some German names, descendants of Hessian mercenaries who deserted King George’s army in the 1770s and sought refuge in the pines. There were still a few small hamlets where people spoke almost no English and where Old World traditions kept alive legends of werewolves and vampires, and the Jersey Devil.

Plodding along the road my nostrils were stung by the smell of pesticides. A Burlington County Mosquito Control Unit was driving slowly, spraying the low woods along the road. I had walked eight miles today, with six to go, but breathing pesticides? But the truck soon turned around and the young man with the spray nozzle stoically returned my wave.

I passed through Duke’s Bridge, where a few occupied dwellings remained, one little house with a small, white-haired woman tending her garden. We exchanged greetings, but her little dog rose growling and I moved on. In the mid-1800s the town was the center of a Pine Barrens industry called shingle mining. Well-seasoned, but not waterlogged, logs and stumps were buried deep in the muck of local swamps, and turned out to be useful in ship building and for making shingles out of gum, oak, magnolia and cedar wood; water-soaked pine logs were useless.

After Duke’s Bridge the road turned to old gravel, where a baby garter snake slithered away. At Three Bridges I refilled my canteens from the cedar-water swamp along the road, adding purification tablets. Reviewing the map, I decided to try a slightly-shorter trail. No cars had come by, and the hard surface aggravated my feet. I soon reached the trail, but the first mile was hard slogging. A doe and white-spotted fawn stood for a moment in the path before bolting off, and further on a large doe silently left the path ahead of me.

The path emerged onto Jenkins Road, just west of Lake Oswego in Penn State Forest. My feet hurt desperately from 14 miles of hard walking. An old cranberry bog was now a 90-acre lake, home to red-bellied turtles, catfish, pickerels and frogs...and mosquitoes. I continued into the recreation area and selected a picnic table near the locked bathhouse. Two families were also there, cooking their dinners on the charcoal grills. I changed into my bathing suit out of their view and savored the wet sand under my blistered feet.

I washed some clothes and wrung them out, then plunged into the water, feeling joy in the strength of my stroke, tired and hurt replaced by happy weariness. The water was shallow, only belly-high far from shore, and I returned with breast strokes until my stomach scraped against the sand. Yellowjackets prowled the trash cans as I dried myself and dressed, remaining barefoot. My neighbors waved, but restrained their kids from coming over to visit. I made a small fire in the sand and cooked dinner, burying the pit when I finished.

A car pulled into the parking lot and a tall, lean man in a uniform got out. He went to a bench and lit a pipe, his Smoky the Bear hat not at all comical over his stern face. Camping was not allowed anywhere in Penn State Forest, but I was too tired to move. I’d have to be driven or carried out. Then a monarch butterfly hovered near me and my mind eased. Taking the initiative, I approached the man in khaki and introduced myself with a quick sentence about the walk. He stood and we shook hands; he introduced himself as Conservation Office Al Nasiatka. I sat down uninvited.

After a few minutes of silence, when it was clear I wasn’t leaving, Al Nasiatka said, “No smog, no haze, see things in their natural colors...for a change.” I began talking about the barrens, about coming back to it, the things I had seen along the way. I mentioned motorcycles and he flared. “I hate ‘em,” he said with quiet passion. “They tear up what’s left of the back roads. Mostly outsiders from New York or Philly. They want to escape the big cities but have no concern for the place they escaped to.” He talked about real estate developers hoping to tear the pinelands apart.

The horizon took on a purple smudging over the trees as the Conservation Officer told me about archaeologists at Martha Furnace. They had excavated a surprising number of intact artifacts, and built a wood canopy over the dig to protect it from the weather, but that attracted looters on trail bikes. Several truck loads of sand temporarily buried the site, but motorcyclists loved the new hill. Finally the state shelled out $7,000 to build a barbed wire-topped fence around it.

Despite the air cooling rapidly, mosquitoes came out in force. Al Nasiatka rose and gave me his first smile. “Have to go,” he said as he stretched, “I’ve got a son who expects to kiss his daddy goodnight.” Good for him, I smiled back, and he strode away. Fish were breaking the lake’s surface as the evening star appeared. Toads and whippoorwills competed for solo songs, and a tree frog quanked from across the lake.

I lay back in my sleeping bag as the air continued to cool and mosquito attacks diminished. The sky was almost completely black now, spattered with bright points of sparkling light. A shooting star. Lying there, me, a speck of life on a speck of land at the edge of a speck of water, on a speck of a planet rolling unnoticed through the great vast light of the universe. I slept.

Day Five: Wednesday, September 2:

I looked forward to an early naked swim, but it was not to be. I awoke swathed in a cold gray mist; everything was wet and I couldn’t get a breakfast fire going and used up the last of my sterno, the coffee water barely warm. The sun finally broke through and the fog retreated so I hung the sleeping bag to dry. I had walked some 45 miles so far, over half the trek, with just seven miles to go today. My feet should appreciate that.

I packed my gear, made sure I was leaving no trace of my stay, and walked out to Jenkins Road, turning south on Andrews Road. Two men, looked like father and son, were working on a dam at the end of a cranberry bog. The younger of them answered my Good Morning with a startled frown. The cranberry bogs which dot the pinelands filled the places where bog iron had been dug out until around 1830, when the industry shifted to Pennsylvania.

A monarch butterfly led me down sandy Old Martha Road. A red-headed woodpecker observed my antics as I swatted at pine flies. I found a gray and yellow feather and stuck it in the crown of my hat, disturbing three flies who were waiting in ambush. Scrub oaks lined the side of the road and, around a curve, two does took off in opposite directions, an almost kaleidoscopic effect. A ruffed grouse flew noisily off.

I hid my pack behind a fallen tree at a crossroads for a quick side trip to Martha Pond, scrambling down a steep slope to reach it. I drank from a clear little stream trickling out from the sandy hillside, and resisted an impulse to swim in the pond’s brown water. Returning to the crossroads I shouldered my pack, went to the town of Martha and the fenced-in furnace archeological site. Glass slag littered the ground. Glass-making replaced iron work in many places, and fires had since melted bottles and other ware into twisted shapes.

Martha Furnace was built in 1793 by Isaac Potts, becoming a town of 400 people . The furnace, named for Potts’s wife, produced stoves, kettles and pig iron which converted into wrought and sheet iron further south at Wading River Forge. Workers at the furnace included black freedmen, indentured servants, and English criminals who all worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week. A cinder carrier, at the bottom of the scale, earned three dollars a month. There were labor troubles when, in 1810, the workers demanded pork instead of beef. Finished iron was carted downriver to The Forks where it could be loaded on schooners from New York and Philadelphia. The town of Martha is marked by dozens of catalpa trees imported into the barrens.

I set out for Harrisia; I was deep inside Wharton State Forest now, walking on a hot gravel road. I had left Lake Oswego with three full canteens and had less than a half-canteen left. I crossed the asphalt of Route 593, and by a parking area, found a brickwork with a pipe coming out, clear spring water gushing from it. I could see part of the monumental ruins rising above the trees.

The three-foot-thick walls of bog iron and rock rose two stories high, only suggesting the original size of the Wading River Forge, established in 1795. Some 750 feet long, it worked lumber and made nails from bog iron. Water powered much of the factory’s operations, channeled in narrow canals. Behind the walls was an apple orchard, with yellowjackets gnawing at overripe fruit . Across the road a few depressions in the sand and scatterings of old bricks suggested where the town had been.

Around 1834 the factory was sold to William McCarty and converted into paper-making. Years later four Harris brothers joined the firm and changed the town’s name to Harrisia. The mill paid a standard wage of $1.25 a day, with free rental for workers in little cottages on gas-lit streets. Like Pasadena’s kilns, Harrisia’s ruins seemed out of place, an odd surprise in the semi-desolation of the pines.

I passed by the entrance to a campground with a By Permit Only sign; legal camping seems to be vehicle-dependent, the office where a permit could be obtained twelve miles away. I found a level spot off the road, propped up a collapsed fence with my walking stick, and set up camp behind it, out of sight of passing motorists. Pack-free, I strolled to where the Oswego River was dammed at Harrisville Lake, cedar water frothing white where it rushed through the dam’s gates.

Back at camp I dug a little fire pit and cooked dehydrated steaks. The sun dropped behind the main wall of the ruins, deepening shadows and cooling the air. I cheerd at the thought that I would be calling my family tomorrow. A cloud of gnats approached, then drifted away. I put my boots back on to answer a call of nature at the edge of the overgrown pit. As nature was taking its course, my eye caught a flash of white as the toilet paper roll careened down the slope. Holding my pants half up, and cursing loudly, I carefully picked my way down the slope to retrieve it.

As darkness settled I slid deep into the sleeping bag and, despite the buzz of an occasional mosquito, fell soundly asleep. I woke up once to the sound of something crashing through the brush on the other side of the pit. A raccoon, I wondered, maybe a skunk? I flashed my light across the pit and all went silent. I slid back into sleep. Maybe it was the Jersey Devil....

Day Six: Thursday, September 3:

Waking to the freshness of the morning air while a cricket chirped and a whippoorwill called, to the gurgling of the spring and the sight of a little brown bat rushing home, the sky was streaked red, a sign of possible rain. I realized my lower lip was stretched taut; a mosquito had penetrated my defenses and found my Achilles lip!

I packed, poncho at the top, buried the little fire and set out along the Chatsworth Road, passing the Oswego River and turning into a sandy pathway. At a crossroads I turned left, trusting the Army Corps of Engineers map, generally quite accurate, but this time not. I came to the slow brown West Branch of the Wading River, and could not find any continuation of the road.

I pushed through brush clawed by thorns, blocked by pine boughs and tripped by myrtle, sweating and bleeding from scratches. I was soon lost. Using my compass I found my way back, the brush trying to hold me, a bog’s muck almost stealing my boot off my foot, pine flies on the attack. I found the clearing by the river and walked back to the crossroads. I followed another roadway not shown on the map and came to another bend of the river, the pilings of a washed-out bridge rising from the dark water. I could not cross here either.

I took a chance on a cutoff which emerged at the Chatsworth Road, and continued on the paved road through the Jenkins Neck fork, stopping briefly at what was left of Maxwell. I didn’t linger. A black butterfly with blue wing-spots fluttered by as I approached the wooden sign marking the site of Washington. I poked around while a gray squirrel leaped for a tree near the three walls of the Washington Tavern. A stagecoach stop on the Batsto-Tuckerton run, Washington Field served also as a recruiting station for the American insurrectionist army. It was also the hangout for the legendary bandit Joe Mulliner and his gang of deserters from the revolutionary army. Returning to the road, I headed for Batsto.

It was a hot and humid afternoon, baby fence lizards scrambling out of my way. I found a piece of dried-out skunk tail on the road and saved it for Deirdre and Erik. About a mile from Batsto a station wagon came rolling slowly along. I smiled at the elderly couple and stuck out my thumb. The driver waved and kept going. I was stunned, and then angry, not at the couple, but at the fear and hate which gripped the land. It’s all pervasive, from young Johnny Emanuel Fisher to Charlie Klein, to folks passing up a backpacker who even had a white hat on.

It wasn’t “law and order” people who cared for places like the pines such as Al Nasiatka that worried me, but the code words used by politicians of both parties freeing law enforcers from civilian control. With dozens shot dead in ghettoes and on campuses and thousands jailed or exiled for draft resistance, America was a nation polarized and perilously close to setting neighbor against neighbor, with guns. But if good people of all persuasions could unite in defense of the pinelands, perhaps there was hope.

A few drops of rain began falling as I entered the restored town and drank deeply at the Visitor Center fountain while most adult visitors avoided looking at me and their kids stared in curiosity. I went to the telephone booth and called Elaine collect. All was well, and the kids said they were going to walk their grandparents’ dog. I sat on a bench and pulled off my boots, then explored the Visitor Center in stocking feet. I went to the 36-room Batsto Mansion and explored. Joseph Wharton acquired the house in 1876; his land was purchased by the state in 1954 and restoration of the town begun.

I moved along to the grist mill and company store, crossing the Batsto River to the saw mill and workers’ homes, several occupied by elderly craftsmen employed in restoring the town, which produced iron cannon balls for the Revolution and drew attacks from the British. A light rain began and I went back to the Visitor Center, bought and mailed postcards to the kids, and sat, resting.

A couple of kids stopped to ask, “How come you don’t have shoes on?” Because my feet are tired, I said, and their mother came over to ask about the walk. Claire Schwarz, from Burlington, was also enamored of the pinelands and had done a lot of research on the Jersey Devil. She leaned to the idea that it was the offspring of an unwed Quaker banished from a village. The story I knew was that a Mrs. Leeds in the 1700s swore that if she had a 13th child it would be a devil, and it was, shapeshifting to fly up the chimney. Claire said she would send me some articles on claims of recent sightings while her mother-in-law hovered nearby with pursed lips. Claire laughed, and said she was worried that we were making out.

While accounts of the Jersey Devil’s origin vary, there is agreement that the creature had bat wings, the head of a horse, cloven hooves and a spiked dragon’s tail. When it flew overhead ships ran aground, fish turned belly-up, cow’s milk curdled in their udders, corn was blighted, and it was blamed over the years for fatal attacks on humans who may really have been ravaged by packs of feral dogs. At the beginning of the century South Jersey factories closed early so fearful employees could get home before dark. Sightings have been claimed into modern times.

I drank, filled my canteens, pulled on my boots, and headed south on a sandy road to its end at a clearing by the river’s edge. I scouted for a sheltered place to settle as the wind came up, blowing thick gray clouds across the darkening sky. A blue heron flew overhead as I devoured a can of boned chicken. A couple canoed by. The wind died down and thousands of mosquitoes danced spastically over the water. A bullfrog’s croak crossed the river. A pair of little brown bats began hunting the mosquitoes. I wished for more hungry bats. This place had been known as The Forks, where the Batsto and Mullica Rivers met, flowing out to the Atlantic Ocean. It had been a pre-revolution port where pig iron, glass and charcoal were shipped to the growing cities.

I tried unsuccessfully to rig my poncho as a tent, laid it over the sleeping bag, and went to sleep. Mosquitoes woke me; I was hot, and a light drizzle was falling. I unzipped the bag and slid out, set my pack at an angle against a tree, folded the sleeping bag into a seat and back rest and, with the poncho for cover, sat back and slept as comfortably as on any other night. I woke as the wind drove a storm across the barrens, but I stayed dry and comfortable, and drifted back to sleep thinking it was the kind of night the Jersey Devil might be about.

Day Seven: Friday, September 4:

The last day. I was up at first light and cooked eggs over a small fire while a duck flew overhead. I packed and retraced my steps upriver towards Route 532, meeting a red-eyed male box turtle. Crossing the bridge over the Mullica I turned into the cemetery at Pleasant Mills. At the rear of the graveyard sat the little white Batsto-Pleasant Mills Meeting House built in 1808. One headstone was dated 1793.

Looking west I could see Lake Nescochague, named for the original Lenni Lenape village here before refugees from Scottish religious persecution moved in. Like others escaping religious persecution, they were quite amenable to imposing their own version of the gospel on the area, then called Sweetwater, and sought to convert the Native Americans. In the 1750s a saw mill was built, and a stately mansion that was immortalized in the mid-1800s novel, Kate Aylesford, now restored.

I walked the quiet morning street, my walking stick tapping loud on the sidewalk, stopping at the old cotton mill. The 3000-spindle Pleasant Mills of Sweetwater dated back to 1821 and was ravaged by fire 35 years later. A paper mill began operating in the repaired structure in 1861, and was closed by another fire in 1878, reopening two years later, and operating into the 1920s. Passing the mill I heard a door open, and turned to say Good Morning to the woman emerging. She slammed the door.

I stopped at a roadside shack selling antique wares and chatted with gray-haired Al Craig while browsing. He showed me his pride and joy, an ingot of pig iron with the Batsto stamp. I filled my canteens, my pack a little heavier with some purchases, and trudged on. A pickup truck stopped and young electrician Gary Ficken offered me a lift. I accepted, and he drove me several miles to Clark’s Landing Road. Gary said he went camping there, and there wasn’t much left, or at Gloucester.

The sun was up and hotter than the days before and pine flies attacked as I made my way down the road, between swampy ditches and thick brush. In a clearing I found scattered bricks and slag, and wondering if these were the remains of the Gloucester Tavern, or of the furnace. Sixty iron workers and their families lived there in the early 1800s, producing some 800 tons of iron annually; a glass works was added mid-century. The town died when Lower Bank’s leaders failed to build its portion of the Tuckerton Railroad.

A young mud turtle scuttled across the road. Back on the asphalt a doe leaped into the dark forest. This was where I would reunite with my family and I peeled off my dirty clothes, washed myself with a wet bandana, and put on shorts and a tee shirt. Warm wind pushed billowing white clouds around on this hot and humid day. It was about 11 a.m. and Elaine was due here at two. I fought off the pine flies, and waited, staring hopefully each time I heard an approaching vehicle.

Finally a red station wagon rounded the curve and it was them. Elaine was smiling and the kids were calling Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! A week passed. Seventy-seven miles walked. And now it was time to go home.

Postscript: Return of the Jersey Devil:
                                                                           Photo Courtesy Pinelands Preservation Alliance. Other photos by Albert..

I returned to the Pine Barrens in the mid-90s when my second wife, Mary, and I went to the annual Vetere Family picnic in the north. The Frorier house was gone, replaced by a housing tract, and the Dover Deli was closed. A senior housing development occupied the United Clay Mines site. Harrisia was still there, and Mount Misery’s Methodist Center camp. Buzby’s Store was now a gift and book shop.

But every place we made contact with brush we were swarmed on by little Lyme Disease-carrying ticks, moving fast, even going through the eyelets of our shoes. And again in 2000 with grandson Danny, picking up three ticks walking on the mowed lawn at Batsto. A ranger told us that they were even showing up on the beaches of the Jersey Shore, and that kids no longer played in the woods. Global warming, we were told; there was no longer the annual winter die-off that kept the tick population under control.

Or maybe it was a new incarnation of the Jersey Devil during this, once again, angry and polarized time, this time of hate, of endless wars, of racism and greed and corruption, of ecological madness. Perhaps the Jersey Devil’s time has come again.

There are other threats. The jetport is history, but motorcycles still tear up the pinelands and developers want access to that unused land. In 1978 Congress passed the National Parks and Recreation Act, and the seven-county Pinelands National Reserve was the first of its kind established under the legislation. An appointed 15-member Pinelands Commission controls development. In recent years that commission has been more approving of development plans, and okayed a natural gas pipeline now under construction despite continuing court challenges.

A second pipeline was recently stopped with organizing efforts by the Pinelands Preservation Alliance which is working to protect the water, limit development, and educate about the area.

For more on the Pine Barrens, visit pinelandsalliance.org, and try finding these books: The Pine Barrens, by John McPhee; Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey, More Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey, and Jersey Genesis, by Henry Charlton Beck; The Domestic Life of the Jersey Devil, by Bill Sprouse.

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