As a teenage wannabe herpetologist, South Jersey was a regular hitch-hiking destination for snake-hunting. It was the northern range of some attractive reptiles, and one of only two places where the Anderson’s tree frog hung out, the other hundreds of miles away in South Carolina. Three of us were regulars from East 12th Street in New York’s Lower East Side – Carl Herrmann, five years older and a serious herper, and Johnny-Boy De Maria, my best buddy and the son of the last ice man in the neighbourhood. In 1970, nearly two decades later, I was working in Washington, DC, and spent a week’s vacation hiking 77 miles in the South Jersey Pine Barrens.
The Pine Barrens remain an improbable wild place smack in the middle of the New York-Baltimore-Washington-Philadelphia megalopolis. Six hundred and fifty thousand acres, a thousand square miles of wilderness! Sandy trails and scrub pine trees, and lots of water, often running brown from the bark of the cedar trees. 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 dinner staple replacing bog iron, charcoal, glass, sand and clay mining as the area’s economic mainstay, along with blueberries. And even a legendary Jersey Devil….
Tuesday, 1 September, 1970
A train woke me from a sound sleep just before dawn. 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, savouring 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 pinelands. I passed the old railway station in whose attic Carl had once caught a large corn snake on one our teenage snake-hunting expeditions. Johnny-Boy 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, South Jersey’s own malicious supernatural being.
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 centre 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, 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 savoured 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 neighbours 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 colours… 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 artefacts, 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.
I made this hike 50 years ago, 20 years after I first encountered the Pine Barrens. As I face the end of my days with old age and terminal cancer – incurable multiple myeloma, probably the result of excessive benzene exposure as an apprentice painter over 60 years ago – the pinelands remain a cherished memory. The Pine Barrens was a place where we teenage hoodlums could be the kids we really were, open to exploring and discovering and marvelling at what nature had to offer, feeling connected to a world we never felt part of at home.
There are now some protections in place for the pinelands, but it is a constant struggle with developers. Politicians make the appointments of the guardians, and those change regularly. The Jersey Devil has reawakened as tiny Lyme Disease carrying deer ticks. It used to be that the ticks had a die-off each winter, but now they just multiply, and are even showing up on the sandy beaches of the Jersey Shore. Even so, I’m glad the Pine Barrens are still there – a wild place in the middle of the great Northeast megalopolis, a place to explore, to amaze us, and to keep us right-sized.
Our walking series continues next week with a piece by walking artist Monique Besten.