Illustrations by Alyssa Grenning
Four days before the date of this publication, a man stumbled out of the Pine Barrens and onto a South Jersey highway. He was parched, hungry, his face and clothes rendered an ashy gray by layers of dust and soot. Slouching under the weight of his pack, he made his way out onto the road, stuck out his arm, and wearily jabbed a single thumb into the air: the universal gesture — once upon a time, anyway — of the hitchhiker.
A truck appeared in the distance, grew nearer and passed. A car came, and passed. Then another, then another. With each, the man’s thumb jutted up and back down again.
OK — he was me. And I was beginning to wonder whether, after three days of walking alone through the Pine Barrens, I wasn’t finally, at last, up a creek.
It all began with a map, and an itch. The itch was for the unknown, of which I was finding less and less in Philadelphia: I’d exhausted nearly every corner of Fairmount Park, hiked every trail in the Wissahickon Valley, and bicycled the Schuylkill River Trail too many times. Yes, the itch was upon me: I began hopping fences, following train tracks, scouring for the unknown. I bought an inflatable kayak on an angst-ridden whim — declaring I’d go by boat, by god!
The map, the Google kind, was of Philly. I was staring at it, discouraged, zooming slowly out, when I saw it: a swath of green as large as Philly itself, maybe larger, just miles from the city, sprawling across central South Jersey like a vast mystery. What the hell was it?
It was the Pine Barrens, of course — the lush, extensive coastal ecosystem characterized by sandy soil, freshwater bogs and, of course, pine trees; and popularized in old American and recent urban lore as a place of evil spirits, dark doings and bad omens. Specifically, I was looking at Wharton State Forest, a section of the Pine Barrens bought up by Joseph Wharton (of Wharton business school fame) in the 1800s and sold, in the 1950s, to the state of New Jersey to become its largest park. The Wharton forest comprises the heart of the deepest Pine Barrens, containing some 115,000 acres of largely untouched Pineland wilderness. Running through it all is the Batona Trail, a single, 50-mile ribbon through the depths of that expanse.
Hiking it would take at least three days. Water would be sparse, and the nearest gas station, food store or pay phone as far as a full day’s hike out of the woods. The trail began to wind its way through my dreams — until, on a whim and with decidedly minimal preparation, I set out, alone, to see where it led.
“Yeah, I’m a Piney. Ha-ha!” So declared Hank, the man sitting next to me at Billy Boy’s Four Mile Tavern, a bar nestled in a dusty strip along Route 72, just a mile or so from where I intended to pick up the Batona Trail.
I’d stopped in for a cold beer — and maybe some last-minute advice — before taking the plunge and walking into the forest. Inside I found Hank and Butch, two locals with much to say on the topic of the Barrens and my wandering into it.
“Don’t look in the backs of other people’s cars,” was the first rule Butch imparted, cackling with satisfaction as I nodded. That prompted Hank to warn me about crossing onto private property, prompting me, in turn, to ask, casually, what people were like out there in the woods, prompting Hank, in his turn, to say, “You mean the Pineys? Yeah, I’m a Piney. Ha-ha!”
“Watch out for Pineys” was the warning I’d been getting for the two days prior to leaving — referring to those denizens of the Barrens who, according to popular urban lore, live in the furthest recesses of the Pines and might do who-knows-what to a hapless city boy.
It’s a word, like “redneck,” used derogatorily by outsiders, and not a new one. My grandmother, Marie Ortner, who grew up in Pemberton, N.J., just outside the Pine Barrens, remembers the term being around — and being a slur — when she was young: “The kids would be called ‘Pineys’ and they’d have to prove themselves and throw that off,” she affirmed over the phone.
At one time, that expanse saw more, not less, habitation. Early European Americans built industrial towns out in the pines?, harvesting the native “bog iron,” which helped build cannonballs for General George Washington’s army; later settlers made charcoal and harvested wild blueberries.
For all the lore about hostile Pinelanders, there’s precious little evidence to back it up. Asked if he’d ever even heard of cases of … “locals,” I was careful to say … preying on visitors, New Jersey State Police spokesman Sgt. Stephen Jones just laughed over the phone. “You’re talking about the ‘Piney’ type of person,” he said, amused. “No, I never ran across anything like that, nor have I heard about those types of situations.” That’s not to say there isn’t crime out in the Barrens. Among the less-terrifying variety is marijuana cultivation, a practice Jones acknowledged still goes on.
Then, of course, there’s the amazing convenience of the Pines as the regional place of choice for the disposal of dead bodies. The cases are many. Every couple of years, hikers stumble upon a new body, or yet another suspect leads police to a shallow grave out in the Pines. And the number of cases where bodies are found can only lead one to speculate on how many aren’t.
Most of those cases involve people who don’t live in the Pineleands — a distinction that has done little to dispel the legend of the hostile Piney.
Hank, for his part, embraced the term heartily: “People here know where the word really comes from,” he said. “It means people who know the woods out here. We take pride in that — being a Piney, that’s something you have to earn.”
When I mentioned all the warnings I’d been given by city people, he laughed again. “We’re good people, but hey, it serves to keep ’em away — that and the Jersey Devil!”
As for me, Hank offered one last piece of wisdom before I set off into the Pine Barrens: “There’s nothing out there, dude,” Hank said, pausing a long while before adding, “That’s what’s nice about it.”
The Batona (short for Back to Nature) Trail was created, it turns out, by the Philly-based Batona Hiking Club, which still exists. In 1961, the club, primarily under the guidance of members Dale Knapschafer and Walt Korszniak, laid out the trail and, with the consent of state officials, cleared its first stretch, from the abandoned Batsto iron mining village in the south of the woods to the also-abandoned village of Ong’s Hat in the Brendan T. Byrne State Forest to the north.
Following my beer at Billy Boy’s — and a brief genealogical lecture by Butch on the pantheon of old Pinelands family names (“You had the Peppers, the Gerbers, the Jenkins, the Moores … are you related to the Vincentown mayor Bob Thompson?” The answer was no) — I finally donned my pack and walked into the forest, following a short connector trail until I came to a tree marked with a pink blaze, the color designating the Batona Trail, the color that would guide me through the labyrinth of the Barrens for the next two days.
The Pine Barrens is, after all, as great a maze as has ever been conceived. Throughout its vast expanse are hundreds of miles of obscure trails and roads, whose origin, purpose and destination are anyone’s guess, and which are either utterly unmarked, or else marked by an occasional, inscrutable sign: a mysterious red arrow spray-painted to a tree deep in the forest; a single blue ribbon tied to a branch.
As John McPhee put it in his famous book, The Pine Barrens , “The roads sometimes come together in fantastic ganglia, and even when they are straight and apparently uncomplicated they constantly fork, presenting unclear choices.”
After walking along a particularly devilish network of roads later, I would become fixated on the idea that if I lost my compass I might somehow get turned around and not recognize from which way I’d come.
People do, in fact, get lost in the woods all the time, affirmed Lt. Carmel Capoferri of the New Jersey State Park Police, who said she had handled five or six “low-level” lost-person calls in the last week alone. Most of those people, she noted, were located within an hour to an hour and a half — comforting, but most of those people, I soon realized, were not embarking on three-day walks.
As soon as I set foot on the Batona Trail, I was utterly alone: During my first 24 hours, I passed not a single hiker. Most hiking trails I’d experienced went up something, or along something, or around something. The Batona Trail simply goes deeper, and deeper, and deeper into the Barrens — a one-way trip to nowhere. I had the sensation, as the hours went by and the scenery changed — yet did not change — of being in a kind of flower-strewn outer space, tethered to the outside world only by a delicate string of pink blazes.
The longer I spent in the Pine Barrens, the more horrible became the idea of being lost in it.
Rising at the center of the Pine Barrens, like its very navel, is Apple Pie Hill, one of the forest’s highest points, on top of which sits an old fire tower. Climb up it and you find a most amazing vista: off to the west, a few square silhouettes — Philadelphia; off to the east, a thin strip out in the Jersey bay — Atlantic City. A line in the trees marked, I was later told, a secret road that went all the way to the shore. Most impressive of all, though, is the view of the forest itself, filling out the vast space between those cities in a dense green blanket.
The hill is also a popular spot for local teenagers — a carful of whom pulled up that night, coming upon me as I sat hunched in the darkness over my little cooking stove. One of the girls gave a muffled half-scream before I could say hello. They shined flashlights at me and then climbed the tower, whispering.
I set my water to boil and walked over to the tower for another view. A flashlight shined momentarily across my face. The whispering picked up. Slowly it dawned on me that the teenagers were completely terrified of me — a man, sitting alone in the darkness, and now climbing up a lonely fire tower in the Pines, toward them. And that realization prompted another: If they were scared of me , maybe I — alone and outnumbered — should be scared of them.
“Don’t worry, I’m just hiking through!” I explained, trying frantically to seem un-psycho-like. “I’m camping! I have a tent! I’m making dinner! With my stove!”
A silence followed. “I was about to kick your ass,” said one of the guys finally, sounding relieved, “if you were a killer.”
They drove off and I climbed up the tower again. The forest had become a dark, impenetrable mass stretching in all directions. Hoping to make a call, I waved my phone to and fro, but to no avail. Its signals went out into space unreturned.
I had walked into the woods with the naïve belief that the Jersey Devil — the monstrous devil-child born, according to legend, to one Mother Leeds and which reputedly roams the Pine bogs at night — was something along the lines of the mythical jackalope, more of a goofy supernatural mascot than genuine local legend.
I was disabused of that notion by four enthusiastic members of the Shore Paranormal Research Society, whom I stumbled upon at the Batsto campsite the following day. The group had come out to the Pines to relax — and to conduct investigations into various types of paranormal activity, including a Jersey “Devil hunt” planned for that night. For this they were armed with a small arsenal of electrical monitoring equipment.
To be fair, the Devil was to be only one — and, they indicated, not the most promising — subject of investigation. “I think the Jersey Devil is probably a case of mistaken identity,” said Jim Ansbach, the group’s cheerful co-founder, somewhat dismissively. Besides the Devil, Ansbach and his colleagues intended to investigate the “Wharton Devil Dog,” a ghostly hound that purportedly roams the woods; and possible paranormal activity at Atsion Lake and the nearby memorial to Emilio Carranza, a Mexican aviator whose plane crashed the Pine Barrens.
Oddly enough, Ansbach himself, as well as group co-founder C.J. Senn, claimed not to believe in ghosts, despite spending much of their free time pursuing them. The fundamental tenet of their organization — the practice, they said, which separated them from lesser paranormal explorers — was their demand for “scientific proof” of the paranormal.
“It’s not what you think. It’s not what you know. It’s what you can prove,” declared Ansbach.
Proof or no, the group seemed content enough, chilling at their campsite and waiting for spooky darkness to fall. “I’m dying to get out there!” proclaimed an enthusiastic Danielle McClelland, visibly itching to go roaming the woods that night.
I asked if they had any particular strategy for looking for the Jersey Devil. “We’ll go to a place that’s isolated, off the beaten path,” Ansbach said, adding thoughtfully: “Maybe on that Batona Trail!”
“This is a good place, too,” he noted, waving (a little conveniently, I thought) toward the quiet marsh behind the campground. “We’re on a bog right here, and that’s where the Devil supposedly likes to hang out!”
My last 24-hour stretch in the Barrens was a blur of sandy roads and ethereal scenes. Unable to get a phone signal the night before, I’d missed a meeting with the Pine Barrens Explorers, who had set off that morning on an expedition through the woods in search of rare flowers. Instead, I wandered by compass and map along the back roads of the inner-barrens, making my way past the ruins of an old ghost town, Friendship, now a quiet graveyard of stone foundations and old cellar pits; past defunct cranberry bogs, transformed by the Barrens into surprisingly beautiful marshes; past giant, empty campgrounds — my compass clenched tightly in my fist all the while. That night, a car drove by me in the dark. “My friend is lost out there,” the driver said in a taut, quick voice, asking me to keep an eye out. “He must have gotten turned around somewhere.”
It only took about 20 cars and about 20 minutes of thumbing for a ride in the end before a jeep pulled over. The driver, a youngish guy in a tank top and shorts, said almost nothing when I got in. I asked if he was going to Route 72. He nodded. I thanked him.
“I gotta see somebody for my probation,” he said. I nodded. A few minutes went by before he asked, suddenly, “Did that ranger turn around?”
He paused. “Don’t worry, I’m not on the run from Johnny Law or nothing.”
His name was Brian and he was an ex-Marine, just older than me. I asked if he’d served oversees. He gave a barely perceptible nod, but said nothing more about it. He had two daughters. He was from the Pinelands himself — a point I kept in mind when, breaking a smile at last, he added, “You’ve got balls, hitching. People out here are crazy.”