Well, we didn’t get “lost”, but without our trusty Garmin Nuvi GPS – things would have been a lot worse. After yesterday’s epic day drive, I’ll remember the New Jersey Pine Barrens as an off-road maze experience like no other.
The day started at 8:30 A.M. as we made our first trek into New Jersey since our Atlantic Canada voyage earlier this summer. One thing I’ve learned is that if your heading into parts north of Baltimore and want to get there quick, be ready to pay a hefty price (and I’m not talking about speeding tickets). We paid at least $12 in tolls to get there and about the same coming back. A better option for those with time on their hands and plenty of flexibility is to set the GPS to avoid tolls and take a longer, meandering route (that will often take you right through some major cities) – but that’s for another article.
Why visit the Pine Barrens? Heck, I dunno. I didn’t even know about the Pine Barrens until an aforementioned Destination Truth episode in my last post. I was reminded later in LIFE Magazine’s latest update to the 100 places they say you must visit in the U.S. In Destination Truth they were looking for the Jersey Devil – the infamous, yet celebrated creature that supposedly lives in the Barrens and christens the state’s hockey team with its name. LIFE was conveying the stark beauty that the Barrens represent amongst the congestion of – well, everything – on the Northeast Corridor.
And it’s true – going to the Barrens is like stepping back in time, before sprawl took over this side of the country. This is New Jersey – the most densely populated state in the union, yet here is this mammoth pine tree forest. Have you ever seen those renderings of New York City before it was a city? This was the closest real-life comparison to that, in my mind. Upstate New York – particularly the Adirondacks – may have something to say, but I think you’d have to go up to Northwestern Maine before you can find wilderness like this up here (and Maine is a bit of an exception as it doesn’t fall in the Megalopolis).
We weren’t searching for the Jersey Devil up here – but for the Cranberry Festival in Chatsworth, NJ – also home of one of the largest cranberry receiving facilities for Ocean Spray and the so-called “Capital of the Pine Barrens”.
Our first stop was supposed to be the historic Batsto Village on the edge of Wharton State Forest near Hammonton, NJ (self-proclaimed Blueberry Capital of the U.S.). All I can say is the village looks interesting in pictures as a bridge had apparently given way and the detour was pointing us in a very roundabout direction. With time already dwindling (we were pushing 1 PM at this point) we pressed on to Chatsworth.
Our journey to the Festival continued up NJ Rt. 563 which had been recommended on a few websites as the relatively scenic route. I felt I’d completely left New Jersey and the east coast for something closer to my former home in Montana. The scenes resembled something out of the one-laners that meander around Yellowstone or Glacier National Park – except there is nothing here but pines, pines and more pines (though it is fascinating nonetheless).
At this point, Breeah and I get wrapped up in a discussion about where cranberries come from. I admit, I drew blanks – I honestly did not know for sure. I always see the berries in the bog water and really didn’t take the time to figure out the harvesting process. We found out that they grow on bushes near the water and later the bog is flooded so the berries fall off the bush (Breeah had the closer approximation to this, so she won). Seems so obvious…
In search of the truth (Destination Truth you may say), we took a side road to go look for bogs. We got off at Lake Oswego Road and headed further into the brush. It seemed the harvest already happened – as the bogs were already flooded and the berries gone – but we could tell we were in cranberry harvesting country. Then we crossed a small bridge and, what was this…a dirt road…
Just like that, the smooth pavement changed to dirt, sand and pine needles. My GPS still recognized our location – Lost Lane Road – oh, how comforting. I followed the GPS for the next ten miles of dirt to get back up to Chatsworth. Going no more than 10 miles and hour delayed the proceedings quite a bit but we got to take in some of the purest Barrens experiences you can while in an automobile. The sun was barely cracking through the tall pines and the scant illumination was at times both raw and ethereal. Breeah summed it up best at this point, “ok, I KNOW we definitely don’t go places anybody else I know does.”
Oh, and thank you GPS. Without it one could easily (and seriously) get lost in this hollowed out back roads. There are no signs or directions and there are points where the sandy (sometimes muddy) road splits in two or three ways. Had this not been mapped – we could have been there all night and possibly had a face-to-face with the Jersey Devil.
Alas, we crawled out of the pines and into Chatsworth – a tidy little town tucked smack dab in the middle of the Barrens. This place was hopping today as parking took up all of main street and then some. We spotted the Ocean Spray facility which was a strange site in the middle of all this relative wilderness. We managed to find a good spot for the car near the elementary school and made our way into the madness.
This place was packed! A town of less than 1,000 had at least 10,000 (or so it seemed) packing the streets and grounds (a couple times we found ourselves in people’s backyards – which were opened up for vendors selling their wares). There was fair food, crafts, cranberry-anything and various wares being peddled left and right. Fake Coach bags for $20? They had you covered. Armani sunglasses for unbelievably low prices, right here!
My favorite memory of the fair would have to be the conglomeration of northeastern, and especially New York, accents. I even heard a New York accent that was so heavy, it sounded almost Welsh.
We took token pictures of the Ocean Spray man standing in a bog of cranberries (not willing to admit to him we just learned how the whole process works) and made our way to almost every booth, stopping for fried pickles and corn and listening to country music covers and watching a few brave souls line dance in front of a crowd. Everyone was having a good time and that’s all that mattered (save for the few who bought screen-printed Louis Vuitton’s).
The fair started shutting up shop at 4 p.m. – which seemed early for a warm, if blustery, mid-October day. We headed out with one more stop in mind – Apple Pie Hill.
Apple Pie Hill is the tallest point in the Pine Barrens. A 209-foot, 81-step fire tower, it provides the best views of the Barrens. Unfortunately, I lost my written directions, and the Hill is located four miles back into the brush. Fortunately, when scanning my GPS map I managed to find a recognizable street and took off in that direction.
Without much trouble we actually found the Hill on our own. There were absolutely no directions or landmarks (what did you expect for the Pine Barrens?) but we managed. I parked and we walked up to the tower. This thing is a behemoth – at least when compared to the relative flatness of the state. Breeah and I started the climb while my sister stayed back. About halfway up I was clutched with panic. This was high up! I usually don’t have a fear of heights but the wind flowing through and the relative openness of the steel girders and gratings made you feel like you were essentially climbing nothing. Breeah made it to the top but I stopped about 15-20 steps short (literally crawling on my knees at that point). I’m a wimp – and my exceptionally brave girlfriend out did me this time. I managed to take a few pictures of the fantastic view – and could even see the skyline of Atlantic City, which lies about 40 miles away – that’s quite a sight line.
We headed back onto the turnpike and paid our fares back to D.C. (via a stop at the must-visit Border Cafe in Newark, Delaware). Our voyage to the Pine Barrens made for a memorable day excursion and one I highly recommend if you even have a little sense of adventure in you. I wish I had more time to meander through the pines, looking for hidden treasures and treats. It’s a paradise of sorts in the east coast – away from most, if sometimes not all, civilization.