Step by step guide to the Garden State
New Jersey is about as compact a state as they come, and its elaborate network of roads makes it extremely accessible. But most of us know only a fraction of it.
We know our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and the routes we take (usually by car) between the two. We know the places we go to shop, watch movies, eat dinner out. We know a few places on the shore.
Starting Tuesday, I’ll come to know a lot more of it.
I will set out from Liberty State Park, on the state’s eastern border, and walk – yes, that’s right, walk – to the Delaware Water Gap, on the state’s western border. I’ll be following a route called, strangely enough, the Liberty-Water Gap Trail.
I didn’t make up this route; a guy named Al Kent did. I’ll explain more about him later.
The 156-mile route isn’t an escape into bucolic splendor, but a journey across America in miniature: Bustling ethnic neighborhoods in Jersey City and Newark, suburban subdivisions in Essex County, small country towns in Warren and Sussex counties, and yes, wooded hills, culminating with the dramatic cliffs of the Delaware Water Gap.
Few other states can boast such variety in so small an area. In less than two weeks (I hope), I will walk through some of New Jersey’s most crowded and most rugged areas. I will pass through areas where concrete and steel have crowded out the trees, and places where nature still rules. I will see the New Jersey that everyone ridicules, and the New Jersey that outsiders – and maybe a lot of residents – didn’t imagine existed.
The trail, which actually stitches together several smaller trails, hasn’t been officially endorsed by state authorities. Even its promoters are reluctant to give out detailed directions, because some parts are kind of rough – like the walk from Jersey City to Kearny over Truck Routes 1 & 9.
Here is how Kent, the father of the trail, described that section: “Hikers push ahead through litter and weeds, reach the bridge catwalks, steady themselves against the roaring traffic. Heavy semi-trailers dominate the roadway, shift gears, emit fumes. Forty feet below, turbid waters lap debris on turbid mudbanks.”
Not exactly America the Beautiful. But it’s honest.
And it’s all walkable. Not walkable in the “Let’s go for a walk” sense – I figure it will take me 12 days. But it’s certainly a lot less intimidating than the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. An avid hiker with an A-type personality could knock off 10 miles at a time, on consecutive Saturdays, and after four months could boast that he (or she) walked the entire state, from the Hudson to the Delaware.
“This would be a sort of achievement. They would look forward to it as an adventure,” Kent said. “But they probably wouldn’t do it again.”
Kent, a 76-year-old former Eagle Scout and Westwood native, has spent his retirement trying to make amends for all the pollutants he helped spew into the air while running his family’s fuel oil business. He does this by promoting the lost art of walking.
Before setting his sights on a cross-state route, he worked on a smaller scale, pushing Essex County officials to create the Lenape Trail, a 35-mile route that winds through Essex County and goes right by his house in West Orange. Since 1988, he has been the coordinator of the Patriots’ Path, a 25-mile route that traverses most of Morris County.
A few years ago, Kent heard that the White House was seeking nominations for something called the Millennium Trails program. Trails that won that designation would qualify for federal funding to pay for extensions and improvements.
Kent realized that the Lenape Trail and the Patriots’ Path, when combined, already spanned nearly half the state. A couple of other state-owned trails in western New Jersey could take a person even farther. Kent thought: Why not link them together, fill in the missing links at either end, and call it a cross-state trail?
“It just seemed like a sexy idea to me,” he said.
The White House wasn’t seduced. They gave it a consolation prize, naming it one of 2,000 “Community Millennium Trails.” But Kent won a dozen people to his cause, including the state’s former trails coordinator and the deputy superintendent of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. The trail committee won a small grant to publish a brochure and has picked up endorsements from various county governments.
They still have a lot of work to do. The Patriots’ Path is interrupted by several gaps; Morris County hopes to get easements or outright land purchases to fill them in. And the trail committee hasn’t yet figured out the best way to direct walkers from Blairstown, in Warren County, to the Delaware Water Gap.
So I will improvise in those sections, with some help from Kent & Co. They will guide me through the uncharted sections, trying to come as close as they can to their vision for the trail.
The distance between Jersey City and the Gap is 60 miles as the crow flies, but the trail is more than twice as long because it follows old rail beds and utility company right-of-ways. Even the section through Jersey City is convoluted, so as not to miss some of its landmarks.
But that’s OK by me. This isn’t a race.
The whole point of this trail, and my walking of it, is to take in the state’s different faces and personalities. So I don’t plan to walk as fast or as far as I can each day; I want to stop and talk to people. And when there’s no one to talk to, I’ll just try to soak up what I see around me, which is a lot easier to do at 4 mph than 60 mph.
But this being New Jersey, I’ll never be too far from civilization. Most nights, I’ll be able to stay in a hotel or motel near the route. As I go farther west, campgrounds will have to suffice.
By the end, I hope to be on more intimate terms with the state where I spent 30 of my 37 years. It’s about time, don’t you think?
Much to savor on Newark, Jersey City streets
From the litter-strewn, exhaust-choked walkway along truck Routes 1 and 9, Newark looked like an oasis.
Most people don’t think of Newark that way, and for good reason. But I was on foot, making my way through the abyss of industrial New Jersey, so its squat skyline looked to be as much of a refuge as a cloistered suburban cul-de-sac.
When I finally emerged from the exit ramps and passed beneath the roars of the New Jersey Turnpike and the Pulaski Skyway, I was relieved to be on city streets again. They weren’t pretty at first – mostly just warehouses – but they at least had sidewalks. Then I came to a cafe, heard people banter in Portuguese, and felt human again.
This first leg of my trip across New Jersey, a 13-mile stretch from Liberty State Park in Jersey City to downtown Newark, gave me a new appreciation for the state’s two largest cities, and not just because the few miles between them were horrible. Yes, they still have their share of noise and litter. But they harbor a vitality and distinctiveness that isn’t easily found in the suburbs.
Helping me to appreciate Jersey City was John E. Dimatteo Jr., a 60-year-old retired engineer for Con Ed who doesn’t call himself a historian but certainly acts like one. Walk with him through the city, and he says things like, “In the corner here was Peter Van Ripen’s blacksmith shop,” or “This is where the first World Trade Center bombers had their place.”
I’d also like to note that Dimatteo walks as fast as he talks. And by that I mean too fast, especially for someone (like me) carrying a backpack for a two-week journey across the state.
Dimatteo met me about three miles into the route, in a section once known as Little Italy, but that now shows few signs of that earlier identity. He ushered me into Ann’s Bakery, noting proudly that it’s the only place he knows that still makes something called a charlotte russe – shortcake with whipped cream on top, a big dessert in the 1930s and ’40s.
But most of Jersey City isn’t yet gentrified; the genteel parts are still confined to certain small pockets. Most of the city seems to serve the same purpose it did decades ago – a place for immigrants to settle for a generation before moving on to more pastoral settings.
As Dimatteo and I walk up Newark Avenue, ascending one of the gentler parts of the Palisades, Dimatteo talks about Jersey City characters such as “Newsboy Moriarty,” who ran a bookmaking operation out of a newsstand.
He points out the White Eagle Hall, a Polish social club where his parents first met; the Brennan Courthouse, whose Tiffany glass ceilings, ornate columns, and murals of New Jersey history were almost done in by the wrecking ball; and farther along the route, an Egyptian Coptic Orthodox church, which used to be Barrett’s Men Shop – THE place to go if you were looking for that collegiate, button-down look.
“Now there’s a lot of schlock stores here,” he said.
Dimatteo obviously loves the place. It’s like one big museum to him. But this isn’t some distant history he is showing off – it’s his, too.
We leave Jersey City through Lincoln Park, which includes a fountain that is the world’s largest single-mold, poured concrete structure, and a man-made pond shaped – sort of – like the state of New Jersey.
Dimatteo walks me to the Routes 1 and 9 bridge over the Hackensack, points out the remnants of the old Morris Canal (which I’ll be encountering several more times during my journey), then wisely decides to leave me.
The next couple of miles are hell, as huge tractor-trailers blow by me, spewing smoke and scattering dirt in my face. Below me, the rivers are as dreary as they always seem in the car; this is no place to linger.
Soon after arriving in the Ironbound, I meet up with my next guide – Michelle Garcia.
Unlike Dimatteo, she’s not an old-timer; she arrived only two years ago. If you didn’t like what she was doing, you’d say she was an outside agitator. But she brings just as much passion to Newark – or at least the Ironbound.
Garcia is an “environmental educator” for the Ironbound Community Corporation. Her job is to make residents more aware of local environmental problems and help them organize to deal with those problems.
And the Ironbound has more than its share.
It is home to a Superfund site, an incinerator, and a county park with contaminated soil, and must contend with an overall lack of open space and low-flying aircraft approaching Newark Airport.
It sounds like a basket case of a neighborhood. But get this – the place is thriving, fueled by successive waves of immigrants.
After the Italians came the Spanish. Then came the Portuguese. Then came the Brazilians. The more recent newcomers are from Guatemala and Ecuador.
And just because one group comes doesn’t mean the others all move out. So the Ironbound has this mix – a very crowded mix – of Latinos speaking Spanish and Portuguese. And the sidewalks of Ferry Street are packed with them, even on a hot Tuesday afternoon, as they patronize stores such as Portugalia Sales, Lisbon Wine & Liquors, La Herencia Equatoriana, and the Madragoa Barber Shop.
“This is the only part of Newark where I can walk around after hours and feel safe,” Garcia said.
Many of the newcomers are illiterate, making Garcia’s job especially challenging. Her main concern is to get them to stop fishing for – and then eating – blue-claw crabs out of the Passaic River, because they are contaminated.
But Garcia’s group also wants City Hall to preserve the riverfront as open space. And that’s not exactly the same agenda as that of Mayor Sharpe James, who has prided himself on Newark’s construction boom.
I leave Garcia at the western boundary of the Ironbound, follow the route through Pennsylvania Station, and emerge into a completely different Newark of sterile office buildings. This is what makes City Hall proud, and to some extent, it should.But as tired as my legs are, I want to turn around and go back a few blocks.
Corridor of beauty amid concrete
I was supposed to be writing my latest dispatch from the comfort of someone’s home in West Orange. But my editors, always a nervous bunch, were particularly frantic about deadlines Thursday.
So, miles short of my destination, I’m sitting on a bed of leaves, my computer perched on a fallen log, and swiping at mosquitoes while typing.
But I have to admit, it’s kind of fitting. I’m sitting here in the Eagle Rock Reservation in Verona, the ground speckled with sunshine that penetrates the canopy of leaves, no one in sight.
No person, that is. I can see a house through the trees, just outside the reservation. I can also hear suburbia – a car accelerating, a siren wailing – along with the sound of leaves rustled by the breeze.
To a large extent, this is what I’ve been experiencing over the last day and a half as I’ve made my way from Newark to West Orange. I’ve been walking through an insulated corridor of nature, surrounded on all sides by the New Jersey where we spend most of our time.
The Liberty-Water Gap Trail, a cross-state route proposed by a small group of hikers, follows the Lenape Trail in Essex County, which includes abandoned rail lines, aqueducts, and several parcels of undeveloped land.
So, as I hike through some of the most densely populated parts of the most densely populated state in the country, I’ve seen few people. Mostly, I’ve seen chipmunks, along with a couple of deer and a groundhog. But the subdivisions of Essex County are usually just a few steps away.
The most stunning juxtaposition came midmorning Wednesday, as I walked along a ridge in the Mills Reservation in Montclair.
I had a sweeping view of how far I had come. A clumpy carpet of treetops stretched to the double-humped Manhattan skyline and the Hudson River, where I had started my journey Tuesday. When I looked to the southeast, I saw downtown Newark, where I had been a day before.
The vista gave me an early sense of satisfaction on the third day of my 12-day journey. But it also gave me my first real sense that I’m walking through something more than a geographical entity; I’m also walking through a geological one.
The ridge was First Watchung Mountain, one of two parallel, ear-shaped ridges of igneous rock, born of the Earth’s molten core, that runs from Mahwah to Somerset County. My childhood home in Bridgewater was nestled in the valley between First and Second Watchung mountains, which made for great views but really tough bike-riding.
We don’t give much thought to geological formations in this part of New Jersey, because none of it is spectacular. But trust me, when you walk through it, geology starts to take on greater significance – I now know where the “mont” in Montclair comes from.
Up until that point, the terrain had been fairly flat. From downtown Newark, I made my way through Branch Brook Park, an elongated corridor of ponds, brooks, and meadows.
Then I walked through the streets of Belleville and Nutley – the Land of Aluminum (or Vinyl) Siding.
This is the first generation of the American Dream realized. The homes are modest and practical, and very few have garages.
It’s not particularly picturesque, but this is where the Lenape Trail starts to make use of abandoned corridors, giving me a glimpse of many back yards. Every other one seemed to have a vegetable garden.
One garden was so big it was practically a farm. It belongs to Ralph DelMisdro, a 77-year-old from Northern Italy who has lived in Nutley for nearly 50 years. The garden, protected by a white chain-link fence, takes up nearly his whole yard.
I ask DelMisdro what he’s growing, and he responds, “Everything you can name.”
Not taking that for an answer, I press the question. He rattles off the produce: carrots, cabbage, tomatoes, zucchini, spinach, broccoli, pumpkins. Not being a gardener myself, I express some surprise that he can grow pumpkins in Nutley.
“Oh, they come out like this,” he says, holding out his arms as if he were hugging his wife.
As I make my way to West Orange, I come across several memorials, some permanent, others makeshift. On a quiet street outside the Cedar Grove Community Pool, I notice one that includes a Mylar balloon, a can of vanilla Coke, a lighter, and dozens of votive candles spelling out the name, “Mike.” There is a date, too – July 8, 2002.
A 13-year-old boy rides up on his bike. He explains that Mike was just back from his first year in college, was riding on top of a car, and fell off, hitting his head on the pavement. The boy points out the bloodstains that haven’t yet faded.
“If you come here at night, there’s usually a lot of people here,” he said.
As I walk away, I look over my shoulder and notice tire skid marks where the accident took place. I also realize that I’m off the trail.
I find it again, easily enough, grateful to be away from the asphalt.
Cock-a-doodle-doozies: finding Beetles, roosters
Before I embarked on my 156-mile hike across New Jersey, I was prepared for a lot of unremarkable sights: houses and sidewalks, office buildings and warehouses, trees, and woodland creatures.
I didn’t expect to see a Beetle graveyard.
But there it was, as I made my way Thursday through the swampy woods of Troy Meadows in eastern Morris County.
About 200 feet from the nearest road, and a few feet off the trail, I spotted a rusted-out frame, its arched roof leaving no doubt as to its Volkswagen pedigree. A few feet farther, on the other side of the trail, I glimpse another, and then two more, including one upside down.
This being New Jersey, I’m not taken aback by the sight of an abandoned car in the woods, or even four cars in the woods. But all of the same type? And not just any type, but Beetles – a model with such lore and personality that one starred in a Disney movie.
Did the owner, or owners, think a junkyard in Kearny was too good for these machines? Did they think that Beetles, given their insect-like appearance and nomenclature, should be returned to nature? The Beetle graveyard was only one of several surprises I’ve encountered so far, after starting from Liberty State Park on Tuesday. I don’t think I would have found any of them had I not been on foot.
For example, there was the cock farm in Hanover Township.
I was about 12 miles into a 14-mile day, my feet plagued by blisters, as I walked down a driveway entrance to Bee Meadow Park. I couldn’t help but notice a chorus of crowing off to my right, behind a fence and a row of shrubs and trees.
I glimpsed about 200 rooster homes: some boxy cages, others circular, and others triangular, looking like rows of tents at a Boy Scout jamboree. Some roosters were strutting around, and all of them – judging by their constant vocalization – seemed to think the day was dawning, even though it was 5 p.m.
As tired as I was, I had to check this out. One neighbor, a generously tattooed young man, warned me not to go calling on the owner.
“He’s a nice guy, but he gets annoyed easily,” he said.
That’s OK, I thought. I’m a reporter – I annoy people.
Another neighbor, Buddy Weir, said he didn’t know much about the roosters, either. I asked him about the racket.
“I don’t even hear ’em,” Weir said.
“I think they’re awfully loud,” I replied.
“That’s because you don’t live here.”
I knocked on the door of the house adjoining the rooster yard, and an older, burly man in a white T-shirt answered. I introduced myself, told him what I’m doing (as improbable as it might be), and asked about the roosters.
His answers aren’t very convincing. He said the roosters – 100 to 150, he believes – belong to a tenant who lives upstairs in his small home. Bear in mind that the roosters occupy most of the property, about an acre of land.
“I guess they’re show roosters,” he said.
I asked for the tenant’s name; he said he didn’t know. When I expressed some skepticism, he started yelling at me, and slammed the door.
Another mystery unsolved.
Fortunately, on the journey that has taken me to Morristown and will continue to the Delaware Water Gap, I’ve met others who are only too glad to answer my questions. One was the deli owner who believes his prayers are as potent as his prosciutto.
I was passing through Nutley when I saw the foil-wrapped hams hanging in a window – the first food shop I had encountered in three hours. How could I resist? Clippings on the wall proclaim Lotito & Sons to be one of the best purveyors of sausage in the state. He offers 18 varieties: Irish, Greek, Cajun, you name it.
“It’s not a neighborhood store,” said John Lotito, the owner. “I’ve got people coming to me from Bricktown, from Sayreville.”
Lotito, who says he has been open for business every day for 28 years, loves talking about food, and is generous with free samples. But before long, he starts talking about his family, and that brings him to his wife, and that brings him to the ministry she runs.
Lotito was raised as a Catholic. But now he and wife just call themselves Christians, and they are the self-proclaimed pastors of the Because He Lives Ministries. And just as he believes that his food can cure people’s hunger, he believes his prayers can cure people of all manner of other ailments: cancer, lupus, inner ear infections, you name it.
Lotito even performs healing right there in the store if customers come in complaining about an illness. He tells me one story after another of people he has helped cure, because he helped them “receive Him.”
“It’s not mind over matter,” he said. “It’s faith over circumstances.”
As I stood there eating my pork cutlet and mozzarella sandwich, I uncharacteristically suppressed my skepticism. I think it was the food.
As I stood at the top of Schooley’s Mountain, surveying a scene that included a church steeple, verdant fields separated by rows of trees, and a falcon riding the thermal updrafts, I thought I had crossed over to the other side of New Jersey – the more countrified, more natural New Jersey.
A few hours later, I wasn’t so sure.
I was walking through a subdivision of large homes, each one almost identical to its neighbor, except that some had three-car garages instead of two. The streets, just like the hurricanes of yore, were named after women: Jackie Drive, Maude Lane, Nancy Terrace.
I was in Mount Olive Township, on the western fringe of Morris County, on my 156-mile journey from Jersey City to the Delaware Water Gap. But I could just as easily have been in Wayne or Alpine.
Suburbanization hasn’t yet overtaken the landscape – there are still farms and forests to be found out here. But I’m not sure that the scene from Schooley’s Mountain will be so charming for long.
After all, I also spotted a parked fleet of yellow school buses, presumably to serve the growing numbers of children living on streets such as Lois Court and Marjorie Drive. And a little while later, I approached Route 46, and found it just as dangerous to cross in Mount Olive as it is in South Hackensack.
The Liberty-Water Gap Trail, a proposed walking route across New Jersey, tends to avoid the subdivisions and shopping centers. But it’s still a work in progress, and at times, there is no choice but to walk on roads or sidewalks, and come to terms with the uneasy coexistence between old and new.
So I’ll be walking through a peaceful forest one minute, just me and the chipmunks, and suddenly I’ll find myself dumped out on a treeless road.
Al Kent, the man who dreamed up the idea of a cross-state trail, is trying to change that. In his part-time day job for Morris County, he oversees the Patriot’s Path, a Morris County trail that serves as a crucial link in the Liberty-Water Gap Trail.
Thirty years after the first section was dedicated, there are still several gaps in the Patriot’s Path, which means there are gaps in the Liberty-Water Gap Trail.
Kent, his bosses in Morris County government, and officials in the towns that host the Patriot’s Path, are trying to stitch the segments together. Sometimes they buy land outright. Sometimes they ask for easements to create a path on someone’s property. And in still other cases, they negotiate with developers who, in the words of New Jersey folk singer John Gorka, want to build houses in the fields.
That last method – negotiating with developers to get an easement – is the most common, Kent says, because it doesn’t cost the taxpayers anything and the developers, eager to have their projects approved, are usually willing to deal.
The irony is unmistakable: The more development that takes place, the closer Kent comes to achieving his vision of a hiking route through New Jersey.
How those trails are used is another story altogether.
Essex and Morris counties have been the site of blood feuds between hikers and bikers.
The hikers think the bikers disrupt the serenity of the trail when they come blasting through at 10 mph, clad in their colorful, garish outfits, churning up gravel in their wake.
The bikers think the hikers are selfish purists.
Parts of the Patriot’s Path are open to bikers; others are not.
As I walked the most popular part of the path Sunday morning, most of the people I encountered were on two wheels: a father and his young son, bravely trying to negotiate the turns and hills; a family of three, with the father towing his son in a trailer; some soloists; and some couples. As I stepped aside for one pair, they called out, one after the other, “Thanks for sharing the trail.”
I didn’t mind them a bit, especially since I’m an avid road biker. They were enjoying the scenery as much as I was, only faster. And that boy on his bike could have been me 30 years ago.
But I began to understand the hikers’ complaints when a dozen young men, riding in a pack, bore down on me from the opposite direction. I could hear them coming from far away, because they sounded like a fraternity on Saturday night. As I stepped to the side to let them pass, the last one cheerfully shouted, “I’m the last one!” And I thought, “Thank God.”
The trails also generate some tension between hikers and hunters.
The Liberty-Water Gap Trail, following the Patriot’s Path, passes through the Black River Wildlife Management Area – a dark, swampy expanse in Chester Township that includes some abandoned iron mines. Kent wanted to post a warning for hikers that people with guns tend to roam the area. But officials at the state Division of Fish and Wildlife objected.
“They didn’t want to suggest there was any risk at all walking through hunting grounds,” he said. “There was a lot of back and forth.”
It was resolved with this wording: “This is a multi-use area shared by hunters, anglers, hikers, and others enjoying the outdoors. Please be considerate of other users.”
In other words, a message so inoffensive that it doesn’t protect anybody.
In crowded N.J., sounds of solitude
A word of advice for anyone thinking of walking the Liberty-Water Gap Trail across New Jersey: Bring some company. Unless, of course, you like being alone.
As I spend my days walking from Jersey City to the Delaware Water Gap, I’m amazed by how few people I encounter on the trail, even though I’m in the most densely populated state in the country.
Of course, I’ve met people along the way: storekeepers, homeowners, and, the ones I’m most grateful to see, hotelkeepers or park rangers.
I also have a two-man support team that has brought me food, occasionally escorted me through areas where the trail is unmarked, and, over the last few days, ferried my bag from each day’s destination to the next. A Record photographer accompanied me for part of the first day, but we parted company after that.
But I don’t see other people walking, even though the route takes advantage of previously established paths, and some of them are very level and well-maintained.
Over the last two days, as I’ve walked from Andover to Swartswood Lake, I’ve come across a total of three other people on the trail – and one of them doesn’t count, because technically, I wasn’t on the trail. I’ll explain that later.
I’m no social butterfly, and have been known to cherish time to myself – just ask my resentful fiancée. But it gets awfully lonely out here, listening to nothing but the sound of my own footsteps.
I’ve taken to using a walking stick, not because I really need one, but just to add a little more rhythm to the “foof, foof, foof” of my boots scraping the cinders. I also occasionally lapse into song, including “Wichita Lineman” (at the time, I happened to be walking along power lines in Essex County), and “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” (it seemed to work so well for Bill Murray in “Stripes.”)
Which brings me to another piece of advice: If you think you might resort to singing while walking across the state, bone up on the lyrics before you set out.
My loneliness has been accentuated because many of the trails that make up the Liberty-Water Gap Trail were once rail lines, meaning they are straight and flat. So I can see as far as a mile ahead of me. And rarely do people come into that view.
In a truly beautiful, inspiring locale, such as the Adirondacks or Sierra Nevada mountains, I could appreciate that solitude. But this is New Jersey – being this alone, even in the western part of the state, just doesn’t feel right.
Even my few encounters with fellow trail users have been frustrating.
As I walked on a rail trail through the Black River Wildlife Management Area on Sunday, I spotted two runners – at least they looked like runners – off in the distance. They seemed to be resting, so I picked up my pace to catch them.
But then they turned around and began running away from me. Watching them disappear – it lasted a good long while, thanks to the unobstructed sight line – was torture, like a mirage in the desert.
It wasn’t until an hour later, just as I was nearing the end of that trail, that I came across another hiker. I eagerly stopped him.
He was a Duke University student whose family had recently moved to the area, and he was doing a “ruck march”: Hauling 50 pounds in a rucksack for eight miles – a weekly part of his regimen for keeping in shape for ROTC.
He was very polite, though he didn’t want to give his name (“I’m one of many in the Army,” he said), and when I asked how he liked the trail, he said, “With all due respect, it’s nice to get away from people and just go for a walk.”
I took the hint. I closed my notebook, wished him luck, and continued walking.
Being alone also makes it easier to get lost, and makes the experience of getting lost all the more frightening. I learned that Tuesday, in Allamuchy Mountain State Park.
I won’t bore you with the details of how it happened – bottom line, I took the wrong trail through the undeveloped, rugged terrain. By the time I realized I was on the wrong trail, I was already up on the mountain, and I wasn’t about to go down. So I continued on the trail I was using, figuring it would hook up with the one I needed, assuming it continued heading east.
But it didn’t, at least according to my compass. It kept curving on me, taking me away from my intended direction. A stocky mountain biker came up behind me, and tried to give me directions. Have you ever tried to give someone directions in the forest? (“Turn left at the big mossy rock, then right at the second acorn. You can’t miss it.”) So I went even deeper into the woods, and became increasingly frustrated. I eventually gave up on the trail, put on a pair of long pants, and began bushwhacking in an easterly direction: Sliding down ridges, clomping through muck, climbing up ridges.
Yet another piece of advice to readers: Don’t follow my example.
After 15 minutes of fighting my way through the forest, I saw no sign that the forest was ending. “How big could this park be?” I asked myself, out loud. (Yes, I sometimes talk to myself, too.) “This isn’t Yellowstone, after all.”
I strained to hear sounds of civilization, and thought I did, and then thought it was just the wind, or an airplane – which is civilization, but in this case the completely useless kind.
I started to wonder if I was reading my compass backwards. Is north really south? Was I heading in the completely wrong direction? Just as I began to have visions of full-scale, tree-to-tree searches by state troopers equipped with night vision goggles, I heard a car horn. And it sounded like a symphony.
I followed it, pushing branches away like a maniac, and in just 100 yards, I came to the rear of someone’s back yard. I found a street sign, looked at my map, and realized that I was just a few steps from the Sussex Branch Trail – the path I had been aiming for all along.
The state-owned trail ran alongside Route 206, a busy, two-lane road that heads into New Jersey’s north country. Although a line of trees muffled the sounds of vehicles whizzing by, I knew the highway was there.
And I didn’t mind it one bit.
A day of bears, berms, and boyhood memories
JOURNEY ENDS WITH A SENTIMENTAL DETOUR
In the late 19th century, affluent tourists descended on the Delaware Water Gap to escape the stifling summer heat of New York and Philadelphia.
I don’t know what they were thinking.
As I completed my walking tour of the state, which began July 9 in Liberty State Park and ended Friday afternoon at the Delaware Water Gap, I was drenched in sweat – a fairly permanent condition during my 11 days of walking.
I had started out Friday morning from Camp Ralph S. Mason, my old summer camp in Hardwick Township, where I had spent the last 12 hours reminiscing like someone twice my age. I took a shortcut through the woods to a quiet road, then began a serious climb up Kittatinny Mountain on the Appalachian Trail.
An hour into the walk, I was ready for it to end. The Appalachian Trail, or AT, is no easy ramble, at least in the two or three miles that I walked. It’s mostly rocks, many with jagged edges, just waiting for a clumsy hiker – like me – to sprain an ankle.
The AT isn’t part of the Liberty-Water Gap Trail, a proposed walking route across New Jersey; Camp Mason isn’t part of it, either. The route ends abruptly in Blairstown, and the small band of people who are promoting the cross-state trail haven’t yet decided how to get hikers from there to the Delaware Water Gap.
So I improvised. Knowing I would be in the vicinity of Camp Mason, I arranged to go there Thursday – not only did I need a place to sleep, but I wanted to see the old place again. I spent five summers there in the late 1970s, usually for a month at a time, and it was both an escape from boring suburban summers and a prison/boot camp.
The camp still plays a recording of reveille over the loudspeakers each morning, although now it’s at 7:40 a.m., not 7 a.m. (prompting me to think, like an old fogey, “When I was your age…. “) The dining hall is the same, complete with the wood-engraved signs above the serving windows, “Each for all” and “All for each.”
But the old cabins have been torn down, replaced this year by “duplex cabin/lodges,” complete with skylights, porches, and in-cabin bathrooms. When I was there, we had a communal bathroom – we called it “the latrine,” just like they do in the army – shared by about 80 boys, complete with trough-like sinks and outdoor showers. Now, only the latrine’s foundation remains, with a single, curved pipe protruding upward like a submarine’s periscope.
The camp has added other amenities, such as a climbing wall, a skateboard park, and kayaks. It also has bears.
Back in the 1970s, bears were something you might see on a family trip to the western states. But New Jersey’s bear population has rebounded, and the garbage bins in back of the dining hall are now enclosed by a tall chain-link fence – which doesn’t stop the bears looking around for stray scraps of food.
I didn’t spot any bears in the camp itself. But I didn’t need to – I had an encounter with one earlier that day.
I was walking near the Sussex County town of Stillwater, along the Paulinskill Valley Trail, one of many smaller paths incorporated into the Liberty-Water Gap Trail. The Paulinskill, being a converted rail line, is built on a berm, elevated five to 10 feet above the ground on either side.
I happened to be looking off to the side when I noticed a mass of black fur rooting around in the swamp cabbage below. Thanks to my perch, and the bear’s seemingly determined search for food, it was oblivious to me though I was just about 50 feet away.
During the minute I stood quietly watching, the bear would pick up its head, look around, sniff the air, then go back to rummaging. I continued on, the bear none the wiser.
I know this isn’t a big deal in Warren or Sussex counties; people there aren’t surprised to see bears in their driveways and back yards. But for a person like me, living in the northeast part of the state, this is about as exotic as it gets.
At that moment, I realized how far I had come.
A week before, on the crowded sidewalks of Jersey City, I passed Muslim women wearing traditional head scarves known as hijabs. To me, living in a multicultural, metropolitan area, there was nothing remarkable about their dress. But to some of the folks in Warren or Sussex counties, a hijab is probably more exotic than a bear.
In my walk from the Hudson to the Delaware rivers, I had crossed from one extreme of New Jersey to another. In a car, it would take less than 90 minutes. On foot, following a very crooked route, it took 11 days.
But because I was on foot, going slowly, often through places accessible only to pedestrians (or, in some cases, bicyclists as well), I saw, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt things that I never would have experienced in a car, such as: three snakes; the sweetness of berries picked from the bush; squatters living in tents alongside a river (they made me promise not to reveal their whereabouts); the brick remains of a 19th century limestone processing factory, now overtaken by woods; a slight breeze on a 90-degree day; a picnic for homeless people in a Jersey City park; beautiful views from three different ridgelines: the New York skyline, then the country village of Long Valley in Morris County, and finally, on the last day, the tree-covered hills of Warren County.
As I headed home to Hoboken on Friday afternoon, first in a car and then on a train, the passing scenery was all a blur. I tried to focus on individual landmarks, but couldn’t.
I’m sure I’ll quickly become reaccustomed to life at 60 mph; my feet, certainly, will adapt quite easily. But I now realize what I’m missing.
A New Jersey journey
Cross-state trek offers new perspectives
A reprint of an editorial originally published in The Record (Hackensack, NJ)
Friday, July 26, 2002
IN THE GRAND scheme of things, 156 miles doesn’t amount to much: about two and a half hours traveling at highway speeds, and little more than a brief leg for migrating birds on their seasonal journeys north or south.
But in northern New Jersey, as Record Staff Writer Brian Kladko found out recently, it’s a distance that embraces a universe with stark contrasts at its extremes and with subtly engaging differences in between.
Mr. Kladko recently finished an 11-day assignment of walking across the northern part of the state from Jersey City to the Delaware Water Gap. He followed a circuitous route called the Liberty-Water Gap Trail. Designed by Al Kent, a former Westwood resident and fuel-oil executive, the trail took him through Hudson, Essex, Morris, Sussex, and Warren counties – from the most densely populated urban area to some of the state’s most sparsely settled rural sections.
As it turned out, the experience became far more comprehensive than the assignment, which was intended to give him a close look at the many worlds of New Jersey between the Hudson and Delaware rivers. Mr. Kladko expected a slow immersion into the people and places of the region, a sensory feast that he forgoes whenever he travels through northern New Jersey at 60 mph. He wound up taking a journey that was intellectual and philosophical as well as physical and cultural.
Along the way, Mr. Kladko encountered a community activist in Newark’s Ironbound section, a Nutley homeowner with an abundant garden, a faith healer/Italian delicatessen owner, and a somewhat reclusive hiker. He also experienced a sometimes disturbing solitude uncharacteristic for the most densely populated state in the nation. Lost briefly in the woods of Allamuchy Mountain State Park, he was actually happy to find a highway.
A stop along the ridge of Mills Reservation in Montclair thrust him into a more expansive mode, ruminating on the state’s geology. Another hilltop meditation, this one from Schooley’s Mountain in Morris County, provoked less dramatic contemplations on western New Jersey’s uncertain future as a pastoral haven.
An encounter (comfortably benign) with a bear in Sussex County caused Mr. Kladko to realize how far he had come in his walk. At the beginning in Jersey City, he noticed Muslim women wearing traditional head scarves called hijabs. That sight would have been as exotic in Sussex as a bear would have been in Hudson County.
He got to thinking about everything in the state that exists between those extremes. He understood fully what he misses whenever he passes through the same territory at highway speeds.
We may not be able to take the same 156-mile walk on the Liberty-Water Gap Trail followed by Mr. Kladko. But we would do well to explore the other worlds that he discovered (and in some cases rediscovered) on his brief journey.