Legend Tripping – The Pine Barrens

Legend tripping (more like researching) in the Pine Barrens has been one of my favorite road trips with Mel Cabre. We set out the last weekend of June in 2018 to gather details about setting for a YA novel I was beginning to work on. I had no idea what a leg up it would give me in writing A Guide to Sky Monsters. I wasn’t exactly researching the JD–that had been easy enough to do from books–but it was kind of fun to run around in the cryptids stomping grounds.

T. S. Mart and Mel Cabre Legend Tripping in the Pine Barrens
T. S. and Mel Cabre. Lunch in the Pine Barrens.

We left Ohio and drove through the hills of Pennsylvania right into the busy streets of Philadelphia…at rush hour. As we inched our way through the city and across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge into Camden, NJ, I learned about the intensity of east coast drivers. A little patience goes a long way, friends <grin>. In all, it took us about ten hours to get from our home in Ohio to our motel in Hammonton.

Harsh Realities in Hammonton

The next morning at breakfast, I met an eighteen-year-old young woman who’d spent the night at the motel with her toddler-aged sister. The younger girl was all sass and vinegar–a real handful. Until big Sis placed the Belgian waffle loaded with syrup on the table. I struck up a conversation and learned the two were on their way to Children’s Services later that morning. Big sis had taken the girl out of their mother’s home the night before. “For the last time,” she said. Unable to eat, she was concerned whether or not she’d get custody of her sister, and what would happen next. Mel and I listened and offered encouragement. What I really wanted was to bring them both home and help them feel safe.

I asked Big Sis what teens around Hammonton enjoyed doing. She stated she was a bad one to ask. She had worked and cared for her baby sister and her mother. There had been no time for teenage fun, but she said her friends often went to Ocean City and hung out there because “they have a better boardwalk than Atlantic City.” We talked about a few other things, and I eventually asked if folks around the area talked much about the Jersey Devil. She said not so much in her circles, but she remembered her grandma telling stories about how the Jersey Devil lived in the forest and would get them if they didn’t behave.

Blueberries, Batsto Village, and Wharton State Forest

Our first morning out “legend tripping” in the Pine Barrens, we bought a quart of fresh blueberries and traveled to Historic Batsto Village.

Eighty percent of NJ’s blueberries come from farms in or around Hammonton. Because of the fine, sandy and acidic soils, blueberries (and cranberries) thrive in this region.

Founded by Ironmaster, Charles Reed, in 1766, this famous historic site was one of the first known bog iron furnaces in America.

Batsto Mansion at Batsto Village
Picture taken by author. Batsto Mansion

During the Revolutionary War, the Batsto Ironworks supplied the Continental Army with a variety munitions. At one time, there were 17 bog iron furnaces operating in the Pine Barrens. By the mid 1800’s, the bog iron was nearly depleted, and a better grade of iron had been discovered in Pennsylvania. Many furnaces and their surrounding villages disappeared, becoming ghost towns, whispering memories of their thriving pasts. You can read about them in Barbara Solem-Stull’s book Ghost Towns and Other Quirky Places in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

In the late 19th century, the Batsto mansion was bought and restored by Joseph Wharton, a wealthy Philadelphia businessman who had founded the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He had bought several tracks of land in the Pine Barrens, for what, no one is quite certain, but he was on a mission to find a suitable water supplier for Philadelphia. New Jersey thwarted that plan. You can read more about that fascinating drama here. The 97,000 acres he had acquired was eventually sold in the 1950s and makes up what is known as Wharton State Forest. Batsto Village lies along the southern border of this forest and lends itself as a starting point for several hiking trails into the Jersey Devil’s Homeland.

Wharton State Forest

As a youngin’, I was quick and spry, played barnyard basketball, jumped out of hay mows and off barn roofs, swam in snake infested ponds, etc., etc. But I’ve lost some of that get up and go, which is why I didn’t venture deep into the forest on my legend tripping in the Pine Barrens. The collage below shows us on the simpler, one-mile loop. We still got lost. (Hey, I’m no Aleksander Petakov). For the more adventurous, there is a 50 mile trail that leads through the forest. And for those interested in hunting for the Jersey Devil, or whatever comes out in the forest at night, just search online for “Jersey Devil Hunts.”

Check out the foliage and trees. This is how you can tell the Jersey Devil movie The Barrens was filmed somewhere else–like the pacific northwest. These trees are not huge or dense. I was looking for Jersey Devil hideouts and what it would be like to see a flying, kangaroo-like creature clinging to the top of one of the pines or oaks. Hmmm….

Sandy Roads, Graveyards, and a Hot Dog

From Wharton State Park, the GPS showed a straight shot thought the Pine Barrens right into the town of Chatsworth and to the front door of Hot Diggity Dog. Seriously, is there anything better than a good hot dog at the end of a long and arduous hike? Not even the sandy roads of the Pine Barrens could get in my way. I’d heard about this place. Not really a restaurant but more of a road-side food stand serving Chicago style hotdogs with all kinds of great toppings. Talk about legend tripping in the Pine Barrens.

We started out on a paved road, but about a quarter-mile in, we dropped to a fine white sand. If you’ve ever driven on the dry sands of a beach, you know what it feels like. There is no road noise and the car shifts on the softer surface. The next best thing to a 4×4 is a very lightweight car.

Trees closed in on both sides as the road narrowed to one lane. I wasn’t too concerned, the sand wasn’t overly soft, and there were well-defined tire tracks. But the GPS stopped working. That straight blue line was not a straight shot to the Hot Diggity Dog. It was the GPS’s way of telling us we had “no signal.” We were lost.

Sandy road in the Pine Barrens
Pine Barrens in the fall. Photo by Andrew Kazmierski. Used with permission under shutter stock standard license.
Always Carry A Paper Map When Legend Tripping

We stopped at a turn around just past the road sign nailed to a tree. This turn around was an island of trees and weeds in a widened portion of the road. I pulled out the paper map and checked out the surrounding area. Was this where people met the JD? Lost and confused on an abandoned road?

According to the map, we weren’t far from Chatsworth. Probably a quarter mile or less. We hopped back in the car, braved a puddle that could have been quicksand (another JD trap? Probably not, but the imagination goes crazy at times like these). From there it was easy-going. Our reward: the best hot dog ever!

On our way back to the motel, we stopped at an old church and graveyard. I needed common surnames to use in my book and graveyards were the perfect place to find them.

What is it About Graveyards?

What is is about graveyards? Creepy and fascinating. Intriguing. All the lives of people who lived in the area, attended the church, built the community. Pretty sure there was someone from each of the major wars buried in that ground.

We ate dinner at a local Italian restaurant and had a nice conversation with our teenage waitress. She didn’t have much to say about the Jersey Devil, but she confirmed Ocean City was a favorite teen hang out. They also spent time sitting around bonfires and playing video games. We finished the evening at the local ice cream stand and questioned more teens who confirmed the same.

The Pine Barrens

The next morning, Mel and I looped around the Pine Barrens, stopping at various shops and stores along the way, interacting with folks, getting a feel for the deeply patriotic land. Besides capitalizing on the commercial side of the Jersey Devil, the locals didn’t have much to say about America’s original cryptid. They confirmed the stories, the legends, and that some people claimed to have seen “something” that scared them half to death, but we didn’t meet anyone who had their own unusual encounter.

Had we gone deeper into the Pine Barrens, talked to older folks who’d spent their lives in the woods, I believe we would have learned more about the unusual happenings in the area. But that wasn’t the information I had been looking for on this trip. But when I started writing A Guide to Sky Monsters, I did seek out some old-timers, their stories, and their truth. And what I learned has turned the Jersey Devil into one of my favorite cryptids.

Historically speaking, the Pine Barrens are a remarkable place, and it was in Burlington County that we see the rise of the Jersey Devil. Our book, available May 4, 2021, lays out three theories, detailing how and why the Jersey Devil originated. Also included are several hand drawn illustrations of the Jersey Devil and other flying cryptids. You can read more about the book here. If you’d like to preorder your copy, you can find it by clicking on the picture below.

A Guide to Sky Monsters by T. S. Mart and Mel Cabre
Have you ever been to the Pine Barrens? What did you do while you were there?

If you liked this post, then you might like our most popular blog post: Legend Tripping – Cedar Bog Monster.

If you’re a fan of the Jersey Devil, then you might like this coloring page we put out last week. Possibly a little scary for younger artists, though. Keep your eye out for next week’s blog that will profile the Jersey Devil with a collection of images by Mel Cabre.

Thank you for reading Legend Tripping in the Pine Barrens, and remember: “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.” –All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr