PINE BARON: Hiking To The Heart Of Darkness


[Illustration by Alyssa Grenning]

CITY PAPER: 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.” […] I 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. MORE

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