New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the United States. Thanks to its small size and proximity to both New York City and Philadelphia, New Jersey contains 1,189 people per square mile, barely enough room for Snooki to do a fist pump without smacking somebody in the mouth.
So how is it that New Jersey also contains over one million miles of pristine and largely uninhabited pine forests that sit over top of a 17-trillion gallon acquifer containing some of the purest water on the plant? And, oh yes; this region also boasts a devil.Welcome to the oddity that is the New Jersey Pinelands. The Pinelands – also known as the Pine Barrens – consists of about 1.1 million acres located in all or parts of seven counties in the central/southern part of the state. It is a wild, uninhabited region, where dirt roads cut off the main highway and meander for miles through thick pine forests until just stopping, with no particular destination in sight. It is a place where much of the surface water is tinged with red, because it’s full of runoff from cedar trees. It’s an area in which one can travel for miles at night without seeing another soul, and turning off the main highway means plunging into an inky blackness that quickly becomes disorienting. It’s also an area in which the cries and screams of wildlife sound like they’re standing right next to you. Before long, it is entirely possible to imagine that a mysterious creature with leathery bat wings, a horse’s head, a kangaroo’s body, cloven hoofs, and a forked tail is sneaking up on you in the woods just to your right.
When the first settlers in New Jersey encountered this area, they saw its sandy soil that doesn’t hold water and promptly labeled the region “barren” because nothing would grow there except pine trees and sticker bushes. In the 18th and 19th centuries, making iron ore – popularly called bog iron - out of material found in the pine bogs became one of America’s first industries, and suddenly the area was the unlikely industrial heartland of the United States.
That was short-lived, however, and for a long time the pine barrens was full of abandoned towns and factories of people who once lived there and worked in the industry. Silent and ghostly, the towns loomed out of the trees like phantoms and eventually reclaimed by the relentless forest. Today, only an occasional brick foundation stumbled over deep in the woods marks the spot where civilization once stood. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, it was thought the pinelands were populated by toothless hillbillies that did nothing all day but drink moonshine and have children.
Some alarmed residents of the state feared an invasion of the uneducated and unwashed. Plans were discussed to put a fence around the pinelands to keep “them” away from “us.” Then came the environmental movement of the 1970s, and suddenly “Piney Power” was celebrated as pinelands’ inhabitants considered Nature savants for their back-to-the-land lifestyle. Today the Pinelands is the country’s first National Reserve, an environmental-safe zone where development is strictly controlled.
The Pinelands are raw and wild, the forest primeval happily free of the “every block a Wal-Mart” syndrome that seems to have overtaken the rest of America. The Pinelands can certainly be visited, its rivers canoed down, and its beauty appreciated – if you can avoid the Jersey Devil.
The Jersey Devil is the 13th son of Mother Leeds. When after 12 kids she learned she was pregnant, Mother Leeds said in exasperation “Let this child be a devil.” She got her wish, and after being born the creature smacked around everyone in the cabin before flying up the chimney and escaping. Since then the Jersey Devil has terrorized the tri-state region, killing and eating livestock, scaring residents, campers, and wrecking general havoc. Everyone from Stephen Decatur to Joseph Bonaparte (Napoleon’s older brother) has seen him. In 1909, the devil went on a traveling spree in which he was seen up and down the state, and ever since then every strange set of footprints brings new cries of Jersey Devil sightings.Does the Jersey Devil exist? At night, in the pitch-black forest, with a thousand insect and animal eyes all around you, the eerie sound of the wind humming through pine needles, and the hairs on the back of your neck slowly beginning to rise, it sure seems possible.