Saturday, February 2, 2013

Millbrook Village and the Last Exit in New Jersey

My unexpected journey into the Internet over the last two years have brought me to many incredible places. Some in my own state of New Jersey.
I met Mark and Walter through the most unassuming of circumstances. They were working on a project and were curious if I was available to provide some input. Having a softspot for any creative online work (especially so, due to their Jersey roots) I, of course, obliged and wanted to help where I could. Offering off-hand pointers and ideas over a few months, Mark and I became friends and we had eventually decided that we wanted to hang out. It was mostly for their production, at first, but it was also because we had become friends who had yet to actually meet. You know, the hazards of Internet friendships. Their former stomping grounds were beloved vacation areas of my family from years past. So the plans involving our meeting already had promising ends.
They hailed from an area of New Jersey that was literally right across the river from Pennsylvania, namely, my cherished Pocono Mountains. I had spent countless winter weekends and even a few summer excursions on those ranges, from sledding hills and snow-kept resorts to water parks and summer lodges. I loved visiting those mountains and we were even fortunate enough to include it in one of our EMH videos, under the guise of the nearby Pennsylvanian town, Jim Thorpe. The location had actually belonged to to a rental property of Vinny’s family, but we used it due to the in-game implications of the town.
Regardless, the plan was to meet for lunch, roam the area, and talk about their production and just generally hang out. We did just that. We got cheesesteaks just over the river (steak sandwiches for those of you not in the tri-state area) and I enjoyed the small restaurant we found. I would eventually learn that this was a frequented establishment of the guys, but at the time, I thought it was a chance stop. It was actually one of their favorites. We also checked out the Buck Hill Falls Inn, which was featured on MTV’s Fear. It was a beautiful property, but incredibly patrolled so we did not stop for long. Its history speaks for itself, if you were interested enough to read more on its Wikipedia page. I would love to one day wander its halls without hindrance, but that is, as of yet, but a dream.
It was early in the day and overcast. There was the occasional light rain, but we continued our touring of the area, ignoring it. If nothing else, it only added to my whimsical feelings of the mountains. We passed a stretch of old motels which looked like they had not been used since the seventies, at least. It was a scene stripped from the Chernobyl incident, complete with rusted walls, chipping paint, and mildly outdated architecture. They kept talking about “showing me Millbrook,” but I had no idea what to expect. I thought it may have been an old school or something, but as we approached the old properties, my excitement peaked. We parked near a designated state-park sign and got out in the rain. I saw a few old houses and historical farm buildings scattered in every direction. As we walked a bit, my mind exploded with a thousand connecting dots in my personal history.
Being a long time fan of Weird NJ, I have read about countless things that I had always wanted to see. Many of these legends were taught to me when I was very young, long before I was old enough to drive a car. So anything beyond the realm of an hour away from Trenton was purely fiction to my young mind. Of the “must-see” places I listed in my youth (Lambertville High School and the Paulinskill Viaduct having been on it), there was always one that I was not quite sure of its exact location. I read once about a decent amount of land that the state had purchased from its private owners, in order to flood it heavily via the dam / river system and incorporate it into the Delaware Water Gap. I had heard of these plans over ten years ago, so any inkling of these buildings standing was lost in my maturity. I assumed that this was another historical village already lost to time. When I read the article, the property was already bought and the houses already sat vacant, already a ghost town.
But when we took a few steps into Millbrook Village, I realized why the place sounded so familiar. We were here: the last exit in New Jersey. I had always assumed, irrationally, that it was in the south. I thought it was much further than the two and a half hours away from central that I found myself. But I was there, almost ten years after I had first heard about it. I suppose governmental bureaucracy is to blame (or would thank be more suiting?) considering that this land should have been a few feet under water by now. I would later learn that there is a conservation effort in full swing and any such plans to develop the acres for the waterways are now pretty much dead. This little strip of houses and old buildings now remind me of as much of a relic as Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, complete with informative boards and plaques and the occasional tourist event hosted by a ranger or volunteer.
We kept walking and although this was now a beautiful little piece of park property, it was still a bit spooky. It was, very obviously, formerly a place where people lived their daily lives. All of the houses were still adequately maintained and locked up, leaving us feeling a few decades in the past. Some of the older farm structures, the ones obviously maintained as the historical buildings, seemed out of place in our time, but right at home, tucked away in these mountain forests.
We continued on and I noticed that there was a small creek running alongside the trail that the houses were loosely settled on. As we followed it, the park line stopped and was roped off by a “dangerous area” sign and, if remember correctly, FEMA insignias. Naturally, we stepped over the fallen plastic barrier and continued on. The grass became incredibly rocky, to the point that we were merely walking on what resembled earthquake debris and pebbles. The little creek to our left was now bleeding onto these rocks and I hypothesized that this was the bit of the flooding project the government-hired companies managed to start work on before the project was cancelled. There was one more building at the end of this bizarre scene and it certainly was not as maintained as the other buildings closer to the road.
We half-heartedly looked for ways in, but it was probably for the better that we could not find an entrance. It was a farmhouse with what appeared to be a cleared out second story. We discovered this by (haphazardly using a long stick I found) swaying open one of the blown-off doors on the outside of the second story. Although the top floor may have been empty, the interior of the first floor was filled to the brim with wood and rusted machinery. Like I said, it was all just very... bizarre.
The rain had begun picking up so we decided to go back to the car. The guys showed me one other park that had a picturesque hillside picnic area overlooking a lake and upon hitting the road again, Mark told me about this old abandoned house that he had filmed a short project in a few years ago. He really talked this place up and I pictured a red barn, but in the mountains, and its accompanying farmhouse. Upon reaching the site, Mark was astonished (and disappointed) to see that the lot was completely razed. There were police markings and tapes all over the foundation and I could still see a half-standing chimney. It was disheartening to see, even as someone who never had the opportunity to see the horrifying place in its glory days. Well, that was that and we drove further into my beloved Pocono Mountains.
Since it we knew it would be getting late, we had plans at a local bed and breakfast for a multi-roomed suite. Apparently, since it was a relatively dead time in the season, it was a bargain. Once we got there, we found this beautiful Victorian house on a large piece of land. The owners house was tucked away in the back and Mark knew, via phone calls, that they would be home, and we should just go into the B&B. Our keys were on the counter along with a note (this is how deserted the place was) and we pretty much wandered unfettered. It was packed with porcelain dolls and stuffed animals and beautiful furniture. There was a wraparound closed-in porch, dotted with breakfast tables for their morning guests. In the living room there was a pretty well stocked bar (with a warning to overzealous guests that we were on camera) and family photo albums and beautiful chess sets. There was also a large, ornate fireplace that I would have loved to have seen in action, but a family of gigantic (seriously, people sized) teddy bears were in the way to entertain such a notion. Not to mention the lack of burnable fuel and whatnot.
We made our way up the stairs and found our rooms easily. There was an entire third story of rooms, as well, and we ended up (being alone in the house and thus, invoking the natural law of “no parents / no rules”) exploring every one. If I recall correctly, the third story’s honeymoon-esque suite was a tad unsettling due to how cold it was. We promptly shut that door and returned to the comfortable and warmly-lit second story. The house was so inviting and we were so starved from society that we hung out with our door open for almost entirely the whole night.
Many stories were exchanged and we again talked about their pending production (which has, unfortunately, been cancelled since due to unavoidable circumstances). Since they were smokers, we took many trips downstairs to the porch so they could fuel their habit. However, concurrently, we had some incredible conversations staring off into the dark woods, accompanied by the owners’ multiple cats. As the night wore on, I finally saw Evil Dead (and have since saw the second one) for the first time. We also may or may not have raided the open refrigerator we found upon exploring “portions bearing dissuasive barriers” of the house. But I would know nothing of the incident.
There was also one more bit of the story that I had failed to recall during my first write-up of this trip, so Mark himself wrote this little blurb for me: 
An absolutely epic 24 hour span, and in hindsight, we nearly became part of Weird NJ legend my friend. 
When we parked at the, *sigh*, razed house up near Millbrook Village, a black pickup truck passed by along the road heading in the opposite direction we had been traveling in.  We assumed at the time that either they were lost or thought we were an unmarked police car sitting off in the woods, because they slowed down.  We pulled out behind them, and they came to a stop entirely.  I remember Jeff or Walter joking that they were axe murderers as we passed them and noticed the vehicle had tinted windows and you couldn't see inside (which again, someone joked about).  We pulled into a 'rest area' / visitor's center of sorts and realized we were alone, but the truck pulled in behind us.  We had just got out of my vehicle and again joked about the truck being shady at best.  It sped around the parking lot and then raced out. 
We went on with our day and night and didn't think anything of it afterwards.  The next day, we found out that for the first time in nearly 30 years, someone had been murdered in the area, and it happened to be on the very road we saw the suspicious vehicle.  At the time, little information was known other than there were two individuals who committed the crime.  The victim had been stabbed over 20 times and it happened only a few miles up the road from where we were a mere couple of hours later.  The vehicle had evidence of the murder inside it and was some kind of truck similar to the one we saw.  I remember Jeff saying, "Shit like that doesn't happen there" in reference to the incident, and I had to say to him, "Well, turns out it does".  In the end it was more of a domestic incident where the suspects knew the victim, but for a few weeks, we joked about it as the cap to a unique first time meeting that would lead to many more adventures.  Awesome trip!
Furthermore, the next morning, they showed me the far side the Viaduct. The Paulinskill Viaduct, which I so frequently write about, actually extends for miles in either direction. We found the portion that actually extends into Pennsylvania. Who knew?
Another charming example of how my life is a series of unintended reactions to various explosions of activities and interactions that I could never have foretold experiencing. 

Below, I am trying something new. Instead of linking to an imgur album, I have hosted them natively here: