Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Shades of Death, the Old Mine, and the Men Who Scream at Cars

Just recently, I spent a few days with my good friends Mark and Brian. Although we spent a day at the Central / South Jersey landmark that is Six Flags Great Adventure, we spent most of our time in their neck of the woods, in the north.

Mark hails from Blairstown, a little drive-through town with a few pockets of history. For the horror fans out there, it was a prominent filming location for the opening of the first Friday the 13th movie (apparently, the not-too-distant Stokes State Forest is also a shooting location, notably their cabins). Brian is not too far away and just across the river in Pennsylvania. Minutes off of their main roads and bars of cellular signal strength dying away are always clear indications of just how “middle of nowhere” we are whenever I visit.

Regardless, we spent a tiring day in the summer sun at the theme park (and had a great time in the process) and began the long drive back to Brian’s. The plan was to, initially, hit up a well-known Weird NJ hotspot named “Shades of Death Road” and take the iconic drive on the way home (similar to a previous trip to Clinton Road). However, it would have involved an extra hour out of the way and Brian had work in the early am so we decided just to hold off.

The next day, minus a Brian, we head out and just drive for a while. It had been raining all morning and the atmosphere was perfect for this brand of exploration. The gray-white palette of the sky left the wet ground painted very boldly, leaving all of the greens, blacks, and browns very prominent. I used my phone’s GPS to guide us to Shades of Death and talked to Mark about my memory’s discrepancy regarding the location. I think I had, at one point, accidentally driven through it during the day and not realized that it was a location that I had read about a dozen times before. One trip to the Viaduct resulted in me wandering and passing the nearby Jenny Jump State Forest and recalling its history which resulted in me realizing what road I must have been traversing. No bother, this trip was a thousand times more atmospheric due to the very overcast nature of the weather (the previous drive was very sunny).

We had our conversation and a handful of stories for the drive and, although beautiful, the road was not terribly horrifying. If nothing else, it reminded me of the areas surrounding my friend Julie’s house up in Clinton. Worn-in farmland, handfuls of civilization every so often, just miles away from business highways, that sort of deal. So, although we had intended on visiting a legendary location that I did not think I had previously seen, we decided to head back towards Blairstown and visit the routes that we had seen on previous days out together. Although Shades of Death Road was supposed to be the home run, we decided on a well-traversed route was supposed to be an easy ride, if only for the conversation. Little did we know that the roads around the Millbrook Village would provide exponentially more paranoia and anxiety than the stuff of local legend.

I had written previously about Millbrook Village (or, the Last Exit in New Jersey) -- as a brief catch-up, it was supposed to be bought by the state and flooded as a dam area for the Delaware Water Gap. These plans never fully manifested, so a decent amount of public land sat vacant, never seeing the fruition of the water-management system. Thus, as time went on, the abandoned historic village of Millbrook became a park, connected by the local state forests and picnic areas. It is a beautiful area, if you are ever near. Our previous visits and quiet days of enjoyment gave us this artificial sense of security and nonchalance. I guess we had figured that since we had no odd experiences on Shades of Death, that our old reliable Millbrook would be nothing. We were slightly off.

We made our way out of Blairstown and towards the village via Millbrook Road. It was incredibly foggy out, real Silent Hill stuff, and basked in the glory of the terrifying gray that smothered the landscape, complete with dense trees and impassable trails. What really stood out that day, what shocked us, initially struck me as if I was in a dream. When I saw “the thing,” I did not immediately process it. The music was low and Mark was speaking. I vaguely acknowledged something on the left side of the vehicle (I was driving) and I simply remember the color gray, as if a large, slouching man was wearing a gray sweater. I don’t say anything, because I subconsciously dismissed it as a part of the foliage. Mark stops speaking and his eyes get wide from the passenger seat.

“Did you hear that?”

I immediately kill the volume and listen. Of course, nothing. I answer no and he shakes his head. He looks back, as do I, and we see nothing. Still shaking his head and motioning with his hands, he tells me, “It was like… something yelling, ‘Hey!’ but drawn out and long. Screaming, maybe not evening saying the word. Just making noise.”

I get the chills and we laugh it off, finally experiencing one of the holy grails of urban exploration and night driving (although we were blessed with this experience in the late afternoon). Of course, moments and hills after the encounter, the fog clears and we find our beloved Millbrook Village, normal and unchanged (except for a damned locked public restroom). The whole significance of this story became even more terrifying as time went on.

We parked at one of the picnic / park locations and walked around for a bit. We had a conversation near the lake, inaccurately identifying a snake-like creature in the water (it looked like a Dachshund swimming, moved like a snake, and was the size of a frog, go figure) and moved on, as the sun had started to set. It was getting dark in Mark’s neck of the woods and I certainly didn’t want to get trespassing charges for being in a public park after sundown. We chatted a bit more in the parking lot and I felt a tad vulnerable, if only because of the wide-open nature of the area and the diminishing light. I wasn’t afraid of boogeymen or slashers; I just wanted to get out of the park, yadda yadda.

So, hours after our initial experience in the fog, we’re driving past the village towards NJ Route 206 and River Road (you know, actual highways and civilization) via Old Mine Road. Mark reminds me that we’ve been on this road before and about its light. I have no idea what he’s talking about until he reminds me about the first day I met him. He and our friend Walter had driven all over the area (and the Pocono Mountain area across the river) and I had nearly forgotten this local icon. There is a three minute red light at the end of Old Mine Road. This is because the local state park routes more-or-less immediately merge with a major highway (I knew Route 206 being a Central Jersey native, if that gives any indication) -- so an official intermediary was required for the safety of drivers. So, we’re heading in the direction of this light.

Mark tells me this story involving his brother and his former lady friend. They were driving late at night and the brother was asleep in the passenger seat. Suddenly, his partner screams and the car screeches to a halt. He wakes up and asks what’s the matter. She is hysterical and says that she swore she saw a body hanging from the treetops (the trees reach towards one another and form a tunnel of sorts over the road). He cautiously steps out and, of course, sees nothing.They keep driving and she tries to explain what she saw. Describing the body is easy. She says that he looked like he was in Civil War attire. This means nothing to me until I ask Mark for clarification.

“Confederate or Union?”
“Um… Confederate. The gray uniforms.”

At this point the gears click and I am done with the road. We both start nervously laughing and then, finally, we reach the forever red light. Except that… it’s off. We both stop laughing and are dead silent. Mark eventually begins explaining that this is insane, that this never happens, that this isn’t safe, and I am agreeing. Oh dear.

Eventually, I shrug and start down the dark, one-way road. A miniature waterfall down the side of the rock ledge to the left of the road startles both of us and then we find the overpass and highway indicating civilization. We assume the light was knocked out due to construction, but were initially worried because the road was supposed to go for three miles, one way, hence the long light. I do not know if they are planning to phase out the route, because it was not nearly as treacherous as we remember. Perhaps they have cut out a majority of the drive. We were further confused when, a few hours later, we returned to see that it was functioning again. Perhaps it was just the universe and nature colluding to torment our psyches and horrify us.

Regardless, I, once again, recommend the MIllbrook Village and its surrounding areas if you are willing to visit. Keeping good company and the right mindset, you are sure to have  day to remember.