Thursday, December 5, 2013

Going to Watchung (Make Reservations)

As with much of my writing, I go into this small endeavor, planning for a brief recount of my companions' and my own travels and experiences, and then hit upon a rabbit-hole that had been waiting right in front of me for many years. The story of Watchung Reservation and our time there is not any different.

It is far from unknown that I was raised on the local periodical Weird NJ (and its success, branching out to the entire United States is an appeal for its legitimacy) and was accidentally bred to be an encyclopedia of New Jersey history, lore, and hidden treasure. Only once I came to age and the state was silly enough to give me a driver's license was I free to actually visit these all of these fabled places (and how many miles have I reaped since that era of youth) -- so naturally, reading anecdotal accounts about the "misty environment" and whisperings of cult and witch activity tucked away in (what was to me) North Jersey, painted a landscape for me, one both beautiful and terrifying.

I suppose I shall start with my personal experiences and delve into the so-called rabbit-hole I mentioned in the opening. I believe the complementary links and information will be more than enough to sate and smother my dearest reader in exponentially expanding speculation and curiosity.

The initial visit, the season, and those traveling with me have all blurred into the total of my experience at the Watchung Reservation, so for those involved in those visits, my apologies for the slight inaccuracies if they arise.

There are multiple entrances to the park system, each with different blends of visitation and accessibility. For instance, there are horse stables and functioning research buildings at one entrance, so it is not particularly ideal for a visitor who desires to simply walk a trail. While there are a handful of "official" entrances, there are dozens of side street lots and picnic areas on the winding roads surrounding the reservation. Many of these sink the visitor into the heart of forest, with plenty of trails to choose from. On one such trail, we discovered an incredible little secret of the wood.

Marissa and I visited one time, intending on recording some audio for her on-going project, and sought a trail to bring us as deep as we could go. The plan was to have her screaming her best Scream Queen sound clip, so we decided it was ideal to stay as far away as possible from the majority of the park's visitors. Of course, while hopping in place and screaming, we confused two or three passers-by and shared a smug look of dorkiness. On our way back, we ended up eventually finding, amidst tall, eerie-looking pines, a huge nest of fallen trees and brush. It ws then that we heard this horrifying noise. It sounded like a guttural old man, crying out, blended with the surprised start of a goat. Marissa noted that it might have been a deer call, so we called out.

Scanning the area. No one around. No hunting permitted anyway. I, did my best to imitate the sound, and surprised myself with how well I emulated it. We called out in human language again. Nothing. I imitated the sound. There it was.

We started wandering towards this giant pile of wood and green. We were close to it. Incredibly anxious and bearing tunnel vision, I approached this wall of organic material. Of course, a skinny guy peeks his head out from atop the nest. I think we both startled one another. Why they did not respond to my calls before is beyond me, but so be it. Maybe they thought I was an approaching deer. Or maybe I misjudged my imitation and they were horrified at whatever was making this screech and was approaching them. It is worth noting that this creation is relatively close to the trail's entrance. Our screaming location was a lot deeper and beyond this boardwalk installation over a small bog area. We turned back when the sun began its descent and the trail returning us to the entrance (and past this nest) was a steep, step-like structure, ranging from stone, wood, and dirt composing this narrow path.

The most inviting and curious feature of the reservation, however, lies in the parking lot / entrance titled for its deserted village. After a gentle stroll down a paved road, you pass a quiet contemporary residence. Almost every time that I have visited, the occupants were either doing yard work or using their grill and they seemed very friendly, always returning my hellos. Just past their house is a large structure which houses restrooms and seems to be a storage building for some park equipment. There are three stories and it resembles an old fashioned inn. At this point, you have a few options. You can take a path into the woods to your right, you could continue on the paved road, or you could go left towards the restrooms. If you continue past the restrooms and to the left, the path turns to dirt and you find yourself in vast area, dense with tall, thin trees that runs down to the ravine. A hill further to the left is the resting spot of some of the original founders of the village, dating back to the 1700s. If you walk down to the ravine, you can access the vast number of trails, all winding through one another.

Dylan over the creek
However, back on the original path, if you remain on the main road, you will find yourself in the deserted village. There are a handful of houses, all with a matching green color scheme. Some are obviously abandoned (what we came to know affectionately as the Twin Houses) -- but many sources (such as the park's website) and telltale signs of in-habitation warn not to trespass on the occupied houses. Further down the road, a few more of these green houses continue. But where our love for the untouched, dilapidated, and abandoned found its calling... was in the Twin Houses.

The Twin Houses
One is infinitely more accessible than the other, and is the only one we have seen the inside of. Approaching through the messy lawns, you first notice that the wrap-around porch, which extends into the back and over open space, is horrendously out of commission. It is blown out in many spots and is treacherous to climb. If you follow the grass, you walk down in to the backyard. At first there is no easy way into the ailing structure. Yet if you do manage to hug the wall of the second story porch, you might find something, something in the shape of an open window. Note: when we visited, there were no sheets of wood over the window, but upon subsequent visits, it is clear that the groundskeepers are trying to keep people away. You know the rules, friends. Do not break or destroy property, however forlorn and forgotten. We simply lucked out, assuming these structures were left to time. Regardless, people have been inside, and we were lucky enough to have collected these images.

It is very, very dark on the inside, as most of it is boarded up. There were many there with camera lights, so it was not too difficult to traverse, if not anxiety-inducing. Boards felt good as new at times... others, you were worried for your life. There was a lot of space in the main rooms on the first floor. Very obvious installations for the kitchen area, large table, and the like. Something that stood out at the time, but only became more uncanny as the thought simmered, were the large, colorful murals on the walls. It seemed straight out of an "American culture" mural you would find in a public library, but poised next to the decay of human construction and time, it was just wrong.

The rooms upstairs were a little brighter, due to less concealment, but the rooms were infinitely more cramped with old belongings and rubbish. There were housing fixtures and furniture labeled with old fashioned paper tags loading the landing, but they were easy enough to circumvent. There were plenty of cobwebs and large, leaping crickets packed in every corner of the building. Harmless, but it all made your head feel very exposed. In one room, the ceiling was collapsed, revealing the low, inaccessible attic. But the best was yet to come.

Of all of the places in the house and on the reservation, the basement was probably the most unsettling. The staircase was a one-at-a-time, keep-your-head-low-from-insects and the basement floor was a combination of dirt floor reclaiming tile and other inorganic materials. It was very cramped and there was a small hall at the bottom of the stairs. There were plenty of drainage grates everywhere and remnants of what appeared to be a furnace. Stepping into the next room was surreal. It resembled the open area of upstairs, but stretched to the left, in a U-shape. The floor and half of the walls were old, pale-blue-green tile, covered in dirt and chipped. And in the center of the wall was a shower, completely destroyed by time, but obvious in its previous life's function.

The walls all had their various work stations and it all felt so uncomfortable. We even wondered at one point if these houses were home to Halloween time Haunted Houses, purely because of how out-of-place this macabre work area was. They were still very much standing, it is not absurd to imagine that they were publicly functioning within the last few decades. Who knows.

Back outside, the yard's property ends on top of a steep hill falling deep into the ravine. The creek runs in both directions and offers many different trails and crossing points. If you were to trace back to the paved road and continued on, you would eventually find a "stable" / equipment building that was recently upgraded. Looking far too modern and pretty, it is very obviously a recent addition. I would like to see its inside, whether they hold public events there or what. Beautiful building.

If you continue off the road and onto the trail, you will find a murky, small, circular pond that is typically coated in a bright green coating of algae. There is an endearing plaque (that I almost missed due to the growth) that informs the visitor that this is the "Hermit's Pond," and it was formed by runoff from up on hill. Apparently, when this area (and the village) was a summer home, the groundskeeper lived in a shack up the hill and his plumbing and maintenance of the creek was the source of cool and fresh water for the residents during their summer stay.

The reservation is a beautiful place. It is worth your visit and your respect. In my research, I have found old stories (some familiar) about deaths and suicides, both at the park grounds and in the surrounding communities. Initially, I was planning on including them in this post, but upon discussing it with a friend, decided that I'll dedicate a whole new posting endeavor (and perhaps more) to that investigation.

The Watchung Reservation is an incredible place, and even though I have found and experienced firsthand its many stories, I feel as if there are plenty more awaiting us on future visits.

Further reading:
The Watchung Reservation
The Reservation on Wikipedia

Future writing endeavor:
Historical Murder in Watchung
An Area Suicide / Crime

More photographs: