About five years ago my wife and I took a drive along the infamous Shades of Death road in Warren County, New Jersey. Urban legend has all kinds of creepiness associated with it. It was a pleasant enough autumn drive for us, and we didn’t see any ominous signs. History has moved on since the road had been named and, as is typical, the origins had been lost to time. Something I’ve noticed in moving from east to midwest back to east and a little further west again is that names tend to travel with westward expansion. I haven’t read enough local history to gain a good sense of this, but we noticed that if New Jersey has a “Devil’s Half Acre,” so does eastern Pennsylvania.
Yearning to get outdoors for a bit—it’s been rainy here and the pandemic limits options for seeing much of anything—we decided to visit Hickory Run State Park in Carbon County. Not a bad drive from where we live, we decided to pick out a hiking trail before making the trip. With over forty miles of trails, your choice of parking depends on which one you want. We found that there was a Shades of Death trail. The website tries to dispel the fear factor of the name, noting that early settlers referred to heavy woods and rocky terrain when they named the area. It is some of the more challenging hiking offered in the park, with passages over small boulder fields and some slippery rocks. It also turned out to have some wonderful scenery. We’d arrived early enough to avoid the crowds that’ve made walks in the woods less pleasant in pandemic times.
Indeed, as we finished our hike near noon, families with kids excitedly shouting “Shades of Death” were making their way along the at times narrow path. I couldn’t help but think how our lives have become so much easier, at least with physical challenges, than those of the original settlers who named these once treacherous places. We find the names quaint and a little amusing. Indeed, at the visitor center, the outdoor art emphasizes that particular trail, demonstrating its popularity. Part of the draw of horror is, of course, reading or watching it from a safe location. On a sunny morning with modern conveniences never far away, the name gives a little thrill even as it reminds us that a walk in the woods once held a peril difficult to imagine when you can drive right up to the trailhead for a walk in the park.