A Walk in the Park

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.

Legend Quest

Legend questing is often considered a teenage pastime. Getting away from the mundane, or the oppressively normal, such road trips often lead to a place of spiritual significance, whether religious or secular. New Jersey, whose unofficial state song is about getting out, has its share of questing destinations. Reading Weird N.J. from time to time, one gets an introduction to such destinations handily served up in magazine fashion. The weird, as some scholars have noted, has roots in the religious—the uncanny. At times it is something about the physical landscape. Sometimes an historical event led to this status. Sometimes it’s just a name. Finding accurate information about Shades of Death Road, in Warren County, New Jersey, is somewhat of a fool’s errand. Although my wife and I aren’t teenagers anymore, on Halloween we decided to visit the reputedly haunted location.

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The area is not easy to locate, even in a state with as much road cover as the Garden State. Still, it is a beautiful road, once found. Huge boulders from the nearby Jenny Jump State Park—a place with its own legendary past—interspersed with old trees come right down to the edge of the road. A gorgeous lake, called Ghost Lake, also delights the passer by. The road signs, which are frequently stolen, were nowhere to be seen on our trek. It is, however, easy to see that in days before hermetically sealed cars with auto-lock doors that practically drive themselves such a locale may have brought danger to mind. Local legends claim it as a haunt of highway men, not a few of whom were hanged among its many trees. It was a partially sunny afternoon as we drove along, and lawns were decorated with faux graveyards and ghosts floated down from trees. It was a pleasant way to be haunted.

The typical legend quest involves getting out of the car and engaging in some kind of ritual to see if anything happens. Since this was a spur of the moment trip, I hadn’t done my homework to find out what manner of incantation should’ve been said. Had I prepared, I would’ve had to have selected from the many disparate legends that circulate around the road. Even in the sunshine with little traffic, the place could easily stoke some unexpressed fear. Although the road was named long ago, for reasons that no one truly knows, it maintains its mystique. Curvy, and in places with the roadsigns heavily vandalized, it is clear that a more modern sort of danger might lurk here after dark. Nevertheless, as we emerged back onto a road with a less dire name, I couldn’t help but smile. Shades of Death Road ends at Hope Road. And that, surely, is no accident.