A tour of human follies

| 03 Mar 2014 | 02:29

The Old Mine Road is a haunted place. I’m not talking about the clogged artery that is now Route 209, although that may be haunted too, for all I know. I refer here to the final stretch, squeezed for nearly 400 years between the restless river on one side and the steeply rising Kittatinny Ridge on the other, that extends from Milford to the Delaware Water Gap. Its leafy seclusion obscures the violence of its past, first between the Dutch and the native Minsi, then the English and French, colonists and Tories, farmers and trappers, park rangers and landowners. Every mile bears traces of a past that grows ever more mysterious and remote – the orchards that grow more gnarl than fruit, the hand-dug copper mines that never produced anything of value, the flagstone walkways leading nowhere, the empty corncribs and unfarmed fields, the cemeteries where Death’s Heads adorn the headstones even of infants. In every churchyard are the unhappy ghosts of the dispossessed.

The feeling continues in the present day whenever hikers drive up to the shut gates and barricading sawhorses of the National Park Service. Some of the area’s best trails are behind those barricades, which tend to pop up suddenly and without explanation. The Old Mine Road may be famous for being the oldest continuously used road in the United States, but this crumble-prone section is frequently knocked out by storms and Congressional mood swings. Now, after several extended closures for repairs, the Old Mine Road is in as good a shape as it can ever be expected to be in.

A few short hikes that set out from the Old Mine Road stick to the bottom of the valley. One follows the darkly sublime Van Campen’s Glen, another the deeply defunct Millbrook Village, whose sudden death at the first hint of modernity left behind the teensy houses of cobblers and spinsters, along with their teensy awls and teensy spindles. The longer trails rise steeply out of the valley to the top of the ridge, where the Appalachian Trail serves as the middle section of the many loop hikes. It’s easy to miss the stiff climb to get there. The ridge, which tops out at about 1,500 feet, cannot be seen from the river more than 1,100 feet below.

The Kaiser Trail, which makes a loop with the Appalachian and Coppermines trails in Worthington State Forest, is the easiest way up the ridge. It follows a grassy woods road through a gentle landscape of oak and birch trees. The ridgetop remains hidden for a long time, but we’re never in a hurry on this quiet, remote trail. When suddenly it ends, the panting haste of Appalachian Trail hikers comes as a surprise, as does the stony ground and the big sky filled with buzzards. The perspective changes completely. Just as we cannot see the ridge from the river, neither can we see the river from the ridge. Here the view takes in a very different sort of valley: broad, level, and ordered around the Paulinskill Creek, sunk between soft, low banks.

The Coppermines Trail, the final leg of the loop, descends a ravine that it shares with a cascading stream and a dense hemlock forest. Halfway down, two feeder streams collide on their way over a ledge. The water really picks up speed after that, dropping down the mountain in sheets, crashing into shallow pools, and filling the air with spray. The rock walls amplify the roar of the water. You have to shout to be heard.

At the bottom of the ridge are the ancient copper mines, their entrances blocked by grates. Some say the Dutch in the 17th century sent copper the length of the Old Mine Road to Kingston, and from there overseas. But I doubt much more happened than the holes we see in front of us, chipped into the mountain with hand tools, and extending further back than my flashlight beam will reach. The lure of hidden treasure is the oldest of human follies. Here, though, treasure is easy to find. We turn away from the dark tunnel and head toward the river, which is sending out silver sparks under the late afternoon sun.