a hike of legends and death
Last month, on a beautiful fall day, we decided to go on a hike. The day was perfect: bright blue skies to serve as the perfect backdrop to the reds and oranges and golds of the changing leaves. The day was unseasonably warm which was a good thing because we were headed to a corner of New Jersey known for its history of death and mystery.
The park is called Jenny Jump State Park. It’s an odd name with a shocking story behind it. Legend has it that the Jenny of “Jenny Jump” was the nine-year-old daughter of early settlers of the area. One day while out picking berries near a precipice, Jenny was surprised by a band of Indians who sneaked up on her and intended to kill or abduct her. Jenny ran screaming, alarming her father who was working in his field down below. “Jump, Jenny, Jump!” he hollered, and poor Jenny leaped to her death.
Our hike was to Ghost Lake. Yup, Ghost Lake in a park named after a girl who leaped to her death. Strange mists are often seen rising from Ghost Lake which may have got its name due to the fact that it was used as a place for settlers to dump the bodies of Indians they had killed.
But it gets better; Ghost Lake is located on Shades of Death Road. This is a centuries old road that twists and turns its way through a rural part of the state. Low hanging tree branches cover much of the road which also traverses a huge swath of marshy swampland known as the Great Meadows. There are many legends as to how Shades got its name. The most common explanation is that in the 1800’s an outbreak of malaria carrying insects was discovered near a cliff face along the road. The swampy land was a perfect breeding ground and citizens living along the rural Shades came to expect yearly outbreaks of the disease followed by the death of many friends and family members. Shades of Death Road is such a local legend that there is actually a Wikipedia page devoted to the road. You can read more about the road here.
So with the knowledge of all of the death in the area, we set off on our hike. It’s a typical hike for the Highlands of New Jersey. Rocky trails leading to sweeping views of the forests and farmlands far below us. The beginning of the trail was crowded; people enjoying the sun and fall colors on this warm day. But as we progressed further up the trail, the people began to thin out. The trial continued up a ridge then down, winding past huge glacial erratics.
We continued our decent towards Ghost Lake. The trail here was so perfect that it looked liked it had been created by a landscape artist. Tall straight trees bright with the colors of fall filled the forest as we walked down an ivy lined path. It was tranquil and beautiful. Stillness filled this area.
The trail rounded a bend and there it was, Ghost Lake. From this distance even though the sun shone brightly on the lake, a fog seemed to hang above the lake. As we got down to the lake, the illusion(?) disappeared and the lake took on the bright blue of the sky and colors of the trees on the hills flanking its shore.
We stopped on an earthen dam and had a snack. The kids ran around playing; their laughter echoing off the cliffs on the other side of the lake. Soon the sun began to dip behind the hills. It was time to go.
The group left, walking in pairs to start the return journey back up the ridge. My friend and I held back until we were the last two on the lake. Quiet returned. Then we heard it; an odd popping sound. It seemed to surround us. Not quite under the water, but not above it either. We cocked our heads, attempting to make sense of the noise, but couldn’t.
It was the lily pads or maybe the breeze which had suddenly picked up a bit, we reasoned. We turned to head up the trail, quiet as we walked. Right before the bend, I turned around and looked back. The fog above the lake had again appeared. I knew then that Ghost Lake would keep its secrets from us. Running to catch up with everyone, I smiled, happy with the thought that some things are best to remain a mystery.