Our destination was Cape May. With its Victorian homes, seafood, long stretches of beaches, and lots and lots of people; it’s hard to get more New Jersey than Cape May. But our first stop was a place that was quite the opposite: quiet and abandoned and lonely. The town was Shell Pile, NJ.
The day held all the promises of a perfect summer day. Fluffy white clouds floated in a bluebird sky as we zoomed down the Parkway following cars filled with families and coolers and boogie boards, all heading to what would be a perfect shore day. But we soon turned West, away from the beaches, and headed towards the other side of New Jersey searching for a giant pile of oyster shells.
At one point New Jersey actually had an oyster industry. Two towns, located on the Delaware Bay, were at the center of the industry: Shell Pile and Bivalve. The industry flourished for awhile, reaching its peak in the 1950s. A community of small shacks built on stilts sprang up over the salt marshes. But an oyster pathogen (MSX) killed 90% of the oysters in the late 1950s leaving nothing more than ghost towns and the great pile of shells.
We drove through the tiny town of Port Norris and soon reached our destination. The car tires crunched over a road of muck and white shells as we drove past the huge piles of shells. Gulls flew overhead and the stench of the area made it into our sealed car. We truly were at the ends of New Jersey.
The smell hit us hard as we got out of the car. A decaying smell of oysters and swamp grass and muck. It was bad but fit with the desolateness of the area.
There was a boardwalk crossing over the marsh and we decided to follow it to the end. So, trying not to breath too deep, we began our trek to the Delaware.
The marshes were beautiful. Tall grasses waving in the water. Birds flew everywhere finding this area the perfect spot for nests. The sun shone bright and warm, twinkling off the bay. Yet something was off. It just wasn’t the peaceful paradise that it should have been. The past and what had been seemed to press up against us. An area, once bustling with life, now all but forgotten.
The smell permeated everything. We soon felt as if we were wearing it; a cologne covering our bodies. Then came the flies! Swarms of them covering the path as we hiked. Yet onward we went and soon reached a wooden platform built out over the bay. The wind blew here and the flies and smells vanished. A few boats moved across the water. Fishing boats; no pleasure boats here. Gulls cried high above us and the sun glistened off the brackish water. Just another summer day in NJ.
Our walk back to the car was quick. We hoped in the car and drove out, passing an abandoned church. Soon we would be in Cape May. Tourist central. But we spent a few more minutes enjoying the lonely solitude of the place, happy to know a place like this still exists in New Jersey.