When you think of the Jersey Shore, you probably don’t think of nature preserves, hiking trails, or freshwater ponds, but they do exist. Open a map on your cellphone, and look for green open areas — they’re there, but they’re not always obvious. Across the highway from a skateboard park, in Long Branch, NJ, is Jackson Woods — a multi-acre park made up of a pond, a brook, and winding paths bounded by trees, viny plants, and Phragmites australis. From the road, you wouldn’t expect it to be as large as it is — maybe 100 feet wide — but it is deep, and wedged between a few neighborhoods and an apartment complex. Even though I had passed it hundreds of times in the past ten years, I didn’t visit the park until 2018. I wish I had visited sooner.
Jackson Woods, as it turns out, is a true “hidden gem” of the Jersey shore. The pond — while it doesn’t seem to have fish, it does have turtles and plenty of dragonflies, which are great subjects for fans of macro photography. Throughout the grounds, you’ll find all sorts of trees, vines, flowers, and even the occasional colorful fungus. Within the woods, there are several winding paths that criss-cross through the park, a bridge that takes you over a brook, and even a pyramid-like structure made of blocks of stone. I visit the park to take photos, and for a quick getaway from the stereotypical loud and drunken aspects of the Jersey Shore. Like any park, it has its imperfections — invasive species like knotweed, occasional graffiti, the odd rubber tire sticking out of the earth, and trash here and there — as do most parks and public spaces.
After my fourth visit to the park, I met Tom Booth. He saw I had a camera, and asked about the photos I was taking. At the time Tom has the caretaker of the park. In the past, he fought developers who would have turned it into yet another gaudy Jersey Shore condo complex, ensuring the park would remain a peaceful haven for the residents of Long Branch. My conversation with Tom left a lasting impression on me. Tom had chosen to devote his life to something he loved — the park — and made certain it would be preserved for others. Tom was the antithesis of most of the people I meet on the Jersey Shore, most of whom are loud, thoughtless, hateful pigs. Tom was a true mensch.
Sadly Tom passed away last year. There is a bench by the pond dedicated to his memory.
Nothing But Trouble is a 1991 comedy (horror) film starring Dan Akroyd, Chevy Chase, John Candy, Demi Moore, and Taylor Negron. It was directed by Dan Akroyd and written by Dan and his brother Peter. The film is very weird. I believe the Akroyd brothers knew how weird it was, but they didn’t know it was so weird that the average American would reject it. The film only made $8 million dollars in theaters — one-fifth of its budget — which is a flop by any measure.
So, why is it weird (or at least too weird for the average human)? Spoilers ahead: It’s a hero’s journey but the protagonists are not heroes. All the characters are despicable on some level, so it is difficult to empathize with any of them. Chevy Chase & Demi Moore’s characters are unlikeable yuppies. Dan Akroyd’s “Judge” character and his clan are demented serial murderers. I think we’re supposed to root for Chevy & Demi’s characters, but I get the feeling Akroyd’s true sympathy lies with the Judge, who is a victim of bad bank loans and spends his life seeking retribution. John Candy’s character does have a heroic moment but ends up only exchanging his despicable family for a new wealthier one. I don’t want to give away too much — I want you to watch this film and see if you can enjoy it. Perhaps the weirdest moment of the film is a song and dance scene featuring Digital Underground and 2Pac (then a member of the band).
The town of Valkenvania was inspired by Centralia, Pennsylvania, a very small town that was all but abandoned due to a below-ground coal fire. Like much of Pennsylvania, the town sits above vast deposits of coal. Legend has it that someone lit a fire too close to a coal shaft, the coal caught fire, and the town eventually had to be abandoned because it was not safe to live above a massive, underground, inextinguishable, poison-gas-producing inferno.
There are a few documentaries and urban-explorer videos about Centralia on YouTube. These explorers cruise the local streets, enter abandoned homes, find the occasional doll head or VHS tape, and hike the graffiti highway. Most encounter a local or two — the town does have some inhabitants, the graveyards are well kept, and the graffiti highway is owned by a coal company — if you visit, you will encounter other people, so be respectful.
July 12, 2019, I drove to Centralia to check it out. When I arrived, I drove right through it — I saw no indications that there was a town there. Just a weed-lined, two-lane county road (61).
I expected Centralia to be abandoned, but it was not. There are homes standing, and they seem to be occupied. Most of the town has been raised with the exception of 5 or 6 houses, a municipal building, and 3 cemeteries. Look at the town on Google maps — the homes have green lawns and cars parked outside them. Granted, they could be cars belonging to urban explorers in some cases.
I felt guilty for invading their town and disturbing the peace. I live in a tourist town and know first-hand what it’s like to have a city slicker come to town, cause a ruckus, and relieve their bowels on the street in my neighborhood (no joke), so I can empathize with Centralia’s remaining population. I imagined a resident living in their home clutching their head wondering what was worse: a migraine from coal fire fumes, or jackasses from New Jersey or YouTube doing k-turns in their front lawn.
So, I left the local streets and went looking for the graffiti highway.
I saw a half dozen cars parked at the bend of highway 61 and figured this was a good place to stop and start looking. Both sides of the road had tell-tale graffiti marking, so I flipped a coin. I walked east down a gravel road, which led to a small cemetery and motocross trails, punctuated with piles of coal, shotgun shells, mud pits, vents for the coal fire, and weathered piles of people’s stuff. I assume the stuff — which reminded me of things you would find in a thrift store dumpster — were dumped there, or stolen from abandoned homes and left there by urban explorers.
Finding nothing east of route 61, I headed to the west side. After scrambling around a mud pit, twisted trees tagged with graffiti, ankle-rolling used graffiti cans, and tick-encrusted weeds, I found sunlight and the graffiti highway.
It was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen: a wide two-lane road, every available inch covered from beginning to end with a tangled rainbow of spray paint — much of it fresh — for 7/10ths of a mile. I expected the air in Centralia to smell like coal fire fumes, but it smelled like paint.
Most of the graffiti was tags/signatures and cartoon characters & memes. No Mona Lisas or Starry Nights — just 1000s of colorful, funny and ephemeral modern-day runes & hieroglyphs. There were dozens of people walking the road, riding bikes, or adding to the graffiti.
I did not see any vapors or steam rising from vents or cracks in the road. I did get a slight headache, but that could be because it was HOT and sunny out and my large forehead was baking in the sun.
I think everyone should go see it, but…
In early 2020, the road was covered with soil by the coal company that owns the road. They probably don’t want someone breaking their leg or exchanging viruses, and then suing them. For the coal company, the road was probably “nothing but trouble”.
Life lesson: make sure you get out there and see stuff while it’s still there to be seen. You gotta get it, while the getting is good.