At the worst of it I found myself nearly immobile. Vines stretched tightly across my chest, thorns dug into my forearms with every move, and my feet, down somewhere in the invisible nightmare below the foamy ocean of green in which I swam, were in the tangled clutches of evil flora with long, sinuous tentacles. I had no idea what they were, and no intention of looking. I had been struggling to find a way out of this place for almost forty-five minutes. My breath was laboured, my jeans and shirt ripped and bloody, my forearms dripping red. Movement was only to be had by throwing one leg or the other up and over the closest thorny mass and trying to press it down. Success got you a foot forward, while more commonly failure left you dangerously off balance and ready to tumble into the darkness. At one point I seriously pondered the potential ignominy of calling the rangers and asking them to cut me out… never a serious option, but I could see how it might become one. I had a nice chunk of stone nearby. I might have gotten up on it to try and see a way out, but I couldn’t do it. The words on the front of the stone said “Sherman Vancampen,” and I didn’t think he would appreciate me climbing on his grave.
It began two months earlier with some lines on a relatively recent topographical map, and the abbreviation “Cem.” The lines were in the form of a rectangle not far north of an old farm that had once been one of the homesteads of the Vancampen family. A check of various sources turned up references to a “Vancampen cemetery,” and I was intrigued. I had visited the nearby graveyard of the Depues, and thought that was all the mortuary evidence that the vanished town of Calno had to offer. But here were hints of another, where I would find the headstones of the patriarchs and matriarchs of one of New Jersey’s original pioneer families. I made two trips to the location, searching the deep woods to the north where I thought the map pointed, to no avail. On my third trip I had simply happened to look in the right direction, at the right time, while passing up the narrow lane to the farm. There were two newish-looking headstones, resting in a little niche that had been carved out of the undergrowth, on a rise maybe 200 feet north of the road. It was the work of a few minutes to reach these graves, the last resting places of George and Mary Vancampen, and Walter Vancampen and Mallie Sutton.
The stones were in good shape and more recent, the latest one dating from 1954; recent enough to still have living nuclear family around to keep the gravesite as tidy as possible. Beyond I saw hints of other stones deep in the greenery. The brush was simply fearsome: as bad as anything I have been in. Thick thorn bushes and vines were everywhere. However someone had pushed a slight path onward and deeper into the thicket, whether animal or human, and it was this I determined to follow. This had not originally been a bushwhacking trip, and I was not prepared for deep stuff. They call it “bushwhacking” for a simple reason: to get through you need to get a big knife and whack bushes. With no cutters or even a knife on hand, no thick gloves, and short sleeves I was not equipped to move forward. But the site of older stones deeper in got the better of me. I could just follow this older gap, and come back out the same way. Foolproof!
Against the average fool, perhaps. For twenty or thirty minutes I worked my way forward. Each group of stones revealed interesting names and dates, some that I knew from earlier research. I took as many pictures
as I could, from as many angles as the brush would allow. Each group also yielded another dim view of yet another group of stones off a little ways in the bramble, reachable if I would just go a little farther, which inevitably I did. When I finally arrived at what I thought was the northern edge of the plot, and turned to come back, there was no path. It was like the bramble had closed in behind me. It was just me, the thorns, some tombstones, a lot of bugs, and not much else. I tried a number of times to find the “easy” route by which I had come; the one that had now been pressed down by at least three passages of something sizeable, but it was simply invisible. The brush was over my head in most places by at least a foot, and although I retained a strong and reliable sense of where the road was, I could not place myself in the plot itself, in relation to the elusive path out.
Not to over-dramatize this. The area I was in is remote by New Jersey standards, and at 7:30 in the evening there are very few people on the nearby roads. However I had a cel phone, and at times a bar of signal strength. I could call for help if I really, really needed to. As it turned out I did find a way, not by struggling in the direction of the road, but by turning east toward the deeper forest. I emerged very cut up, with ruined clothes and trembling with exhaustion. At no time was I lost in the strict sense of the word. But I was in brush so thick and thorny that movement became very, very difficult, and so it didn’t matter that I knew where I wanted to go. I am sure furthermore that this is not the worst the brush can throw at you. There are briar patches out there you can definitely die in, though perhaps this was just the kind you can get really frustrated in.
The question that emerges from this adventure, for me, is why the hell a graveyard full of historic markers is in such dismal condition? I travel often in this area, which is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, and I have photographed dozens of abandoned structures that have been left to decay and fall down. Some of them are examples of colonial-era hand-built construction techniques. Pictures of many of them are on this site. Yet I don’t feel moved to beat up on the NPS, because I know they don’t have a lot of money, and they have saved and helped NGOs to preserve a number of structures in the area. Still, how much money and effort does it take to keep the brush down at a small, historic burial ground? There must be more to this, and I plan to contact them to find out why they are pursuing this policy of neglect. The Vancampens and others buried here were among the pioneers of our state. When the Federal Government acquired this land they acquired the responsibility to care for the historic places on it, and that responsibility is clearly not being discharged.
- If you’re interested, there is a list of burials in the Vancampen (or Calno) Cemetery that was compiled by a contractor during the Tocks Island dam project in the 1970′s.