Dec. 2011: Pine Barrens of NJ

Just after Thanksgiving of 2011, I bought my first new bicycle - a Surly Troll. I was eager to do things with it that I couldn't do with my previous bikes - a 1980s Raleigh Technium which had over 3000 miles on it from me, let alone the previous owner; and a Peugeot fixie-conversion which I later sold.

Poring over Google Maps, I decided Wharton State Forest, in the New Jersey pine barrens, was the best option for a fat-tired bike trip. It was easily within range of Philadelphia, made easier by the PATCO train that would take me there. And it had miles and miles of unimproved forest roads to roam. I'd done my first bike tour ever out there - on the old blue Raleigh, riding all the way out from Philly, a trip I would not repeat - the PATCO train lets you skip most of the suburban sprawl and get out into the countryside right away.

So a few days before New Years, I loaded up the Troll's rear end with a truly paranoid load - I knew it was going to be cold in the woods, right around freezing, so I brought an absurd amount of insulation. Two sleeping mats, a 20 degree sleeping bag and insultex quilt, my rain gear, and plenty of food. I'm honestly not sure what all I had in those panniers - even with my overpacking I can't remember what all I stuffed in there.

I had yet to buy my current camera, so I went old school and bought a disposable one from Rite Aid. It performed well enough - picture quality maybe a little below the smartphones of the era - but it was ridiculously expensive to get the film developed. Never again.

The Troll ready for its first overnighter. More about the setup. Years later, having slimmed down my packing

list just a bit, I can't look at this picture and keep a straight face

I rode down a pretty monotonous highway; this was one of the first spots of really nice scenery.

In the woods at last! During the long double summer I spent in the Middle East, and then during the

winter of 2011-12, I learned that I crave greenery. So the pine-heavy forest was a cheering sight in the

season when everything else is brown.

Marshy pools in the's a very strange place, more creepy than most forests. Certainly a

good setting for Jersey Devils and the like.

I came to Goshen Pond campsite, thoroughly abandoned. There's always something slightly eerie about

empty campgrounds in the off-season. I'd had to rush to make it here, worried about it getting dark

too early, and hoped to a lakeside stealth-camp spot I'd found the previous August. But I was on the wrong

side of a river and it was too far to bushwhack in any case, so I set up camp here.

Goshen Pond. Looks a bit bleak. Not sure where all the dead trunks come from. I think they're

Atlantic white cedars, a tree common in this area in swamps and by streams. If the pond is artificial

(I'm not sure), perhaps they were flooded and couldn't survive the inundation?

My cozy den for the night...or not so cozy, as I still managed to be cold.

In the morning, I was given a warning by a forest ranger who told me the camping area was closed, as they were felling trees that might be a danger to campers. Someone had been killed over the summer by one that had fallen! I asked where one might get a permit, and he told me I'd have to go down to Batsto - on the far end of the forest, totally out of reach of a cyclist racing against nightfall. But he also seemed to imply having a permit wasn't a big deal, and that neither was the warning he gave me. It seems permits are still required for these campsites, but since a bike-tourist coming from Philadelphia often can't feasibly get them, I imagine most forest rangers would be similarly lenient.

Scruffy clearings sometimes opened up in the forest. These areas had the feeling of someplace very

different from the Northeastern US, although I can't say where they reminded me of.

The trip came to a bit of an earlier end than I'd planned. My initial agenda included two nights in the woods, getting back into Philly on New Years' Eve, which would have been straining - I was hosting a New Years' party that year. However, the cold of the night convinced me to come back a day early. I still intended to ride around the woods for most of the day, until I encountered a large puddle in the path and tried to power through it. I quickly lost traction, and the bike fell over onto its side. That pannier and everything in it became soaked instantly, as did my pants (luckily, all my electronics were on the other side of the bike!) The weather was friendly, at least, so I spread everything out to dry in the sun for a bit, but then, still shivering, began to make my way back toward the train station.