The street sign is named Central Blvd. On either side is nothing more than green woods littered with decaying, burgundy red Christmas trees. The road, hardly a strip of dirt with the occasional mudhole, makes a sudden turn after about one hundred yards. Looking down Central Boulevard from Old Country Road could send chills running down your spine as it seems like a misplaced wilderness in an overdeveloped suburb. There always seems to be a mist, a light blue haze, huddling over the crooked track as you take your first steps into the wild and you suddenly forget where you are.
As you reach the 100-yard mark and make the right turn, you’re simultaneously brought right back to reality. Littered Christmas trees turns to littered couches along with bright green recycling bags of old garbage that have been trying to decompose for what looks like decades. The road is blocked off by two gates sealed with an old-fashioned chain and skeleton key lock. Sprouting from the middle of the blockade is a yellow sign that reads, “RAILROAD DO NOT CROSS.” Nailed to the bottom of the sign is a piece of wood written on with magic marker, “Beyond is Private Property.” As you look across the gate and tracks you can see the mist again, and suddenly you return to your childhood, ignoring your mother’s commands, and you must cross.
As if someone had flipped a switch, once you cross the tracks the air almost feels ten degrees cooler. The dump turns back into wilderness and you begin to lose yourself once more. Beneath yourself, you can see the footprints you will leave behind as a small dust cloud poofs up with each step. The trees surrounding you change from the grey emptiness of the dead of winter to the everlasting lush green of what once was the Pine Barrens. After a short walk, Central Blvd begins to diminish, and right when the eye begins to look for a dead-end sign, you see it, corn.
Acres and acres of open land filled with corn stalks regrow every year in this same spot. No one grooms it, no one eats it, it’s possible that no one even knows it’s still there. A forgotten square in the middle of the woods, as if God’s hand reached down with a cookie cutter and left this empty space between the pines. Approaching the field, the mind wanders and wonders, where did this come from? As the season begins to turn, the cornfield changes from green to golden brown; you take your first step in and hear the stalks crunch beneath your feet. After walking for only a minute, the view behind becomes the same as in front: an uncharted territory of seven-foot stalks; and forwards and backwards are one and the same. Only one method of orientation remains as you continue deeper into the field, the tips of a massive oak peeking out over the stalks.
Lying dead in the center of this misplaced island in the woods is a single tree. Standing alone, it towers over the corn giving it a deceptive look of being the most massive tree you’ve ever seen. The oak’s powerful limbs leak out into the sky and no child could resist the temptation of climbing up the branches. Three branches up and you can see across the entire field. As the sun begins to set the evergreens start to glow and turn just as golden as the aging corn surrounding you. Suddenly you’re sitting in a golden basket and your mind is free from wandering. Tranquility prevails as the west wind runs through the cornfield and continues through your hair. A moment of peace lasts in this little slice of heaven until the wind brings along the enclosing sounds of the nearby sand mines.
Just beyond the western wall of pine trees lies the edge of the modern world. Slowly but surely the mines of Spinney Hills spread farther and farther east. The bulldozers and cranes crackle along, tearing up the earth and packaging up the only resource on the East End, sand. Trees are demolished, as the massive diggers load up 18-wheelers to transport sand to the nearest eroding beach. Soon there will be no sand left to mine, as the trenches grow deeper in the old sand dunes. What’s been dug out will be replaced with “the family home.” Hundreds of houses are scheduled to replace the hills, along with the neighboring woods, to support a new line of revenue, rental housing.
As I sit there on that branch looking west, my mind is no longer free of worry. Instead, I look west wondering just how much longer I have to enjoy this last, deserted getaway on the East End. Soon this oak will be a plastic house with four bedrooms, accompanied by a swimming pool and brick stone driveway. The people living here will never know what once was. Instead all they will ever picture will be their home surrounded by four more houses identical to their own.
As my home evolves into this tourist center, I have to wonder why I should stay. The emptiness no longer exists. The feeling of tranquility can no longer be found as nothing has been replaced with everything. It’s funny to be surrounded with everything, and yet you can never have exactly what you want.