On a cool weekday earlier in May this year, having driven for miles to synchronise existential thoughts to musical rhythm, alongside a fine tapestry of sounds created by Erik Satie, Herbert Pixner, Evgeny Grinko, Estas Tonne and others, I found myself meandering along chords that lend themselves to such peripatetic philosophical pursuits. I finally arrived at a crossroads, two roads poetically diverged. Feeling the least bit apologetic for not being able to travel both, since unlike the interchangeable and more or less equally worn roads of Robert Frost’s most notable poem, in my particular case, taking only one of them actually made all the difference. So I detoured from the I-80 W onto what is known as the Old Mine Road.
Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’, was published in 1916 as the first poem in the collection Mountain Interval. The Old Mine Road too is very much a little traversed road along a true geological Mountain Interval. Racing towards the unbroken chain of the gorgeous Blue Mountains that run for 50 miles, rising up to an impressive 2000 feet, where the Delaware forces it’s passage through a deep chasm called the Delaware Water Gap, the vehicle finally sauntered alongside this river for miles, right up to the old and first settlements of Hollanders in a place called Meenesink. All the while fern glades and vertical wooded groves flitted past. It was quietly serene, the woody hillsides punctuated by patches of unfurling fronds of bulblet bladder ferns. These Pteridophytes are charming, they lend a touch of enchantment to any forest space and inspire poetry. Here I stopped to notice how they pushed themselves so delicately through the soft organic ground naturally mulched by the leaves of Fall, sunlight barely peeping through the thick crowns overhead and all seemed well with the world. I think the philosophy of excursions is synesthetically felt where words and thoughts dissolve into the landscape, all the while viewing through a kaleidoscopic lens of the green.
The leaves glint a Morse code, thoughts assume an opacity and I absorb the beauty, for truly, what more is there to do here, except that the leaves synchronize their flutter per the rhythm of the music and the birds add the choral. It truly is serene and it feels meditative. But there is much here that is also grounded in the concrete and humanly practical, like the myriad dwellings in various stages of decay; some stamped with plaques attesting to their historical significance, the bronze glinting in the midday sun.
In her book, ‘That Ancient Trail’, Amelia Stickney Decker writes about The Bell House, now the home of Mr. and Mrs. Burson Bell, which is situated on the Old Mine Road about three miles south of another building of historical importance, The Brick House Hotel. It is marked by a bronze marker, erected by the Sussex County Historical Society and Chinckchewunska Chapter D.A.R. which stands along this old highway at the entrance to the land leading to the house. It is one of three houses now standing that were a part of the ancient village of Meenesink ; perhaps make a note of these if you ever think to drive this route. In his 2006 article, On That Road Again, Bob Koppenhaver writes in encyclopedic detail about the background to the Old Mine Road and the surrounding vistas.
In their treatise, Historical collections of the state of New Jersey, the authors John Warner Barbe, and Henry Howe made mention of the accounts of old settlements along the Delaware river. They cited information taken from the Hazard’s Register, that was in turn extracted from two letters written by Samuel Preston, Esq., in June, 1828 which are about the Meenesink, Mine Holes, & c. Apparently the writer of the letter went on his first surveying tour in Northampton County in 1787, receiving instructions and narratives about a visit made earlier to Meenesink by the famous surveyor Nicholas Scull in 1730. As N. Scull and his apprentice John Lukens examined the banks of the river in Meenesink , they were wholly of the opinion that all the Meenesink flats had at some very former age been a deep lake before the river broke through the mountain, and that the best interpretation they could make of Meenesink was, ‘the water is gone’. Well, yes, the water is gone, there is no lake, no mines, but the place steeped in the antiquity of a few centuries and is now listed on Google Maps as Minisink. The change of a vowel, a drastic progression in the industry of humans and time takes on a torpor that is so very dissimilar to the frenzied ecological succession that reigns supreme in the biological world. Minisink is a quiet town, the Old Mine Road runs through a region of quiet solitude.
It has a trajectory of about 40 miles through an area that would have in an earlier time, had the Delaware been dammed as per the now abandoned Tocks Island Dam Project in the 1960’s, been under water along with its antiquated edifices; a road that predated William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges for Pennsylvania, a road that was steeped in legend because some enterprising Dutchmen happened to discover copper ore in a ravine. The controversial Dam project was abandoned in the 1960’s and was never constructed, instead the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (DWGNRA), (along the northwestern edges of Warren and Sussex Counties on its way to Kingston), was established. The condemned district, the razed structures, communities displaced and then finally a lull after the storm and now here I am, amidst pristine glades, quietude, bulblet ferns and the sounds of birds.
As Estas Tonne passionately strums ‘Place of the Gods’, I wonder if this is what the area was eventually meant to be? One of the first good roads to be made in the United States at any time, when the State of New York fell from the government of Holland to the British in 1664, no records of it survived except that there were now mine holes overrun with bushes alluding to the fact that there was some mining done there.
In that letter to the Hazard’s register, neither the authors nor any of the informants providing anecdotal evidence, were quite well able to hypothesize what exactly was mined along the Old Mine Road, (an abundance of ore of perhaps lead or silver), save for some insight that two mines did exist, one on the Delaware river, where the mountain nearly approaches the lower point of Pahaquarry Flat, the other at the north foot of the same mountain, almost half way between the Delaware and Esopus.
I am faintly amused as my playlist goes on in its own eclectic fashion; a Swedish folkloric melody now, Herr Mannelig. An 1877 song about a mountain troll who proposes marriage to a young man on a promise of gold and silver;
To you I wish to give the twelve mills That are between Tillö and Ternö The stones are made of the reddest gold And the wheels are covered in silver
An excerpt and translation from Swedish, Herr Mannelig, from the album Guds spelemän by Garmarna in 1996.
Yes, men are beguiled by the lure of gold and silver in the elusive mountains. The trees that look like mountain trolls beckon, the mountain promise is beheld but alas, no gold nor silver were to be found in the now abandoned mine holes of the Old Mine Road.
But precious metals are not why I drive along this antiquated roadway. It is as one of the writers of the volume on historical collections of the state of NJ so succinctly summarized, his experience of the Blue Mountains is that it mirrors mine as I drive along this ancient route. He wrote:
“Visit those lonely regions, where, retired From little scenes of art, great Nature dwells In awful solitude.”