Where can the East Coast wilderness buff find wild woods as endless as Yosemite National park, yet within driving distance of Washington or New York?
New Jersey, believe it or not.
The Jersey Pine Barrens stretch some 650,000 acres through the southeastern and southcentral part of the state. Through the years they've stood up to the onslaughts of man and machine, and today they are for the most part empty.
Some of the land is state-owned, some privately held, and a great part of it seems to be plain non-owned, without sign of use or improvement. It is wild and nearly impenetrable, left to the deer and grouse and wild dogs that flourish there.
It was not ever thus, John McPhee wrote a compellingly interesting study on the Barrens for The New Yorker magazine in 1967, in which he described periods when the Pines were hopping with farming and industry. There were logging operations and charcola and iron manufacturing spurts in colonial days, when iron was discovered in the rocks along the beds of the clear, cold creeks that are everywhere in the Barrens.
There were and still are big cranberry and blueberry operations, and around Christmastime sprigs of holly, mistletoe, cedar and pine were collected and sold to the city folks for decorations.
But most of these occupations have been passed over by time and America's answer to all slow and steady things, progress. Progress left only a few stragglers behind to squeeze a livelihood out of the dark and damp scrub forests, and these people are called Pineys.
Tom Brown fancies himself a Piney, although today he lives in Wanamassa, several miles north of the northern edge of the Barrens. He was born in the Pines, the son of Scottish immigrants who settled after World War II in Chatsworth, a small town near the center of the Pines.
Brown continues to live the nomadic life of a Piney - his only semi-straight job is sweeping up parking lots two nights a week for a friend in the contracting business.
"I work enough to keep me going. The rest of the time I spend in the barrens. I'll show you why."
With that Brown sets us off in his rattletrap Landcruiser for a rumble through the cedar, scrub oak and pine woods, along ancient sand roads, some dating to colonial times, that somehow stay cleared and that somehow he can tell apart.
We go to Forked River Mountain, 25 feet above sea level, from which we can look over an endless panorama of more scrub oak, cedar, pine and streams. We go to the fire tower, where we can see still more of the dame. And in eight hours of wandering through back roads and woods, we see not one other person.
We stop only when we hit a high spot, when we roust a grouse from the sandy roadside or when we see deer tracks. Because tracking is Brown's obsession.
It is an art he learned alone, when he had nothing to do as a child but wander the hardscrabble landscape and look for distractions. He has tacked dog packs, deer, raccoons and every other wild creature that travels the pines. But mostly he tracks people, some hopelessly lost on hunting expeditions in the Pines, others who have slipped into the wilderness to seal dope deals, strip cars or deposit bodies. He helps the police when he's asked.
Lately his Pines-learned trade has taken him far afield. Last month he was in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, to track a lost oil company executive, whose footsteps he found leading off a cliff. Before that he was brought in on a North Jersey rape case and tracked down a man later accused of armed robbery, though never held on the rape charges.
But for Brown the deepest thrill remains in tracking deer through the unyielding brush of the Barrens, and his chief goal no longer is shooting them. "I had to shoot deer as a child to eat. And when we didn't have enough money for shells I'd stand by a trail and wait to spear them. I don't have any taste for the hunt left."
So now when Brown goes in the woods to track deer, his coup de grace is applied with the flat of his palm. He sneaks up on them or lays an ambush, and when the unsuspecting buck or doe draws close, he draws back and whacks it on the behind.
It might take days and it yields nothing. It's a sport for a Piney, a man without a mind for time and circumstance.