Before I hiked every week, understood blazes, owned a map, or could read a compass, I went on a hike in Ramapo Mountain State Forest with some friends. We hiked for a few hours that day and we didn’t even come to any interesting vistas. Not one. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable, just dawdling through the woods; the gears in my mind started to turn.
I was intrigued by each simple rocky incline and the dusty switchbacks that led down to the forest floor. It wasn’t apparent that there was a lot to see due to our directionless route, but I sensed the myriad of sights I could see if I could explore properly.
After missing a trail turnoff, we wound up using Google maps to bushwhack in the direction of our vehicle. At one point, we were hiking off-trail, on the steep hills alongside Skyline Drive, on piles of leaves, over fallen trees, and through thorny patches.
When we finally reunited with the trail, a family passed us. We asked where they were coming from and they told us that they had spent the afternoon at the lake. The man was nice enough to give us directions and as he walked away he told us that we should also check out the abandoned castle.
The family continued along the trail and left me wondering what exactly he was referring to. I was deeply intrigued by the idea of a castle out in the woods. A few months later, I returned and made my way to Ramapo Lake, found Van Slyke Castle, and saw the NYC skyline from a distance for the first time.
Now, the gears were really moving. I began researching interesting things to see in my local mountains. Eventually, I came across Wildcat Ridge in Morris County and read about St. Patrick’s Cemetery, an all but abandoned gravesite established in 1869 that remains along the Four Birds Trail.
So, I ventured out with my friend, Guy Pasquino, to find the site. Armed with a poorly-drawn map I found on the internet (I had not yet purchased my priceless NYNJTC maps) and a decent pack, we sauntered onto the trail.
For a while, the map served us well – or so we thought. We believed we were following the trail as we passed blaze after blaze. However, before we knew it, we were on a wide unmarked trail, the hanging trees creating a shadowy tunnel effect.
Once I was ready to admit that the map was entirely wrong and that we had been traveling in the wrong direction for at least half a mile, we both turned to go back the way we came. We were both immediately surprised to see a man hiking about 30-yards behind us.
The hiker was clearly older, very frail, and his skin appeared jaundice. He was moving slowly with his walking branch tapping the ground lightly as he glided in our direction. As he got closer to us, I could start to make out his “Hiking Is My Medicine” t-shirt.
It was somewhat creepy to find this man so close to us without either of us noticing, but he looked harmless and I needed directions to the cemetery. I didn’t want to leave without finding the focal trail feature. I approached the man.
We greeted each other with evolutionary weariness; he stared at my hunting knife as I stared at his hand buried in his pocket. I asked him for directions to the cemetery and he immediately made it clear that he knew exactly where we needed to go.
He pulled his own map out of his pocket and explained our route in a low, gravelly voice. We thanked him for his time and carried on back in the direction we came while the older stranger took small, quiet steps in the opposite direction.
Guy and I followed the directions. The forest remained mostly silent, but we were talking as we moved deliberately. 15 minutes had passed before we arrived at a steep decline. As we turned to make our way down the small hill, we were caught off-guard by the young couple sitting on a small stone at the bottom.
As we passed, we nodded in their direction politely. Before we could pass them, the bearded man in a red-flannel shirt lifted his head and asked, “you the guys looking for the cemetery?” We halted our steps and turned toward the man.
“Um,” I started, noticeably confused, “yes.”
“Yea, he told us,” said the friendly looking woman, also wearing a red-flannel top.
This downright startled us. I imagine we looked it as we stared, brows furrowed, at the flanneled pair. Likely sensing our growing discomfort, the couple made small talk with us about hiking, the surrounding woods, and the history of the hills we hiked.
We kept it brief and kept it moving. Although the many different explanations crossed my mind, I skeptically settled on the idea that a phone call had been placed, even though no mention of a relationship or of a phone call was made.
Since I was confident that the strangers we encountered posed no physical threat, we followed the new set of directions given to us. We truly had been traveling in the entirely wrong direction and found ourselves crossing a few unique sections the trail: rock-hopping over a tributary, passing along a dilapidated concrete building, and finally, onto a very, thin strip of dirt between two walls of tall grass.
The air seemed to thicken within these high blades and the trail seemed to narrow as we moved. It looked like the path led out of the grass about 10 yards ahead. I raised my eyes to see the same old man from earlier step in front of me at the exit of the grassy hall. He looked to his left and pointed.
“There’s the cemetery,” he faintly hollered.
I hesitated a moment. “Thank you!” I screamed back, “what’s your name?”
“Bruce,” he said as he ambled off to the right, “enjoy!”
We followed the direction of his finger and turned as we emerged from the grass. We were staggered to see the wooden “St. Patrick’s Cemetery – Established 1869” sign, with countless, transient tombstones in the background. We caught Bruce’s figure disappear around a curve and gave each other a disturbed glance.
To this day, I joke that we were guided by ghosts on the trail that day. However, it still begs the question, how was that old, sickly looking man able to beat us to the cemetery if he was moving the opposite direction? Sure, it is likely that he just knew the trails better than we did – creepy nonetheless. I would be move convinced of his being a spirit if he wasn’t wearing a graphic tee, but who knows what ghosts wear nowadays?
We dropped our packs and stepped beyond the sign into the cemetery. There were many broken gravestones rising through thick, unkempt weeds. The newest tombstone, apparently from the 1940’s, stood higher and cleaner than the rest on the perimeter.
Many members of the Hart family were buried at this site, some as young as teenagers when they died. It was clearly rough living in these mountains back in the last 1800’s. It turns out a lot of these people were miners who worked in tunnels cut into the mountains below. A church fire eventually led the village to relocate, abandoning their loved ones’ remains and leaving nature to overtake the area.
The cemetery itself was both tragic and oddly beautiful. Each burial site told its own unique story: patriarchs and matriarchs
buried side-by-side, newborns and infants, and entire families. We took time to admire as many of the stones as possible before heading back towards the parking lot.
The way back to the car was quick and easy as the trailhead was closer by than I had originally calculated using that erroneous map. Within minutes we were back in the parking lot, still questioning why we wound up having personal, possibly supernatural trail guides.
This hike turned out to be one of my most memorable, despite not featuring any spectacular views, due to the events that occurred and the people we met. When an unusual trail feature is added to the mix, a trip like this is easy to recall.