Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Traveling into the vortex of Ong's Hat

Running into some massive construction-related congestion on the Parkway north from Brigantine, we took the first available exit and ended up on Route 72 west.

Nowadays, it's almost a reflex to grab the GPS to get the next best route, but in this case, we knew it was just going to put us back into the road mess we were seeking to avoid. Other than the traffic light-infested Route 9, there aren't a heck of a lot of other roads that link coastal South Jersey back to home base. It was a job that only a map could handle, as Ivan reminded me. I was riding shotgun, so he suggested I look in the glove compartment, as there had to be something useful there.

I rattled around and found an official New Jersey map published by the state… for the Bicentennial. Yup, on the back was the characteristically bad photo of then-governor Brendan Byrne, and a classically colonial scene on the front. Ah, yes, New Jersey was the crossroads of the Revolution. Not surprisingly, while it showed the key mid-20th century roads, the map was just a little inaccurate after 35 years. Shadows of the proposed paths of Interstates 287 and 78 were outlined where there are now regular rush hour traffic jams.

"This map is ancient!" I exclaimed.

"Hey!" Ivan protested. "Some of those dirt roads are still in existence!" Come to think of it, we were in the part of the state where that's true, so this map was as good as anything else that might be hiding in the glove box. Who was I to talk, anyway? I was consulting a 70 year old WPA travel guide to New Jersey for roadside attractions. As we continued west on 72, I scanned the map, looking for an alternate route, I saw a familiar name.

"Ong's Hat! We've gotta go to Ong's Hat!"

What the GPS would have looked like,
had we still been using it. No road is always the sign
of a good road trip destination.
It's a funny name for a strange little town ... or lack of town. Among Jerseyphiles, Ong's Hat is both famous for its story and a prime roadtrip destination because it doesn't really exist anymore. Located deep in the Pinelands, it was a thriving little community during colonial times and into the mid 1800’s. According to legend, it was home to a dandy named Ong who was quite the ladies' man. His multi-dating ways apparently angered one of the local young ladies so much that she grabbed his silk top hat and tossed it into a tree in frustration. The hat was so noticeable and stayed in the tree so long that it became a landmark: "Make a right turn at Ong's Hat."

Much, much later, Ong's Hat became the setting for a very strange supernatural tale that takes a variety of different directions, depending on who you talk to. The writer Joseph Matheny claims that it all started with a man named Wali Fard, who bought a few hundred acres of the Pinelands in the 1950’s. Along with a couple of anarchist lesbians (or are they lesbian anarchists? You decide!) and some runaways from Paramus (why is it always Paramus?) he started a cult called the Moorish Science Ashram.

That’s not all that strange, but it gets better. Allegedly, the site held a vortex that led to an alternate universe, discovered by discredited Princeton physics professors who were somehow influenced by the nearby Fort Dix and McGuire Air Force Base. The proximity to the famed Lakehurst Air Naval Base probably didn’t hurt either: it was the site of the famous Hindenberg explosion. Through a series of experiments, the scientists found the gateway to another dimension, which they’d accessed through use of a capsule shaped like a human sized egg. I wouldn’t doubt that there were drugs involved, too. From a story like that, you’d kind of expect there were. Or maybe even hope… In any case, it’s the kind of story that makes the Jersey Devil pale by comparison.

With this kind of information in hand, is it any wonder I got Ivan to steer the car to the traffic circle where Routes 72 and 70 intersect? Yes, like everything else in the Garden State, Ong’s Hat isn’t far away from a traffic circle, the original Jersey vortex.

Trouble was, I can never remember which of the turns off the circle will bring you to Ong’s Hat, and it’s not as if there’s a sign to point you. And once you do make the turn, there’s a good couple of miles of solid scrub pine before you reach any sign of civilization. In other words, it takes a while to confirm you’re on the right path. Unless you’re very good at recognizing specific trees – not species of tree, the tree itself. Or unless you’ve got the GPS running, which we no longer did.

After a piece, though, I realized we had, indeed, made the wrong turn, which created a small bit of frustration, but we worked it out and found our way to Ong’s Hat Road. And then zipped right through it, avoiding the vortex completely.

Downtown Ong's Hat.
In reality, the supernatural story was the product of some very active imaginations on the internet, and there’s nothing at Ong’s Hat now but the shuttered Magnolia Road Tavern. It used to be a biker bar, with bars on the small windows and the Tasmanian Devil and other Warner Bros cartoons painted on the walls. The tavern was for sale when I first visited in late 2009, and it’s still for sale today. If you have $155,000, an interest in vortices and a willingness to run a biker bar, it's all yours.

As for Ivan and me, we'd already had a long day and we just wanted to get home. We'd have to leave Ong's Hat (and birding the surrounding pines) for another day.

1 comment:

  1. wasn't there an old "mansion" on the hill next to Pemberton Lake on Magnolia Road?


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