Thursday, November 29, 2012

Meeting the Lindbergh of Mexico... in Tabernacle

Even as we uncover obscure places, people and facts around New Jersey, I keep a short list of more widely-known destinations in the back of my head for further exploration if we happen to be in the area. I've seen a good number of the old reliables that the guidebooks and other media have featured, but there are a few I haven't gotten to for one reason or another.

The Carranza Memorial is one of them. Deep in the Pinelands, it marks the spot where Mexican Air Force Captain Emilio Carranza's plane crashed on July 12, 1928. Dubbed the Charles Lindbergh of Mexico, the aviator was concluding a goodwill tour in the United States with an attempt to fly from Long Island to Mexico City. If successful, he would have achieved the second longest non-stop airplane flight to date, after Lindbergh's own New York to Paris achievement the year before. Unfortunately, it was not to be. The dashing young pioneer ran into a thunderstorm over southern New Jersey, and his plane plummeted to the ground in dense woods outside Tabernacle.

Carranza may have crashed in an obscure area, but he was not to be forgotten. A few years later, the crash location was marked by a monument erected by the Mexican government and funded by contributions from the country's school children. Constructed of brick stones mined from every state in Mexico, the moderately-sized obelisk is marked with an Aztec eagle and an arrow to represent the flight, plus inscriptions in Spanish and English.

Sounds pretty cool, right? And with a bird on the monument, it's right up Ivan's alley, so why the delay for us? Fact is, we hadn't made it to the general Carranza-politan area because the Pinelands is seldom birded. Yeah, it's an enormous, reasonably pristine stretch of forest, punctuated only occasionally by a town or a county road, but the habitat is much less varied than what you find in other wooded parts of the state. Just about everywhere you look, you see sandy soil and slim conifers, maybe with an oak thrown in for good measure. I could go into a dissertation as to why this is, but the short answer has to do with the porousness of the soil and, to some extent, the burn cycles that favor the existing flora. Bottom line, less variety leads to fewer species of birds. And, of course, birders go where they'll find many species or a sought-after specialty.

In any case, it's been on my 'go to' list for years, and I knew it was accessible because Mexican consular officials and the local American Legion hold a ceremony there every year. "How?" was the question. Every time I noticed the memorial on a map, deep within Wharton State Forest, no decent roads seemed to lead to it. Certainly there had to be a path or trail, but I'd seen enough sand roads off thoroughfares in the larger Pinelands to think twice about taking them. Getting stranded miles from help didn't sound like much fun.

Our recent Brig jaunt brought us near the Pinelands, so I suggested we might make a lengthy detour and attempt to find Carranza. After all, we still hadn't seen our desired cone seed-eating crossbills and evening grosbeaks, we'd be surrounded by conifers, and ... eh, who was I kidding? We were going to scour vast acres of pine trees on the futile search for birds? Let's just dive in and go. We plotted a general route on county roads from the refuge and were on our way.

Thing was, we were basically aiming to get to our desired location from Wharton's southern boundary, when the best route was probably from the north. If I was reading Ivan's ancient New Jersey map properly, we were bound to run into some sandy two-track roads once we were in the forest proper, but they appeared to be unmarked and confusing. Maybe it made some sense to stop and grab a map at Batsto Village, on the southern edge of the forest. Finding that was easy, given all of the directional signs on the road.

Now, the historic community of Batsto deserves an entry all to itself, and we'll definitely get there again for a closer look, but it was too late in the day us to do it justice on this trip. The information desk folks were very friendly and advised us to head north on a county road lining the eastern edge of Wharton, then make a left onto Speedwell-Friendship Road, which would bring us to Carranza Road and the memorial, directly across from the Batona camp. The paved road would turn to gravel, but at least we'd avoid the rutted sand/dirt roads.

We zoomed east and then north on the prescribed county roads, past cranberry bogs I recognized from my past visit to Chatsworth (you mean I'd been that close and didn't realize it???). Now fully harvested, the bogs were dry, the plants a dark red color that made them look berry stained. We went on a bit longer until we arrived at our left turn, Speedwell-Friendship Road.

Now we were truly in the Pines. Thin, scraggled trees lined both sides of the road, many so close together it appeared impossible to hike between them. "A deer could never get a rack through there," I observed as Ivan directed the car down the straight road. About three miles in, the road track turned to gravel -- not as secure as macadam but definitely preferable to sand. Overall, the surface quality was decent, with few potholes or other potential perils. Still, I'd avoid driving it at night; the desolation and lack of streetlights would create quite a challenge, particularly for those who fear old JD.

We made the right turn onto Carranza Road, hoping our destination wasn't that much further ahead. Cars and SUVs became visible through the trees on the side of the road, which meant we'd either reached the Batona camp, the memorial was a lot less hidden away than I'd thought, or we'd totally messed up and were headed into a more populated area we hadn't known about. Then....

There it was! Located in a large clearing, the obelisk is bordered by several hardy plants that reminded me somewhat of agave or aloe vera. The park was bigger than I thought it would be; somehow I'd imagined the memorial was just planted among the pines. Visitors can learn Carranza's story from a bilingual wayside marker, and two holes in the ground appear to be there to receive American and Mexican flags for the annual ceremony.

We were starting to lose sunlight, and we wanted to stop in Chatsworth, so we were on our way after paying our respects to Carranza. As luck would have it, the road turned from gravel to macadam maybe a mile or less north of the memorial. Keep it in mind if you want to make a visit there: the trip is quicker and smoother going south from Tabernacle, but if you want more of a Pinelands experience, come in from the south.

As I've been thinking about Carranza, I'm struck by a couple of things related to the popular comparison of him to Lindbergh. It's interesting to think that just a few years after Carranza's plane, reportedly an exact replica of The Spirit of St. Louis, crashed in the wilderness of the Pinelands, Lindbergh moved his family to a remote location in New Jersey's Sourlands, looking for a respite from unrelenting public attention. Lindbergh was forced to leave the country to find peace after the kidnap of his first child. Carranza is a footnote in world aviation history but is remembered by family, country and a small but dedicated group of New Jerseyans who return to his death site every year. Lindbergh's Sourlands estate is maybe a little less remote, but still obscure and hard to find unless you've found a local who can tell you where it is. That's a Hidden New Jersey jaunt for another time.

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