Sunday, March 7, 2010

Outdoor Ghosts

Note: Ten years ago, I decided to do my sister a painting of “Witch’s Hollow” from memory (mentioned below). I am not only an amateur at painting, but the memories of the place were difficult to access without any reference pictures. This is the painting I produced from a memory decades old. I was never pleased with the lighting, but it really is basically how the place looked. Some day, I really should finish this--I'm sure she'd love to see the place again since we have no photo references.

We hear a lot about ghosts within buildings, held to the sentimentality of the structure, remaining in the site in which they died. What we don’t hear quite as often are outdoor ghosts.

La Llorona is a popular outdoor ghost here in the West and Resurrection Mary is the popular one in the East. La Llorona is a womanly ghost who cries for her missing child. There are many variations of the story from her child being murdered by her abusive lover to being drowned in a flashflood. Here in my neck of the woods there’s a report of one about 25 miles away in a wash (or as westerners call it an “arroyo”). These separated mother and child scenarios are the most popular outdoor ghost here, but in the East, you have the hitchhiking ladies. Resurrection Mary is a ghost often sighted in the Chicago area where she supposedly is seen in white alongside the roadway, even picked up by drivers who later found out they took a ghost for a drive. Similar such roadside lades in white have been reported around the Midwest and East.

As well, outdoor ghosts are reported on battlefields such as Gettysburg and here in the West ancient Native American warriors are viewed upon occasion. There is also a legend in Arizona about the Army Corp’s camels. Back in the 1800s the Army Corp decided since camels survive well in deserts, they would be a great way to travel supplies and men distances, so they incorporated them. Later, they let them loose. People still report a stray camel with a ghostly army man atop of him haunting the desert.

The reason outdoor ghosts aren’t reported as much is because of simple logistics. The outdoors are a huge area and your chances of being in the spot where ghostly phenomenon is occurring are very low. As well, outdoor lighting and sounds can distract from any actual phenomenon. If the leaves are blowing in the wind, you have an automatic debunking excuse for anything you hear. Within a quiet building, light, shadows, cold spots, and sounds are much easier to detect.

We had a good deal of outdoor hauntings at Aspen Grove. One was a dark caped man who peeked into the cottage windows and rode our horses fenced in the field near the woods. There were a few places, like near the hickory grove, that had whispering voices. There was the supposed drowned nurse who screamed down near the creek.

But, the one that disturbed me the most was in the woods.

I loved to follow the Pohick Creek (I have to laugh because as a kid, I thought that meant “poor hick” with a southern accent. I later found out it was a tributary of the Potomac—duh). Well, I’d follow this fascinating creek through our yard and into the woods. There it was a tangled gnarly mass of sumac, raspberry brambles, and saplings. I had to trudge in the stream to stay away from the plants and ticks. Eventually, I came to my favorite place in the world, “Witch’s Hollow.” That’s what my sister named it and was the perfect name because it was magical and also seemed like it had slate shelving that created an altar with a waterfall, all lined by thick spongy moss.

When standing on the mossy bank and playing in the stream, I could look across to the other shore, wet slick slate shelving created a height of about 6’. The land and trees met that shelf and so the forest was elevated there.

It was in that forest that I first saw him.

I came looking for crawdads and avoiding the light pitter patter of a drizzly day under the protective canopy of the woods. The greens were bright and lush in the dull air and the stream was bubbling and gurgling and tinkling over the 3-foot waterfall.

I was on my knees on the moss when I heard a limb on the ground snap like someone stepped on it, so I glanced up. We had a lot of wildlife including deer, but they avoided people like mad. The deer would come out into our yard only at sunset when no one was around. I expected to see an unsuspecting deer that didn’t realize I was quietly sitting there.

The strip of woods across from me were not only elevated, but about 50 feet deep before it met with a meadow. This created a back lighting for the trees within. I tilted my head up and surveyed the area. When I didn’t see anything, but still felt as if something was watching me, I stood up and peered up into the woods.

My eyes scanned back and forth amongst the wet dark bark of the trees in search of something moving within. The tiny leaves of the sumac danced from the droplets of rain and when I was about to shrug and go back down to poke around the rocks in the creek, I caught the shaking of a slender sapling out of the corner of my eye. I turned my head to the left and squinted at the young tree when I saw something behind it to the left a bit more that was not a tree. It was a dusky deep gray and seemed soft compared to the bumpy bark around it. I studied the strange wrinkling creases and length of it, my eyes traveling up. My heart thumped wildly when I realized I was looking at pant legs!

I knew I shouldn’t have come to the creek alone. Sometimes, the prison had loose prisoners and it became mayhem as the cops canvassed the woods in search of them. I stepped back behind the huge old tree near the water’s edge and waited for him to notice me there. The top of him was obliterated by the waving leaves of a young sapling, but I noted an arm come up as if he were touching his face. The body pivoted away and took one step and was gobbled up by the thicket.

I listened cautiously for the sound of him walking away having not seen me. I was both relieved and still frightened. Something about him just wasn’t right. Not one footfall or broken branch sounded, but he was gone. I waited a long while before I leapt over and climbed the shelving to get up there and check.

I went to the spot where I had seen the legs standing and studied the damp leaves and ground below. Not a single footprint or mark of someone standing and pivoting and yet my own feet sank into the ground. I looked over to where I had stood and saw that there was a clear view for him to have seen me. As I walked back towards the water, I found the broken branch on the ground that I heard snap.

For weeks I avoided the creek. Autumn was in full-force now and the colors were blinding. The plant life was of such a variety that we literally got every color imaginable. With my love of autumn forests (wonder why?), I finally gave in and went back to Witch’s Hollow. This time, I kept my eyes and ears alert for intruders. To my way of seeing it, this man was just an intruder trespassing and long gone, so I relaxed and proceeded to do some sketching.

I couldn’t help scanning the area up above. This time, it wasn’t long before I saw a movement as I was lifting my head. I watched this man in what looked like dingy deep gray clothing walking between the trees. He looked kind of slight and small and I wondered at first if it was a kid walking with sort of unsure footing as if evaluating every place he stepped down, his shoulders hunched over.

There was something about it that was not child-like, though. The clothing was all wrong. He seemed to have a strangely thick belt at his waist and his top looked more like a jacket than a shirt.

I watched as he stalked behind a tree and then didn’t come back out. I leapt to my feet and raced along the water further down to see behind the tree in case he’d turned away toward the field. He hadn’t. I jumped the narrow part of the creek there and clambered up the hillside and to the spot. It probably took me all of two minutes max. Not a person anywhere in sight. He couldn’t have even run out of there that fast. I wandered around in circles looking for him, but he was gone.

Within the same week, I was back there, determined to catch this guy. This time, instead of staying down below, I snuck up where he liked to walk and perched myself between a tree that had split into two during a storm and left a nice little perch. I curled up, my sweater pulled up tightly around me, bright neon lives dancing in my field of vision and my cold breath puffing in front of me.

I was there a good 45 minutes, maybe an hour. My legs were numb, my fingers and nose icy cold. I heard it then. The sound of a few lightweight footfalls in the fallen leaves. I studied the woods which on a heavy gray autumn day were illuminated more by the leaves than the sun going through fat clouds. The gray was stark against the leaves and I saw him doing his little dainty dog step, lifting his legs high up and over fallen tree limbs, and taking his time as he zig-zagged through the trees perhaps 20 feet away from me. I tried not to move or even breathe for fear he might turn.

This time, I was able to see his bulky waist belt and it looked to be empty, though it appeared as if it might have at one time housed weapons or tools. He lifted his hand to his head. I thought maybe he was swiping back his hair which I couldn’t really seen in detail, but the way he held his hand to his forehead looked concerning. It was kind of like when you cut yourself and you gingerly test the wound. He seemed to sway just a touch before he stepped behind the bright red leaves of a sumac and disappeared.

This time, I leapt down and chased after him. If he was an introducer, I’d chew him out, after all, he looked to be about my size. I was in that spot within 10-15 seconds probably.

He was gone.

I looked over the moist ground. Not one single footprint, though my sneaker left one just standing there. I caught a whiff of the air and it reminded me of the musky old books in our summer home, the scent of mold and dust combined with something like gunpowder, a metallic scent. I sniffed the bushes and tree and walked around in a circle, unable to capture the scent again. I searched desperately the entire area as fast as possible but not a single sign of a footprint or a moving man.

Winter came and I avoided the creek until well into the spring thaw. Upon occasion in the autumn, I saw glimpses of him again. It was admittedly less rare that I went to this spot, as I was busy chasing live boys around that time.

My ultimate conclusion was some kind of young wounded soldier from the Civil War. I came to that conclusion when I looked through my mother’s treasured history books in our home library room and found a picture of a man in his uniform that looked remarkably similar.

Do I believe there can be outdoor hauntings? Heck, yeah.

I still think about that soldier and feel a tender concern for his lack of weapons and injury. I wonder if he repeats in a loop for all eternity, never finding his home. I also found it interested that he seemed to be unaware of me while I was aware of him, which would say that if a ghost is a spirit, they’re not necessarily omnipotent. It would appear by his repeated trail along the same line of trees and inability to recognize me that this was a residual haunting, a moment in time caught in a loop.

That I got to witness it and even smell a the lingering scent associated was one of the most amazing moments ever. I have seen a full-body apparition before that I saw very clearly and who seemed to look directly at me. This, however, was a man glimpsed in portions, some obliterated by foliage and with the backlighting, his features were shadowed, but he was a full body. Some day, I’d love to go back there in the fall and see if he still stomps around.


  1. Also growing up with ghosts...the indoor type...I must say I never tried to chase one down.

    You should definately finish your painting... it is good. Your sister may want it as is.

  2. That so, so, soooo looks like a scene right out of Hunts Woods Park, a haunted wood surrounded by the wreckage of suburban sprawl near where I grew up in neighboring Bronxville, NY. Unlike the map designates, one actually can access it from Gramatan Aveenue, named after Chief Gramatan, a sachem or sagamore (head chief) of a nearby Native American nation-tribe. Ya see, Autumn, the reason it's haunted is that there's a Native American burial ground in there, unbeknowst to the otherwise informed public. Very nice painting, BTW, even for an amateur ~ (•8-D

  3. Thanks, ya'all! I really wasn't thinking it was a ghost when I chased it at first, but then I kind of got the weird feeling something wasn't right about it.

    I love finding places like this in the woods. My favorite place to stay in West Virginia has a creek just like that one running through it. I could chase that thing for hours. I'm a freak about streams and running water. I think it's very spiritually energizing. You know, I never thought to look up the Native American settlements around that area, but the house I grew up in was originally built as a fort against Native Americans, so I'm thinking...maybe there was some sacred ground there, as well. Intriguing thought. I spent my childhood digging up countless arrowheads. It got to the point where I'd just throw them back down since I had so many.

  4. Ah, so this explains even more some of your story ideas and why you gravitate a certain way. Interesting!

  5. Hey Court;
    Lots of theories, lots of autumn, lots of woods, stones and streams. I'm a naturalist that way--the earth has all the secrets and I just find ways to express them in my writing. I'm so thankful for the setting I grew up in--definitely makes me a romantic at heart and not scared of digging around in crawlspaces with snakes and digging up bones.