Category Archives: Travel

FISH BAIT

The Lore:

Crazy Woman Camp, Why, AZ

In the far reaches of southern Arizona, just north of Organ Pipe National Monument, lies the tiny hamlet of Why. Little more than a wide spot in the road, the town’s main attraction is a rustic market and gift shop –  aptly named “The Why Not Store”. One can purchase fuel, snacks and Mexican insurance before traveling across the border. Some partake of homemade biscuits and gravy at the restaurant next door, and many of those folks are winter visitors who populate the nearby RV parks and BLM land in campers and RVs.

Gunsight Wash is a favorite of those “dry campers” – people with self-contained rigs who prefer solitude to a crowded RV park.

The local Border Patrol division maintains a strong presence in the area, monitoring the adjacent Tohono O’odham tribal land providing campers with a sense of security. Well traveled routes are used by illegal immigrants and Mexican drug cartels. Unfortunately, many illegals venturing into the U.S. with a backpack of canned tuna, a change of clothes and dreams of wealth face harsh conditions in the desert. Hikers and OHV riders often stumble upon shallow graves or sun bleached skeletons.

On a day hike near Gunsight Wash, I discovered a primitive but elaborate campsite with an odd history. It was located in the middle of nowhere, next to a dry wash, which made the find even more astounding. How could anyone survive out there for any length of time?

At first glance, it was obvious the occupant exerted great effort to make the area “homey”, circling bushes and trees with carefully placed stones.

A four-foot tall rock oven with metal grates had been built beneath a sprawling Ironwood tree. Positioned on top of the fireplace was an empty liquor bottle bearing a hand-written card – “Crazy Woman Camp”. Upon closer inspection, I found a note inside which read:

“The way the story goes is this – A woman and her son lived in town where the son got into drugs and such. Determined to free her son of his demons, she set camp on this spot. Days filled with desert solitude, loneliness & hard living, the son was forced to give up his sinful ways. Living in a tent, they built the stonework you see & buried their horse in a grave just to the west of here. Locals called her Crazy Woman but far from crazy, I think she was a loving mother who was willing to suffer along with son to bring him to a better life.”

After wandering around the area, I discovered two graves a short distance away which may or may not have been the final resting places of Crazy Woman and her son. Closer to the camp was a large mound where their horse allegedly was buried. Scratched into the surface of a flat stone read the words, “A Man’s Best Pal”.

I often wonder what happened to Crazy Woman. The desert and isolation can magnify irrational thought. Perhaps she could no longer function in society and found peace with her own reality in the harsh elements. Regardless, I feel there is more to her legacy than what was written inside that empty liquor bottle.

The Story:

Fish Bait

by Debra S. Sanders

Jack Brody eased back on the accelerator, bringing his ATV to a halt near a barren patch of desert next to an Ironwood tree. Removing his helmet, he glanced around the primitive campsite before shutting off the engine and disembarking.

She’s not here.

Walking to the back of his vehicle, he removed a case of water strapped to the rack and placed it next to the tree. A tiny puff of smoke emanated from a rock fireplace a few feet away, suggesting Crazy Woman might be hiding. He grinned. She was a feisty old gal.

“Hey, Nana . . . where you at?”

Jack sauntered to the edge of a wide wash and slid down the four-foot embankment to soft sand and gravel. It was hot and dry this time of year. Even the rattlesnakes stayed underground during the day. His brows drew together as he searched the dusty landscape. What if Nana was sick? Heatstroke  wasn’t uncommon during the summer months in southern Arizona, especially for the elderly. Why the hell an eighty-year-old woman would want to live out here was beyond his comprehension. Maybe she didn’t have any money or family – at least none who cared.

Jack scratched the back of his head, eyes running up and down the wash. One of his buddies said she moved to the desert with her son ten years ago. The teenager fell into dangerous habits involving drugs and she thought the isolation would cure him of his “demons. If that were true, the kid must have hauled ass a long time ago. And ho would blame him if he did? This place was as close to Hell as anyone could get without dying.

He crawled up the embankment and headed for the shade, still worried but needing a cooler place to think. Nana was tough but not that tough.

After discovering the withered old woman during his first week working at the local Border Patrol division, Jack took it upon himself to bring her care packages on a regular basis, keeping his off-duty activities a secret until another agent saw him in the desert.

“She’s loco,” he warned Jack. “We stay away from Crazy Woman’s camp. You best do the same.”

Jack refused to heed his co-worker’s advice, continuing to make weekly visits to the woman he nicknamed “Nana” and establishing an uneasy trust similar to feeding a feral animal.

As he brushed dirt from his jeans, a low, husky voice crept over Jack’s shoulder like a slithering serpent.

“Jaaaack . . .”

He whirled around, smiling at the hunched figure eyeing him from a few feet away. White hair stuck out in tufts from under a sweat-stained cowboy hat. Coppery wrinkles lined her face, the result of too much time under an unforgiving sun.

“I brought you a case of water.”

“I see. You good boy, Jack.”

He wiped his brow with the back of his hand. “It’s gonna be real hot for the next few days. Why don’t I take you to Ajo? One of the churches opened a shelter for people with nowhere to go.”

“I got a place. This my home.”

“It’s a tent, Nana, not a home.”

She jutted her chin and looked away. “Home.”

“When was the last time you ate?”

“Yesterday. Maybe longer. But today, Jack, I eat good. Let me cook for you.”

He arched a brow. “What you got to cook?”

The old woman flashed a broad smile. Most of her front teeth were missing, evidenced by a gaping hole. “Big surprise. You stay, Jack. I cook.”

His mouth twisted to one side, contemplating the invitation. He was off work until Thursday. It wasn’t as if anyone was waiting at home. Why the hell not? “Okay, Nana. I’ll stay but I want to work for my supper. What can I do to help?”

“Rocks. I need more rocks for my garden.”

Jack bit his tongue to keep from laughing. No wonder all the agents called her Crazy Woman. She’d gathered stones from the desert and boxed in every bush and tree around her camp. Some of the edgings were shaped in hearts, others a linear border. Further away, small bits of white quartz formed a maze. Or walk. Or some kind of odd shape she’d dreamed up in her head. Not that it mattered because in Nana’s mind it was pretty.

Pulling a backpack from his ATV, Jack wandered a short distance into the desert and began filling the bag with baseball sized rocks. Damn, it was hot. How did the old gal keep from getting heat stroke?

He looked up just as she removed something from inside a ragged piece of old canvas. What the heck was she up to now?

Jack dumped his bag of rocks near the Ironwood tree and grabbed one of the waters from the case. He drained half the contents while watching her place a slab of pink meat on the grill. “What ’cha got there?”

“Fish.”

His brows shot up. “Fish? Where’d you get fish, Nana? There ain’t no water around here.”

“I know where to go but not as many fish as there used to be. Harder to catch.” She stoked the coals without looking up. Smoke curled around her hunched figure, hiding her face.

He shook his head and walked back to the ATV. That wasn’t fish. Maybe rabbit. Jack stopped and looked back. Aw, hell . . . it was probably coyote.

“Jack, come here. Eat.”

His first instinct was to leave but he didn’t want to hurt the old woman’s feelings. Wiping his hands on a faded rag, Jack turned and made his way back to the masonry fireplace.  “Smells good.”

She shot him a toothless grin. “I smoked this piece just for you. It real tender. Sit on that rock.”

He did as requested, easing his large frame onto a flat topped boulder. A few minutes later, gnarled fingers handed him a six-inch strip of meat on a mat woven from grass. A gooey sauce lathered its surface topped with what he guessed were dried herbs.

Jack stared at the charred meat for a full minute before tearing off a sliver and sliding it into his mouth. He rolled it over his tongue before swallowing, surprised by the flavor. Not gamey at all. And tender, just like she said.

“This is good, Nana. I really like the sauce.”

The old woman cackled. “See. I tell you.”

He needed no encouragement to finish the meal. “It was nice of you to share your food. I know you don’t have a lot to eat.”

She shrugged. “It been slow fishing with all this heat but I got good bait. I know how to catch ’em.”

“Well, you’ll have to tell me your secret. The last time I went fishing, I didn’t even get a bite.”

Blue eyes twinkled beneath the brim of her hat. “Used to be easier. You soldier men chase the fish away.”

A thick line formed between his brows. Was she talking about the Border Patrol agents? “How did we chase the fish away?”

Nana didn’t answer, her pinpointed gaze tracking his movements as Jack reached for his water bottle..

“Man, you must have coated that meat in red pepper. It sure is spicy.” The back of his hand swiped across his forehead. “I’m sweating even in the shade. How do you stand this heat?”

“I like it hot. Good for jerky. Dries the meat real fast.”

Jack handed her the grass mat before struggling to his feet. “Whoa, I’m feeling a little dizzy. Mind if I stay for a bit? Just until it cools down.”

“No, no . . . you sit. Feel better soon.”

His knees buckled as he tried to sit, causing him to miss the boulder and land in the dirt. Something was wrong. The fish must have been tainted. “I . . . I think I got food poisoning. I don’t feel so good.”

“Not poison. That ruin meat. Just herbs to make you sleep.”

Jack blinked several times as his vision blurred. His tongue felt thick, swollen. Opening his mouth, he gasped for air. Words gurgled in his throat but never made it past his lips. Pushing to his feet, Jack took one step before collapsing.

“He asleep?” A man with long hair and a scraggly beard emerged from a deep hole covered with brush.

The woman nodded. “Get the rope, boy.”

She tied it to Jack’s feet. The man threw the other end over a sturdy limb and hoisted the unconscious body into the air. He walked away, returning a few minutes later dragging an empty metal drum which he centered under Jack’s body.

Nana grabbed Jack’s hair and pulled his head back, revealing a wide expanse of neck. “I stick him. He bleed out quick. You get rid of motor car.”

“Can’t I keep it, Mama?”

“No, no, not good. Someone might see it.”

“But I want it. None of the other fish ever have anything we can use.”

“You get rid of it like I say!” The old woman whirled around, pointing a bony finger at her son. “I’ll sharpen the knife. We get lots of jerky outta this one.” She tugged on Jack’s arm, examining the muscular tone of his shoulder. “This white meat. Not like those dark ones we catch in the desert. I feed you good, boy.”

“Do ya want me to bury the bones in the same place as the others?”

She nodded. “Now you know why I say dig that hole wide and deep. Gotta cover up these fish guts afore they start stinkin’!”

Unmarked Graves

The Lore

Old Mortimer Cemetery, Mortimer, NC

Mortimer, North Carolina was a thriving logging town in the early 1900’s. Close to 800 families settled there to work at the Ritter Sawmill but  over-harvesting of trees followed by a 20” rainfall in one day created the perfect conditions for a flood that wiped out the community. It was touted as one of the worst in Caldwell County history. The Ritter Company decided not to rebuild and left.

United Mills Company opened a cotton mill in 1922, which briefly resurrected the town’s former prosperity. The Civilian Conservation Corps built Camp F-5 at Mortimer during the Great Depression, and by 1933, the hard working crews had repaired and rebuilt most of the damaged buildings from the 1916 flood.

On August 13, 1940, however, Wilson Creek once again emerged from its banks as a result of a coastal hurricane. The creek quickly rose to a flood stage of 94 feet and decimated the town. Oddly, one of the only structures left standing was the CCC building. Two major floods in a 24 year span was enough to drive remaining families from the area.

Today, much of the mountain property in the northwestern part of Caldwell County is public land held by the U.S. Forest Service.

Thorpe’s Creek Falls is a short hike from the Mortimer Campground which sits adjacent to the CCC building and deteriorating hillside cemetery. There are allegedly 20 unmarked graves, and many more rounded stone markers with no inscription. Grave sites date back to the 1800’s.

The memorial stone at the top of Thorpe’s Falls remains a mystery. No one is certain of who put it there or why. Upon personal inspection, it appeared more modern, perhaps from a poured concrete mold. A camper who frequents the area mentioned the purple Iris and violets growing across the creek from the marker. He cites that this is the only place within miles where the flowers can be found growing wild.

The Story

Unmarked Graves

by Debra S. Sanders

It was a brisk afternoon in late March – a day when the air was still cold enough to form vapor clouds with each breath. Lucy Bennet buried her chin beneath the knitted scarf circling her neck and hopped across strategically placed stones in the middle of Thorpe’s Creek. After landing on the opposite side of the sloping bank, she paused to soak up the scene. It reminded her of an English countryside – not that she’d ever visited such a place – but the photos from tourism books at Morganton library looked just like this.

Lucy liked to read about far-off, exotic locations. They fueled daydreams of an adventurous life filled with travel and friends of a more “elevated” societal standing. Sometimes, she imagined herself a personal assistant to a famous movie star. Or a wealthy tycoon’s secretary. On rare occasions, when she dared to dream big, Lucy closed her eyes and pretended to be the wife of an international diplomat.

On this particular day, however, Lucy was immersed in a different sort of daydream. Something more suited to her lot in life. She and fiancé, James Marmott, planned to elope.

James was a good man, older than her twenty-two years, and a skilled mechanic. He earned a decent wage at the garage in Colletsville, and marriage would allow her to relocate from the small, rural community where she’d lived all her life.

At one time Mortimer, North Carolina had been a bustling logging town but over-harvesting of the trees, devastating forest fires and two particularly nasty floods destroyed the area. The town’s residents were too discouraged to start over so they fled down the mountain in search a better life. Mortimer became a ghost town overnight.

After a few years, people began to venture back along the eight miles of dusty, dirt road but only to frequent a small National Forest campground or frolic and fish in Wilson Creek. They were seasonal visitors. It was too isolated for most folk to live there full time. The hardy souls who remained managed to carve out a life on the mountain and call themselves locals.

The remote area offered few options for a young woman of marrying age so Lucy considered herself darned lucky when James came courting. They dated off and on for over a year. Her pappy wasn’t too keen on the young man at first and Lucy knew why. Pappy didn’t want to lose his cook and housekeeper. After her mother died when Lucy was twelve, she took over caring for her father and two younger brothers.

Lucy didn’t mind so much at first. She liked feeling all “growed up”. But when she told Pappy about her plans to attend the community college in Morganton, he was quick to remind her that her first duty was to God and second to family. Even though she was crushed, Lucy dutifully obeyed and stayed at home, working summers at the small market near Wilson Creek Visitor Center to help pay for her younger brother’s school supplies and clothes.

That was four years ago. The boys were now in high school with part time jobs of their own. Jeb would graduate this year and Bruce the year after – which gave Lucy a sense of purpose. It was time to shed the familial shackles. Time to live her own life . . . past time.

She followed Thorpe’s Creek through Mortimer Campground to where a trail cut through the dense foliage. The camp sites were still closed for the winter so she didn’t have to share the path with summer visitors. It was a popular hike for campers and tourists in the spring and early summer. Rhododendron lined the well-worn trail leading to Thorpe’s Falls where the water spilled in gentle layers over a solid rock face. A shallow pool gathered at the base, offering cool respite from the heat of the day before tumbling over scattered stones and mossy slopes as it frolicked through the campground.

By the time Lucy reached the falls, her heart pounded with excitement. She picked her way over the wet, slippery stones and took a narrow path to the left of the falling water. Once she reached the top of the hill, she turned right, scampering over a fallen log and following the trail to the creek. James was already there, a big smile on his face.

“Hi, honey! C’mon over here.”

He held out a hand, helping her down a short drop. Lucy immediately fell into his embrace, warmed by the circle of his arms. “I can’t believe we’re getting married tonight. I’m so happy.”

His embrace tightened as James kissed the top of her head. “Me, too, but there’s been a slight change in plans.”

“What?” Lucy pulled back just enough so she could tip her head and meet his gaze.

“I have to work for George tonight. I promised to cover his shift a few weeks ago and plumb forgot until he mentioned it today.” When James saw the disappointment on Lucy’s face, he rushed to add, “It’s just one day. We’ll drive to Charlotte tomorrow and get married. I promise. Besides, the extra money means we can rent a motel room for the weekend. Won’t that be fun?”

She nodded, trying not to cry.

James pulled her down beside him on a moss covered log and slipped an arm around her shoulders. “I love you, Lucy. Nothing will ever change that.”

“I love you, too.” It was true. She did love James but the fact he promised to take her away from Mortimer added a sort of desperation to her feelings. She glanced forlornly at the tiny clearing next to the creek, then back at James, trying not to let her emotions get away from her. “It’s so pretty here. It just needs a little English Ivy and violets.”

“There you go again,” James grinned, “daydreaming about England. I’ll take you there someday. I surely will.”

She nestled her head against his shoulder. “That would be wonderful.”

“There’s nothing I won’t do for you, darlin’. I wouldn’t want to go on livin’ if anything happened to you.”

“Aw, you’re just saying that.”

His hands cupped her face as his gaze pinned her with an earnest expression. “I mean it, Lucy. You’re my whole world. I will never love another woman the way I love you.”

Lucy sighed and submitted to his passionate kiss. James would take care of her. Love and cherish her. Her dreams would finally come true.

A half-hour later, Lucy bid James farewell. He offered to walk her to the road but she told him to go ahead. She wanted to sit and enjoy the quiet serenity of the falls for a little longer.

After he left, Lucy meandered to a narrow, leaf strewn ledge overlooking the waterfall. She’d waited eight years to escape what felt like indentured servitude to her family. I suppose one more day won’t kill me. She inhaled deeply of the crisp mountain air and straightened her shoulders, slipping back into her role of homemaker. If she left now, there’d be enough time to bake a pan of cornbread for supper. Pappy always liked hot cornbread with his ham and beans.

Lucy strode purposefully down the trail and across the deserted camp sites. She’d just reached the white Forest Service building when a faint glow emanated from the wooded hill behind it. That’s odd, she frowned. Are the woods on fire?

The only thing up there was an old cemetery. Everyone said it was haunted. Last year, a group of paranormal investigators filmed an episode for a television show about the alleged spirits from unmarked graves that frequented the rundown, forgotten burial ground. It had created quite a stir in the small community.

Lucy’s eyes brightened.  Perhaps they were back. The glow was probably from the lights used by the camera crew. They could be filming right now!

She darted up the overgrown road running parallel to the wooden building. Maybe they’ll hire me as an extra. Thoughts of a budding acting career quickened her pace. By the time Lucy reached the top of the rutted dirt lane and darted into the clearing of trees, she was out of breath.

She stood at the entrance to the decaying cemetery, gasping for air as she surveyed the rusted, broken fence around two older graves. One gate was missing. The other barely attached by a single hinge. Her gaze swept to the left, focusing on a scattering of broken granite stones. Some still retained the familiar rectangular shape of a headstone while others were not much more than a medium sized river rock. Inscriptions had long since disappeared beneath the ravages of wind and rain.

Lucy frowned. There were no camera crews so what had created the strange light?

Glancing around, a bewildered expression crinkling her brow, Lucy picked her way between the unkempt headstones. A mist formed along the tree line at the back of the clearing, next to the oldest section of the cemetery. Lucy eased closer to a row of broken, falling down markers, surprised to find an old woman kneeling next to one, head bowed.

Grey hair peeked from beneath a black veil covering her face and shoulders. It matched the long dress covering most of her legs and booted feet.

“Ma’am? Are you alright?” Lucy hated to disturb the grieving woman but thought it odd someone her age would be in the cemetery alone.

The bent figure stiffened. After a few seconds, her head nodded but she kept her gaze downward. “I’m fine, dear. Just saying goodbye to an old friend.”

Lucy took a step closer, a twinge of compassion shooting through her. It must be awful to reach the age where you outlived acquaintances and family. “I know how hard it is to lose someone. My mama died eight years ago. She’s not here, though. Pappy buried over by Edgemont.”

This time the elderly woman looked up. Lucy was surprised by the twinkle in the bright blue eyes as she smiled and struggled to her feet. “Are you from Mortimer?”

“Yes, ma’am. Lived here all my life. Pappy owns a farm just down from Betsey’s Ole Country Store. My name is Lucy Bennet.”

“Bennet? I don’t recall any Bennets in Mortimer. You must be new to the area.”

“Goodness, no. Grandpappy bought land by the old railroad trestle back when he worked at Ritter Sawmill. Of course, that was before the flood. My family has lived on that same plot for almost a hundred years.”

“Hmmm, that makes you third generation.” A strange expression came over her wrinkled features. “Are you planning on staying here? Raising your family in Mortimer?”

Lucy shook her head. “No way. I got two younger brothers. I’m sure one of them will keep the farm going. They ain’t got as much ambition as me. I’m moving to Colletsville as soon as I get married tomorrow,” she boasted proudly.

“That’s a shame. Mortimer keeps losing its residents. Soon there won’t be anybody left.”

“No offense, ma’am, but there ain’t many left now.”

“I know – that’s why we have to keep people here. My daddy was one of the founding families. He was probably the one who hired your grandfather at the lumber mill.”

Lucy’s mouth curved upward. “That was a long time ago.” She glanced up at the sky, surprised to see the translucent glow growing brighter. It was larger now, too, forming a dome over the cemetery. “I do declare, that is the oddest sight I’ve ever seen.”

“What, dear?”

“The sky. It’s strange. Kinda like the Northern Lights.”

The woman turned her wrinkled face upward. For the first time, Lucy noticed the grey pallor to her skin. The flesh crinkled like dry newspaper. A large, gaping wound covered one side of her cheek, and next to the blackened edge, Lucy thought she saw something move under the skin.

A shiver ran down her back. “It’s . . . gettin’ late. I gotta go.” Apprehension tightened around her chest, making it hard to breathe as she swiveled on her heel and prepared to run.

Bony fingers clamped around her arm with a strength that belied the feeble woman’s age. “Not so fast, my dear. We still have things to discuss.”

Lucy’s eyes riveted to the skeletal hand, shocked to find thick, deformed nails biting into her flesh – so deeply, a tiny rivulet of blood trailed past her wrist. “Let . . . let me go.”

The woman ignored her plea. She pulled Lucy to a small mound next to the decaying fence. “Do you know what this is?” she said, pointing with her other hand to the barren earth.

“N. . . no.”

“It’s an unmarked grave.” She met Lucy’s gaze with an icy stare. The prominent twinkle from earlier was gone, replaced by an unmistakable glitter of malice. “There’s more over there.” Her head bobbed to the right. “Forgotten souls, some too poor for a proper burial. No one cared about anything but that damned old sawmill back in the day. Not even my daddy. He was too cheap to pitch in for a headstone so he just dumped me here, like insignificant trash.”

“I’m real sorry, ma’am. I’m sure that wouldn’t happen today.” Lucy struggled to free herself from the vice-like grip.

“You think not?” The wind picked up, howling through the tall pines surrounding the cemetery , and evoking a dust devil next to the old woman’s feet as leaves and dirt rose in a plume. “Ever wonder why the CCC building and this hillside were the only things to survive the flood? We weren’t about to let those bastards get away so easy. The 800 . . . that’s what we call ‘em . . . the original families who formed this town . . . cast us aside. Every once in a while, one comes back – and we keep them here. Make ‘em pay for what they did.”

Lucy gave a final tug and freed herself from the bony grasp. “You’re crazy. I’m getting out of here.”

She could barely hear her own words above the roar of the wind. Except now, it seemed to be blowing against her with gale force strength. Each step met a growing resistance until finally she could not move at all. And then she heard them. Voices. They were all around her. Inside her. Evil, vicious words ripping through her head.

One glance over her shoulder confirmed Lucy’s worst fear. The old woman laughed. A mad, horrible sound that spewed past yellowed teeth and a gaping mouth. Tendrils of dust wrapped around Lucy’s ankles, tugging at her until she was prone on the ground. Her fingers clawed in the dirt as an unseen force dragged her backward.

It was impossible to stand; rocks and brush dug into her soft flesh. As Lucy’s unwilling body moved closer to the old woman’s outstretched arms, her insides tightened. Blue eyes glowed like burning embers . . . emitting tiny sparks that embedded into Lucy’s skin, scorching the delicate surface. She screamed in agony. Screamed in fear. And continued screaming long past the point she could hear anything but the gush of her own blood.

***

James Marmott placed a bouquet of violets and dark green ivy at the base of the marker, then read the words again out loud.

No farewell words were spoken.

No time to say goodbye.

You were gone before we knew it.

And only God knows why.

He’d left the small engraved stone at the top of Thorpe’s Falls almost two years ago, planting wild Iris bulbs, violets and English Ivy along the banks of the meandering creek. The ivy didn’t survive the winter but the flowers did and sprang to life each spring, a reminder of the love he’d shared with Lucy Bennet. He liked to think her spirit still lingered at their final meeting place, which was why he attempted to create an English garden for her to gaze upon.

“I miss you, Lucy, darlin’. I surely do.” James wiped a tear at the corner of his eye. “I don’t know where you went but I reckon you wouldn’t have left me of your own free will.” He sat down next to the marker and wrapped long arms around his knees, staring at the carpet of purple blooms across the stream. “I tried to make this pretty for you – like that English countryside you always talked about. I hope you like it.”

James sat there for a long time, recalling how he and Lucy planned their future at this very spot. Guilt riddled his thoughts. He’d never been able to shed the “what-ifs” – what if he’d not agreed to work for George that night? What if Lucy had accompanied him to the shop, and waited in his car until his shift ended. What if they’d driven to Charlotte and got married the next morning? What if he’d just said, “. . . to Hell with responsibility . . .” and claimed her as his own – six months before he felt financially stable enough to propose?

The last haunting option spurred him to ask Sadie Ritter to be his wife after only a few months of courtship. She was much younger, only eighteen on her recent birthday in February, but they’d “clicked” immediately. A fiery, passionate click that rivaled the feelings he shared with Lucy. The petite redhead was nothing like his first love. She hailed from Mortimer’s W. M. Ritter family who built the sawmill. It was her ancestors who created the once bustling community.

Sadie embraced her heritage with pride. No escaping to Colletsville for this one. She insisted they settle in Mortimer and work toward restoring the area to its former glory.

“I wish you were here, Lucy, but you’re not. I’m lonely . . . and Sadie, well, she’s a heckuva woman. I think you’d like her.” He paused a moment before rising to his feet. “I still love you, darlin’. Reckon I always will but life goes on. I need a son to carry on my name.” James cleared his throat. “I hope you understand. I surely do.”

The chill of an early April wind chased James down the path as he made a hasty retreat, slipping past the falls and half running, half walking to the trailhead. It was not until he emerged into the deserted campground that his uneasiness subsided.

It was just the aftermath of saying goodbye, he told himself as narrowed eyes searched the horizon. A storm brewed over the mountains, one that would bring a good amount of rainfall before morning. He quickened his pace. As he reached the entrance to the campground, James noticed an odd glow over the hill behind the Forest Service building.

That’s strange. I wonder if someone left a campfire unattended.

He walked along the road, then for some inexplicable reason, turned back toward the overgrown trail that led past the trees to the old cemetery.

James didn’t know what made him approach the road or why his pace quickened as he neared the small, forested hillside. All he knew was that he had to go. When he finally breached the clearing that opened into the rundown graveyard, he understood.

Standing there, in a faint mist, was his beloved Lucy, motioning him to join her at the back of the cemetery. At first, he couldn’t believe his eyes. His pulse raced. He began walking, then running to greet her. It was as if no time had passed. She looked exactly as she had the last time he saw her.

“Lucy! Is that really you . . .?” James paused to catch his breath, still blinking at her smiling face. “I don’t understand.”

“I know, my love. It’s crazy, isn’t it?” Her face beamed with an inner glow that rivaled the strange light above their heads. “I’ve waited so long for you to find me.”

Forgotten love, spurred by memories of passionate nights, drew him closer until at last his arms wrapped around her trembling body. “Lucy . . . darlin’ . . . I can’t believe you’re here. I’ve missed you so much.”

“I’ve missed you, too, James.”

“Where have you been?” He pulled back, a line forming between his brows. “I . . . thought you were . . . why did you leave me?”

“I didn’t want to go away. It was necessary.”

“Why?” Each time he dismissed a question, two more formed in his head.

“I needed to learn why it was wrong for me to move to Colletsville. My place is in Mortimer. You’ll stay with me, won’t you, James?”

He bit his lip as arm dropped to his sides. “It’s been a long time since you and I . . . since we planned to get married.”

“I know. The flowers are lovely. Thank you for planting them.”

“You . . . you saw them?”

“Of course. I know everything you do.”

He scratched the back of his head. “So, I reckon you know about Sadie Ritter?”

“Yes. I admit I was disappointed when you proposed to her. After all, you did say you would love me forever.”

“I do love you. I always will . . . but I didn’t think you were coming back. I . . .”

“It’s alright, James. I understand. Truly, I do.”

His eyes sought Lucy’s face, softened by her forgiveness. “You’re one of a kind, darlin’.” He kissed her cheek, surprised by the coolness of her skin. “Shall I give you a ride to your Pappy’s house?”

“That’s not necessary. I live here now.”

“Where?” James glanced around, anxiety settling in his belly like a lead weight. As his gaze circled to Lucy, he tried to hide his uneasiness. “Well, then, I best be headin’ home. It was real good seeing you.”

“Wait.” Lucy took his hand, pulling him closer. “I want to show you something. See this mound?” She pointed at a bare spot on the ground. “It’s an unmarked grave.”

“O . . . okay . . .”

James licked his dry lips. There was something not right about Lucy. Her skin looked grey. Her eyes . . . He attempted to pry her fingers from his hand but her grip was too strong. “Let me go!”

“I can’t do that.” The words seemed to swirl around him as the wind picked up, howling through the pine trees. “You and I were meant to be together. It’s destiny.”

“Noooo. . .” James planted his feet in the hard soil but it was no use. His body slid forward, toward the gaping hole opening up in the ground.

“Don’t feel bad. We’re just the means to an end. It’s not us they want – it’s Sadie Ritter. And you’re going to bring her here. We’ll get them all eventually . . . one by one.”

James opened his mouth to scream but nothing came out. It was as if the old woman standing behind Lucy had snatched the sound right from his throat. And then he heard them . . . the voices. . .

***

They say there are twenty unmarked graves in the Old Mortimer Cemetery. But the number of bodies occupying those graves is anybody’s guess.

What does KY Warming Gel, Preparation H and Cowboy Hats have in Common?

Each product was part of an interesting conversation at the high traffic tourist stop where I work near Bryce Canyon. Hubs and I decided to “workamp” this summer. For those not familiar with the term it describes seasonal or temporary workers who live in their RV. In exchange for hours worked, we receive a wage, great perks, a nice campsite for a pittance of what we would normally pay which includes full hook-ups, wifi, and cable. We also have plenty of days off to explore the beauty of southern Utah and northern Arizona. Not a bad arrangement.

Hubs works light maintenance at one of the hotels. I work a variety of positions in the retail store.

About eighty percent of our customers are European, Asian or Australian . . . and many speak limited or NO English. I’ve become adept at hand signals/charades, choosing the right coins from paying customer’s outstretched hands, and learning common words in various languages. It’s fun but can sometimes present challenging situations.

For instance – I had a German gentleman with very limited English skills purchase a western hat. He was part of a group who clearly found his hat amusing. I cut off the tag so he could wear it immediately, telling him he looked like a cowboy and now he just needed a horse. He didn’t understand the word “horse” so I pretended to ride an imaginary equine, using my hands to imitate holding the reins. “Ride horse,” I said. His friend must have understood because he translated in German. The man laughed and pointed at his wife. “I have her.”

Oooookay.

A young couple came to my register with KY Warming Gel. They’d just returned from hiking. He asked if the contents would help his sore ankle. ???? I said no. He then asked in broken English what it was for. My face was red. I pointed to his girlfriend and replied, “For her.” Both looked at me funny. “It’s used to enhance intimacy.” At that, they both laughed. He returned later with a tube of Icy Hot..

An Asian man brought a tube of Preparation H to my associate, a young male in his late teens. The customer asked if it was face or hand cream, once again in broken English. The boy turned to me and said, “She can help you.” Really? I told the man it was used to ease hemorrhoids which thankfully he seemed to understand. I then instructed him to a different area of the store for hand cream.

After these encounters . . . and more . . . it makes me wonder what non-English speaking countries think of Americans when we try to communicate during travels and vacations. I’m not sure I want to know. Hopefully, no one blogged about me during my last trip across the border.

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words . . .

I’ve been playing hard and loving every minute of it. Great hiking in the Arizona desert, spectacular views – as always. We’re camped near Salome, between Quartzsite and Parker, visiting friends. They brought along their Quads so we’ve had some great rides through the washes and over mountain passes, and exploring an old mine. Found some memorials tucked away between boulders and cacti, and ripped the seat of my pants sliding down a granite slope. That was embarrassing! Rather than explain where I’ve been, I decided to let the photos do the talking. I only have a few more days of fun and frolic before locking myself away to prepare for a very busy March. Lots of author promotions! I’ve planned a short hike tomorrow to include some geocaching then we’re attending a Super Bowl party. Lake Havasu on Monday or Tuesday – and after that ….WORK!  20170105_131021_burst011 20170203_143422120161218_1226382 20170203_151118_hdr1 20170203_1506301 20170204_1041301-copy20170204_101847-copy 20170204_1020001-copy20170204_1043141-copy20170204_112218_burst011-copy 20170204_1057441-copy

Camping in the Midst of Dwarf Palmettos . . . with BIGFOOT!

20161001_180258_film3-02I’ve heard about the unique beauty at Palmetto State Park in Texas for years so it was exciting to finally fit in a short stay as we journey to our winter destination in Arizona. Since we were pressed for time, I hit the hiking trails as soon as camp was set up and Terry was opening a cold beer.

The San Marcos River Trail seemed easy and offered access right behind our campsite. I decided to take Jake with me which probably wasn’t a good idea. I like a brisk pace but the poor guy can’t go the distance like he used to. I slowed down and he enjoyed some good sniffs before letting me know it was time to return to camp.

The day was overcast, adding a gloominess to the thickly treed path. I kept an eye out for timber rattlers, thankful they used the same diligence to avoid an encounter.  The abundance of dead trees and hollow trunks are a perfect haven for things that slither and crawl. Even if I hadn’t read the “No Firewood Gathering” signs, I still wouldn’t have picked up one of those rotting, splintered logs.

20161114_105447_film3-1After taking Jake back to camp, I rewarded him with a few cookies, fresh water and a pat on the head before taking off on another spur . . . actually two. I started at the Palmetto Interpretive Trail then branched off on the Ottine Swamp Trail. Having just spent a few days in the Florida swamps observing alligators, I was a bit on edge about what might be lurking behind the huge fan-shaped Palmetto leaves. The fact I kept hearing rustling in the underbrush didn’t ease a growing apprehension. I must have peered over my shoulder a dozen times in an effort to glimpse the elusive stalker dogging my steps.

Even though I didn’t “see” anyone, I still felt as though something wasn’t right. I know many of you are reading this and rolling your eyes. That’s okay. I get it. However, I’ve always had keen senses so when the hair stands up on the back of my neck, I take heed. At that particular moment, the hair on the back of my neck was at full attention.

20161113_161229_hdr_film3I returned to our camp and shared my experience with the hubmeister. Terry used to be one of “those guys” mentioned in the previous paragraph who rolled his eyes and snickered but he’s learned over the years to trust my inner voice. After a little research, conversation and several glasses of wine, this is what I learned.

Bigfoot sightings abound along the San Marcos River between Luling and Gonzales. The park headquarters even has a photo taken by a camper that many believe is the Ottine Swamp Monster – as they call the cryptid in this area. A couple was hiking in 2014 and had a disturbing encounter with the elusive creature that included rocks being thrown, visual sightings and inhuman “howling”.

So there you have it. Was I being followed by Bigfoot or a Wood Ape on my hike? Probably not . . . but rest assured by the time I embellish the tale with grandiose gestures and voice inflections, my grandchildren will be comparing me to Indiana Jones.

The Legend of Tate’s Hell

Florida is commonly associated with sandy beaches, scintillating condos and hotels lining the coastline and Disneyworld. As with most states, what first comes to mind is only a small part of what lies between the boundaries.

After completing a stint in Florida during the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew as a contract housing inspector for FEMA,, the hubs and I began our journey to Arizona by way of the Gulf coast. I haven’t spent a lot of time in this part of the country so it was a welcome opportunity to see new sights and explore unfamiliar territory. My first shock came when I discovered black bears reside in the state’s “forests”.

Bears? In Florida? It doesn’t get cold enough for them to hibernate, I thought.

As it turns out, Florida’s bears don’t hibernate like their counterparts in colder climates. They go dormant in their den from late December to March, typically without food but it’s not a true hibernation. This is also when pregnant females give birth.

As if alligators, snakes and Zika virus wasn’t concerning enough . . . now I had to be on the look-out for bears!

We set up camp near Carrabelle, southwest of Tallahassee on the Gulf coast, then took off for Appalachicola – a local fishing town known for its large, tasty oysters. The hype is well earned, we discovered, after devouring two dozen on the half shell. During the drive back, I noticed signs for a state forest named Tate’s Hell. It was not the heavily treed forests I’m used to where light barely penetrates the dense, dark canopies. After chatting with the locals, I learned about one of the main attractions – a hiking trail leading to a large field of dwarf cypress trees, many over 300 years old.

As I’m trying to wrap my head around the idea of a forest in the middle of a swamp hosting centuries old bonsai trees, some barely six feet tall, I am told a story of Cebe Tate, the man for whom the forest was named.

Cebe was the only son of Jebediah and a half-Cherokee woman. After the Civil War, Jebediah bought 160 acres for $5 on a homestead grant. Cebe helped his father clear the land in preparation for livestock but their plans were sidetracked when his mother died of Scarlet Fever. The two men fell on hard times, barely getting by with a few scrub cattle while harvesting pine oil on the side. Jebediah, being a superstitious man by nature, made a pact with a local Native American medicine man. He promised to stay out of the sacred cypress forest and give the old Indian one pig each year in exchange for good fortune. The pact was made and sure enough, the men began to prosper.

Everything went well until about the fourth year when Jebediah kept the pigs for himself, refusing to honor their arrangement. This angered the medicine man. He vowed that the Tates would not only see hard times for their actions but would feel as though they’d gone to Hell. Shortly after, Jebediah died of malaria. The cattle disappeared into the swamp and the pine trees stopped producing oil. However, the pigs multiplied and flourished.

Cebe married a mail order bride from New York but being Jewish, she refused to eat pork. She made her new husband’s life miserable, nagging endlessly about the lack of beef. One day, Cebe decided to take his hunting dogs into the forest in an effort to find one of the runaway cows and finally bring peace to his household. His dogs bolted after a panther leaving Cebe alone in the swamp. Stumbling through the murky waters, he dropped his gun in the mud. Lost and disoriented, Cebe wandered around for days until finally he came upon the dwarf cypress forest and fell asleep against one of the gnarled trunks.

KindleCoverReduxCebe awoke with a start after being bitten by a poisonous snake. It is said the poor man finally found his way out of the forest after seven days, delirious from the snakebite and lack of proper nourishment. He fell at the feet of two men walking down the road. With his last breath, he croaked, “My name is Cebe Tate and I just came through Hell.”

The forest has been called Tate’s Hell ever since.

If you enjoyed this tale, you can read many more just like it in Road Tales, Myth, Lore & Curiosities from America’s Back Roads