Photo courtesy of Molly at Wilderness Adventure
It’s that time of year, where the night presides earlier and earlier and the bonfires become essential. With everyone crammed close to the burning logs, hot drinks and wide-eyed, it’s the time of year for ghost stories. To not have a good ghost story ready at hand in these situations is like forgetting to bring the graham crackers. So take some time, think of your own Appalachian horror story, and in the mean time you can borrow mine; a true account of my encounter with an Appalachian Trail Ghost. But remember as you re-tell it with your own twists, the devil is in the details:
It’s taken some time for me to even process the events in my own head, but just of lately I’ve been able to think about this weird thing that happened to me on trail sometime late August or Early September. I had a random week off of work, and keeping a busy schedule I felt it was a rarity. I was getting a little restless and knew that I had to blow off some stress for a bit and explore the great outdoors. On the account that I was so ready for a vacation, and no one else’s schedule matched up for an adventure week, I decided to go at it solo and backpack alone for a week.
It had been years since I last backpacked by alone and for some reason I had convinced myself I once enjoyed it. But when I dropped my car at the trailhead in Catawba (about 15 miles from New Castle) and started hiking I noticed the different atmosphere backpacking alone provides. I couldn’t shake how incredibly silent it was. I could hear my own breathing and every now and then I would look over my shoulder quickly in response to random noises. I was almost anxious to begin with but told myself I had to just get used to this new aspect of backpacking that I wasn’t accustomed to.
The first night I managed to set up camp, make dinner, and immediately retire to my tent. I was unusually exhausted which now seems as a surprise for the little of sleep I got that night. I tossed and turned, listening to the silent night until late morning when I finally rested my eyes. Well after daybreak I got out of my tent and drug my feet to pack my belongings, it was much later then I had aimed for the night before.
I made it about 5 miles during the day, but it took me the entire afternoon until dark. I was tired and it seemed without having someone to push me along my hiking was considerably slower. I pitched my tent that night, filtered water, and started setting up my cook gear in the dark. It was getting to feel pretty late, and with limited light to cook under, I decided to just eat a pack of raw ramen noodles in my tent. I opened my book to read but only fell asleep immediately into another half sleep/half wrestling match for the night.
I remember at one point staring at the top of my darkened tent not really sure if I was awake or not and suddenly hearing the loud crunch of footsteps outside my tent. They were fast going as they came but with the footsteps came something of a grumble. I couldn’t be actually sure, and I couldn’t distinguish any actual words, but in my mind’s eye I was sure I heard something grumbling to themselves in a deep and agitated voice.
I never even got out of my sleeping bag. Not inexperienced with some of the sounds of night and their magnification in the silence, I tried to convince myself it was my ears playing tricks on me. And although I managed to stay in my sleeping bag that night, I didn’t fall asleep again until early morning.
The next day I awoke up even later and more tired than before. I made a groggy attempt at oatmeal and sat with my breakfast unable to talk to anyone. I got my pack ready in the afternoon sun and headed out. About three and a half miles later I dropped my pack and sat watching the sun begin to disappear.
I managed to collect a fair amount of firewood and by the time nightfall came I had a small fire going with a good collection of fire-wood piled beneath me. Under the reassuring light of the campfire, I started to become more at ease with the deafening silence of nature. I pulled a cigarette from my pocket and enjoyed a casual smoke as I put my feet up. When I tried to ditch the butt in my weakening flame, my throw was off and I landed it outside of the ashes. I got up to fix my mistake and to stoke the fire when I turned around to go back to my seat and I saw him…
The light was low with my little fire, but I could clearly see a man reaching down with a scorched hand for my firewood. He wore red plaid with large black burns tearing at his trim and a red ashy beard that smoldered at this face. He quickly looked up and his vacant white eyes connected with mine. He gritted his teeth and scrunched his nose towards me before quickly leaving the ring of firelight.
I was shocked. I have never experienced a fear like it. I fell right onto my butt next to the flames. I looked out into the forest and saw nothing but dark shadows and unclear objects, a blank wall of nothing, of everything; I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t even yell, with no one to hear me but him, so I did what every red-blooded American would do; I packed up my things and got the hell out of Dodge.
I stumbled through the darkness, half the time with my headlamp off afraid to be seen, or even of seeing anything else. I stumbled around for hours, bumping into trees and tripping every which way. I wasn’t even sure where my map and compass was, I just kept moving. I could have been hiking in circles for all I know. I was driven by my beating heart and to this day I know I have never been so scared in my life. When dawn finally broke and I could see again, I kept moving.
At about 12:30 I started to recognize some signs of civilization. I threw my pack down in a big open pasture but couldn’t see any houses or roads. I knew I had to be close to something, but I was by no means sure where I had ended up. I was almost too tired to think about it. Instead in a fit of not knowing what to do, but knowing I had to do something, I pitched my tent and ate a large chunk of cheese and salami. After the meal, and under the afternoon sun, I almost immediately fell asleep in the grass where I ate my lunch.
I awoke two to the three hours later, for the sun had dropped down considerably, and a funny smell filled my nostrils. I blinked a few times and when the funny smell persisted I shot off my back with my heart beating to the sound of something troubling. What I saw was my tent, or what remained of my tent. For now the only thing left standing was the tent poles that dripped with oozing leftovers of my tent body. A bubbly layer of melted green plastic lay beneath the poles with a steady gray smoke still rising from the mess. I got up and felt the weight of the sky fall on my head. For a moment I was sure I had woken up into a horrible nightmare. Without contemplating it much further I grabbed my water bottle and ran through the empty pasture.
By the time I made it to the gravel road I was out of breath and dripping with sweat. I hastily chugged from my water bottle and wiped my mouth. Down the road I could see a vehicle parked in the dust. I staggered forward with my hands on my sides and soon realized it was a sheriff’s sedan, and for the first time in a long time, I couldn’t have been happier to see a law enforcement vehicle.
When I got closer to the vehicle I noticed that it was parked outside of the remains of a charred house, nothing left standing but the mailbox out front. On the way into town I didn’t tell the officer about my experience being afraid that he might think I escaped from the loony bin and instead asked him about the burnt down house he had been parked in front of.
The sheriff explained to me that four days prior, the same day I started my trip, the house had burnt down. They had no known cause but there was indication of arson. Two daughters, a wife, and her husband where all in the house when the fire started and none of them made it out. Real tragic stuff the sheriff said as he retold the story and I could only shake my head with my bottom jaw hanging low.
Go out, scare some fun into the night, and don’t forget the ghost stories.