Thursday, August 26, 2010

Searching for the Spooklight

Sorry for the pause in blogging, but I got lost on Spooklight Road. Yes, there is a mysterious light which haunts a deserted dirt road on the Missouri-Oklahoma border known as Devil’s Promenade. I first visited it many years ago as a child. The road was narrow, with spooky overhanging trees. I distinctly remember seeing that burning yellow light hover over the road like a floating bonfire.
Or did I? Since then, I’ve often wondered what it was I actually saw. Recently, I had a chance to visit it again at a family reunion when we set out at dusk in the 95-degree heat in search of the Spooklight. The Spooklight has supposedly been roaming the area around Hornet, Oklahoma since the time of the Trail of Tears in 1836, and there are stories of it passing through cars, chasing people, and moving at lightning speed. It has been investigated by the Army Corps of Engineers, and shot at by farmers. Theories about what it is range from marsh gas to minerals to earthquake lights to refracted car headlights from Route 66 (although the Spooklight preceded Route 66). Numerous legends are connected with it, including that it is the spirit of two young Quapaw Indians who died there; that it is the torch of either an Osage Indian chief or a local farmer who was beheaded there and is still looking for his head; or that it is a miner’s lantern as he searches for his lost children. I have heard variations on these stories, including that the miner is looking for his lost love who fell into a shaft, and that a motorcyclist is also looking for his lost head (although the Spooklight also preceded motorcycles). Whatever the truth, when visiting the Spooklight, it’s important to remember these Spooklight Rules: Rule Number One is this: You will get lost. Rule Number Two: If you look for it, it won’t come. Rule Number Three: If you don’t expect it, it will pop right out. Rule Number Four: If you take a picture, the picture won’t come out.
I remember three excursions to the Spooklight in my youth, but only one was successful. One of the unsuccessful trips involved six adults and six children in a ’67 Pontiac station wagon: three men in the front seat, three women in the backseat, and six children in the rear end. We were searching for the Spooklight based on my mother’s childhood memory. We drove around and around on dirt roads, following her directions, which consisted of, “This looks like the right road…No, this doesn’t look quite right.” Dirt roads in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night on the Oklahoma-Missouri border look amazingly similar. And every single one of them looks like it could harbor the Spooklight.
Eventually, the overloaded station wagon bottomed out on one of those dirt roads, tearing off some crucial piece of the car in the process. I recall at one point waking up to see one of my uncles outside the car holding a piece of the car while the other uncle pushed and my dad steered. Later I woke up and my two uncles, still outside the car, were now running, terrorized by snarling farm dogs. I saw many interesting sights that night, but I never saw the Spooklight.
I made a third trip in my teenage years with my cousins, which involved looking around at the deserted road and surrounding woods and noticing that we were basically sitting ducks in a Friday the 13th type situation. It was just a matter of time before we were picked off one by one by Jason—but not by the Spooklight, which didn’t show.
So years later, at the family reunion, my cousin Jamie offered to drive my sister and I out to Spooklight Road. He had grown up in the area. He knew the way, he insisted. He would take us straight there. It was only a few miles outside of Joplin, Missouri, not far from “Truck Town,” a massive truck stop area just off I-44. We passed by Truck Town and set out for the Oklahoma border in the growing dark. Jamie kept insisting that Spooklight Road was now paved, but I didn’t believe him. How could Spooklight Road be paved? Jamie said it was now “developed” and I imagined the poor Spooklight being crowded out by the suburbs. After a while, though, two things happened: I noticed that Jamie’s gas tank was low, and he sounded suspiciously like my mother had all those years earlier: “This looks like the right road…No, this doesn’t look quite right.” Maybe Spooklight Road isn’t paved, I stubbornly insisted, and that’s why you can’t find it. But the changes of the past decades had involved a lot more than just paved roads—Jamie, dangerously close to running on empty, finally got out his i-Phone and looked up the directions to the Spooklight on the internet.
And voila—we were there. We had been in the general vicinity of Spooklight Road, endlessly circling on the wrong roads, at risk of becoming lost forever like some Twilight Zone (or Blair Witch) episode. Except that getting lost on the way to the Spooklight has been rendered obsolete by the internet and the i-Phone.
As Jamie kept telling me, Spooklight Road is now paved. However, the spooky trees still crowd the road, and although there are more houses, the area is still rural. It was a Monday night when we went, and no one else was there. We stepped out of the car and Jamie said, “I saw it. It just crossed the road.” I thought it was a joke, but I turned, and there it was, a small fiery ball hovering over the road. It flickered and floated and split in two and reunited. We walked toward it, but at some point, we got too close, and it disappeared. When we retreated, it appeared again. My sister tried to capture it on her camera phone--but it didn’t turn out.
A few nights later, we took several carloads of cousins and relatives to see the Spooklight. There were lots of other tourists there, too, including a group sitting in their lawn chairs in the back of their pick-up drinking beer. One of them said, “If I just have one more beer, I’m sure I’ll see the Spooklight.” But sticking to the Spooklight Rules, the Spooklight refused to show itself to the mob.
That is, until everyone else had gotten back into their cars and left.
“Look!” I said. “It just came out!”
It did its little dance across the road, sliced and diced itself, and re-assembled. A few last stragglers saw the Spooklight that night—but of course nobody else believed us, and nobody got a picture. The Spooklight seemed smaller than I remembered it being, but maybe I was just bigger. Some people say the Spooklight is not as active as it used to be, does not roam the fields, does not chase cars anymore, and is gradually burning itself out. Or maybe it’s retreating from the encroaching crowds and traffic. Whatever the case, I’m glad I saw it once more.
To get to Spooklight Road, take I-44 west out of Joplin toward Tulsa; at Truck Town, take Exit 4/Missouri 43 south to Iris Road; turn right on Iris Road until it dead ends; then right on State Line Road, and left on E50 (also known as Spooklight Road). At least, I think that’s right. Be sure to fill up your tank before you go.
For more information on The Hornet Spooklight, visit these websites:
Also posted on my blog Strange Islands