The following article was printed in The Evening Sun (Hanover, PA) on October 31, 2011:
The stream gurgle fades with the waning afternoon light, as you press deeper into the woods. A muddy shore gives way to thick grass heavy with rain. The path narrows, branches grasp and pull.
Something moves and you turn with a start — a squirrel bounds away through the brush.
If it’s March, or April, we’re not having this conversation. You’re not wide-eyed and alone and half-lost in a maze of trees and undergrowth.
But this is the season for ghouls and for legends. It’s the time of year editors send reporters out to the wild, in search of fleeting phantoms. Thus, the mothman creature that reportedly lives in the rural Adams County woods.
And thus a soaked pair of shoes, and pants legs abloom with sharp briars. Leaves whispering, dusk falling as the trail leads you deeper, farther from home.
So how did it come to this?
Here’s the story.
It’s 1988, and a man living in the Baltimore area is set to meet an old friend from Adams County at a Boy Scout conference. The old friend mentions to the man, Lon Strickler, that Scout troops on overnight trips at Camp Conewago have recently been packing up their tents early, leaving the grounds in a rush of spinning tires. They’ve been waking in the night, the man said, to the sound of shrill crying.
Screaming sounds, out among the trees.
Strickler — who had some experience in paranormal research — was intrigued. He agreed to accompany his friend, and another man, to investigate for a night.
The group met at the Boy Scout camp off Dicks Dam Road north of Cross Keys, on a Friday night, around 7 p.m. They walked from the empty cabins about 500 yards into the woods, and then, following the Conewago Creek another 300 yards upstream, pitched their tents there along the shore. The talk was of sports and childhood camping trips, and night passed without incident.
There was little mention of the something they thought could be out in the woods. But still, Strickler would say later, it felt as if he were being watched.
Saturday dawned clear and cool, the sun warming a winding creek. The three men explored the area for most of the day, arriving back at camp again in the early evening. Conversation again covered football and food, the hours blurring and fading with a crackling campfire. Then, from somewhere in the shadows, a scream.
Maybe an owl, one man said. A bobcat, or a bird? But the three knew the local woods, and the animals. And this wasn’t close, they said. This was something different. The wail of a child.
So the group grabbed stowed gear and crept away from the dying fire, out into the night. They searched for signs of tracks or disturbance, squinting to pick up movement among the trees, scanning the shadows under slivered moon.
Water murmured in the creek bed. Leaves split like eggshells underfoot. Breath streamed out in bursts of silence, white against the night. Strickler stopped.
There it is, he whispered.
Standing in the creek was a large, dark figure. It was tall as a man, and stood upright; its red eyes burned. In an eye blink the creature leapt from the creek with a dizzying burst of wind and water, melting away into the sky.
Its scream echoed over barren branches.
That was more than 20 years ago, Lon Strickler said recently, and he can still see it — those eyes. And others have seen it in those woods, too, he said. Stories of sightings have come in from people he’s never met. He’s tracked them, and they still trickle in today.
Its become known, Strickler said, as the Conewago Phantom.
For all the build-up, though, and the obvious ghost-story selling points, few around the area had ever heard of the beast. Knocks on doors brought little more than puzzled, pitying looks. Trips down forgotten stone lanes yielded only empty stares.
Several people, at least, got a good laugh.
So as the late-day sun melts to twilight, there’s little left to do but find that deserted Boy Scout camp.
Behind an iron gate lays a wide, empty field, with a slow hill running to a line of wooden cabins. The cabins, huddled close and backed by dense woods, are dark and boarded, with no signs of life save for a dent here, a long scratch in a split board there. Then, movement.
At the top of the stone drive a blue pickup rolls into view, slows, and rumbles to rest beside you with a diesel growl. Inside, a man with a hat pulled low and a wide, dark mustache. He kills the engine but the woods are somehow louder now, birdsong dripping down from the trees.
He jerks his head, beckoning.
“I hear you’re looking for ‘Ole Red Eye,'” the man says as you struggle your way across the loose stone. Kids at this camp been talking about him for years, he says, fresh dirt on his shirt sleeve, gravel in his voice. Some claim they’ve seen him.
There’s something they’re afraid of, he says, out in those woods.
He stares off into the shadows, and while you can’t see up into the pickup, you notice the gun rack behind his head. You notice it’s empty. And your eye goes to the black tarp behind him. It flaps loose in the wind, slick and wet.
He turns back, catches you looking. And a hungry smile forms under that mustache, as he reaches down with his right hand — slowly — his little eyes on yours.
The gray sky seems to sag in on itself, and your skin goes cold. The birds squawk and scream, trees pressing in as your voice fails.
“I imagine that’s all just kid stories, though,” the man says. And he takes a drink of the soda in his hand. The truck rumbles and lurches to life again, tires grinding into the stone. Be careful, he advises then, out here all alone.
But you’re already right behind him. The swishing and sloshing of your soaked shoes forgotten, as you fumble with your keys, as you jump in your car. As you press down the automatic lock.
So silly, of course. But even those who don’t believe — those tree-branch fingers clawing at your window, that cold breath of wind creeping through the door — this month we look twice over our shoulder.
Did you just hear something? – The Evening Sun – October 31, 2011