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The ghost road

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The Observer has been at this awhile now, so we can't quite remember if we've made this admission before in print. Whatever the case, given Halloween, we're prepared to issue a full confession: Several years back, Yours Truly spent four years looking for ghosts all over the state.

Now, don't get us wrong, and cut out that snickering. The Observer is not one of those kooks on TV, peeing down both legs every time the wind hoots in the eaves. The Observer is just a curious sort, and came from a family with a lot of ghost stories. Rather than discount them all, we decided to go see if there was Anything Out There.

And so, with the help of our brother, we did. The pair of us tromped all over, talking to people, jotting notes, staying up late, taking pictures, drinking truck stop coffee before rolling home through the dawn. It was an experience.

What you learn first out there on the Ghost Road is the 10,000 ways your perfectly functional brain can trick you in the dark, turning every squeak and shadow into the very shade of Hamlet's dead ol' daddy. If you're not careful, an air conditioner kicking on can become the murmuring of spectral voices, every floorboard creak a secret step. It's worse when you're there with the inevitable True Believer, the guy or gal for whom every thumbprint on a camera lens is proof positive that we are in communication with The Great Beyond.

That, by the way, is the second thing you learn: just how ready people are to believe in hokum, especially when they're looking for proof that we won't all eventually just wink out like a porch light. You would not believe how many otherwise rational people will stand in dusty parlors with a light buckled to their head, prepared to fistfight if you don't affirm their contention that a blurry picture of a camera strap is, in fact, proof of immortality. There were plenty of those arguments. Arguments over the funny thing digital cameras do to dust in the air ("orbs of energy!"). Over lens flare. Over the clearing of a mortal throat, translated into "Get out!" by the needy ear of a True Believer. If anything pushed The Observer from Sorta Agnostic to Teetering Atheist on all things supernatural, it was our walk on the Ghost Road, where we were soon convinced that yes, five billion people can, in fact, be wrong, especially when life after death is on the line.

We have left all that behind, and glad to be shed of it. Bah, humbug! That said, how to explain the things The Observer and our baby bro saw and heard out there? How to explain the seemingly sane man, a successful executive with a company you would likely know, living alone on a lake, who described seeing a little boy in his locked house over and over, the businessman repeatedly finding his clothes soaked on a dry floor, his fine leather shoes in the closet filled to the brim with brackish water? How to explain the family up in Faulkner County whose 5-year-old started regularly reporting a strange, sad woman standing on a chair in his room, months before a questioning of neighbors found that the previous owner of the house had hanged herself there? How to explain The Observer's own broad-daylight sighting of a man — not a shadow or reflection from a passing car or corner-of-the-eye bit of schmutz, but a man — walking past a doorway in a locked museum over in Forrest City, an older gent with a mustache and a gray sweater and a slight smile on his face, who could not be found after a search from dirt to attic? How to explain the man-shaped shadow that hung at the end of a darkened hallway in an abandoned hospital way up in the hills before both of us one night, hovering in our lights for a solid minute before swirling away like dishwater down a drain? How, dear skeptic or believer, to square these things with this world where up is infallibly up?

Crazy, you'll surely say. More gravy than grave. Dreams. Tricks of the light. Maybe so. The brain, as we've recounted, is tricky. We'd think the same thing. But even as sure as we are that people are desperate enough for an Afterlife to lie even to themselves, The Observer is here to tell you that we observed a handful of things we can't explain out on the Ghost Road. And that's the part of those four years we still consider with a frown, especially in late October.

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