I don’t believe in ghosts and probably never will, despite my father’s best efforts. He grew up off a little wooded lane called Cuba Road. It’s supposedly one of the most haunted places in Illinois, and had the stories to boot: “There’s a ghost of an old man who walks the road back and forth looking for his family,” he’d say. “Never pick him up, Tommy, when you’re old enough to drive.”
And then, of course, there was the ghost of the tricycle-riding 5-year-old. The peddling spectre would appear if you drove past the old asylum. “I’m not lying to you, son. You best stay away from that old asylum, now, you hear?”
I never did confirm if there’s an old asylum out by Cuba Road, but not for lack of looking. In middle school, we’d hike through the marsh that’s just north of Cuba Road, never finding anything but a rusty saw we assumed, naturally, the asylum used for lobotomies. It wasn’t ghosts or death we were afraid of, but boredom, as most children are.
But it’s possible, growing up, to learn to be afraid of the dark. With good reason.
When I was 16 years old, I spent a week on an Indian reservation in South Dakota. I was doing charity work, and that sort of thing was expected of a young person from a good Christian background and a well-to-do town. And who, one day, would need something to write about in college application essays.
We worked most days fixing up houses. Sometimes we built fences, protecting the Lakota’s pastures from coyotes and wild dogs in the reservation’s interior. Much of the reservation is 400 square miles of prairie, empty except for predators and wild horses. It was also the site of the notorious pre-Columbian Crow Creek Massacre. Somewhere out there is a mass grave, a remnant of a conflict in which the invaders scalped most villagers and the others were decapitated, though I suppose that’s not mutually exclusive.
Kids of the reservation know not to wander into the interior, mostly. Sometimes a young one will get lost. I heard a story once about a 5-year-old who followed a stray dog out of camp and never came back. They looked for a few days without any sign of him, though no one knew how he got that far.
The last night of the trip, after the sweat lodge, we were given time to reflect. I was never one for reflection, especially at 16, and managed to convince a few other volunteers to hike into the interior.
“My wallet,” I lied. “I must have left it by the sage fields.”
I just wanted to see the stars from out there. They were the best on the reservation since there was no light.
“I hike at home all the time,” I said. “And I want to pick some sage as a souvenir.”
I didn’t pick sage while the Lakota were around, since their custom is to pick ritual sage in a particular fashion while making offerings of tobacco as payment.
We lost the trail within an hour. A mile into our hike, we saw a black dog staring at us, eyes glowing in the flashlight beam. We ran until we realized we’d lost the path. Now, the flashlight was blinking out, and we were hopelessly lost. What’s more, our luck had turned sour. I tripped and landed on a cactus. Another hiker tripped and fell into a shallow ravine. It had been about three hours by now. We wondered if they would start looking for us soon. We wondered if they even noticed we were gone. And lastly, we thought about the missing little boy who followed the stray dog, and the black dog that had stared at us and scared us off the trail, and how diseased it looked, and how we could all smell it, still, an oppressive stench that conflated with the darkness to terrify us.
I had a bundle of sage in my fist, which I’d taken without offering any tobacco. When the group turned on each other, a la “The Blair Witch Project,” my stolen sage and I were the target.
“Just put it back,” some of them said. “You don’t know. I know you don’t believe but you don’t know,” they begged.
But I did know. Taking a plant didn’t have anything to do with getting lost. “OK,” I said, pretending to drop the bundle. But I kept it. I tucked it into my back pocket.
It was fine until someone pointed the flashlight at a bush, and I thought it was the black dog. I sprinted away, off into the darkness, leaving the group behind.
Here’s what I learned wandering around a haunted Indian reservation at night by myself: It doesn’t matter if the ghosts are real if the fear is. Fear got me lost, not ghosts, but the result was the same. I might never be found.
I dropped the sage. No one was there to see it, so I didn’t do it for them. But it was my way of admitting to myself that I was afraid. Sometimes that’s all you can do in the face of ghosts: admit that you are afraid, and that you don’t know what’s next, and that you’re sorry, and scared, and that you are afraid, you are afraid.
When they found me, I was walking deeper into the interior. I’d heard a howling; I was hoping it was the dogs around camp. Ten Lakota kids went looking for us in an off-roader and found the rest of the group. They spent the better part of an hour following me in. The Lakota had a black dog with them, covered in swollen ticks and with hardly any hair. His name was Caleb, and he helped them find us.
“We’ve got to go,” the kid driving said. “Haven’t you noticed? A storm is coming in from the west.”
That was why it had been so dark. A cloud moved toward camp, blinking out the stars as it came.
By the time we got back to camp, wind was ripping our tents from the ground. We slept in the chief’s basement, all of us curled up like a mass of voles, and in the morning we collected what was left of our belongings.
We found our things 100 yards from where they were. Almost all of our things, anyways. I lost a pair of jeans, the one with my wallet in the back pocket. I wonder sometimes, if I went back to the sage field where I lied and said it was, if I’d find it there.
Tom West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.