I once met a woman at a gift shop on the Oregon Coast who was amazed to find that I was there alone. She felt so sorry for me that she asked me to join her family for lunch. I couldn’t believe it was so unusual for a woman of a certain age to be travelling on her own. I’ve had similar encounters in far-flung places in South America and China, which were somewhat understandable, I guess, but the safe, close-to-home Oregon Coast? I really didn’t see how some women could be so protected and so cloistered from the world. Simple necessity gave me license to move about the world unaccompanied. I had no partner. Whether that was a tragedy or a gift is still open for discussion. I can see it both ways.
It was with that ambiguous mindset that I made a plan to visit Point Pleasant, West Virginia. An ostensibly random destination, it was a small and unremarkable city on the western border of the state, but a place where something decidedly incredible had purportedly happened back in the mid-60’s. The town was home to sightings of the Mothman, a monstrous man-bird that flew above the trees and supposedly pre-ordained the very real collapse of the Silver Bridge over the Ohio River in 1967, killing dozens of people. Mothman sightings were so rife in this Mason County hamlet as to inspire the building of a statue in the middle of Point Pleasant as well as numerous books and movies about the phenomenon. The place had become something of a tourist stop.
I had been to Roswell, New Mexico, and Groom Lake, Nevada, the location of Area 51, both sites of well-publicized UFO activity and research. Did I believe the stories? I don’t consider myself a kook. I can think of many humdrum explanations for each story, including out-and-out fraud. But, as the saying goes, I want to believe. Hence the trip to West Virginia. I had done my homework, pinpointed the strip of highway along State Road 2 where the majority of the Mothman sightings occurred. So, with guidebooks and maps in hand, I flew into Charleston on a suitably stormy afternoon and picked up my rental car. This was to be one in a long series of my so-called fly-in-drive-around trips where I went someplace in pursuit of some arcane point of fact or fancy. Obviously, the destination was never as important as the journey and I have never regretted spending my money or my time on one of these wild goose chases.
Charleston was a pleasant enough city, and I spent my first night there at a Quality Inn near the airport. The next day, I packed the car and set out to meet the only person I knew in West Virginia, John, a young man I once employed back at Ensign Insurance. I had called ahead and asked him to have lunch with me at Charleston Town Center Mall. To say he was surprised to hear from me was an understatement, but he was game enough.
“Why, yes, I’d love to do lunch,” he said over the phone in that honeyed accent of the region. “Let’s do it.”
Once seated at the modest Italian restaurant in the mall, enjoying crusty bread and glasses of red wine, he asked me what the hell I was doing there.
“Well, I had heard from you and others what a beautiful place it is,” I hedged. “And it’s an area of the country I’ve never seen before. So I thought it would be the perfect place for a road trip.” All true. Incomplete, but true.
“I might go down to Boone County,” I ventured. John had acquainted me with the legend of Jesco White, the so-called Dancing Outlaw of Boone County who had attained some degree of notoriety for his clog- dancing, evangelical exploits as an entertainer in this rural Appalachian fallen coal country. Jesco White’s fame stemmed from a persona born of poverty, addiction and criminal activity. Still, there was something charismatic about Jesco. Several films had been made documenting his family drama and, most notably in the mainstream, he appeared on network TV in the Roseanne Barr show in 1999 as “Dan’s clog- dancing cousin.”
“Boone County, huh?” John was skeptical. “You don’t want to go down there looking for Jesco White. Some of the locals might not appreciate your interest.”
My plan was to evaluate the situation over lunch and decide whether I should ask John to accompany me on this trip. I ultimately decided his presence would be a distraction and that he lacked the necessary spirit of adventure to embark on this particular journey. After lunch we parted ways, and I headed on a vaguely northwesterly path toward my primary destination. Jesco would have to wait. I might have some time at the end of my trip to explore Boone County, but right now, I had a meeting pending with the Mothman.
I headed up the I-64 in my rented Nissan Sentra and jogged over to State Road 35 at a town called Winfield. I crossed the Kanawha River there and realized that Point Pleasant was where the Kanawha and the Ohio River met, site of the infamous bridge disaster back in 1967. The countryside was beautiful and wild. Even compared to Oregon, this part of West Virginia had a strikingly Caucasian demographic. The people I met were pleasant, and more than one citizen just couldn’t believe I had come here all the way from Ore-GON. It had been a short afternoon’s drive from Charleston to Point Pleasant and I decided to start my research right away.
After setting up base camp at the local Super 8 Motel, I took a walk around the neighborhood. Neat, working class houses lined the streets, and kudzu coiled along the fences and eaves. People were outside watering their lawns or sitting on their front porches with sweet tea. Just about everyone waved at me when I walked past. I went into a small grocery store and perused the community bulletin board: free kittens, a boat for sale, weekend flea market. The usual offerings. There was a tent revival going on at the New Harvest Church on the east side of town. Just my luck.
I didn’t know exactly what to expect at the revival. Everything from faith healing to speaking in tongues to snake handling crossed my mind. As it happened, the affair was much more sedate. Hymns were sung. Prayers were offered. The plate was passed. I was disappointed that no one was violently seized by the Holy Ghost at this particular gathering. As it happened, these faithful were mainstream Methodists. Perhaps I should have sought out a Pentacostal or holiness congregation of some sort.
The next morning, I located the Mothman statue and took several pictures. It was fake-looking and cheesy. Still, I scanned the skies and looked for promising shadows among the clouds. There was nothing.
The local museum housed a small section devoted to Mothman lore. I had already seen all of the photos and news stories on display. I had what I hoped was a subtle interaction with the toothpick-chewing curator. “So what’s the deal with these Mothman stories?”
“Some people believe in it, I guess. Used to be a big draw here in town. Not so much anymore.” He seemed to warm to me as he pegged me for a tourist and, possibly, a source of amusement. “I can tell you where some of the reports came from, if that’s what you want.”
“Sure.” I tried not to sound too avid. “I’ll take a look.” I hefted my purse to the opposite shoulder. He shifted his toothpick. We two had made a contract in that instant. He had offered a consideration, and I had accepted. “So what can you tell me?”
He pinned me with his eyes. I don’t know if this was an effort to intimidate me or merely to sell me on his dubious wares. “Most of the sightings took place along County Road 11 outside of town.” He reached under the counter for a pad of paper and continued, drawing as he went. “You go out 62 North about six miles past the fairgrounds. Turn right when you get to the cornfield. That’ll be CR-11. You go 1.2 miles till you see a pond on your right. The guardrail around that curve has “Deerkiller” painted on it. That’s the place.”
“The place?” My mind was almost blown. I’d found a person who knew something.
“If you park alongside the road, you can follow the trail down to the TNT area.”
Holy crap, I thought, that’s where the old munitions bunkers were. The creature’s lair. Ground zero. I couldn’t believe what this guy was telling me. He was pointing me to the Holy Grail of the Mothman legend. I tried not to let my excitement show.
Thanking him, I thought I saw a glint of mirth in his eyes. No, I was imagining that, I was sure. I got to my car and oriented myself due North.
Following every detail of the map he had drawn, I reached the cornfield and made my right turn. Glancing at the map and back at the road, I scanned the terrain for a guardrail around a curve. A mile later and there it was. “Deerkiller” in red spray paint.
I pulled over and slathered bug repellant all up and down my legs. A girl couldn’t be too careful. I took a swig of my bottled tea and set out to tame the beast.
As I stepped around the guardrail toward the path, I felt a frisson of fear. Was this safe? Should I really be doing this? Surely the man from the museum wasn’t a murderous psycho who had lured me out into the middle of nowhere to kill me? No, it was more like he was back in town laughing his ass off. I clutched my purse tighter and continued on through a haze of mosquitos. The last time I turned around and looked back, I couldn’t see the car at the road anymore. I forged ahead. The first bunker came into view. It was rickety-looking and barricaded by foliage, set back into the dirt of a hill. I kept walking.
The next bunker appeared. It was a little less overgrown with kudzu, and I stepped nearer the structure, thinking I could probably pull the worst of the purple-flowered vines away from the slightly open doorway and get in. Once inside the bunker, I looked around. It was almost completely dark, but I could make out the ubiquitous scribblings of spray paint and the discarded beer bottles strewn around the inside of the little building. The darkness got the best of me. I managed to snap a few pictures before plunging back out into the daylight.
I marched back to the car, stamping burrs off my shoes and pants as I went. Once inside, I locked the car doors and hurriedly put it in gear, eager to be away from this corrupted place. I drove straight back to the motel, gathered my belongings and checked out, headed, for lack of a better place, for the casino in Wheeling.
True, I didn’t see the Mothman, but I had scared myself silly. When I had the photos developed, each of the shots inside the bunker contained distinct little blobs of light, orbs, as they are called by people who believe that these shapes signify the presence of spirits.
Linda Caradine is a Portland Oregon based writer whose work has appeared in The Oregonian Newspaper, This Week, Cat Fancy and Animal Wellness magazines, among others. She is currently working on a memoir about growing up as an itinerant “army brat” in the 1960’s.
Photography by William J. Stribling