Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mothman -- Part III

Our first sight was the Mason County Courthouse. Ashley told us that Chief Cornstalk had been buried on the grounds until they were removed shortly after the courthouse was damaged by a suicide bomber of sorts in 1976 -- a man visiting his wife, held in the jail there on charges of killing their infant daughter, brought along a suitcase full of dynamite and detonated it, killing himself, his wife, the sheriff, and a deputy. An interesting coincidence, but I looked it up later and the sources I've read say the reburial took place in the late '50s.

We continued up Route 62, passing 30th Street (childhood home of Jeff Wamsley and several Mothman eyewitnesses) and the Village Pizza Inn (formerly Tiny's Drive-In, a hotspot in the '60s where many eyewitnesses stopped to talk about their experiences). The part I was most looking forward to was just beginning. We left the city limits and were soon on a decidedly more rural stretch of Route 62, one that stretched out more or less straight toward the north. This was the TNT area. Ashley told us a story that I remembered well: on this very stretch of road, late at night on November 15, 1966, a car with four people was driving over 100 miles per hour in the opposite direction. They had just seen a winged creature with glowing red eyes. It was following them. I couldn't help but glance into the woods on either side of the road and peek up at the sky. The whole bus was doing it.

We turned off onto Potters Creek Road and were soon deep in the woods on a maze of lanes going in every direction. The fact that it was 3 in the afternoon with the sun high overhead brightened the atmosphere, but only a little. Ashley was talking to a couple of guys from Indiana sitting in the front seats about the Men in Black. She said there were three ideas about who or what they were: FBI agents sent to investigate the Mothman and UFO sightings, aliens, or demons. She said she considered the last one to be her favorite, saying it "made the most sense" and mentioning some passages in the Old Testament that may describe such entities. Willing suspension of disbelief, I told myself.

It was almost time to see an igloo. Up until about a week before our tour, the word on the website was that the igloos had been closed by order of the state fire marshall. Ashley elaborated on this by telling us that a local man had been secretly stockpiling explosives in one of them until it accidentally exploded sometime last year. She said most of TNT had been roped off as a result and the entire area made a "no fly zone" for almost a year. Last year's tours couldn't enter the igloos. But the ban had been lifted shortly before this year's festival so we were in luck. We pulled off the side of the road next to a trail leading into the woods. A 15-foot stretch of guardrail blocked cars from driving down the trail. As we got off the bus, the other girl leading the tour stood there with a bucket full of flashlights for us to use inside the igloo.

The igloo appeared to be nothing more than a rusty, graffittied door opening into the brush. If the rest of it was there, we couldn't see it. I quickly realized that there could be igloos all around us but the only way we would know they were there would be to run into them. If the original camouflage from 70 years ago did an effective job, nature and neglect have only improved upon it in the interim. The interior had a noticeable drop in temperature, not unlike a cave. The first thing I noticed was the acoustics -- the usual hollow echo had a shimmering, vibrato effect at the end when you stood in the center of the room. Rusty metal cans lay scattered against the walls. The floor crackled with beer cans, broken glass, and assorted litter and detritus -- the remnants of who knows how many years of camping and carousing. I remember thinking that the layers of garbage underfoot in this one room could serve as an archaeological treasure trove for rural partying dating back who knows how many years. A rather well-done painting of Mothman stood out among the scrawled names and dates that coated the walls. As there was a 6-year-old boy in our group, Ashley had warned us before entering that one of the locals had recently augmented his anatomy in a not-so family friendly sort of way.

We paused outside the entrance to talk. There were two other igloos on down the trail, although neither of them were open. Ashley said the third one gave her the creeps so much that she didn't want to go around it. On a past tour, a woman had told her that she had "a bad feeling" about it. She said that while they were standing outside of it like we were now, the woman saw three ghostly Indians emerge from the woods and slowly walk in circles around the tour group, a look of anger and contempt on their faces.

One of the guys who was sitting behind us on the bus asked if the "Eyes of Mothman" documentary had had any noticeable effect on the number of tourists visiting Point Pleasant. He also gushed about how it was one of the best documentaries he had ever seen. He must not get out much. Ashley's response was that the numbers are increasing; she estimated 90% of the people who attend the Mothman Festival each year are from out of town. As she continued to talk, I began to detect what I surmised to be the politics of Mothman in Point Pleasant: most of the locals don't know much about the TNT area. They know it's there, they just don't know the history. Mothman apparently divides the people of Point Pleasant into two camps: those who like him and those who don't. On one hand are the people like Ashley and her dad. They're marketing the legend for all it's worth, sacrificing a bit of dignity for income in a town that sorely needs income of some sort. On the other are the people who think the whole thing is silly -- the original sightings were the product drug-induced hallucinations or nefarious hoaxes, they say; the people putting on the Mothman Festival are at best clogging up downtown with their ridiculous hootenanny every year. At worst, they're promoting Point Pleasant as laughingstock town full of credulous, superstitious hicks. Somebody asked her about the mothball smell. "Knowing what I know," she said, "it's either some of the visitors trying to have fun, or some of the locals trying to stop it."

We got back on the bus and drove a little more through the maze of roads. We were soon back on Route 26 headed south, back to Point Pleasant. This was the exact route of the first sighting. I saw a long stretch of road running in front of us and thought about how easy it would have been to go 100 here.

So the tour was over. I was a little disappointed, considering we only had one stop. But the people are what make tours. We had a bit of time to kill before church at 5:30, so I decided it would be a good time to try a Mothman pancake. The guy running it was dressed in a chef outfit, accompanied by his wife and two daughters. For $4 I decided to try the "nutty" upgrade (vs. $3.50 for the standard version). Other choices were "fruity", "chocolate", and one or two others I can't remember. It was pure junk food but good. Not as much of a sugar rush as I expected, and where else are you going to get an official Mothman pancake? They even had t-shirts, but I declined. Speaking of t-shirts, it was a good time to visit the merchandise tent. I saw Jeff Wamsley there, sort of moving back and forth behind the scenes. Somebody handed him a book to autograph. This reminded me that I really needed to grab one of his books myself. I had looked at the price on Amazon the night before...a dollar or two cheaper, but why not buy it straight from the source and get an autograph to boot? I picked up the last of the official t-shirts (size small, but it would do) and grabbed a copy of "Mothman: Behind the Red Eyes", the second of Jeff's books and according to Ashley, the better one. $40, and of course at that point Jeff was nowhere to be found. After a few minutes though he came back. I walked over and asked him if he could sign the book for me. He asked who I wanted him to make it out to. "Nobody," I said, thinking it would be less tacky that way. "Do you want me to date it?" he asked. Jeff Wamsley, 9/17/2011.

Last on our agenda was the hayride at 8. Though not billed as a "thrill ride," I couldn't resist watching a video of last year's somebody had posted on youtube. It spoiled things for me a little bit on one hand but on the other convinced me that it was something worthwhile to do. We spent our last hour or so at Tu-Endie-Wei, retracing my steps from 13 years ago with Jeremy, and walking along the riverfront. It was a beautiful late summer evening.

About 7:15, we headed back up toward the TNT area and the Mason County Fairgrounds for the hayride. After we parked and walked toward the crowd, I overheard a woman telling some people that the tickets were sold out. Apparently, we could have bought them at a booth back in town any time during the day. The people she was talking to must have protested a bit, because I heard her assure them good-naturedly that she had indeed been there all day ("with two pee breaks," she said, holding up two fingers and laughing). Oh well. The day had gone well up until that point. And considering the fact that I was already getting a little sleepy, there was the definite silver lining of getting home at least an hour earlier.

As we walked back out to the car, I took one last moment to soak it all in. The sun was setting. There was a pleasant fall crispness in the air. We stood there in the field with the site of the North Power Plant in the distance. I watched as a flock of birds took flight, disappearing into the trees beyond. To our left, the coal plant was still drawing its anvil-shaped cloud in the air, its red warning lights flashing silently against the cloudless twilight sky. I thought of the years. The creature known as the Mothman had existed in my consciousness now for longer than it had existed in anyone's when I first heard about it a good 26 years ago. Point Pleasant, the town that I once assured myself was so far away, was now where I was standing. I was standing at the epicenter of Mothman.

The trip home was unvenetful. It seemed much quicker, as it always does.



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