Editor at Large

Editor Alexis Doster, gets his pants scared off at summer camp.

smithsonian.com

Alexis "Dusty" Doster moved to Arizona in 1954 when he was 11 years old and instantly fell in love with the desert and the mountains of the Southwest. While his career has kept him at the Smithsonian for more than 30 years, he still enjoys his twice-yearly visits to family and friends in Tucson.

The Tracks to Hell

After dinner, let's take the kids up to that old mine in the canyon," said Bill, squinting into the glare of an Arizona summer afternoon. "We'll have a fire, tell ‘em ghost stories." Steve and I listened wearily. Bill continued, "We'll need flashlights, water, matches and the marshmallows." "OK, boss, if you want to," we said, resigned, our free night gone.

Bill was 16 that summer of 1956, a seasoned counselor at our YMCA summer camp. Steve and I were junior counselors, know-it-all 13-year-olds whose qualifications were that we had been to the camp at least one previous year and weren't unusually scatterbrained. The kids were boys of 10 to 12 or so, here for two weeks of horseback riding, riflery, archery, swimming, crafts and mountain hikes. It was a nice camp, low-key and sane, with a good staff.

Its bunkhouses, cook shack and activities buildings sat on a rare flat place on the north side of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Tucson sprawled on the south side of this rugged and beautiful range, but it was our side, the camp side, that had attracted miners in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They had come to dig for silver and gold, but all that remained of their years of work in the hard rock were yawning shafts, tailing dumps and slowly rusting machinery.

After our dinner of burgers, beans and bug juice, Bill rounded up his group, about a dozen campers and Steve and me as shepherds. Shouldering the supplies in our army surplus rucksacks, we set off up the mile-long trail to the abandoned mine.

With a sizable flat, sandy area for a fire, this mine site was ideal for our stories-around-the-campfire purpose. It had been a substantial operation, though no buildings remained intact. A large horizontal shaft ran straight back into the mountainside, who knew how far. A pair of rails from the old ore railroad led several hundred feet from the site of a now nearly vanished hopper building to vanish into the darkness of the shaft. Battered ore trucks lay tipped on their sides. Pieces of machinery were heaped about in twisted, surreal assemblages. Scattered along the rails were the bones—no skull—of a long dead cow, bleached very white by the sun.

When we reached the mine, sunset had gone, and the sudden chill of the desert night was falling. Bright starlight softened the harsh landscape and heightened the weirdness of the twisted piles of metal. We quickly arranged rocks in a circle, gathered some dead mesquite and had a fire blazing in a few minutes.

Grateful for the warmth, the campers got out their sharpened sticks and the marshmallow roast began. While we toasted the powder-coated white blobs of sugar until they flamed, and then licked them off our sticky fingers, Bill began to tell scary stories about the bad men of the Old West who had prowled the mining camps, committing their awful deeds, paying an awful price.

"Finally, the miners would get tired of ‘em," he said, "and string ‘em up. A lot of sinners lived around here. Bad, bad sinners." Standing in the firelight, warming to his story, he gestured toward the tracks and the old cow bones around them. "See those tracks!" he said. "That's the railroad to Hell!" Voice rising now, "That old mine shaft goes right straight down to where the Devil lives! See those bones! They're the bones of sinners that fell out of the cars!"

He had them riveted now. Even I, who had never believed in ghosts, was impressed with his creativity.

"Sometimes, late at night," he said, his face grotesque in the flickering light, "the train comes out of the shaft to pick up another load of sinners' bones. Maybe we'll see it tonight!"

As one, the kids stared toward the dark mouth of the shaft, sinister against the lighter rock of the steep hillside. The rails were parallel lines in the starlight, the bones gleaming white.

"The locomotive glows red with the heat of Hell," he said. "You can see the engineer all in rags with his skeleton hand on the throttle, while the fireman shovels the bones of the sinners into the firebox and fire and brimstone pour from the stack.

"But it doesn't make any sound at all," he said, suddenly lowering his voice to a whisper. "It just hurtles silently by, bones heaped high in the cars, glowing red and green and blue." The kids were spellbound, staring at him now, unable to take their eyes off him for fear of what they might see out there beyond the firelight.

He leaped away from the fire, and, sweeping his flashlight toward the mouth of the shaft, flicked it on. "There's where it comes from!" Deep into the dark shaft the light stabbed, far, far back beyond where we'd ever been able to see before. All of us stared after it.

Way back in the depths of the mountain, two gleaming blue-green dots suddenly blinked on in the blaze of the flashlight. Blinked again. Again. Then swiftly, unmistakably rose. A foot apart, four feet off the floor of the shaft, they stopped for a moment, then began moving, swaying back and forth. Something was coming out!

The kids yelled in terror. Steve and I froze, unbelieving and believing at once. Only Bill kept his wits. "Run up on the hill above the shaft! Now! Run, damn it, run!" We ran madly along the track, toward the mouth of the shaft, toward the swaying eyes, for surely they were eyes, glowing eyes, and surely they were coming out. We ran toward our only salvation, the high ground of thelooming hillside.

We reached the hillside before It reached the mouth of the shaft. Desperately, we scrabbled up the steep, rock strewn slope, grabbing at bushes, heedless of snakes, our breath sobbing in our chests. No more screams; the kids were dumb with fear and exertion.

As we stumbled to a halt above the mouth of the shaft, a great animal thing hurtled out below us, ghastly white in the glare of a dozen flashlights. A cow! An ancient, range-wise cow, a gnarly-horned cow that probably hadn't felt a rope since who knows when. And—you want to know the strangest thing? Just like Bill's train from Hell, she made no sound: no hoofbeats, no bawl, no snort, nothing. Before we could think, she vanished, swallowed up in the night.

We, too, were silent for a few minutes, then we all began to babble. "Did you see that!" As if anyone could have missed it. No one wanted to say that we hadn't heard it. That it hadn't made any NOISE!

Breathlessly, we waited for a while, all talking at once, afraid to come down onto the flat for fear the old cow might have a companion. Or something.

Eventually we filed back to the camp, every flashlight brightly on, every camper huddled to the next. Even irrepressible, practical Bill was subdued.

The next day the story was all over the camp and we were celebrated heroes, telling our story over and over, embellishing, elaborating it. But we didn't say much about how we didn't hear any sound at all. It was just a cow, right?

I don't think any of us ever forgot that night. And even now, going on 45 years later, I wonder about that cow. I still don't believe in ghosts. Not a bit. But I wonder if that cow might still be there in that mine shaft. I wonder about that cow...that cow that didn't make any noise.

PAID CONTENT

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus