May 27 and 28, 2011
It was a dark and stormy day when the state trooper pulled me over.
“Where are you going tonight?” He asks.
“The Devil’s Tramping Ground.” I answer.
The officer squints at me for a second and almost hides a smirk. I hand him my ID and registration.
“I’ll be right with you.” He saunters slowly toward his dodge charger. I make a to do list for the post office:
– Send postcards home
– Pay Virginia Beach parking Ticket
– Pay North Carolina speeding Ticket
The officer, Trooper Cleary, returned and politely slapped me with a $30 fine, and $141 in court costs. It was getting late and the already storm weakened daylight I needed to pitch my tent was waning fast. He started back toward his car, and then stopped:
“D’ya know how to get to the Devil’s Tramping Ground?”
After getting $171 directions from the policeman, I sped off to my date with the Devil.
The legend of the Devil’s Tramping Ground, originating in the 1700’s, is known to virtually everyone I spoke to around its purported location in Bear Creek, North Carolina, and each had a new part of the legend to add. Out in the woods lies a perfect circle where nothing has grown for 100 years. At night, the Devil appears and plots new ways to torture humanity. Legend has it that he appears as a billowy spirit with the body of a man and a set of glistening horns.
Supposedly, anything left in the circle at night will be thrown into the woods by morning. Reports of strange symbols, animal bones, American Indian chanting, and dead dogs come from drunk kids who build fires and try to stay the night. As far as anyone knows, groups have spent the night, but nobody has ever stayed the whole night at the Devil’s Tramping Ground alone.
Coming from Sanford, I drove up 421 North until reaching 902 West. The rain was still coming down but had cleared up some from the torrential downpour or rain and hail it had been earlier that day. After about 7 miles on 902 West, a turn onto Silar City Glendon Road leads to a BP station and a couple of restaurants. The next turn is Devil’s Tramping Ground Road. After driving 1.8 miles past a field of cows, a small gravel pull-off provides a place to park.
I pull off the road, about 15 miles in any direction from the nearest town, around 7:30 P.M. A small rain river runs alongside the car, normal except for the crimson color of the cold water. I tread carefully, walking up a small stone ledge and noting a pair of bleached animal bones next to a tree. A 60 foot trail takes me to the clearing.
A perfect circle, about 40 feet in diameter, lay before me. Two campfires smelling of ash gave off the faintest trails of smoke in the rain. Broken glass, metal, and trash litter the Devil’s brainstorming spot. I arrive unsure of whether or not I will spend the night. The rain is still coming down, and I could be flooded out if the Devil didn’t get me first. With the last few minutes of daylight, I boldly pitch my single person tent and decide that if the rain gets bad I can sleep in the car. The tent stakes reveal one possible reason for the lack of growth: There is only about an inch of rocky sand on top of hard rock. If plants can’t take root, they can’t grow. If the rain held up, nothing could stop me from becoming the first person to spend the whole night alone at the Devil’s Tramping Ground.
Then a car pulled up alongside mine. The fact that anyone else drove out here in a storm was mind boggling, but I went out to introduce myself, both glad for the company and disappointed that I would be sharing the mild glory. Four college students piled out of the red sedan, and immediately came over to say hello.
“I didn’t think anyone else would be crazy enough to come out on a day like this!” I yelled over the growing rain river beside me.
“Neither did we!” one yelled back. I found out that the group, two men and two women, were all either residents or students in North Carolina, and had come from Chapel Hill—an hours drive—to confirm the rumors they had heard. After realizing they all lived in different towns and went to different schools, I asked puzzled:
“So how do you all know each other?”
“Oh” says Haleigh, an energetic future teacher who persuaded the group to make the trek despite the storm, “We’re in the same church group. We’re Mormons!”
Not only had I never met a Mormon, I had no idea they even existed outside of Utah. I was excited to learn more about them, but the rain stalled creating an opening to pitch a tent. They were deciding whether or not to stay the night or drive home while trying to build a fire with very wet kindling. Haleigh and Anna want to stay, while Donavan and Kyle are more inclined to head home. I offer to get some lighter fluid from the BP station. As I drive to the station, the mist on the road makes it nearly impossible to see. Out of nowhere, the rain picks up again and any hope of fire is extinguished.
My new friends meet me at the gas station. They’ve decided to head home, I’ve decided to stay the night alone. We drive into Silar City, a small town about a 15 minute drive north, caravan style to try and get some dinner. The only place open is Drydock, a fancy looking seafood joint. With complementary hush puppies, large portions and tasty food fried southern style, a better last meal would have been tough to find. Our waitress, Kimy, is a high school senior saving up so she can cheerlead for the University of North Carolina.
At one point or another during dinner, Haleigh mentions that she was not born a Mormon. I am taken aback for the second time as she explains that her search for religion eventually led her to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It turns that that two of the four are converts, and that at a time when most young people are turning their back on organized religion, the Mormon Church is finding success in converting youth. Stunned, I discover that the community these four college students whose studies range from philosophy to electrical engineering had found a church community they loved.
I mentally filed that away for future consideration. As we said our goodbyes, I braced myself for the coming solitude. Driving back towards the campsite, I am careful not to make a wrong turn in the dark. The rain has let up, hopefully for good. A twelve mile drive back through the mist brings me to the now deserted gas station. I get nervous and fear starts to creep into my being as I slowly drive away from human company. Avoiding suicidal frogs, I park at the gravel pulloff and bring out my light to scope the site.
My tent is still there, and I see no sign of the devil. It is nearing midnight, so I decide to stay in my car for a while in case human devils drop by to steal it or try and scare me. I crack the window, both for air and to listen. The sound of the rain river is accompanied by the engine of an occasional plane or car. Every five minutes or so, a weak whistling noise like a window rolled two thirds of the way up on a highway complements the dripping. Every so often, my mind imagines footsteps and I turn off my reading light and put my hand on the key. I force my heart to beat slowly so I can hear.
At about two in the morning I start to get tired and figure that I and my car were safe thanks to the storm cover. Walking gingerly, I get up the courage to bring my sleeping bag, video camera, voice recorder, flashlight, and book with me into my tent. I zip it up tightly and try to read more. My eyes get tired in the dim light quickly, but I know I must distract myself from the sounds outside if I am to stay the night.
I give in and try to fall asleep. The time passes slowly as the raindrops, and barking dogs spook me. At about 3:45 A.M., I am convinced I hear footsteps. Adrenaline pumps through my heart and I am ready to bolt. I peek outside. No Devil, no Deer. With each step, I grow more awake. Finally around 4:30 a.m., I drift off to sleep. At 5 a.m., I wake up.
A low moaning sound penetrated the otherwise quiet night. The sky was only just beginning to turn blue, not enough to claim I had spent the night. The moaning sound continued, growing no closer and no further. I lay on my back, keys in hand, muscles tensed. Then I remembered the cows. The moaning sound was just mooing. Nevertheless, I do not get back to sleep. At 6 a.m., I unzip the tent. Nothing has changed, nothing’s been moved. I sleep well for three hours, then pack up with a sense of accomplishment which quickly devolves into annoyance at my tent’s stubborn refusal to compact.
So, on the night of May 27th, I spent the night at the Devil’s Tramping Ground. Though it is likely that someone else has spent the night sometime in the past, I’ll still fight for the credit. I embarked on this somewhat dangerous and definitely unnerving quest figuring that if I can sleep on the Devil’s land on my first night entirely on my own, the next thirty or so nights I spend alone won’t seem quite so imposing.