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Nonfiction July, 14th 2013

DON'T CALL US HUNTERS: PARANORMAL RESEARCH IN THE COWBOY STATE, by tasha leclair

 

The night of her fall, Clarice had restarted the EMF meter after getting a reading of 66.6. “And the weird thing is, just seconds before this happened, I had this sensation, like, we need to get out of here.”

All her meters were telling her to run. But no device can tell you where to run, or even what's after you. You often trade one danger for another.   

In our own dark nights, we're forever crawling around on our hands and knees, looking under beds, tearing back shower curtains, pointing flashlights into the woods. Hoping for a clue. Our own managed danger.

 

I spent my first EVP session meandering among clothing racks in a pitch-black, creaking theater with my newly assigned partner, Terry, and an antelope bust for which Terry had plans. “I just got an evil idea,” said Terry. “Let's put this somewhere.” Then he addressed the empty prop room, calling, “Do you ever play pranks?” He was talking to the ghost, not me, but sometimes it wasn't clear.

The prop room was believed to have operated as a “whore's room” during the theater's stint as a brothel, and the ghost who'd been spotted there was known, rather predictably, as the Lady in Red. Over the last half-hour, Terry had given me a crash-course in paranormal investigation, so when it came my turn, I stretched out my EMF detector and asked, “Was your hair naturally red, or did you dye it?”

Not even a blip.

But in that specific silence, there might have been an answer. I remember the boards beneath our feet. You could feel space stretching out beneath them. The air smelled like crayon, and it wasn't pitch-black at all. Not yet. There was light coming in from the street. The room was the gray of forever. The lights of the lobby looked vulgar afterward. That gray could lie over the land, over us, over Cheyenne, like the milky water of a thawing lake. In time, we and everything would come apart. In a little more time, maybe, we would drift back to the surface.

I live under a viaduct in Laramie, Wyoming, and on especially windy days, my driveway becomes a magnet for the things falling off the bridge and the things blowing under it. Tumbleweeds lodge between my shed and the fence, along with cans and bottles and bits of plastic. If I had spent my entire life in this driveway, I would think the world was made of plastic and tumbleweeds—things falling and blowing out of nowhere, or issuing from the lights that go back and forth over the bridge. Though my car could supposedly take me anywhere, into any number of scenarios and places from which I could piece together the world—or some world—I'm drawn back to the shabby evidence piling up in my own driveway. Planes of existence—stacked. Colliding, briefly, in the careless floating-down of empty chip packets from one world to another.

In the summer, when the university students leave for vacation, Laramie clears out. No one's in the restaurants, the bars, the coffee shops. No one's walking down the street. In early June, I'd met two affiliates of the MFA program at a downtown bar—one that had been too busy to hear each other in just days ago. Now, we were its only patrons. We sat out on the back patio with a pitcher of Bud Light and free, heavily buttered popcorn. Before us yawned the mouth of the stage where bluegrass and old timey bands occasionally played.  The trees rustled at its sides. There was nothing going on.

I'd just moved from Montana—where my boyfriend, Ryan, remained to work—into a converted shotgun shack under the bridge that takes people over the tracks in the direction of the Snowy Mountains. At night, when the bridge melted into the sky, headlights arced through the air like shooting stars or spirits passing between worlds.

Eventually, there were more cars. School started. I became absorbed, amoeba-like, into the community of the MFA program, and more largely, the university, where there was always something going on, many people to see. And yet, I tried, through the winter—which was crowded, when I walked to school, with figures passing each other, breathing out separate clouds of mist, moving as dark shapes through sheets of snow, wrapped from head to toe in winter gear (I would pass a friend and neither of us would recognize each other)—to resurrect that genuine loneliness from those first months in Laramie, when there had been nothing to do but get together and talk in groups of two or three, watching trains loaded with lumber and coal chug away in the direction of Montana. When I looked out my window at the cars passing over the viaduct, I wanted fewer lights, so those that did pass seemed brighter and more distinct.Maybe I would be able to form an opinion of the people who traveled with those lights, since they no longer left their trash for me or it was buried in snow.

Under snow, all the buildings looked alike.

 

That first summer, Clarice picked me up in an empty parking lot a block from my apartment the evening before Independence Day. We sat idling in her Eldorado until I realized she was waiting for me to buckle my seat belt. The second I was securely buckled, she pulled out of the parking lot and crossed the Clark Street bridge, turning on 3rd Street, which would take us to Interstate 80–East, and to Cheyenne, where we'd be investigating the Atlas Theatre. As she drove—her eyes never leaving the road—she began the story of how she broke her nose during the last investigation.

“We know for a fact—” Clarice said. “Well, we say we were pushed down a flight of stairs. And the first words out of her mouth, when the guys got up there—Sadie said we were pushed.”

In addition to her broken nose, Clarice wound up with bruises all over her body and a toe that was swollen for two weeks. The bridge of her nose was still bright red.

The results of the investigation were inconclusive.

I asked if she knew about the type of ghosts we might find in the theater. She said the internet reported two active ghosts, but she'd hoped for more. “I really want us to get some good evidence,” she said.

As we talked, the plains streamed by outside the window. Space, and the two of us moving through it too quickly to really feel it. There are few emptier spaces that the empty spaces on the interstate between Laramie and Cheyenne. We were filling a small pocket, briefly—the truck, a star shooting across the empty space before the sky meets the horizon.

 

I came across an ad for Cowboy State Paranormal Investigations on Craigslist shortly after moving to Laramie. They were looking for potentially haunted homes to investigate (free of charge), and there was a link to their website. I found the following list on the “Equipment” page:

            Infrared Thermometer
            Electromagnetic Field Detector
            Infrared Camera
            Wireless Video Camera
            Vibration Detector
            Wireless Motion Detectors—

I’ll stop here for brevity’s sake, though the complete list includes no less than six cameras and something called a parabolic microphone, which I would later discover looks like a small satellite dish and, outside of ghost-hunting, is used for nature recording and espionage.

A large part of paranormal research involves spending several minutes in dark rooms questioning invisible entities while meters bounce light off your face. Darkness pools in strange places; it twitches at your feet. On the street, someone screams, then shrieks with laughter, wandering out of a bar. You wonder if the night might not be swollen with horrors, after all.

What monitors would glow in my absolute dark? What would hum within those wires? What would I be watching for, pressing my headset to my ears for—would I know it if I caught it?

Here's the other side. When what you're looking for leaps away into shadow and leaves you alone with your meters.

 

In 1929—coinciding with the stock market crash—the Atlas Theatre closed for almost thirty years, until reopening briefly as a movie theater, then the Pink Pony Nightclub. Finally, the building regained its former glory as the Atlas Theatre, which sees most of its business during the Cheyenne Frontier Days, when it hosts vaudeville acts.  In the low-ceilinged, dirt-floor basement, our guide, Jay, had shot a movie about a cult. Jay was a theater employee and filmmaker who had offered to supervise the CSPI team during our six-hour investigation. He showed us how to turn off the lights and said we could find him in the lobby.

Terry and I were just wrapping up our investigation upstairs when Adam called both teams to the lobby, where he and Clarice were monitoring video feeds from our sessions. They sat before glowing screens in the mustard-colored room, watching us stumble, prepared to alert us to a face pressed against the window, a shadow in our midst.

The other team, Patrick and Stacee, were elated. Their EMF detector reached a 24-point spike in the theater. On top of that, one of their meters also produced a vibration alert on the stage.

“We could hear walking, like back and forth,” said Stacee.

Stacee was Terry's daughter. They both worked in healthcare—although during our EVP session with the Lady in Red, Terry had told the ghost (and me, secondarily) that he was also a third-generation cowboy. Patrick and Adam each had a military background. Adam, along with his wife Giulia, had founded CSPI upon moving to Laramie, and it was their equipment we used during investigations.

Terry wanted to know if Stacee and Patrick had heard footsteps on the stage.

“In that area,” Patrick said. “And to the left—there's stairs to the left that go up to the balcony, there's a shadow thing that they've seen over there—”

“And you heard sniffling there?”

“Yeah,” said Stacee.

Apparently, a figure had been spotted exiting the theater when no one was there, and people have reported hearing pounding on the alley doors, coming from inside.

“I don't know if my recorder caught it or not, but I heard a woman giggle,” said Patrick.

“Really,” said Terry, suddenly deflated. “You guys—we didn't—we didn't get jack.”

A few days after the investigation, I realized my recorder had picked up some strange noises backstage. A gasp—a shuddering breath. A woman sobbing! I listened to the five seconds of audio again and again, each time more certain that I was hearing the ghost of the Lady in Red. I understood why people were drawn to investigations—for moments like this. It was a super-experience, like being lowered in a cage into shark-infested waters. It felt like managed danger.

I hoped that Terry's recorder had captured the sounds, too. And though I knew it was most likely caused by natural phenomena, I hoped it couldn't be conclusively identified.

Otherwise, Terry was right.

You guys.

We didn't get jack.

Flash-forward ten months, to April.

This morning, I mistook the snow plow for a low-flying plane. When the plow crosses the Clark Street bridge, it dumps sheets of snow onto my lesser, inferior street—like a tank showering anthrax onto the bottom-dwellers.

Now, I change quickly, because I'm worried Safeway might close at ten on Sundays, and it's nine-forty. My windshield is one chunk of ice that the wind has sculpted into a beautiful streamlined shape. I break my scraper in two trying to free the wipers. I get going, feeling better as I make a U-turn in the Mexican restaurant's parking lot and onto Clark Street, which, unlike the side-streets, is dry.

Safeway is open and deserted. I gather three rolls of paper towels and two cans of chili beans, then make my way to the liquor section, which is closed and locked. An employee stacking onions in the produce section says, when I try the door a second time, "It's closed."

But the sign—the sign says it's open until ten. And I started searching for my phone to see what time it is, as though I could hold it up to show her and the doors would magically unlock.

"They closed early," she says. "Sorry."

"That's okay.” I can only get out the first word before trailing off, but I imagine that she thought I said the "okay" very quietly, and wouldn't notice that I was too devastated to finish the sentence.

Outside, young men wrangle the shopping carts from their stalls and push lines of them into the building at a run. Steam coming off their backs.

I've been imagining summer arriving on the day school ends, but I'll be surprised if the trees have even budded by then. Things don't work that way at 7,200 feet. Spring has always been my least favorite season, but it's even more true in Laramie, where a gorgeous, bright day on Saturday was complicated by 60 mph winds. Then, today, it's winter again—long after the point we're all sick of snow, scraping our cars, wearing heavy coats, etc. But this will easily go on through May.

This school-year's almost over—then, just one more, and then, who knows. And though I can return to Montana—and more importantly, Ryan—I can never return to our old life. It'll be a different one. We'll be more or less the same. We'll have the same stories from living in our old house. But, for a time, everything will feel like something we've stepped into and can't peel off. And can't name, either.

You guys.

We didn't get jack.

Exhibit A: Clarice's profile—her red nose, her eyes on the road. Exhibit B: The plains streaming by, a landscape that looks unchanging at seventy-five miles per hour. When I hold them in my head, both images appear to be at rest. But that's a lie. The prairie changes so slightly that I barely noticed when we arrived in Cheyenne. And, of course, while a person may be at rest, her life is not. It's moving too, drifting imperceptibly toward some destination.

 

I arrived at Adam and Giulia's home in West Laramie fifteen minutes early, so I decided to drive around the neighborhood to kill time. In the parking lot of a fast food restaurant, a woman shouted at a little girl, who was throwing a tantrum, “This is why your mom and dad don't want you around!” The little girl had a doomed name: Trysta, or something like that.

The Laramie Jubilee Days brought in a flood of people from across the county. Many of them were here for the rodeo events, but at night, downtown churned with the aroma of spilled beer, port-a-potties with cutesy “Honey Wagon” labels on the side, and the perspiration of hundreds of people drunk or getting there. West Laramie, on the other hand, was unaffected by the festivities. A largely residential area, new homes were cropping up on its outskirts. Adam and Giulia lived in one of the newer developments. When I arrived, Adam was at work in front of his review station. Boxer dogs wrestled while we ate pizza before Adam's computer monitors.

I asked him about my ghost.

“In that case, you've got these two high-voltage panels here,” Adam said. “We couldn't really use that as evidence because those panels were just screaming with EMF.”

We reviewed my audio, and Adam listened to it a few times before asking what we'd been doing at the time. We’d begun packing up equipment—and, as I said it, I realized the problem. Adam immediately pointed out the noise could have been caused by our movements or the recorder brushing against my clothes when I picked it up. Even if we could prove the electrical panels weren't disrupting our EMF meter, the audio wasn't useable.

“As a team member, you have to say, 'That's cool, but look around us.' You know, people are going to be disappointed because they're having a cool experience and you just brought them back to reality.”

“Isn't that pretty much always going to be the case, though? It seems like there's almost always some kind of logical explanation.”

The dogs, who were still wrestling nearby, erupted into snarls and yips.

Adam shouted to break them up, then petted the anxious-looking female. “She's frustrated, because he won't play for her, and she just wants over here to beg for food,” he said. “But yeah, I'm always looking for that holy grail of evidence, and we've gotten some good EVPs.”

We discussed the three electronic voice phenomena on the website, starting with one Adam had captured in a New Orleans cemetery.

“You have to listen very carefully,” he said, “but you can hear in the background what sounds like a woman sobbing.”

Adam said that other than the wind, there weren't other factors that could be contributing to the sound. However, when I listened to it, I wasn't convinced. I confessed that I'd listened to all three at home and wasn't sure I'd heard what I was supposed to be hearing.

“Is it normally that hard to hear anything?”

“Sometimes,” said Adam. “You have to have a really keen ear. It usually sounds like it's in the  background because it's at such a low frequency.

I went home and listened to them again.

And again.

I got a tall boy from the fridge and put my headphones on. I replayed the EVPs, looking out the window at the bridge, at the train tracks, no longer straining to hear what I was certain didn't exist in that waterfall of sound.

 

Early August. I called the ranger station to report an abandoned campsite Ryan and I stumbled upon during a trip to the mountains on one of his visits. I renewed library books. I proctored English language tests for foreign grad students.  They sat at computers, talking into headsets. I enjoyed listening to them while they read aloud paragraphs about how Bill couldn't go to work because he was sick and then he took medicine and then he did go to work rather than waste the afternoon at home. All these separate conversations—sometimes the same one repeated at the opposite end of the room.

Then I went home and typed up notes from the Wyoming Territorial Prison investigation. The prison, vacated of prisoners, operated as a museum during daylight hours. The superintendent had let us in—and locked us in—before returning to release us at 3 a.m.

My hour-and-a-half solo session in the North Block had been a struggle to stay awake. I’d worked out before the investigation, and my stiff muscles made sitting on the little wooden bench in the cell very uncomfortable; I shifted every few seconds, and whispered into my audio recorder, “That was me.” The better alternative seemed to be to lay on one of the cots. I stretched out and tried not to doze.

Later that night, Terry and I teamed up again.

“Is there anyone here with us in the hallway?” Terry asked. “All you have to do is move your hand—boy this is dark in here, ain't it? This is like really dark.”

“Really, really dark,” I said.

“So … we're trying to communicate with you, and this is unprecedented access, and no one's ever gonna be coming in here again, so this is your only, final chance to communicate with us.”

No one—to our knowledge—took that chance.

After typing up my notes, I went on a walk around my neighborhood. It was a cool, still evening. One of the last of the summer. I saw two horses tied to a light post outside Bud's bar, surrounded by fragrant mounds of their own shit. I walked past a man sweeping a metal detector beneath some cottonwoods in a field. I saw a Karmman Ghia with a new baby-blue paint job outside the UW welder's garage among beat-up cars. I passed the office of an archery association. I walked down a street until every yard had a pit pull pressed up against the fence. Then I turned around, veered east, and started over the pedestrian bridge that spans the railroad.

I stood at a point about midway, looking over the railyard—trains, boxcars, machinery in chemical greens and rusts, and the big incinerator rising up, the color of burnt clay, a corrupted stalk. I felt moved by beauty and profound ugliness, a genuine ugliness of a desperate-looking place and the sun going down on it with no real colors, just this muted red pressing through the clouds of a thwarted storm.

On my way back, I passed a man and a woman leading the two horses I'd seen earlier across the narrow walkway, and had to press myself against the guardrail to squeeze past them. I thought of doppelgangers. Bad omens.

I went home in the surreal half-dark of eight o'clock on a summer night with no one around or talking, and the sunflowers bursting up along the railroad.

Laramie feels old.

Laramie does not feel permanent.

Maybe because I am in an extended state of passing through, never having planned to stay, that my meters catch only the stale fluctuations of things that have left, and the rate at which all other things are leaving. But when I stack those images—the horses, the metal detector, the pit bulls, the railyard—I feel as though I'm close to unlocking this place. Like slides held up to the light, one on top of another, each image radiates through the one in front of it until, eventually, something new presses its face through the jumble of colors in lines. If I could land upon the correct sequence, something might drift to the surface, as surely as an ice-bound corpse.

 

One year later. It's August again, and I've spent most of the summer in Montana, with Ryan. The Wyoming Territorial Prison investigation had been my last. I've been in touch with Adam, however—CSPI will be investigating the Laramie Civic Center in the fall, and allowing members of the community to join them. But it's going to be a busy semester, and I don't think I'll be up to it.

I sit outside my apartment the summer before my last year in Laramie. It's dark. Stars make me think of distance—from here to there, what's in-between. The red, flashing light of a plane. The lights going over the bridge. The train. I hear the sound of it coming before it whistles, the tracks carrying its thrumthrumthrum. Stars are falling. Satellites zoom past like specks skimming my eyeball.

Everything is always in motion. Almost everything is passing by, or passing through. It's only at night, when dark hides the stationary, lightless objects, that the coming and going of things becomes clear. Even I, in my folding chair, am traveling, so to speak, through time, getting older, veins rising to the surface of my skin.

Planes. Trains. Automobiles.

Ghosts.

If they're out there, they're moving through this too. Invisible lights passing by, close to the ground, toiling through the prairie grass; high in stratosphere, arcing in the cold. And we're here, as well. Maybe we must determine what we are moving among, what else might be moving with us—our ghosts—before we can answer anything else.

Soon, it gets so dark that all the lights passing—the cars, the trains, the stars, the planes, the satellites—hurt my eyes. Investigation ceases. It must cease. We can't always go into the night with our devices.

 

 

Tasha LeClair lives with her husband in Billings, Montana, where she works with an outreach program that assists homeless and at-risk youth. She recently finished a collection of linked short stories called The Flowers Killings

 Photo by João Pedro Neves, used by permission.  View more of his work on DeviantArt.

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