Welcome to a 100% true scary story that occurred when I and several friends decided to go camping at one of Utah’s many ghost towns.
Allow me to introduce THE PLAYERS:
KAT, small and exceedingly clever human, usually seen wearing something black and skintight. Enjoys anatomically perfect animal illustration and amateur taxidermy. Definitely knows how to skin a rabbit.
JASON, solid, bearded human. Solid in personality too. Chemist, ceramic artist, and future dentist. Really good at making omelettes. Bonus fact: Married to Kat.
ROANOKE, Kat and Jason's scrubby teenage mid-content wolfdog. Prone to laziness, wandering, ambivalence toward people, and looking creepy when the light hits his eyes just right.
THICKET, Kat and Jason’s four-week-old coyote puppy. Pretty much a useless bean at this point. Spent the duration of this story in her little den under the passenger seat of Kat and Jason’s truck.
JOEY, extraordinarily tall and skinny human (read: so much limbs), good-natured and wildly creative. Often stops dead in the middle of conversation, whispers “I trust you,” and trust-falls backwards.
and ME, extremely average-sized human (if a bit on the scrawny side). Read too much Edgar Allan Poe in high school and likes spooky things only in theory; is actually a huge weenie.
All this occurred on THE STAGE:
The ghost town of Latuda, an early 1900's mining town in Utah’s scrubby sagebrush steppe, five miles up the canyon from the small (living) town of Helper. Inadvertently, the night of the full moon.
And the reason we’re here is THE GOAL:
Experience something spooky.
We came to visit the ghost town Latuda—up here in a creepy canyon full of abandoned buildings. I was scared even coming up here—I saw a family of five walking down a trail on a family hike and I felt a bit more okay.
Joey and I had driven down together but separately from Kat and Jason. During the hour-and-a-half drive down Spanish Fork Canyon he and I listened to music and talked about the physics of love and gravity. The views down the canyon were incredible—though I feel like I spent half of the drive trying to craft an Instagram caption instead of looking out the window. We almost ran out of gas halfway through and had a tense 19 mile countdown to a gas station in the middle of nowhere.
Phone service was terrible and Kat and Jason got a bit ahead of us—when we finally rolled into Helper we got a text from them to meet at the Pick and Rail Market off the main road—we saw their red truck in the parking lot but the couple sitting inside was in their 60s at least—“How long did we keep them waiting??” Joey asked. After the imposter truck drove away we decided they had gone up the canyon without us, and went to follow suit...
After several miles up the canyon we saw the real red truck driving toward us—“You guys, we found buildings, it’s spooky,” Kat said when they stopped. We all drove up the canyon, started seeing odd buildings on our right, odd concrete and brick, fallen apart things that gave into the winds and skies when their human owners departed—but we passed them for now, and drove to the road the map said was the entrance of Latuda...
Blocked...by a giant fallen tree. A giant dry twisty thing with silver bark and scattered branches everywhere. Totally obstructing the road to our ghost town goal.
That wasn't going to stop four intrepid ghost hunters, though. The sun had gone down in the valley and now it was actually getting quite dark. I gave Kat my leggings to put over her shorts, everyone grabbed a flashlight or a headlamp, and we climbed over and around the tree and set off on the trail...
We were ghost hunting but we had a little ghost following us. Roanoke the teenage wolfdog, acting odd and skittish with a white light glowing from his collar so we could find him easily and flat green disks reflecting from his eyes when the headlamps hit him right. I found it odd that he was acting so reluctant and scared, hanging back 20 feet or so like he was—but Kat said he's lazy, Kat said he's weird whenever he's in a new area and besides, he had never gone hiking at night—it was only later that we realized the light on his collar was actually blinding him.
We went up the dirt and gentle climb. I wasn't worried too much about either ghosts or trespassing because the ground was filled with footprints and horse dung—though honestly the supernatural element was the primary concern. It was dark but a full moon was rising, yellow as old lace and turning the color of the sky around it red. Jase had a big light that was sometimes white and sometimes orange—Joey had a flashlight, Kat had a headlamp, and I tried not to be the last one in the pack.
We didn't really know where we were going—we passed one abandoned, falling-apart structure but didn't see any others. A stone that looked like a giant skull in the last fading light of evening. Keep shining your flashlight down the ravine—see if you see anything.
The wind blew alternatively hot and cold. Roanoke still hung back twenty feet—shouldn’t that be telling us something? Eventually we stopped—how much farther? The map said we had passed the spot where there was supposed to be a ghost town—"Is it out there in that dark mass that's absorbing all the light?" Jason asked, shining his floodlight into an especially dense blackness at the top of the hill. At that moment a cold wind blew.
That was too much. Back down the hill we went.
It was spooky, sure. But it wasn't...too spooky at this point.
As we went down the hill the conversation turned less tense and more ordinary. No ghosts up the canyon tonight—at least not that we could see. Maybe we could go down the road and visit some of those old buildings we had passed on the way in.
As we rounded one of the final bends I gave Joey my water bottle to hold onto for a second. I took it back and chatted with Kat and Jason about camping—we turned off the light on Roanoke's collar (making him suddenly start acting a lot less weird—poor guy had been blinded), and at last we made it to our giant broken tree blocking the path, our cars on the other side.
Jason shone his light high up onto the broken branches so Kat and I could find our way across. As we picked our way across the gray branches, Jase suddenly asked… "Where's Joey?"
Kat and I stopped and turned. Jase stood alone on the path. One, two, three—there were only three of us there amongst the sagebrush, under the white light of the moon. Joey was simply...gone.
"Joey!” Jason voice echoed off the canyon walls. “Joey! joey! joey..."
Had something happened to him back on the trail? Had he fainted, or fallen into a ditch, or gotten carried away? People don’t just disappear like this, don’t just vanish without a trace.
I mean, except in horror movies, I guess.
We started back up the trail, to go back and look for him. Where was the last time we had seen him? The last time I knew was when I had handed him my water bottle when we rounded that bend...
We heard something snapping twigs in the brush.
We all froze. Jason shined his light down on the sagebrush down by the fallen tree. So this is how it ends? I imagined whatever natural or supernatural being that had snatched Joey emerging from the brush and snatching us too.
"It's just baby coyote,” Jason said after a long pause. "Making noise in the car."
I didn’t believe him. But there was no use standing here staring.
We started up the trail again. Jason shone his light into the brush. We all called his name. "Joey! Joey! Joey! Joey!" I thought about how silly it was that we were shouting such a juvenile-sounding name for a grown man. I wondered if any other campers heard us, what they would think we were doing. I prayed, "Dear God, please help us to find our friend."
The moon shone.
We went back up to the place where I definitively remembered last seeing him. The curve in the road where I had handed him my water bottle.
There was absolutely no trace.
"Joey!" Jason shouted again, and I will never forget the sound of that name echoing off the canyon walls.
There were three parts of me. The first part thought something natural (but still terrible) had happened to him. He had been attacked by a wild animal, he had gone off the path and fallen down a ravine. He was hurt or unconscious, he couldn’t hear or answer our very audible cries. “Fainting can happen so quickly,” Kat kept saying. But if he had fainted on the trail, then where was his body? Where were the marks in the dirt of him being dragged off into the brush? But the trail was undisturbed and empty. There was nothing but sand and sagebrush and sky.
The part of me that believed this wanted to go back to Helper and call the police. Find him with searchlights and dogs more worth their salt than Roanoke, who was still trailing behind us like a reluctant teenager. I imagined a group of volunteers with floodlights combing this brushy hill, calling out Joey's name.
The second part of me thought that maybe he was playing a prank. Maybe even that Kat and Jason were in on it. “Did you know anything about this? Did you…?" But they said they weren't, and when Jason asked about it, I thought about his fake trust falls and said "He's kind of a prankster, but not this kind of prankster." It's not that funny, is it, when your friends are calling your name so loud it echoes off the mountains, when your friends are talking about calling the police? Yes he's a prankster, but would he really take it that far?
And the third part of me thought that it was something supernatural. We were looking for a ghost town, after all—and Joey had disappeared completely, and without a trace. What had taken him? And which of us would be next?
This part of me only prayed to God that it would not be me.
These three parts of me were absolutely, completely equal as we walked in the light of the moon and the blue up the path of a sagebrush mountain, calling into the night.
After we reached the bend where we had last seen Joey for certain, Jase's light suddenly started to die. It was too creepy, it was too much. “Let’s just go back,” I said. Go check out the cars, go to town maybe. Call the police, hopefully.
We had made it partly down the hill when Jase's dying floodlight lit upon the cars. The doors of Joey's silver car were open.
from the back of Kat and Jason's dark red car
two twisted hands.
First one hand, then two hands, twist grotesquely from behind the car onto the roof. Joey's hands. I knew those were Joey's hands.
"Joey you motherfu..." Jason began. But then stopped.
Because suddenly a hunched, arched, naked body came into view, and I knew we had three options:
1) Joey was pranking us
2) Joey was possessed
3) Joey had actually gone crazy.
In my mind all three options were equally possible.
The body lurched itself into the roof of the car. It was Joey's body—those were his jeans, his shoes scrabbling against the roof of the car, his hair dark and disheveled. It kept its head down and we could not see its face—we could not see its face but I knew if it had blood on its face we were not going to be getting out of here alive.
Joey—or Joey's half-naked body—lurched and slid across the roof and down the front of the car. Disappearing behind the broken tree that was the only thing separating us from the madman on the other side. Jason threw his stick at it as it slid down the windshield. He missed and it was gone from view.
"Has he actually gone insane?" I asked.
Kat picked up a stick. I held my water bottle, it was my weapon—these sticks were too light to do any damage anyway—
"Fire a shot into the air," Kat said to Jason.
I looked at Jason. A short but solid man, the only thing between us and the distorted thing on the other side of the fallen tree. If there was a fight he could take Joey, couldn't he? But what about possessed Joey? And what about crazy Joey?
So Jason walked down to the car. I watched, my hand on Kat's shoulder—I don't remember putting it there—was he really just walking toward that red car when a lunatic could be slithering underneath it? Who knows where he was at this point—
I watched Jason approach the car. I watched him open the door. I watched him grab something from the side of it.
"Into the air," Kat said.
I watched him raise his arm to the right. In his hand there was a silver pistol.
I watched fire burst from the barrel as the shot echoed around the canyon.
The sound faded away.
Suddenly I saw Joey lying on the ground, outside of his silver car. He was wearing a dusty long-sleeved black shirt—did he have that shirt before...?
"Where...where am I," he said.
Jason shone the floodlight into Joey's face. He sat up and blinked into the beam. I couldn't stop staring at his scruffy beard and mustache illuminated in the yellow light.
Joey and Jason stared at each other for a long time. "What the hell, Joey," Jason said finally.
But I still didn’t know who he was, not really.
Gradually me and Kat picked our way across the gray tree to the other side with them. I didn't like the way Joey was grinning at me while I crossed. I didn't trust him anymore—was he really possessed, was he really crazy?
It took several minutes for the charade to fall. I only knew it was a prank for sure when Joey said "I had a wig I was going to bring, but I forgot..."
"Dude," Kat said "We almost shot you."
It took awhile for all of us to finally settle down. Jason had legitimately been about to shoot Joey, for goodness sake. Kat hadn't even known it was him—she thought a random crazy man had ransacked our cars. And I, knowing that I am actually a huge weenie, was shocked at how calm I had been.
And Roanoke? He was useless.
Eventually the details came out. Joey slipped away and crawled through the bushes just moments before Jason noticed he was missing. He hasn't been planning on doing this exactly, but the whole time he had planned on doing something...
After it was all done he came up and hugged me. "I'm normal again."
“I don’t trust you,” I said.
We decided that was enough terror for one day—the abandoned buildings could wait till tomorrow—and went about setting up camp. It was a simple thing of building a fire and setting up one tent—Joey and I sat on the bed of Kat and Jason's truck while he held the coyote pup and I ate summer sausage and fed it to Roanoke for tricks. We built a fire and burned sagebrush on it, which smoked like incense to another world and lit up the sky with more sparks than what was strictly comfortable. I pulled out my guitar and played every song I had chords for on my phone, to varying degrees of success—but however mediocre my singing or guitar playing, Kat asked me what a few songs were and said she liked the songs I had chosen, and I kept seeing Jason watching me in the firelight.
So now we're all bedded down for the night. Kat and Jason in the bed of their truck, Joey stretched out in his car, and me, alone in the tent with my favorite teenage mutant ninja wolfdog for company.
I'm laying in a mesh tent under the light of a full moon. Roanoke is curled to the right of my feet—the green light on his collar flashing at slow intervals. That's not the only light in the night tonight—the fire is an orange glow through the walls of the tent. The light of the moon is whitish blue.
The moon is shining full and bright and I sometimes think I can hear creatures in the broken tree behind my tent. I didn't know if I'd be able to sleep so I thought I might as well write out the events of the evening.
I prayed to my Lord and my God in thanks that we're all safe, in thanks that I found my friend. That everything was okay after all.
And you know...
I didn’t mean to still be here this late in the summer. I meant to be somewhere far far away, in a new city with a new job, building a whole new life. But as scared as I am of having a career that doesn't go anyplace, of being someone that amounts to nothing—this was the kind of night that is unforgettable, and maybe it's not such a bad thing to spend summer in Utah after all…?