At Thor’s Well, low tide > high tide

The Oregon Coast has a geological feature that seems co-authored in design – a shared effort between J.R.R. Tolkien and Marvel Comics.

This fantasy oracle of olde is a short drive south from Newport, maybe a half hour, a landmark just off the shore of Cape Perpetua.

My uncle told me about it this past weekend during a family gathering. Thor’s Well (or the Spouting Horn if it please ye), he said, looks like a hole in the ocean when the tide’s high enough. Think of those old flat earth maps where ships, at one point, fall off, sucked into a maelstrom where krakens, leviathans and all other manner of underwater nasties glide through the deep murk.

The know-hows say Thor’s Well was formed after millennia of waves biting the rock face eventually wore a hole in it and let the water inside.

The new confined space – maybe 20 feet across – surges at high tide. Think saltwater geyser, angry rockets of the stuff surging out and upward from the pit. A rocky cauldron the gods forgot to keep an eye on.

Cool, right? Just wait. Because at low tide, though, we mortals get a peek behind the curtain.

You do, of course, have to time your visits to the Asgardian landmark if you want to see its moments of frothy action. Thor’s Well isn’t furious all the time, mirrors its outbursts with the tide. Unknowingly, my family traveled there in the midst of a calm, when the waters had withdrawn and left a mussel-smothered landscape behind.

High tide wouldn’t return until about 10:30 p.m. we were told, and my exhausted 10-month-old was with us, so that was out. Still, we’d driven there. Let’s see what we came to see.

We hiked to the spot, passing other scenic vistas and rocky formations while waves surged and exploded in aqueous bombs against the shoreline.

Because the tide was low enough, my uncle, mother, brother and I walked out across the rocks, were able to stand at the literal edge of Thor’s Well and gaze into the abyss. Had we come at high tide, we would have had to stand a football field’s length back; behind barriers and kiosks and watched the action from a distance. This was different. This was experiential. This was an IMAX documentary without the glasses or the uncomfortable seat.

We watched the water level rise and fall inside the hole. Gush 10 feet up, sink seven feet down. Tiptoe up two feet, freefall another five. Etc. Like watching a high-rise elevator. Thousands of mussels and a few death-grip starfish lurked within, covered and uncovered for moments at a time in a seeming game of peek-a-boo.

At another angle, you could see the “intake valve.” The currents threaded themselves through the narrow eye in thuds that sounded like punches. From Thor.

I’m grateful I got to see this view up close. Would it have been nice to see explosions of water blossom out of the ground? Sure. But it would have limited my view. I couldn’t have stood at the edge of the mammoth shotgun barrel and peered inside at my own risk. A front row seat to the servos and gears that make this iconic hole tick would have been hidden beneath a saltwater temper tantrum.

I’ll certainly go back sometime, plan my visit around high tide and the beautiful geysers that will result. Until then, I feel like I’ve got some street cred on my side.

Oh, you watched Thor’s Well in a fury from a distance? I looked it in the eye when it was sleeping.

All photos by Blake Pfeil.

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The Mouth

My daughter’s abrupt scream during an otherwise-quiet 2 a.m. was a terrifying sound; nightmare notes blended together in an awful symphony.

My wife and I knew it was different than her other cries. It just sounded off key. Not frustration or hunger or an impolite request to change her. It sounded like fear, that horrible wavelength achieved when loneliness and desperation do a duet.

We stumbled through our dark house, flipping on lights and squinting while we adjusted to their sudden flares. We reached our daughter and held her and soothed her until her eyes closed and her diaphragm powered down.

Satisfied, we stumbled back to bed and fell asleep. But my night wasn’t over. I fell into a nightmare, a sampler platter of dream scenes that included running through a dark house – my childhood home, in fact – and warning family members that something was chasing me me. I flung open doors as my screams came out whispers, all while a sharp angled shadow skittered across the ceiling and walls toward me, haloed in a pulsing, maniacal light.

This was the fear I felt when I heard my daughter scream, I think, brought to life in a flickering patchwork of awful vignettes.

Fear has become just that for me after she appeared almost 10 months ago: projected and metaphorical. I can explain what the emotion looks like, how it smells.

And it won’t leave me be, either. Sitting here, now, I’m thinking about all the ways my daughter could hurt herself, tallying sharp corners.

This fear leaves me with a strange stomachache, like a mouth opens in my chest and starts screaming. Poison adrenaline. It opens wider when I hear or read or watch stories about children hurt or children killed on the news. It even opens when I’m watching or reading something that involves children in jeopardy.

The Mouth is horrible. The Mouth is loud and full of stuttering, shadowy paranoia, probably has ferocious halitosis. I wonder how many other dads experience it, how many are shocked when they start to feel that horrible and consistently anxious ache between their ribs soon after their first child is born. Maybe I’m just an anomaly. Maybe not. I haven’t taken a poll or run a study.

I’ve been thinking about the Mouth a lot this past week. I blame Father’s Day. First time participant this year because of my daughter’s arrival.

But all this thinking took a turn Friday. My daughter awakened just before 6 a.m., a few short minutes before I leave for work. I changed her and brought her out to our living room, put her on her play mat. I sat there and sipped the last of my coffee and watched while she played with some of her toys. Her coos accented her movements and her intense stares as she prodded her blocks and teething devices and books.

She was a distracted assembly line of attention: pick one toy up, put it down, move onto the next. When that got old, she switched to crawling. Her eyes danced around as she looked at the points in the floor and furniture. That same assembly line attitude of interest endured, like she didn’t want to miss anything.

Bathed in the pale blue light of a promised sunrise coming through our windows, my daughter seemed to want to experience everything at once, unafraid and curious. Where I saw minefield, she saw a meadow.

I want that attitude to endure for her. Just as much as I want her to be safe. I’ll deal with the Mouth and its screams for that.

She’ll learn caution with age and experience naturally, but learning that the pursuit of things that matter comes with risk is taught, I think. And the Mouth is just there to scream loud enough to distract me from that.

It’s because of the Mouth that this Father’s Day is different for me. There’s this new respect I have for every parent who’s come before me and dealt with the fear and worry on behalf of their children, who were somehow able to continue functioning with the knowledge their babies weren’t wearing suits of armor as they journeyed and learned and developed.

All I’ll ever really want for Father’s Day is to learn that the Mouth is unreliable, that my daughter deserves better than me heeding its each and every scream.

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Donuts are basically poison. I’ll take two.

Social media is great at reminding me that we really love to celebrate made up holidays. Oh and that 90 percent of them give us excuses to shovel more high-calorie swill down our collective recycling center intake valves.

We need the encouragement here in America, a day or two for all us squares to just CHILL OUT with the good choices. We all need a break from our usual collective diet of clean proteins and vegetables and plenty of water.

National IPA Day. National Burger Day. Recently: National Running Day. (To throw us off the scent that this scheme is really all about garbage food.)

Oh, and National Doughnut Day is today. Raise your fried sugar circle and rejoice.

Or don’t. At first, anyway. Be like me and try your hardest to be the authority on these velvety Heartburn Bombs™, only to fail.

Do a quick Google search and see that one basic doughnut has about 30 percent of the day’s recommended value of saturated fat. Look at the CDC website and see that childhood obesity levels have more than doubled over the last 30 years, that the numbers among adolescents have quadrupled.

Summon fake rage as you try to find some silver bullet fact that shows the treats are SOLELY RESPONSIBLE for this epidemic. Devour the ORGANIC apple you BROUGHT FROM HOME in smug self satisfaction. Because you’re ABOVE IT, man. Your high horse – high WINGED UNICORN – is made of kale and blueberries and quinoa.

Let THEM eat cake. And only them.

Then get to the point where you’ve thought about doughnuts so much where you just go and buy one anyway. Make that two. A maple creme and a glazed with vanilla frosting and sprinkles. Because sprinkles rule, that’s why.

Eat them triumphantly. Send ‘em on a ride down the Chocolate Milk River. Kale-Blueberry-Quinoa High Horse Guy was boring and pretentious and does Crossfit and says “bro” too much. Ugh. You HATE Kale-Blueberry-Quinoa High Horse Guy.

Follow this up with stomach-churning regret. Because you’re 31, not 21. Not running 90 miles a week like you used to in college. Not equipped with a metabolism that’s basically a flamethrower.

“Worth it,” you say, lying.

“LOL,” your stomach/soul says.

Then feel guilty the rest of the day.

Happy National Doughnut Day, guys. Seriously.

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Ugh, are we there yet?

Earlier this month, I started reading the book “Dead Wake,” a story about the sinking of the Lusitania by give-’em-hell historian Erik Larson.

I’m still taking the voyage. It’s a slow and steady one, but I’m enjoying it. Apparently one of the boat’s actual passengers did not:

That’s right, our humble tie to one of the worst maritime disasters in history, was, like, totally bored in the days before a German sub decided to open fire. I’m picturing her alive today, glued to her iPhone and starting a lot of texts with the word “Ugh.”

The demeanor of 20-somethings over the course of a century apparently hasn’t changed much.

Per our archives, Ms. Conner survived the horrific attack. It likely changed her tune.

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I should absolutely be able to expense the Captain America backpack I just found out existed

Dear Editor:

Good morning.

But enough about me. Can I get you anything? Tea? Coffee? Donuts? Have you been working out?

*clears throat*

Destiny is an odd concept. I imagine most people don’t believe in it.

I didn’t. It suggests our choices and decisions mean nothing, that ultimately, our journey is predetermined by outside forces beyond our control. That we’re puppets on strings.

Today, May 12, 2015, changed things. This Captain America shield backpack you should totally let me expense made me a believer. Now I know fate chooses us. Sometimes it takes awhile, but we’ll know when it’s time.

Everything in my 31+ years of existence has led to this point. This $49.99 plus shipping BARGAIN piece of hardware is my utility belt, my sword in the stone with rad pockets for my notepad, phone and bouquet of clickie top pens.

A professional’s only as good as his tools.

I have to believe it will also be the ultimate access to breaking news. You know how reporters sometimes flock to shootings or sizable fires and get put behind a makeshift yellow web of caution tape? This would give me authority. I show up with this on my back, the gate gets pushed aside.

Promise.

I humbly await your decision. No rush.

Sincerely,

Ryan Pfeil

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Sorcerer-historians and hunted boats

No joke: author Erik Larson could write a book about paint drying and I would read it.

Little-to-no hyperbole, Larson is an honest-to-God time traveler, a sorcerer-historian hybrid that probably secretly knows more about wormholes and space-time than Einstein, Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson. His historical narrative books read more like eyewitness accounts than simple history. He seems to have some kind of magic microscope or magnifying glass, some absurd relic you’d see on “Dr. Who” that can be placed over photos and documents from the world’s archives and historical societies and transport the user to the moment in question.

He’s also seemingly fascinated with a very specific period in history, namely a 50-year span between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I. “The Devil in the White City” is about the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 (and the serial killer H.H. Holmes who worked in a self-made house of horrors nearby).

“Thunderstruck” is about how the invention of wireless telegraphy played a role in the apprehension of a London murder suspect fleeing for the U.S. across the Atlantic, a tale that runs from the late 1800s up through 1910 or so.

“Isaac’s Storm,” set in September 1900, tells of the deadliest hurricane in history, how it rocked Galveston, Texas, left thousands dead, and changed the way we think about weather’s humbling assaults and preparation.

“In the Garden of Beasts,” a chilling view into Nazi Germany set at the dawn of World War II, is obviously a departure from his usual time period of choice, but close enough.

Larson’s latest and greatest, “Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania,” is another feather in his already-loaded time traveler’s cap. It tells of the infamous sinking of a famed commercial ocean liner by Germany’s Unterseeboot-20 and how it rocked the world.

Here’s part of the book’s intro, the line that double-sold me:

“I thought I knew everything there was to know about the incident, but, as so often happens when I do deep research on a subject, I quickly realized how wrong I was. Above all, I discovered that burned in the muddled details of the affair – deliberately muddled, in certain aspects – was something simple and satisfying: a very good story.”

Sold. Take my money.

I’ve only just begun, started the account of the fabled journey just this week, and am in the midst of learning about the ship’s captain, the esteemed William Turner. (Fun fact: he also served as commander of the Carpathia, the ship that would, under a different captain in 1912, come to the rescue of many who’d just suffered through another infamous maritime disaster on a ship called Titanic.)

Then came today, the 100th anniversary of the Lusitania sinking.

Totally unintentional. My timing is awesome, basically. The history teaching stars aligned, probably at sorcerer-historian Larson’s own hand.

But he didn’t stop there. In true sorcerer-historian form, Larson “live Tweeted” the ship’s departure and sinking this week. Chronologically.

You know, like any modern-day Internet addict would if the ship had sunk a century later than it did. Here’s one of his many Tweets:

Crazy how a single Tweet can send actual goosebumps up my back.

It’s an interesting contrast, really; this sorcerer-historian who lashed together a maritime suspense story using historic documents, logs, journals, archive photos, newspapers and other sources, then utilized a method of contemporary, digital record-keeping to retell the nightmarish account in 140-character installments.

Almost like he’s saying, “See, it doesn’t matter how you tell this story, it’s haunting and horrifying and unbelievable any way you slice it.”

Epilogue

One more quick thing.

To make the Lusitania sinking even closer to home, I give you Miss Dorothy Connors, of Medford, a passenger on the boat the day U-20 slithered through the Atlantic’s black waters and attacked like a robot shark.

From the Mail Tribune, May 7, 1915:

“Miss Dorothy Connors of this city sailed on the Lusitania for England to act in a unit of the English Red Cross as a nurse. Miss Connors left Medford three weeks ago, and is well known among the younger set. A message from her to her relatives in this valley as to her safety is expected. A mother in delicate health and a brother, Boudinot, live near Jacksonville.”

Here’s a headline from the following day, one that must have been a relief to family and friends:

Connors was one of 764 passengers who escaped with their life. Close to 1,200 would die.

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The prodigal Watterson

Here’s how some of the first few lines of my new book go:

“I grew up in Chagrin Falls, which is a small town, an outer suburb of Cleveland. It was originally a mill town in the 1800s, and a paper-bag factory was still going when I was growing up. They used to dump their dyes right in the river, so as a kid I remember seeing the river turn red and so on, if you can believe it.”

Then, a few paragraphs down:

“Our house was on a one-acre lot, at the outskirts of the village, with a big woods behind us. We didn’t own the woods, but it extended all the way to the river, and you couldn’t see an end to it. Our yard dropped continuously from the back door to the woods, so it was a truly fabulous sledding hill.”

And finally:

“Sometimes in the [comic] strip I tried to illustrate those big empty summer days spent messing around. It seems very anachronistic now that kids’ lives are organized to the minute.” 

Pop quiz: Who do these recollections belong to?

If you said “Calvin and Hobbes” creator Bill Watterson, you’re brilliant. That or you’ve recently purchased “Exploring Calvin and Hobbes: An Exhibition Catalogue,” just released this month.

It isn’t the same kind of book I purchased as a precocious tween, the collections of newspaper strips that told the story of an imaginative 6-year-old and his stuffed tiger. This one’s more of a melange, a hybrid of biography, art and nostalgia. It’s the privacy-valuing Mr. Watterson opening up in a way die hard fans didn’t think was possible without hypnosis or a truth serum.

The book begins with a thoughtful interview conducted by Jenny Robb of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum of Ohio State University, followed by additional chapters on the creative process. Mr. Watterson discusses his utility belt of tools and materials, the storytelling process, and the daily grind; other equally fascinating gears in the Grandfather Clock of Creativity.

This is, finally, the Wizard of Calvin deciding to pull back the curtain and reveal himself.

Dec. 31, 1995

“Exploring Calvin and Hobbes” is on my desk right now. It’s marked with a laminated comic strip, the final one, the famous one with that famous line that ends the strip’s 10-year run: “Let’s go exploring!”

I cut that strip out from my hometown paper, the Colorado Springs Gazette, when I was 12. It was New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 1995.

That was actually a sad day, not an ounce of hyperbole. I devoured the newspaper comics as a kid, and “Calvin and Hobbes” was first on the daily regimen. We had two full pages devoted to comics – wait for it – BACK THEN (ugh), and it was in the section’s top left corner, either above or below “Dilbert.” Turn two pages of the “Lifestyle” section and there it was, the next bit of Calvin’s story.

This was comparable to eating dessert before dinner, and I didn’t care. It was the only strip on those two pages I actually loved. Others I just liked. Others I read out of this strange sense of almost habitual obligation, never mind their dull characters or hasty art or flaccid jokes.

Then came Dec. 31, 1995, the day that felt like a funeral to a weird 12-year-old that talked to himself and made up stories in the splash of sunlit forest behind his house and wasn’t very interested in much else.

Old friends, new friends 

I continued to remember the comic strip fondly. It scarred me, really, became the one that got away.

I’d abandon newspaper comics entirely. Eventually, all comics for the most part. They became a back burner hobby, something I’d poke with a stick every once in awhile before hiding it and turning back to newer flashier things like track and cross country, school, girls.

I found a renewed vigor for the medium in college; mostly superheroes at first, then finite stories that burned along at a slower churn. Mr. Watterson and Calvin stayed on my mind, invisible tattoos that never really healed properly and always needed touching up. Some of the strips morphed into weird, minute-or-so church sermons.

I’d find friends affected by the characters in the same way. Our mutual fondness helped open the door. It was weird, discovering there are others who still have a majority of the strip dialogue memorized and can still find the same kind of warmth in the art and stories.

And I think we all, at times, wondered what Mr. Watterson was up to; how he was faring almost 20 years after he’d written the epilogue to something so timeless and beautiful that we never really got over it.

Welcome home

One of these friends tipped me off to “Exploring Calvin and Hobbes.” He told me last week, via a Washington Post story.

I bought it the next day, only just started reading it.

Why I waited is pretty clear. I think I’m wanting to make it last, really. It’s a 20-year reunion, after all, with characters who aren’t real but feel quite the opposite, whom I care for dearly. The book’s going to end, so I want to soak it in; every word, every angle.

There’s wisdom in there, just like before. The once quiet Mr. Watterson is now on record as having said things like this, a statement about the woods surrounding his childhood home – woods that sound kind of like a grander version of the ones I played in when I wasn’t reading “Calvin and Hobbes” – that seems to be more about discovery:

“To be honest, we didn’t tramp around the woods all that much. Because it was low and heading toward the river, it was somewhat marshy and brambly. You’d get stuck full of prickers or tangled in brush, with your feet starting to sink into muck. We’d venture in occasionally, but it’s not like I was Christopher Robin. But I loved having that much nature around us. It mitigated the suburban feel, which I imagine is why my parents chose the property. Having something a bit wild and mysterious and beautiful at the end of the yard was a memorable thing.” 

No, no, it’s fine. I’ve just got something in my eye.

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Artists, unsung

My childhood science fiction education was very rich and thorough, thanks to my father.

His teaching methodology was simple enough. You probably have movie/book enthusiasts in your life who do something similar:

1) Ask me if I’ve seen/read something.

2) If I haven’t, put it in front of me ASAP.

He did this with books by Asimov, Clarke and Larry Niven. It was the same on movie front, mostly 80s to early 90s cyber punk ballads. ‘Blade Runner,’ the first two ‘Terminator’ movies, ‘Alien,’ ‘Aliens.’

So basically anything Ridley Scott or James Cameron.

“You gotta read/watch this, Ry.”

It wasn’t just that he viewed these books films through a wide angle lens of fondness; he asserted their importance in the genre, the marks they made.

There were three films from a certain ‘Star Trek’ franchise – you may have heard of it – on this list, too, specifically the second, third and fourth movies in the original run of films: ‘The Wrath of Khan,’ ‘The Search For Spock,’ ‘The Voyage Home.’

It’s very difficult to discuss these films without dropping spoilers, so if you haven’t seen them, just know this “trilogy” of sorts starts with a major shakeup, that every other plot point revolves, in some way, around it.

My dad passed on his love of these films to me. (The sixth film in the original film series, ‘The Undiscovered Country,’ is also magnificent.)

So imagine my genuine surprise at learning one of the key figures behind the camera of those three ‘Star Trek’ films had been living in the Rogue Valley for several years and passed away two weeks ago.

Producer Harve Bennett, of Ashland and Jacksonville, was 84 years old when he died Feb. 25 at Providence Medford Medical Center. Bennett is credited as one in a handful of people who saved ‘Star Trek’ from fading away after the first film hit the silver screen. It did well financially, but didn’t wow a lot of the fans. Bennett changed the game up with ‘Wrath of Khan,’ and the series soldiered on, popular and acclaimed as ever.

This is the second time I wrote about a sci-fi film’s unsung hero passing away in Jackson County. Previously, I wrote such a story about Morgan Paull of ‘Blade Runner.’

Paull played Holden, a character tasked with zeroing in on artificial humans — or “replicants,” who were created and used for slave labor out in space but outlawed on Earth — and using oral tests before “retiring” them. (See also: ‘Kill.’)

Paull delivers a famous line from the movie – “You know what a turtle is?” – during such a test.

There’s something that’s made me a bit more pensive about the passings of Bennett and Paull, more than, say, the recent death of ‘Star Trek’s’ Leonard Nimoy or the recent near-death of ‘Blade Runner’s’ Harrison Ford. Maybe it’s because I think all four men deserve the same sort of recognition.

The masses remember Leonard Nimoy, send good thoughts to an injured Harrison Ford. The geeks and fanboys remember people like Bennett and Paull, and our appreciation runs much deeper, I think.

So rest in peace, Harve Bennett. My dad will never be at a loss of things to say about the art you helped create.

Me either, really.

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Happiest birthday to the dearest of Seusses

This can’t be coincidence, the books I’ve been reading.

The words my kid’s hearing, the art she’s been seeing.

For the past three nights straight, I have introduced

My daughter to a man pseudonym’d Dr. Seuss.

See, a relative’s moving, limiting what he took.

And he happened, by chance, to find this old book.

A tome with six stories Dr. Seuss drew and penned.

“This is for Bethany,” he quite plainly said.

He handed it over, and we took it with glee.

Some new books to read kiddo, and guess what? They’re free.

We started immediately, dipped in our feet.

Now my daughter’s visited ‘Mulberry Street.’

‘The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins’

Was next on the list. Simply put, kiddo loved it.

‘Horton Hatches the Egg,’ was book number three.

Then ‘Yertle the Turtle.’ Then the Lorax’s trees.

The latter’s my favorite; it’s a dark, heavy read.

I’m totally #TeamTree. Thumbs down to #TeamThneed.

Lastly came Who-ville’s kleptomaniac Grinch.

Yes, Christmas was months ago, but it did in a pinch.

Then we come to today, when a scan of the news

Informed me that it is a day for Doc Seuss.

You see, it’s his birthday, his hundred-eleventh.

I couldn’t have planned this. It felt like a present.

A reminder of sorts on the art he imparted,

How it’s not just for kids, to be read and discarded.

Whether you’re six months, or 31 years.

His work stands the test of time. That much is clear.

So happiest birthday to the dearest of docs.

You’ve a new fan to deal with, and she can’t even talk.

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Dark house

It’s been more than nine years since the dark house in the woods burned down. Still, it haunts me.

This is one of those stories where you have to have faith that I’m not messing with you. I can’t offer exhibits or evidence beyond the few photos that I took of the house in Colorado’s Black Forest, the one that looked like a last stand set in a zombie movie.

This is a campfire story, and all campfire stories – the ones you swear are true – have that “trust me” component. And that trust gets taken advantage of a bit at times, let’s be honest. Stories evolve. Hearing footsteps in a dark basement can easily turn into hearing a dusty chuckle and being almost certain you saw the dull lamplight of ghost eyes winking there. They’re stretched truths, legends, but they’re not intentional.

Because memory is ice cream at room temperature. It melts down. Details go murky. Frozen, sturdy certainty eventually becomes a soupy puddle; basic structure intact, but with details pooling.

I don’t like to do that when I talk about the house. It’s a story with details I don’t want to try and re-freeze.

Enough people had done that to the house already. Even before it burned down, whatever really happened there had distorted into something that cast some pretty horrific shadows.

My interactions with this fabled monument in the woods are no dramatic yarn. There’s no structured plot, no formulaic beginning-middle-end, no slasher-movie scares. The structure’s eeriness was in its quiet, the way it always seemed to be staring at me with dark eyes whenever I ventured there, how it plagued my dreams.

How, silently and with a vicious smile, I always felt it beckoning me to come back and stay forever.

“Have you ever heard about Hell House?”

It started with last-minute shopping. It was the summer of 2005, the night before Fathers Day. I was home for the summer, a few months away from starting my senior year at Southern Oregon University.

My brother Blake and I, being the slackers that we were – are? – had yet to snag some presents for my father, including the regular gift of pistachios he loves so much. We traveled from our dad’s house in northern Colorado Springs to the nearby suburb of Monument. It’s a charming little town that abuts up against the Black Forest. It reminds me of Talent, that sort of “Ashland Lite” coziness.

We swiped the necessary supplies and climbed back into the 1991 Toyota Camry that used to be mine but had changed hands the year before when I bought my truck, the 2004 Ford Ranger I’m still driving. I drove.

Blake turned to me and asked the question: “Have you ever heard of Hell House?”

No. I hadn’t. I think I’d remember a moniker like that. My brother, who occasionally looks an awful lot like me, filled me in.

There’s a dark house in the woods, he told me. Bad things happened there.

Like…like what?

His campfire story already had its hooks in. I was ready to believe.

The yarn he spun was awful. It concerned a family who lived there and the child they abused, how their beatings accidentally killed the child and how they took their own lives afterward in a fit of ill-timed guilt. The house in the woods – their house – stayed up. No bulldozers or dynamite took it out.

Oh, and some of the things – I think he used the word devices –  they used to hurt the kid are still there.

I’ve been there before, he told me, several times. It’s messed up.

Wanna go?

I didn’t believe him at first. Sure, let’s go to your “haunted house,” dude. Let’s visit this cliche in the middle of the woods.

“You’re not going to want to go in.”

We drove from Monument into the Black Forest, toward the residence of myth, headlights cutting through the night as the pine trees blurred together in an eerie stutter of green. The dark made the sprawl of woods seem lonely, not even a place ghosts would care to meander through.

“When you see this house, you’re not going to want to go in,” my brother told me.

I nodded, didn’t say the “Whatever,” that sounded in my mind. Because of course he was still full of it at this point. This was still some prank or joke. There was no house. He’d end this charade by having me drive around in circles, promising, “It’s around here somewhere” or something until we gave up and went home.

Then he told me the driveway was going to jump out at me, that it was buried and hard to see. I needed to be ready. I slowed a bit, my headlights still stabbing through the darkness.

“Here,” he eventually said, pointing. “Here. Here.

I slowed almost to a stop and turned left. He wasn’t wrong. The “driveway” was hidden, a gap in the trees that was almost invisible by any standard. The Camry left the pavement and crunched on gravel.

The house was at the end.

It was a sprawling two-story in the middle of a bare patch of wildland. Either trees had been pulled up at one time or they just were giving the dark house a wide berth. Neither would have surprised me. A small guest house lurked nearby. Pine needles and dirt carpeted the surrounding space. The electric lights of neighboring houses were far-off, little punctures of light that barely twinkled – the way stars look in big cities.

Blake was right. I didn’t want to go in. The house looked out of place in the way roadkill does, misplaced and sad to look at, flat-out horrifying if you stare long enough.

Of course we didn’t have any flashlights in the car. There were two lighters, though, the Bic kind. In my days of youthful indiscretion, I liked to tug the metal components off the top, light the exposed vapor nozzle and make tire-sized fireballs in nightswept empty parking lots with pals. Years later, I’d be reporting on arsons in the city of Medford, Ore., with a vicious regularity

We each took an un-detonated lighter and walked toward the house, the gravel crunching under our feet.

Blake said, “Don’t touch anything.”

I said, “OK.”

We pushed through the front door, tiny flames swaying.

“Let’s get out of here.” 

The front hallway was impossibly narrow, almost maze-like, how I imagine Claustrophobia Hell is laid out. The room at the end was covered in curling wallpaper peppered with yellowing balloons. My lighter’s small flame danced across it. I looked at the closet, at the metal bars that eclipsed where the sliding doors should have been.

I felt sick to my stomach at the sight. Was the story my brother told me true? Did a child live in here, confined to a cell? The contrast of a prison with so many withering balloons felt like a nightmare, a room in a Resident Evil video game level. Blake and I moved on.

The house felt like the end result of seven different architects who’d reached a compromise: each of you design a section and we’ll connect them in disproportionate, awkward splendor. Legos for drunks.

Squatters had been here. Filthy, saturated mattresses and piles of soiled clothing had been left behind. The walls screamed profanity, written in streaks that could have been, well, anything. Yeah, even that.

We saw the garage and the piles of clothing, bicycles, books, furniture and garbage that had stacked up. We thought we heard something – a breath, a gasp maybe, nothing maybe – and ran back outside.

Blake showed me the shed.

It felt slapped on, too. I saw an old generator, dead for years, and the wires that ran from it out the back of the structure. I saw the basement, the broken steps that surely led down to a horrid room with swinging meat hooks and bloody walls. There was also a door, the brick wall seven or eight inches back and the dance of nails that had been plunged through the wood.

Solitary, maybe? The timeout corner? Misbehave and you get locked in? Move and you get scratched by an opus of tetanusy spikes?

My stomach lurched again. We walked back outside. Blake had one more thing to show me. Of course he did. Bad news comes in threes.

We walked into the forest behind the house. Hibernating scenes from ‘The Blair Witch Project’ awoke and slammed down a few Americanos. Beasts were suddenly everywhere, hiding in the trees and tall grasses and clicking their sharper parts together.

A worn chair shimmered out of the dark. Its place among so much overgrown vegetation was odd and uncomfortable, just like the house. The wires from a nearby electric fence running into it, the wrist and ankle straps, made it worse. Blake started to explain. He didn’t need to. I knew an attempt at a makeshift electric chair when I saw one.

I’d had it. The whole scene seemed like it was starting to close in on me. Like we’d walked into a drawing and the artist had started to crumple it up before chucking it in the garbage. Voices demanded answers in my head. Did something this awful actually happen here? Was a person tortured and killed? Was this all at the hands of some elaborate jokester with too much time on their hands? Where were they? Why would they do all this?

Something interrupted the frantic questions.

This is the part where I tell you I can’t remember what exactly.

I want to tell you we saw a light on in the house, but that’s impossible. A lightbulb burning in a house the world had given up on – where power has been cut – is impossible.

Flashlight? Had we walked right past someone who’d been hiding in the dark before? Is this sudden presence of light in the house an attempt to fill in the blank for this part of the story? I already told you I wouldn’t do that.

Safe to say my brother and I saw something, heard something that finally made us afraid enough to leave. I wish I could remember and tell you with certainty, something more concrete than: “Maybe we saw a light in the house.”

Whatever it was, we were spooked.

“Let’s get out of here,” Blake said.

“Yeah.”

We shuffled to car and rocketed down the driveway. I was fighting actual tears. We left the forest and dark house behind. I saw the dancing lights of Colorado Springs as we hopped back onto I-25. It felt like looking at 1,000 night lights. It was warm and safe and the opposite of everything we’d seen.

Obsession

I went back. A lot.

I took friends, acted as the tour guide my brother had been on our first outing. He lost interest, I think. See the scene of where something awful happened enough times, its eerie luster eventually fades, I guess.

It didn’t for me. I took friends, co-workers. I went at night, during the day.

Have you ever felt like you’re being watched? Gotten that prickle down your back that feels like a fresh slick of ice cocooning your spine? I did at this house. Every time.

I invented stories of what happened, started from scratch and completely erased the tales I’d been told. It wasn’t fun and games, some kooky, spooky Halloween fun. This was need, craving, necessity. I’d feel incomplete if I couldn’t figure out what happened inside Hell House. Why was there a cage in the kid’s room closet? Why was there a door with bricks and nails? Why was there a chair with straps hooked into a flaccid electric fence?

I called a local historical society and left a message. Local police, too. No one called me back. My tinfoil hat came out.

Something horrible did happen there. And they want to bury it. That had to be it. Never a thought that they might be busy with other things and that I sounded like a bumbling conspiracy theorist who’d had a few shots before he called.

Fine. I didn’t need them. I’d figure this out on my own. My delusional obsession became my drug of choice, and I shot up almost daily.

I dreamed about the house. Details of the nightmares escape me nine years later, but I do remember I was in it, that it was dark and I heard someone saying something to me in all that dark, that I couldn’t find them.

I awoke in actual darkness at 3 a.m. during one of these reveries. I watched movies until the sun came up and turned lots of lights on.

“It’s gone.”

This was also the summer I went to Germany.

It was a two-week jaunt of amazing beer and food, beautiful countrysides and charming mountain towns. I ran along the Rhine River, in the hills above a township called Königswinter where I saw a graveyard with a field of markers that were tilted and cracked and smothered in moss. Some of the birth and death dates were more than 400 years old.

I all but forgot about dark houses and the dreams they sewed in my head.

When I arrived home, Blake and my mom picked me up at the airport. We were driving home when Blake told me the news.

“Did you hear about Hell House?” he asked.

“No.”

“It burned down. It’s gone.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

He didn’t know how. We didn’t say anything else about it the rest of the ride home.

Ashes

I made my final drive to Hell House a couple nights later. I took two friends with me. We’re all married now, and two of us have kids. We were single thrill seekers that night, eager to see the carnage I’d been promised.

We ducked under new strands of “No Trespassing” tape stretched across the long driveway and walked up to nothing. The dark house had been picked clean. Only a few bones remained, twists of metal and ugly gashes of burned wood. I could still smell the carbon charring.

I stood on the rubble in the house’s old center, glanced about. The feeling I’d had of being watched so many times was gone.

I don’t remember what the three of us said. The word “Crazy” was probably used. We likely asked each other how we thought it happened and offered theoretical responses. You know, like I’d done when it was still standing.

I gave a quick glance in the rear view mirror as we left. The twisting road embroidered with trees gave way to the lights of Monument and Colorado Springs.

We drove into the city and never went back into the woods. To this day, I don’t know how the fire started.

The house that time built

Hell House became the story I’d tell. I’d embellish a bit, certainly, polish it and make it sparkle. I don’t know why. The story of the dark house that gave me nightmares and eventually burned down stands on its own.

It’s been nine years, and it’s still in my thoughts. I wrote a full-length horror screenplay called ‘Cry Amy’ based on what I experienced. It’s based around the idea that some mysteries – the unsettling, unsolvable kind – are impossible to leave alone. So much so that sometimes we fill in the blanks with fiction, with guesses. We may even believe that conjecture if we say it often enough.

I won’t do that with the house. Not anymore. There’s no end to it. Sometimes you have to choose sanity over knowledge and set phantom theories free.

Sometimes houses just go empty and burn down in the night and can’t be rebuilt.

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    Ryan Pfeil

    This is a blog for southern Oregonians to check in on all things geek. Sci-fi, history, comics, movies, video/photo and anything else that would have gotten you shut in a locker in high school. Have fun. Read Full
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