Three months and nearly 7,000 miles bring me to the end of a cross-country trip from Fullerton to Maine to New Orleans and back again. It's late November, and most people are where they're supposed to be: with families or friends like gators, tryptophan slowing their hearts, softening the rough edges, dropping the guard.
I'm at a campground somewhere off Highway 60 in Arizona. It's not reservation land, but it's definitely Indian country. Brown, dusty, mostly desolate. The Hieroglyphic Mountains to the north, the Phoenix megalopolis to the south. It's a campground in name only. Nary a Coke machine or 40-year-old map of the Arizona countryside in sight. Just an empty parking lot in the middle of a desert.
In the summer, this might spring to life as a prime tourist destination, vans and SUVs filled with curious families from Phoenix and Scottsdale out for a Sunday drive to catch a glimpse of "Real Live Indians" making "Moccasins for the Whole Family!" in some roadside attraction, or perhaps even searching out the scratches left by Native Americans on nearby canyon walls.
But tonight it's desolate. No cars, no people, no signs of life or anything close to life.
It's also very, very cold. And very, very dark. Countless stars pinprick the moonless sky, but there's no real illumination to speak of, so it's impossible to figure out what I'm resting nearby. I'm able to detect a couple of good-sized rocks and what appears to be a small mesa about a football field away. But I'm more interested in catching some sleep before making the final eight-hour trek home to Fullerton.
I make a quick dinner of lentil soup on my propane stove, have a few slugs of cheap red wine, read a few lines from Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire, and dim my battery-operated lantern. I take one last look through the tinted windows of the shell on the back of my pickup truck, close my eyes and fall asleep.
I'm out for what seems mere seconds when I hear the wind pick up, blowing tumbleweeds and loose branches against the back of my truck. Along with the constant scraping comes a positively eerie moaning—the wind whipping south from the mountains of northern Arizona and spreading low and thin across the desert plains. For a second, my imagination clicks and whirrs, and I get an image of a host of Apache warriors screaming down from the mountains, seeking retribution on the only paleface within miles.
I call myself an idiot. No Apaches in Arizona.
But I look out the window anyway. And that's when I see ghosts. I can't tell how far away they are, but I definitely see something luminescent, flickering. And moving closer to me.
The wind roars.
I scramble for my camera, hoping my telephoto lens can get them in focus. No luck. Too dark. But I can plainly see them: seven creme-colored, ambiguous shapes that seem to materialize for a moment and then melt back into the night.
I'm not big on supernatural manifestations of the ethereal or ectoplasmic kind. While I firmly believe there are more things in this heaven and Earth than dreamed of in our philosophy, I also believe they frequently stem from the human minds' extraordinary complexity and ability to trip itself out. But this isn't mind over matter. These are ghosts out in the Arizona desert. I'm probably camping on some Indian burial ground that nobody remembers anymore, I'm alone, and I'm nearly pissing my pants.
I jump out of my shell, scramble for the front door, hop in the cab, turn the key and peel out.
And then I slow. This is not how this trip will end, I think. I reflect on the distance I've come (too far), the loneliness I've endured (too much), the time it has taken (the best part of three months traipsing across this country). I will not be chased away by these things, ghosts or not. I flip a mean U-turn, kicking up dust, and I point my beams at the place where these ghostly apparitions are conducting their supernatural ballet.
I see cows. About 20 cows. In the middle of the desert, I see 20 cows, foraging for whatever passes for forageable material in the middle of the desert. They are oblivious to the sound of my car, the brightness of my beams. I laugh. Honk my horn. They pay me no heed. I return to my parking space, prepared to sleep the rest of the night in peace.
But something is bothering me. Coming at the end of a relatively momentous trip, this was the most frightening experience I'd had. A genuine hair-raiser and adrenaline-producer. And for some reason, there's something about being scared shitless in the middle of a desert that seems to demand commemoration.
I climb out of my shell again and hike to the small mesa. It takes about 10 minutes to reach the hardscrabbly top. The wind is fierce up here, and though I don't feel that far from civilization, I can't see a manmade light in any direction. Even the cows have bailed. My initial reaction is to get the hell off this thing before I'm blown off the side and become instant carrion.