I have a particular fascination with odd and unusual paranormal creatures. I realize that sounds redundant – paranormal is pretty much defined as odd and unusual – but even among fans of the supernatural, a cryptid’s popularity is based on how familiar a creature is, and how likely we judge its possible existence to be.
In the United States, 36% of people believe aliens have visited Earth and 29% believe Bigfoot exists. In Scotland, 24% think Nessie is “definitely” or “probably” real. Of course, ghosts are the royalty of the paranormal kingdom, with 45% of Americans (and a staggering 68% of Brits) willing to admit they believe in hauntings.
But who believes in Springheel Jack, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, the Devon Devil, the Phantom of Flatwoods, the Jersey Devil, the Hopkinsville Goblins, and Mothman?
Well, I do. Kinda.
When I was a little girl (probably 8 or 9) my stepfather Chet (a junior-high math teacher) took a summer job cleaning a bar after it closed for the night.
At what felt like random intervals (but was probably every Friday or Saturday night) my mother would come into my room, wake me up, and send me out to the car. I remember my teeth chattering as I stumbled from the house to the driveway through wet grass that clutched at my ankles.
Feeling genuinely cold in the summertime was new to me. My bedtime was eight o’clock; I went to sleep and woke up when it was light out. We had no air conditioning, and my mother thought a fan blowing in my room at night would make me sick. As far as I knew – at least until Chet took that job – summer was just one long, variably hot, variably bright, day.
To me, then, it was a grand adventure when – in the middle of the chill, black night – we’d climb into the car and drive forever along winding country roads.
I was encouraged to lay down in the back seat and fall asleep. I never did. Instead, I watched the trees and the starry sky pass by my open window while the adults talked, argued, played the radio and drank beer.
Eventually, the smooth pavement would give way to crunchy gravel, and a few minutes later, we’d pull into an empty dirt parking lot, lit only by moonlight and a string of yellow bulbs that edged an awning over the back door. On the awning, there was a cartoon image of a winking vulpine face and the words: The Red Fox.
After Chet unlocked the door and flipped on a bank of light switches, my job was to look for lost change. I crawled under every table, and dug in the crevices of every booth and chair. If I found nickles or dimes, I could use them to play the jukebox, but any other money had to be put into a glass my mother set out for me to fill. Meanwhile, the adults would roll up the big mats from the entryways and the area behind the bar, drag them outside, hang them over a rickety fence and hose them off. While the mats dried, my parents would wipe down the bar and tables, sweep, vacuum, and mop.
Once the floor was wet, I had to sit in a booth with my feet tucked under me. Usually, they would give me a bag of pork rinds, a candy bar, or a cute little glass (a shot glass, of course) full of cherries or filberts to snack on while I waited for the floor to lose its shiny streaks.
Occasionally, when all the work was done, my step-dad would go behind the bar and mix a cocktail for each of us. (Mine was a Roy Rogers … NOT a Shirley Temple.) Then he would climb onto the stage – where I was usually forbidden to go – wend his way through the maze of mic stands, amplifiers and drums, and turn on the power to one microphone. He’d show me a space where I could be, (not close to any of the instruments) hand me the mic, and make me promise to sing real songs … not kid stuff.
I did a mean Tanya Tucker.
Then it would be time to go for another long ride through the night. We never used the exact same route to return home. My mother, who didn’t have her license, enjoyed going for rides and my stepfather would indulge her after the work was done. Sometimes we’d cruise to, and through, a nearby town where the stoplights blinked. Most often, though, we’d take a slow, winding tour through an area with several small lakes and ponds.
It was on one of those nights that I saw a creature that looked something like this:
It was crouched high in a half-dead oak tree that stood on the bank of a pond. The moon was full, or close to it, and the wind was still. I had enough time to see the creature, look for its reflection in the polished mirror of water beneath it, then look back up to confirm what I was seeing. I suppose I was wondering if it was a weirdly contorted part of the tree itself.
Then the damn thing moved. At first I thought it was going to dive into the pond, but then I realized it was just turning away from the road. As we swept past it, I twisted around in my seat to keep it in sight. I swear, its eyes flared red in our taillights. Then I saw it had wings folded down its back.
Now here’s the thing: I wasn’t scared. Just that week I’d met my first salamander and – until the day I found one under a rock – I’d had no idea such a thing existed. Every month I received a packet of Safari Wildlife Cards in the mail, which I could then sort and file into a red plastic tray. Each card detailed the characteristics of an animal species. I devoured the information on those cards. Every month, there were animals in the deck that I’d never heard of and that seemed hardly possible. The variety of animal species that populated the world was astonishing to me.
(Weird kid, I know. Keep in mind, that I was raised on hobby farms – and I studied a wide variety of domestic and exotic animals daily. I think, maybe, I was destined to be a wildlife biologist, until the writing bug bit me.)
When I saw the creature in the tree, I knew I needed to note as many identifying details as possible.
I estimated it to be about the size of a large dog or a small goat, though the shape was wrong. It was holding itself in a hunched, compact, almost huddled position. It had arms and legs shaped like those of a monkey or lemur, but much thicker and bulkier. (The glow in the creature’s eyes tilted me toward a lemur of some kind – I’d just received my first lemur card and I’d been struck by its red eyes.) A primate of some sort seemed most likely, but I was puzzled because its body didn’t look furry, but rather rough and scaly, like an alligator. When I caught a glimpse of the wings, I thought they looked like a bat’s.
Of course, I tried to tell Mom and Chet I’d seen something, but when I described it they chuckled and refused to go back and look for it.
I thought of the creature often in the following years. As I learned more about animals, I came to realize such a thing couldn’t exist within the animal kingdom as I understood it. Then, when I was 11 or 12, I started to come across accounts of cryptids like the Jersey Devil and Springheel Jack. There were similarities but the encounters didn’t seem right. I got excited about Mothman for a while, but that description was really off when I dug into it.
Honestly it wasn’t until I saw a book on the clearance table at Barnes & Nobel that I saw anything that looked right.
So. Do I think it was a gargoyle? No, not if you mean as in the popular 90’s cartoon. (Though I do sometimes wonder what those medieval carvings were based on.)
Was it Springheel Jack, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, the Devon Devil, the Phantom of Flatwoods, the Jersey Devil, the Hopkinsville Goblins, or Mothman? I have no idea. If you read the wikis on the obscure cryptids I’ve listed, you’ll see there’s always an expert who comes forward to explain such sightings away by saying that some semi-literate yahoo just mistook an owl for a monster.
I may have only been eight or nine, but I was literate and precociously familiar with biology. Most importantly, I think, I was unbiased as only a child can be when it comes to the difference between “real” and “imaginary” animals. What I can tell you is this: I saw something alive that night, and it was not an owl.
This is a hummingbird moth. Well, to be accurate, it’s a snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis) which looks more like a very large bumblebee than a hummingbird.
Before I muse on my encounter with this insect, though, I want to explain the title of this post.
The Blog ~
Lately, I’ve been pretty consistent about adding a quick, nightly snippet to my Facebook page, even as I’ve let this blog mostly languish. Almost every evening, I think: This could be expanded into a full post. Then I decide that whatever I’m writing about isn’t quite right for the blog. It’s not creepy enough. Or clever enough. Or well-researched enough. Sometimes my thought is simply: No. I’m too tired to put that much time into writing tonight.
I write slow. Every line of text that makes it to the page has been rewritten a half-dozen times. (Curse the convenience of the backspace button.) Here’s a confession: those “quick” Facebook snippets of mine actually require an hour or more. Mostly because there’s always a slightly better way to express a thought.
Then there are the projects for the blog that never seen to come to completion – I’m embroiled in at least three which I intend to write about … as soon as I finish them.
An example? Back on April 17th, I set myself the task of reviewing, sorting and categorizing films based on the works of Stephen King. There’s a hell of a lot of them, however, and I’m having a problem figuring out where to draw the line. Do made-for-TV movies count? Well, they have to, thanks to The Stand, It and Bag of Bones – all of which I have strong opinions about. And what about the short films?
The Paranormal ~
When my daughter, Pooka, was home for a visit, she accidentally reminded me of what I meant to do back when I started this blog. Somehow – perhaps because I’ve since watched too many ghost hunter shows – I had become fixated on finding a reputedly haunted location to investigate in the customary manner, but that is not what I set out to do. In fact, I wanted to do the reverse – I wanted to closely observe places that inspire in me a sense of mystery, melancholy or dread, and write about that experience. The gadgets and tools were meant to be secondary, a way to quantify any phenomena (natural or supernatural) that contribute to an evocative atmosphere. It took my daughter’s insight to show me that I had gotten caught up in a strange set of ghost hunter rules that I felt ill-equipped to abide by. She helped me remember that I have always been less concerned with finding a ghost than with exploring the sensation of being haunted.
The Book ~
I haven’t been writing it. I haven’t been editing it. I haven’t even read any of it in more than a month. I can hardly remember what it felt like to really work with it. I know there were weeks at a time when I wrote fast and hard – come hell or typographical errors – while generating the bulk of my novel. Forcing myself forward felt awful, but pages chugged out of the printer and the manuscript stack thickened every day. Then I started editing the draft, even though I hadn’t finished writing the story. I think that’s when I first veered off the path.
The Whining ~
To be fair to myself, I did okay for a while even after I switched to editing. Then my life blew up (for the fifth or sixth time in the last four years) and I lost sight of the path entirely. But I digress.
The Solution ~
It’s time to renew my battle with perfectionism. I have to start writing again – not editing, writing. I don’t know exactly what that means yet, but I suspect that letting the blog posts come when they want to is part of it … even when my inner critic says, “No, that topic is not right enough.”
The Moth ~
Which brings me back to the hummingbird moth.
My children and I were visiting the nature center in my new hometown. It has the most amazing play area any of us has ever seen – in this case, a photograph will illustrate better than words:
Yes, there are manufactured caves and rocks to climb on. That muddy patch in the foreground hints at the center’s most brilliant feature: an artificial stream that allows children to slap a rock to make water gush forth and run along the bed. On this day, there were only a couple of preschoolers playing, so the stream wasn’t very full … until my children arrived. (They are 16 and 26, by the way.) They not only filled that stream, they also diverted its flow with a dam. (No, they did not interfere with the little ones; they used the empty end of the stream and dismantled the dam when they were done.)
Then we noticed an insect – something that looked like a giant bee – buzzing in a nearby flower patch. It didn’t take us long to rule out every species any of us had ever seen. We marveled. We snapped pictures. We moved on.
Later, after we used the internet to identify the insect as a hummingbird moth, and after everyone had gone to bed, I sat on the deck in the dark, listening to a lone alien amphibian calling from the pond below me. (I can identify at least six frogs and toads by their calls. This call was similar to an American Toad but different. Perhaps it was just a particularly large specimen, or one that had some sort of mutation.)
I’ve lived in Minnesota all my life, and spent countless hours outdoors. I’ve grown whole gardens to attract wildlife to observe. I’ve done nature studies in swamps, forests and meadows. I consider myself pretty well-informed about the native fauna of my region. How is it possible, then, that I encountered two unknown (to me) species, in one day, when I wasn’t even looking for them?
Granted, moths and toads are small creatures, which can easily escape notice. But they make me wonder what else is out there that I don’t know about. I keep thinking that all of my outdoor time has been spent in, or very near, well-settled areas.
Suddenly I find myself reconsidering what might be lurking in the Northern Minnesota woods.
*”In Minnesota there are approximately 16.3 million acres of forest land, of which 14.9 million acres are classified as “timberland” or lands capable of producing timber. A geographical depiction of forest land location can be seen on the map. An additional 960,000 acres are not included in productive timberland due to their inclusion in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness or other reserved land category.”
*Source: USDA Forest Service
I’ve lived in and around Anoka County all my life. I’ve always known it’s a creepy place. I know Billy’s Bar and Grill (formerly the Jackson Street Hotel) is supposed to be haunted. I know, back in the late 70s, some folks claimed to have seen bigfoot, prowling up near the county line. I know there are not-so-secret tunnels. (Some say they run under Main Street, others say they run under the Anoka State Hospital.)
I did not know about the Linwood Woolly Beast. Apparently, it is white and moose-sized, with the head of a goat. It likes to gallop through the fields on either side of county road 22 – a road I drive on pretty much every day.
I have found my mission.
Yes. I’m being snarky. Chalk it up to my irritation with the caliber of the information I waded through tonight, when I went looking on the internet for local paranormal sightings. Everything I found was either too vague to be useful or too sensational to be even close to credible.
I did my best. I was able to create a short list of possible investigation sites. I just have to remember that all I’m really looking for is hot-spots where different people, at different times, and under different circumstances, have noted feeling as though something was off. That’s as good a place to start as any.
PS: By now you probably know that I like to include a visual with my posts … and that I would just about kill for an artist’s rendition of the Linwood Woolly Beast.
Come on. You know you want to. If you draw it, I will post it.