Who needs to read a terrifying tale when…
There was no ‘midnight train to Georgia;’ there was only my small, versatile, black hatchback and an unscratchable wanderlust tickle in the palm of my hand—adjacent to the hitchhiking thumb I’d used long ago as currency. Riding shotgun was my dark as a starless night companion Faolan (Gaelic for little wolf). I abstained from listening to one of several audio mystery books I’d tucked into the car’s side pocket, and opted for an old mix tape of melodies.
The first tune that incited me to sing along was Harry Connick’s Wink and a Smile. He sang about empty back roads, green lights, and illuminated eyes. This was followed by Donovan’s talk and caulk ditty about a doomed isle that perhaps never was but could be. ‘Hail Atlantis’ he crooned. It wasn’t hard to imagine Georgia’s largest city was named after a mythical isle rather than an ocean. After all, shows like The Walking Dead, The Originals, and the Vampire Diaries had been filmed here. It’s rumored early Scots brought a version of the Loch Ness monster, called Altie, to a river in central Georgia. And in the mountains above the town of Ellijay, people have reported sightings of a family of Sasquatches.
This was a multi-purpose trip. I was researching a few of American architect Frederick Olmsted’s creations, picking up a dog and delivering it to its new home in Tennessee, and revisiting old haunts. When I was 15, I lived about 20 miles north of Atlanta for one brief year. My father was helping to design a huge Boeing cargo plane, the C5A. It was there I learned to drive on Atlanta’s version of the autobaun and the joys of riding bareback. It was there I had a powerful premonition. It was there I discovered I needed help in interpreting visions I’d been having since age 3 or 4. And although I didn’t learn this hard lesson for many years, it was there I should have realized you don’t blurt out someone will die if your dire warning isn’t heeded.
My first stop was Steinbeck’s, an eclectic Decatur, Georgia eatery that allowed well behaved dogs a place at the table (so to speak). It was charming and disarming for many reasons…exposed brick walls, delicious cocktails served in retro mid-century glasses, and reminders of a war fought long ago, and still ongoing. I could find no mention writer John Steinbeck had been here during his Travels With Charley trek across and around America, but he had been to the Russian Georgia. He wrote he was impressed with people
that could out eat, out drink, out dance, and out sing him.
Decatur, an Atlanta suburb, was named for War of 1812 Naval war hero Commodore Stephen Decatur. Two indigenous tribes, the Creek (Mvskoke) and Sioux and their intersecting trails thrived here for 12,000 years, amid old growth forests. Before that, were archaeological traces left by Clovis culture folks, Phoenicians, Celts, sabertooth tigers, mastodons, or something else (and later destroyed by usurpers)? Emory and Devry Universities are nearby, and though the Old Scottish Rite Hospital has been converted into shops, the Beaux Arts Pythagoras Masonic Lodge on E Ponce de Leon Avenue is still operational.
My hotel was also one that allowed dogs to stay with well-behaved guests. Years ago I stayed at a marvelous hotel, part of a boutique chain of mid to upper crust venues that not only allowed leashed cats and dogs, but also offered a daily happy hour for humans, which included a barkery of pet treats and a bowl of water or meat and veggie flavored broth. If you didn’t or couldn’t bring your pet with you, the hotel would provide you with a goldfish, multi-colored canary in a cage, or a CD of jungle or forest animal sounds.
In the morning, after a pricy latte, several shared burritos, and a bowl of water, Faolan and I headed to Druid Hills Park (renamed Linear Park), one of six former farm areas (originally Creek Indian land) along serpentine Ponce de Leon Parkway. This area shouldn’t be confused with the larger Druid Hills Park in Baltimore, after which it’s perhaps named, or literal Druidic hills in Scotland, Wales, or Ireland. Was the bit of Druid magic I sensed long ago still there; had it ever been? I suspected it had.
We have available to us all manners of travel—experienced from an armchair or as a psychedelic inner journey—or contrived as a physical test of strength and endurance (via car, train, plane, ship, schlep). This particular trip took me by car in a southeasterly direction, then on foot in search of a small patch of ground east of Atlanta. I wanted to find a curious cleared hollow in what had been an otherwise unkempt, overgrown area of the park.
Easily enough I found the section in Druid Hills called Oak Groves; it’s near Emory University. I knew better than to look for anything druidic here, including hanging mistletoe and wickermen. I had once explored various haunts in those hills because several murders were committed in ye old Druid Hills. In the 1940s, someone murdered Lucy Beal Candler Heinz husband Henry (try to say that fast three times) in his library, with a gun. In the game of Clue, the token would be a coke bottle as Lucy was a Coke heiress. He was a banker, Kiwanis Foundation President, and helped raise money for the Scottish Rite Hospital.
After the murder, Lucy abandoned the home, which was bought in 1945 by Dr Robert Sarbacher, WWII Navy vet, who studied with Einstein at Princeton. Robert was also a UFO conspiracy theorist. It next became a boarding home and later was split into several posh townhomes. Rumors of the property being haunted circulated in the 60s. Was Henry roaming the manse searching for his murderer? I visited the property with several amateur ghost hunting school friends. Other than a feeling of melancholia, we weren’t visited by any ghosts that night.
The uneasy spirit of English golfer James Douglas Edgar, head professional at Druid Hills Golf Club 1919-21 is also rumored to be roaming Druid Park hills in search of the killer that done him in via a deep groin stab. Was the killer related to the Atlanta woman he was alleged to be having an affair with, or was it someone with golf pro wanna be envy? Coincidentally, one of Edgar’s pupils was Asa Candler, father of Lucy Candler Heinz. Alas, Edgar’s spirit didn’t call out to us either—perhaps the spirits had moved on or we were in the wrong section of Druid Hills? That seemed to be the case. Then again, our frightful success another night may have had something to do with the séance we attempted in the center of a charming hollow thought to have once been the location of a derelict graveyard.
Near the turn of the century, the challenge for Frederick Law Olmsted was to design a suburban park that complimented and enhanced the stately mansions built there. Occupants included Coco Cola magnates, KKK elders, and prosperous merchants. Olmsted called what he did ‘democracy in dirt.’ Just as the bubbly bottlers headquartered nearby wanted to buy the world a coke, Olmsted wanted to give everyone access to a bucolic slice of urban utopia where technological distractions were obscured, and one could commune with nature. He took a break from designing curved, landscaped areas around the Biltmore in Asheville, NC to cultivate and curate gently sloping wooded areas around Decatur’s upscale manses.
The last time I viewed Druid Hills, in the late 70s, it resembled a dirty, indigent child. While I was tempted to get out and find the place I was certain still held a bit of magic, I blew on by. I headed to an Atlanta hotel for a boring business conference. When they began a massive clean-up of the park in the 80s, they found old car parts, part of the trolley rail that once traversed the parkway, tons of paper trash, glass, enough discarded tin cans to fill a quarry, and acres of undergrowth and invasive plants, honeysuckle, kudzu…Had it been forgotten by its creator, the father of landscape architecture, Central Park, Chicago’s Riverside, and US Capitol grounds; or was someone else to blame?
Olmsted was long dead (1903), as were his progeny that took over the family business. Druids disappeared from Europe and the isles in the 700s, and from Wales by the 1300s, according to historians like Poseidonius (51 BCE) and Ronald Hutton (contemporary). Their groves were destroyed by Roman soldiers and locals with other uses for the wood and a desire to see these mysterious robed figures crushed. Romans called them both great sages/mages as well as bloodthirsty barbarians. As I drove by on this occasion, I scanned for imaginary oak groves and standing stones, and detected a flicker of wicker in the form of picnic baskets. I also discerned a certain paganistic aura has returned. Which is as it should be, for like N America’s indigenous people, Druids revered nature and practiced the art of leaving the land as they found it.
Autumn is a fine time to have wanderlust. While some creatures burrow and contemplate taking a long nap, others migrate, follow ancestral maps in their heads and selective sonar sounds. That may be what I was doing, searching for an odd sort of ancestral map or marker I stumbled upon when I was 15. Then and now I searched for answers in patterns I detected, in between glimpses of the unexplainable… I’m bothered that in the 21st century, inquisitions and crusades continue to be part of that pattern.
Hundreds of years ago, America attracted the dispossessed, disenfranchised, criminals and heretics fleeing religious persecution. They brought their own rituals and initiations, which were incorporated into American culture. We have oval offices and a Pentagon, pyramids and all seeing eyes on currency. People brought their habits and traditions here: the slaughter of innocents, enslavement, racism, narcissism, toxic ideologies, white nationalism, authoritarianism, propaganda. This is part of our legacy,as is realizing that what’s permitted, what’s sacred and revered can also be sinister and misinterpreted.
Where was the spot we parked my friend’s clunker car in the mid 60s and headed into the woods to hold a séance and summon the dead? My versatile car crawls along a section of the park that feels vaguely familiar. What looks like a child’s pink and green tennis shoe waits for its owner to find it. I hark back to the child murders of 1979-81 in and around Atlanta. Nearly 30 children and several adults were included in the tally. Although the KKK and others were implicated, Wayne Williams, an Atlanta native, was charged with two of the murders (both adult men). He was never tried for any of the child murders—no one was. From 1911-15 authorities hunted the Atlanta Ripper, accused of the murders/mutilations of 20+ young black or mixed race women. Like London’s Jack, the killer was never apprehended.
Earlier, I passed a grocery store dubbed the ‘murder Kroger,’ its moniker earned via two fatal shootings and a corpse found in a car in the store’s parking lot in the 80s, plus the shooting of a young woman in the 90s, and several more shootings from 2002-2015. What is it about this neck of hills and woods that attract murderers? What was that expression I was told at 15 as our family packed up house contents and horses to move north once again? Georgia don’t wash away, neither does Georgia clay. You’ll be back and that’s a fact.
Faolan is making strange noises; squirrels in nearby trees are taunting her. I pull over, grab my backpack, and check pockets for pepper spray and stun gun. With her leash looped round my neck, I open the door and she sprints across the grass. She returns in a few minutes panting and drains a plastic tub of water. Back on the leash, and relying on raw instinct, we head towards the pathless side of the woods. It feels great to stretch the legs. Zen and the Art writer Robert Pirsig once said “in a car, you’re a passive observer. On a cycle [or on foot], you’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it…”
If anything, the park is too pristine now. I detect a whiff of cedar and a floral sweetness in the air. There are a few cars parked nearby and paved trails with clearly marked signs to my right. During my first visit, everything was a tangled, gnarled mess. Though I didn’t know the word back then, the park in the 60’s was very wabi sabi. There was a weight, a gravity attached to land nature was reclaiming and locals were trashing. I was the first to find the hollow, to sense an otherworld intenseness lingered there. My England to Atlanta transplanted schoolmate had brought a transistor radio, but got nothing but static and turned it off. So someone sang a riff from a popular rock song, ‘hey there little red riding hood, you sure are looking good…’ We howled and danced deiosal and widdeershins.
Not unlike the static on my friend’s radio, I heard a strange, heavily accented voice in my ear, saying if we kept cavorting tuathal, they would come hither. I must have said “they who” aloud for my friends stopped dancing and stared at me. I blurted out we should hold a séance. Perhaps we could summon one of Druid Hill’s deceased residents, a Creek Indian, or one of the Civil War soldiers we’d been reading about in history class. Someone laughed, called me Damn Yankee, and added if I could conjure a soldier, he’d tell me the South never lost the war.
That much of my 1960s séance in Druid Hills Park remains vivid. The rest is a blur. We sat in a circle and linked hands. Using money from babysitting and tutoring gigs, I’d recently acquired and devoured a stack of books on the occult: Morning of the Magicians (Pauwels/Bergier), Witches & Sorcerers (Daraul), The Secret Lore of Magic (Shah), several books by Gerald Gardner, a dozen more on the Salem witch phenomena, and Astral Projection (Fox). My Welsh and Irish grandparents had fostered in me a love of all things esoteric, and I’d seen more spooky movies than all my school chums put together. Dark Shadows premiered on TV and the occult was back in vogue. Since a tot, I’d been watching horror movies and shows like The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, and One Step Beyond, and had a loose leaf pad full of notes on every esoteric subject I heard about. By default, I was the group’s resident occult weirdo.
I vaguely remember the cheery buttercup and violet strewn area where we sat suddenly grew dark. Dense grey fog encircled us. I’d been calling out to the ancient inhabitants that once lived here, demanding they tell us something about the past, something about the future. Only my English friend and I saw the strange parade of elongated shapes that materialized from the fog, dissipated, and reappeared. There was an impression of flesh, dark robes, togas, and other attire, weapons, adornment…but for the most part, these wavering forms were just shapes made of mist–and sound. And yet, some felt familiar, others exotic. There were no revolutionary or civil war soldiers or forms that conveyed a sense of having lived in the 18th-21st centuries. These entities were antique (the word that came to mind then); what I meant was ancient.
Years after I wondered if the visions were a result of a bump on my head from a tumble off my horse a few weeks earlier? Was it part of my DNA via my heritage? Had I eaten, like Ebenezer Scrooge, some bad porridge, or did someone slip me a little something? Not likely as only one person in our group had admitted to taking something illegal, half a wine cooler, which made her throw up. The others said they heard strange chatter and felt cemented in place, unable to let go of the hands he/she was holding, but saw nothing. My English friend told me he closed his eyes to relieve a feeling of vertigo. A figure with no discernable face was yelling and shaking me; or was it me that was shaking?
Repeating a passage from one of my esoteric books, I kept demanding they reveal a memory from long ago, and another from the future. I’d brought offerings, a smashed cupcake, ash from the fireplace, a blue jay feather, and a perfume sample vial of water from the creek behind our house. I put them on the ground in front of me, though I couldn’t recall the words of thanks I was supposed to recite. I added the herbs I’d brought for protection as well, wild sage, a chamomile teabag, a dried rose, and an acorn. Hundreds of agitated, partly translucent manifested images speaking gibberish swayed and swooped in front of me. The voice of the figure that for a second had worn a robe, the only one I could understand, was shouting about lies and buried truths I should feel in yee bones and blood [because I was] daughter of thee who…
Another image, with a lavender and gold aura, applied pressure to either side of my head. It spoke the name of a girl I knew. A fuzzy opaque scene flashed before me of what I thought was her skiing behind a boat. Another boat sped by causing a wake and she fell. The line she was holding became tangled in the outboard motor. She held onto the other end, wrapping a length of line around her arm and tugged. The boat reversed, the line snapped, but not before it dragged her into the propeller. She also banged her head against the boat. The last image was of people crying at a cemetery.
I must have screamed and crawled forward, breaking the circle of linked hands. The fog vanished and my friends staggered to their feet. “What was that?” someone asked and others repeated. “That was stuff none of us need to be messing with,” the kid that drove us here, the older brother of my school chum replied. I was silent on the ride back, clueless as to what I’d experienced. I thought I might see civil war or Victorian era ghosts. What materialized were apparitions of people that might have lived in Ireland, Greece, or Egypt 1000’s of years ago. For decades, pieces of the vision I could recall made no sense whatsoever.
In ensuing years, I continued to expand my knowledge, seek mentors, and hone my skills. I taught myself Tarot card and tea leaf reading and scrying; hypnotism; remote viewing; clairvoyance, claircognizance… As for the future vision I’d asked to receive, it brought disastrous consequences. A week after the séance, still mulling over whether I should share the premonition, the parents of the girl in my dream asked me to go with them on a lake outing as babysitter to their two younger children and companion to the girl from my school. I was both delighted and apprehensive. My parents said no, they had something else planned for that weekend. I decided to tell the girl about my vision and warn her not to go skiing. She laughed at me and called me a kook. She didn’t die but her mother did, much as I’d seen in my vision, in a horrific skiing accident.
When the girl returned to school, she told everyone I’d cursed her family in spite, jealous because my parents wouldn’t let me go on the outing. To her I was much worse than a Damn Yankee, I was evil, a (fill in the blanks). Everyone shunned me, except for my English friend, the damn foreign. I was relieved when school ended and my father told us we were moving again, back north, to Maryland. Though I went to new schools in new states until I graduated, several of the labels (or perhaps it was a curse the girl gave me) stuck. I decided if I was going to be called a weirdo, I better be a good one. I became an occult scholar, an adept, an ethical practitioner of the esoteric arts. I’ve never stopped learning, seeking answers, or challenging lies and charlatans.
In recent years, I thought I might have partly solved the mystery behind the vision those motes of mist gave me when I was 15, and still terribly naïve and ignorant about the arcane arts. Though I’d tried many times, I’d been unable to summon or channel the mad cacophony of voices and beings I’d raised (or hallucinated) in Druid Hills Parks. If the hollow was still there, and I could reproduce some of the actions and words I’d spoken then, perhaps I could converse with the forms I was now sure were Druids. Did Olmsted have an inkling that premiere stewards of the land once lived here? Though some claimed he had a developed a landscape theology, I’d read little about any esoteric interests he might have had. Writer Erik Larson created a version of Olmsted in his superb book Devil in the White City, a tale about one of the most insidious Ripper suspects, H. H. Holmes (Mudgett) and the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. I concluded, if anything, Olmsted was a prestidigitator of pastoral architecture.
Faolan and I didn’t find the hollow that day, and I sensed I’d never return to Druid Hills, aka Olmsted Linear Park again. I didn’t come away empty handed, or rather empty minded however. I left elemental offerings of high value to me beneath the trunk of a fallen tree. Shortly thereafter, my black as a moonless midnight dog sat at attention and made a sound similar to the one she’d made when she spotted the squirrels. I ungracefully plopped down and assumed ¾ of a lotus position, and tried to muster the semblance of a Buddha statue.
The garbled and remarkable discourse that occurred is nearly impossible to put into words. The best I could manage was to fold the essence of what I experienced into the final chapter of my book Interpretation of Death. Part 1 of Chapter 6 will be released next month. Bread crumbs of a lifetime of otherworldly experiences and imaginings are scattered throughout Remains to be Seen, Coached in Death, and An Act of Ambition as well. Read chapters of these book at my blog and be ever curious about what resides just beyond reach of our five basic senses.
When I was 15, I relayed a premonition I received from an apparition of fog and tinted light to a girl who ignored it. I know now forewarnings come in many shapes and are seldom straight forward. I know now to be selective and cautious regarding what I ask for—what I’m willing to pay. Sentient beings advise the first step is to document your dream, intuition, recurring forebodings, and the signs and symbols that often accompany a peculiar vision or insight. The next step is to analyze possible meanings and seek logical explanations. Experts say minds are suggestible; folks want to believe in ghosts and an afterlife, in laws, rules and stories that form the fabric of our lives. Trusting our instincts has saved countless lives. Trusting others has not always proved wise.
Belief is a tricky word. It denotes acceptance via trust or faith in things not knowable or provable. I’ve been a doubter my entire life. I joined my first skeptics group when I was 17, living in a Philly suburb, across the street from a parapsychology organization (coincidence?). Through them I learned about Duke University Parapsychology Lab and J. B. Rhine; about Cryptogeography/zoology, esoteric pagan religions, mentalism, Chaos Magic, and sigils. I also learned about Government interest in all things esoteric and MKULTRA programs. In later years I visited Ft. Meade and was part of the Stargate Project that investigated psychic phenomena potential and military/intelligence applications. The project was spoofed in the movie Men Who Stare at Goats. But as my character Demeter said in Demeter’s Delinquent Daughter, ‘that’s another story for another day…’ Until then, wink at what I’ve written or dare to explore the world I’ve come to know and the inbetween places at the crossroads of knowledge and superstition, magic and science, sense and nonsense, reality and eternity…
Fantastic! The way you write changes the way I see things; as Pirsig says, it’s the difference bwtween seeing something through a screen and being there and experiencing it for real, or the difference between a tv and a bicycle. Atlanta will be my first port of call if and when I get back to the States; I’ll be visiting friends there. But I never looked beyond the surface on previous visits, and your trip to the Druid Hills would give me pause, and make me plan a more detailed exploration. You certainly didn’t leave empty handed, it sounds like you gained more than you knew at the time. I’ve always struggle to get my head around Central Park being created, but our man-made landscapes are often on the location of a place that’s …rather more primal…I’m sure Scorsese’s Devil in the White City film will be delving into that. I’ll be back to the next part of Interpretation of Death for sure….you have to collect all this in something more formal than a blog!
‘It’s rumored early Scots brought a version of the Loch Ness monster, called Altie, to a river in central Georgia’
That’s EXACTLY the kind of thing we Scots would be doing back then. Generous to a fault!
Oh, marvelous news RE Scorsese making series from Larson’s book! Yep, I wonder how Altie was smuggled across the Atlantic? Loudon is just 4 hours from Atlanta, so please consider a stop in Tellico Village; lots of empty bedrooms for u and family. I too wonder when and if I’ll get to make another hop across the big pond… I pondered whether to reveal some of my early, formative experiences, however, they are mine and I should own them. As always, thanks much for prolifically turning out top quality cinema reviews, especially during the previous dark, dreary year. Cheers!