Of all the stories I've shared about Clifton Heights and its strangeness, the following serves as perhaps the best representation of the shadows which lurk here. It serves, also, as a nice coda for this brief exercise.
Everyone in town knows, of course, about Raedeker Recreational Park, and Raedeker Park Zoo, on Samara Hill Road (where I grew up, and once saw a strange white cat which terrified my father). Many folks know the stories about the “haunted” lion's cage, or the tales of the lonely teenage ghost girl who sings a mournful tune every Halloween on the old amphitheater in Rec Park. These stories and others like it are staples of Clifton Heights lore. Everyone knows them.
But most people don't known about the cairn. And quite honestly, I didn't know about them myself until I discovered them by accident. I was visiting Raedeker Park around Halloween, drawn by the above legends. Was I planning on turning them into stories?
Perhaps. That's the way it often works with me. I hear about local legends – like the girl in white who haunts Bassler Road, or the stories about Bassler House itself – and turn them over in my mind. If something catches, a story is born. More often than not, only a fragment comes to mind. I jot it down and forget about it until something jars the memory loose again.
In any case, I'd walked through Raedeker Park Zoo, poked around the supposedly haunted lion cage cage, and was standing on the old amphitheater up on the hill, where, as a kid, I watched countless Universal horror movies and westerns on a big white screen. I didn't feel much, except maybe a faint wistfulness, and it was hard to tell if it came from inside me, or somewhere else.
A trickle of a story idea was forming, however, but not about the ghost girl, not really. More about a boy who heard the legend and was determined to hear the ghost girl sing. And maybe the boy's father was a hard-driven pastor who hated Halloween, but not for the reasons the boy thought. Maybe his mother had been killed on Halloween, or right before? Maybe run down on the street while shopping for the boy's Halloween costume, killed in a senseless accident, which would make Halloween a continual reminder of what the pastor had lost.
The thought stopped there and petered out, but that was fine. I'd turn it over in my head on the way home, write it down, and forget about it until it bubbled back to the surface. If that happened, then I knew there was something to write about.
All thoughts about the wistful singing ghost girl and the boy with the pastor father who hated Halloween faded when I stepped from the ruins of Raedeker Park's amphitheater to the parking lot. Glancing right, I saw something I'd never seen before, for some reason, in all my visits there. What looked like an access road at the treeline, winding away into the woods, the way barred by an old wooden gate which looked like it was in as bad a shape as the ruined amphitheater.
I've thought about this often, since. Why did I see that old access road, on that particular day? It's not like I visited Raedeker Park as much as I did when I was a kid. It's conceivable enough that on other visits, I just didn't look in that direction.
But it still seems odd, to me. That I'd look to my right, that day, and see an access road – barred by an old wooden gate – which I'd never seen before, right when I was searching for story inspiration.
Of course, you know what I had to do.
The access road provided surprisingly easy walking, especially considering the condition of the old gate, which didn't look as if it had been opened in over twenty years. It certainly wasn't much of a barrier anymore, the gate and its two posts having rotted through long before. I walked around the gate, (because whatever fencing had been connected to it had also long since fallen into ruin), but I believe one good push would've knocked it right over.
The path looked oddly worn for all that, as if driven on regularly, though I saw no tangible signs of use. Certainly no signs of teenagers – soda or beer cans or bottles, crumpled cigarette boxes, other kinds of litter. For whatever reason, our teenagers didn't frequent this path, or where it led.
Which was telling, in and of itself. Teenagers are the same everywhere, I think. Ours are no better or worse than in other towns. If abandoned places exist, hidden from adult eyes, it's there they will congregate, and do the things teenagers do when parents and adults aren't around.
I did the same, their age. Back then, Old Webb, an abandoned elementary school which stood on Route 79 before the county bulldozed it down my senior year, served as a party hub for teenagers all over Web County, even as far away as Indian Lake. And while the teenagers partied there on Saturday nights, during the summer, adolescents liked to explore its shadowy depths. I logged several hours there myself, and another local writer – Kevin Ellison, owner of Arcane Delights, our used bookstore – has written a charming novella about his experiences there called A Night at Old Webb. It's the kind of story I could never write.
In any case, Clifton Heights teens gather in many places like Old Webb. There's old Bassler House, the abandoned farmhouse on Bassler Road. For every chilling story about what's happened inside its decrepit frame (mine included), there are scores of stories of teenagers (and traditionally, the football team every year, apparently after every home victory), who go inside and experience nothing out of the ordinary, past teenage drinking. On an odd note, I've occasionally wondered if their inebriation protected them, somehow, from Bassler House's purported malign influence.
But for all the usual gathering places around Clifton Heights, places exist which they notoriously leave alone. The old Lapierre house off Allen Road, for example. Also, the ruins of Mr. Trung's koi pond lie untouched. When I was a kid, Mr. Trung – a Vietnam man seeking to escape the memories of the Viet Cong – lived in a modest trailer out on Bassler Road (much closer to town), and grew blueberries. He also maintained a koi pond garden which was the envy of all Clifton Heights gardeners.
He died somewhat mysteriously, apparently suffering a stroke or heart attack, and was found floating face-down in the koi pond. By the time someone discovered him, the koi had eaten quite a bit of his face. In any case, no one ventures into the ruins of his strangely overgrown garden, or sits under the decaying, leaning gazebo, at its center.
I don't know. It's just one of the many places in Clifton Heights which exudes a kind of natural (unnatural?) essence which wards off the curious.
As I walked up the access road winding into the woods on the hill behind Raedeker Park, I wondered if maybe it was one of those places. I saw no signs that anyone had walked or driven along it recently, though, as I've said, it looked oddly well-worn, with no sign of overgrowth.
And I didn't sense anything foreboding about that access road, really. Whenever I drive past Mr. Trung's old garden, a cold shivers passes through me. I've never once had an inclination to stop and poke around. In fact, the novella I wrote about Mr. Trung and his koi, “Sophan,” (part of the novella duet Devourer of Souls), I wrote entirely by imagining what the koi pond looked like, because I've never dared (there, I said it), set foot in that old garden.
I felt no such ill sensations walking along that access road, however. If anything, I felt remarkably...at peace. Free. I've discussed the guilt I grapple with, over what happened to one of my former students, Emma Pital, which I wrote about in my short story “Lament.” I'm grappling with that guilt head on in my first novel (which I've just finished the first draft of), The Mighty Dead. It's a guilt I deal with on a daily basis. It lurks there, in the morning when I rise. It waits for my dreams when I fall asleep at night.
But as I walked along that access road, I realized something curious: I felt no guilt. Not a trace. I felt free and unburdened, in a way I've rarely experienced. For some reason, that unnerved me, and the memory of that freedom unsettles me, even today. It would be easy to say I've just gotten addicted to my guilt, in a masochistic sort of way, and that feeling even a moment of peace was just too strange a sensation.
I don't believe that was the case, however. Especially not after what I found at the end of that access road. I believe that sense of peace didn't come from me. I believe it was forced on me. I believe it came from the road itself, like the paralytic toxins secreted by those Venus flytraps that eat flies and spiders and, in tropical regions, small rodents. It sounds strange (unless you live in Clifton Heights, and understand our brand of strange), but I think that, as I walked along that access road, something was poisoning me (if that makes any kind of sense) with an alien sense of guilt-free peace, and that I'm lucky I made it off that access road alive.
Near the access road's end, it curved to the left and inclined sharply, enough to leave me panting slightly. When I took stock of what lay ahead of me, however, an excited (frightened?) shiver rippled through me, and I felt out of breath for entirely different reasons.
Familiar with Irish folklore and myth, I instantly recognized the dozens of conical, meticulously arranged piles of rocks for what they were. Cairn. Used as landmarks, or, very often...
As grave markers.
The access road cut down the middle, and though I didn't take a specific count, at least three or four or maybe even five dozen cairn stood on both sides of the road, more than I'd ever seen in one place. So many it didn't seem possible, and it came to me, again, that I was standing at the mouth of a graveyard of perhaps more than fifty souls gone to rest, in the woods up behind Raedeker Park.
Then, I lifted my gaze, and saw them, for the first time.
The ruined buildings of Zoo Town, the obvious homes for those who lay in rest at my feet.
Zoo Town is another one of Clifton Height's little known artifacts of the past, even among some of its most “informed” citizens. Only the oldest folks in town have heard of its existence, still fewer have ever seen it...which is very odd, considering it took minimal research on my part, after the fact, to find several entries about it both print and online “History of Webb County” accounts.
Like many small towns in the Adirondacks, during the 1930's, Clifton Heights played home to a small but vibrant Irish-American community. In many places throughout Adirondack Park, the Irish found work in the silver and tin mines, in stone quarries and lumber mills. In Clifton Heights, the Irish worked primarily at Raedeker Park Zoo and Carnival, tending to the animals, cleaning pens and the grounds, operating and maintaining the carnival rides. Up on the hill behind Raedeker Park, they built a small, rustic-but respectable two-street town which became known as “Zoo Town.”
After I passed through the field of cairn (I won't lie; I walked quickly, as a child flitting through a graveyard at night), and walked down one of Zoo Town's streets (again, it appeared oddly worn and recently traveled), I marveled at how well-preserved the old buildings seemed, after so many years. In my cursory examination, I saw not only narrow but sturdy-looking shotgun shacks with small front porches, but also longer buildings in the “center” of town, opening to both streets. One with rows of rusted metal cots bereft of blankets or mattresses (the town infirmary?) and a larger building, which could've possibly been a general store of sorts.
As I stopped in the middle of the street, turning in an entranced 360 degrees, staring, that reverent, hushed presence settled over me. It felt like (though it was surely a product of my imagination) that the entire town had merely stepped out, en mass, and was due to return at any moment. I wondered how the town had come to be abandoned, and I still wonder now, even after researching the matter.
On the surface, the historical account seems innocuous enough. After a rash of accidents due to malfunctions of aging, poorly kept carnival rides in the early sixties, Raedeker Park Zoo & Carnival became just Zoo, as the park closed its carnival due to hikes in insurance rates. With carnival rides dismantled, nearly half of Zoo Town's men and women lost work, leaving them to try and find employment down in Clifton Heights itself, or in surrounding towns, which was difficult, because only a handful of men owned trucks in good enough condition to drive to other towns. Because of this, young men either left town to find work elsewhere, or enlisted at the start of the Vietnam War, and subsequently didn't return home.
So Zoo Town had been dealt a blow it slowly bled out from, as more and more of its young either moved down to Clifton Heights and acclimated to life in town proper, or moved elsewhere. Then came the apparent, final death blow: an unsolved murder of a young girl from Zoo Town, her body discovered on what was then the amphitheater stage at Raedeker Park (And, as it usually does, my research had provided me with a workable source for the singing ghost girl legend, which I'm sure will fashion itself into a story eventually).
For some odd reason, even though the victim was from Zoo Town, the whole incident turned sentiment against Zoo Town. A notable religious leader at the time (I won't say whom, because I'm admittedly holding that back for the future ghost girl story), led the charge, claiming Zoo Town was a “devil's stronghold of pagan, old world rites and customs.”
Nothing came of the pastor's rantings, but it only worsened Zoo Town's bleeding out. More and more of its young left, now followed by many of its middle-aged citizens. As its elders began passing, (as they tend to do), Zoo Town became emptier, until sometime in the mid seventies (it's odd no one actually knows a specific date), the final Zoo Town resident either passed away or left, and Zoo Town fell abandoned, to stay that way.
Even so, recalling that strange hush I felt while looking around Zoo Town, I wonder what else happened. I wonder if maybe the story about the pastor leading a crusade against Zoo Town's “evil pagan rites” only scratched the surface. I certainly didn't sense the same foreboding I always feel when driving by Mr. Trung's old koi garden, or the weird sense of displacement I felt the only time I shopped at Save-A-Lot, a used and antique furniture store which is, weirdly enough, housed in an old school just outside town.
But I sensed something in the ruins of Zoo Town, regardless. As I said, either the sensation that its residents were due back any moment, or that, on some plain of existence I couldn't see, Zoo Town still bustled with life and industry.
My thoughts stuttered to an abrupt halt, however, when I heard a woman say from behind me, “Marvelous. Isn't it?”
I turned to see a striking woman about my age standing behind me, dressed in black runner's tights and a black windbreaker, though she didn't look tired or winded, as if from a recent run. Her likewise black hair was pulled in a ponytail, and eyes which looked more golden than anything else took me in as she approached. And I mean that, took me in. It felt like she was appraising me. Sizing me up, evaluating my worth.
Her face possessed high cheekbones and regal features. Her smile, however, was wide and friendly, and despite cutting an impressive figure, she put me at ease, instantly. I didn't feel uncomfortable around her, at all.
Which, in retrospect, troubles me. I know I'm probably acting paranoid, and that she was most likely just a runner, nothing more. But recalling the incident and the almost instantaneous wave of good will I felt wash over me in her presence, I can't help but think she was an extension of the road, and Zoo Town itself. I felt relaxed and comfortable in her presence not because she was harmless, but because she made me feel that way, to keep me docile, compliant...under control.
“You mean the cairn?” I gestured over my shoulder. “Yeah, I'll say. ”
Her smile widened. “So you know your Irish folklore. I'm impressed. Most folks these days don't know what cairn even are.”
I felt oddly pleased at her praise, like a dog who had performed a trick and now hoped for reward. “Well, I'm an English literature teacher, and I do love my folklore. It's kind of in my wheelhouse.”
She smiled wider, golden eyes twinkling as she stepped closer. “Indeed? How fortuitous. Irish folklore is very much in my wheelhouse, also.” She gestured at the buildings. “Do you know of this place, then?”
At the time, of course, I didn't. “Actually, no, which is hard to believe. I grew up in Clifton Heights, and I never knew this was even here.” I looked at her, and found it oddly hard not to be drawn into her gaze. “Do you know what it is?”
“Yes. It was a small community made up of Irish who worked in Raedeker Park Zoo & Carnival, as well as the lumber mill. Over the years locals began calling it 'Zoo Town.' It died out in the seventies when the Carnival closed. Work dried up. The young who could move away did, and eventually, those who were too old to move passed on.” She waved at the cairn behind me. “And there they lay, with the rest of their brethren.”
This, of course, was a truncated history which prompted me to conduct research of my own, later. I glanced back over my shoulder at the cairn. “Amazing. Definitely didn't learn about this place in history class.”
I gazed at the cairn for a few more minutes, suffused once again with that consuming sense of peace. “It's strange how the road runs right between the cairn,” I said. “I'd think it would be away from the road.”
“Another part of Irish myth,” the woman replied. “Are you familiar with ley lines? Faerie paths? What's called 'the night road?'”
I faced her again, and blinked in surprise: She'd taken two steps closer to me. “Uh. I've heard of ley lines and faerie paths. Not the night road, though.”
“Legend has it that they're all one and the same. Ley lines, faerie paths, night roads. Routes of elemental power connecting sites of power.”
I nodded. “Right. Religious sites, graveyards, churches, old battlefronts. So, according to lore, this road is a ley line...”
She tipped her head, “Or a night road.”
“...and it's connecting the cairn back there to...” I paused, thinking, trying to imagine where the access road led to, based on Raedeker Park's location on Samara Hill. “Does it come out on Shelby Road?”
The woman grinned, and once again, the ridiculous notion that I'd pleased her and would be rewarded possessed me. “Yes it does. It runs through Shelby Road Cemetery.”
I snapped my fingers. “Right. Yeah, that cemetery hasn't been used for decades. That makes sense. Ley lines are supposed to connect sites of power, graveyards among them, so, according to legend, this road would be a ley line...”
“Or a night road.”
“...connecting the cairn to Shelby Road Cemetery. And what is a night road, anyway? You've mentioned it a few times, now. As I said, I've heard of ley lines and faerie paths, but not night roads.”
The woman crossed her arms, looking immensely pleased I'd asked such a question. “Like the faerie paths, night roads are roads leading to other plains of existence. Legend had it that walking on a night road was to risk offending the faerie, and if you were found unworthy – or worthy, depending on the story – you would be taken down the night road with them, to run forever. Some considered this a curse. Others – lost folks, folks burdened by guilt, who felt they had nothing left to live for – considered this a blessing. They sought the night road, for release.”
I nodded slowly, a slight feeling of alarm piercing my odd sense of peace, especially at her mention of people “burdened by guilt.” I've mentioned my guilt. It sounds crazy...but when she said some people thought it a blessing to be caught up on the night road?
A part of me..responded.
But another part of me, thank God a stronger part of me, rose up and pushed down that sudden, weird longing. “That's intriguing. Definitely something to research when I get back.”
The woman stepped closer, arching an eyebrow. “Get back? Must you leave...so soon?”
At that moment, all the odd peace I'd felt in the presence of the cairn, and my strange enthrallment with that woman vanished under a cold shiver, one I recognized all too well, a cold shiver I've already referenced several times. Underneath it, however, like a faint whisper?
To stay there.
“Yeah, I gotta get going.” For some reason, I was loathe to admit I was a writer looking for inspiration. It was on the tip of my tongue, but I swallowed it and only said, “I just like to take walks and look around, is all.”
She nodded slowly. Did her eyes change, at that moment? Flicker a deeper shade of gold, looking far less friendly, and more...predatory?
Surely it was my imagination.
“Well. It was a pleasure meeting you. I hope you find what you're looking for.”
It was a strange thing to say. But at that point, my desire to get as far away from this woman as possible overwhelmed all thoughts. “Thanks. Me too. Have a good one.”
I turned as quickly as I could without seeming impolite (for some reason, showing overt disrespect to this woman, regardless of my unease, seemed unwise), and walked back down to Raedeker Park.
I see this woman running often, now. Which of course shouldn't seem strange. She'd been dressed in running tights, of course. Lots of folks go running in Clifton Heights; I see them all the time. It's just odd, how often I see her. And how it seems like, even though she's never looking at me, it feels like she knows I see her.
But I'm sure that's just my imagination.
An odd news item, recently. Police found two locals' cars abandoned at the mouth of Shelby Cemetery, on Shelby Road. One of the drivers is missing. The other? Horribly mutilated. By an unidentified animal, and found on the access road in the woods, running from Shelby Road Cemetery.
I don't want to write this story.
But I know I will.
It's what I do.
Clifton Heights, NY
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