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Halloween requires a degree of open-mindedness and psychic vulnerability not common to your less-introspective holidays. Christmas? String some lights, throw a ham in the oven and let the postman do …
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Halloween requires a degree of open-mindedness and psychic vulnerability not common to your less-introspective holidays. Christmas? String some lights, throw a ham in the oven and let the postman do all the heavy lifting. A round of green beer on St. Patrick's Day makes every Schultz, Dubois and Bukowski feel like a True Son of Ireland, and every mook with a backyard grill and a "Kiss the Cook" apron is King of the Fourth of July.
Halloween is different. It's darker, primitive, elemental. All Hallow's Eve meets a fundamental human need that can't be satisfied by colored eggs or a heart-shaped box of chocolates. It's a public celebration of everything we personally don't want to know, a time to deliberately indulge concepts we pointedly ignore on every other night of the year. It's a chance to put a tolerable face on our nightmares, and then dismiss them for being so tolerable. Fact is, if Halloween doesn't make you feel at least a little anxious and uncomfortable, you're not doing it right.
And for folks like me who strive to keep Halloween well, it's getting harder every year to do it right. Times were, I could just dress up like Batman and stalk the darkened streets in search of ghostly thrills and free candy, but the neighbors stopped opening their doors to me every Oct. 31 about the same time my beard filled in, effectively ending my trick-or-treating career. After that, I sought Halloween fulfillment at parties and clubs, only to become disillusioned because, no matter how carefully I prepared my costume — astronaut, pharoah, Dracula, Hugh Hefner — everybody invariably thought I'd come as a hobo. Plus, it's a scientific fact that $2 well drinks tend to dampen one's extra-natural sensitivities.
It was a crisis of faith. Each October I grew despondent, restive, which was a good start, but I needed more. I needed to reconnect with the irrational dreads and unseen terrors of my youth. I needed to pierce the veil between the bright world of the living and the darkly spirit realm. Turns out, all I really needed was an autumn afternoon in Silver Plume.
Wedged between towering mountainsides at the western terminus of the Georgetown Loop railroad, Silver Plume is a living ghost town. Living, because a shade over 150 hardy souls still dwell along its few dusty avenues and occupy its ancient Victorian houses, and because, in summer, its quarter-mile length hums with life. In season, a small but steady stream of tourists hikes among the century-old ruins of the great mines that once made the narrow valley a bustling center of industry. They stroll beneath the town's sun-bright aspens and whispering cottonwoods, unearth treasures in its quaint antique shops and pause to refresh themselves at its humbly excellent diners.
I was looking for the other Silver Plume — the one that emerges when the last of the summer people retire for the winter, the aspens have lapsed into barren silence and long shadows drape across the ancient storefronts like a shroud. Surely, I thought, a place so generously equipped with physical reminders of people long since dust must be irresistible to the ghostly set.
Eager to get my fright on, I turned off Interstate 70 at Exit 226, crossed back under the highway and parked at the now-dormant railroad depot. A stroll of maybe 200 yards brought me to a rusty, half-open gate apparently leading nowhere. It took several paces into the dense, still woods beyond to realize I was treading hallowed ground.
The Silver Plume Cemetery occupies a thickly forested hilltop opposite the town, and once your eyes adjust to the ever-twilit gloom, you discover yourself surrounded by solid ranks of gravestones. While many of the ancient markers are of monumental design and majestic proportions — an indication, I suppose, of Silver Plume's bygone affluence — it's impossible to see more than two or three from any one vantage, making every step an eerie voyage of discovery.
Shafts of afternoon sunlight falling upon grasping, snow-covered limbs produced a steady, stealthy commotion of creaks, thuds and snaps — furtive sounds that seemed to sneak up behind me and brush the nape of my neck like cobwebs. It suddenly dawned on me that I'd have better luck somewhere else. I power-walked back down to my car and locked the doors for the quarter-mile drive to Main Street.
Parking near Silver Plume's 130-year-old post office near the corner of Main and Woodward, I walked past locked doors and vacant windows until I arrived at the town's only open concern, the Sopp & Truscott Bakery. Mayor Lee Berenato leaned against the trunk of his car, enjoying the sun and the quiet.
"Is Silver Plume haunted?" I asked, certain that Berenato spent the bulk of his official energies dealing with supernatural shenanigans.
"Naw, I've never seen anything like that," he yawned. "Mostly I do snow removal, trash collection and keeping the dog (chips) out of the street. This is a small town."
Berenato was harshing my Halloween buzz, and I said so. Silver Plume is the True Spirit of Halloween rendered in plank and stone, and I refuse to believe its flesh-and-bone residents would let such a scary-good resource go to waste.
"Well, we do a haunted house in the Rowe Museum every now and then. Grumpy used to do one at his garage every year, but he died a couple years ago. He'd spend months getting it ready. Grumpy loved Halloween."
That's good, but I'll bet you can do better.
"A few years ago we did the 'Haunted Town.' I put up tiki torches to make a 'Wall of Fire,' and we even had a troll under the footbridge. That was a lot of fun."
I was instantly in love with the Haunted Town concept, and demanded to see one at once.
"I don't know when we'll do that again," said Berenato, unhelpfully. "It was a pretty big production. You've got to get people fired up for that kind of thing."
So what are you sitting here talking to me for? I recommended he start rallying his constituents immediately and stepped into the bakery. Though less than 50 years old, Sopp & Truscott looks like a place that might appeal to the disembodied. Shane Meredith was busy turning out the sweet treats that have made the bakery a regular stop for skiers smart enough — or lucky enough — to know about it.
"Is this place haunted?" I asked, getting right down to business.
"I've heard it is, but I haven't seen anything myself," Meredith said. "But I just bought this place from the Buckleys. You should ask them. They've got a million ghost stories."
As neither Buckley was expected for some hours, I decided to conduct my researches elsewhere. Now, I'm no more superstitious than, say, your average 8-year-old Druid, but I've always considered it just plain bad policy to leave a bakery empty handed.
"What do you have for pies?" I asked.
"Two cherry pies just came out of the oven."
"I'll take one."
It was round and crisp and perfect, and I was in serious danger of losing focus. I hurled a wad of bills onto the counter, grabbed the box and fled into the street — and froze in my tracks. A demonic face grimaced at me from behind the dirty pane of a window directly across the street. I pledged in my palpitating heart that if only the horrid apparition would turn out to be nothing more than a stubborn figment of a five-meat pizza dream, I'd swear off Italian food for life. Tragically, I was wide awake.
Anybody who knows me will attest that I'm generally pretty real, but my soulful expedition suddenly felt too real by half. I retreated, trembling, down the street in a fog of fright and confusion, which is how Chris Thome, owner of the town's single bar and grill, The Plume, found me. Relieved to see that he was unquestionably corporeal, I thought to quiet my jangled nerves with light and uplifting conversation.
"Is this place haunted?"
"This place is totally haunted," Thome deadpanned. "I didn't know it when I bought it four years ago, but the locals filled me in pretty quick."
The Plume, it turns out, is pleased to offer poker every Tuesday night, 25-cent wings on Wednesdays, jerked chicken and pork ribs on the weekends, and a resident ghost every night of the year.
"The way it was told to me, it's a woman named Frieda who died in one of the back rooms," Chris explained, with no particular drama. "Everybody suspected her husband murdered her, but nobody was ever charged for it. Now she lives here and messes with everybody's head. Things disappear, get moved around, fall off shelves … it can be pretty weird, sometimes. I've had bartenders who wouldn't even go in the back."
Well, geez, I'd be a little difficult, too, if my sweet Babu did me the big-time dirt and remained free to pawn my mother's brooch and dance on my early grave. Heck, depending on whom you talk to, I'm difficult right now. But that doesn't make Frieda's unquiet spirit a threat to living souls, does it?
"I personally got hit with a commercial coffee maker that she pushed off the top of the walk-in," Thome continued. For what it's worth, the offending coffee maker is only slightly smaller than a Chevy Aveo and has better head room. "We had reservations for a party of 30, and I went in the back to get something. It just flew off and hit me in the head. I was bleeding all over the place. The bartender got all freaked out when he saw me. But I just stuffed towels into my hat to soak up the blood and kept right on working. What else are you going to do?"
I know what I would have done, but there was no point in telling Chris. Ironically, having just officially passed beyond the seasonal-goods aisle at Wal-Mart and into the spectral plane, I wasn't necessarily happy with the accommodations. "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" is one thing. A bloodthirsty phantom is quite another. Recoiling in horror, I stammered my apologies and made for the door.
"You should come back on a Thursday night," Thome said with unaffected good nature. "It's steak night — a buck an ounce."
For buck-an-ounce steak, I probably will, in a month or two, maybe, when I've recovered something of my wits. I wandered blindly back up Main Street, panicked and desperate and wondering whether Sopp & Truscott sells whole garlic bulbs. A woman's face suddenly appeared before me, smiling, and I nearly collapsed in the street. Thankfully, it wasn't Frieda after all, but former bakery owner Gail Buckley. I was in no condition to hear another ghost story, and resolved to direct conversation into shallower waters.
"So, is the bakery haunted?"
"It's definitely haunted," Buckley said, inexplicably pleased at her misfortune. "One day we were just standing there, and a three-tiered cake rack went flying off the shelf. I think this whole town is haunted. You know about the guy who plays the violin, right?"
In fact, I did. On a great rock shoulder high above Silver Plume stands a lonely granite obelisk dedicated to the memory of Clifford Griffin. The son of an English noble house, Griffin may or may not have taken his own life in 1887 after getting dumped or not dumped by the fickle object of his romantic desire. Local legend says that on still nights you can still hear the plaintive strains of his violin drifting down the canyon.
"Even my house is haunted, and it wasn't even built until 1982," Buckley continued. "One time I had a party for a girlfriend, and we put all of the helium balloons in the guest room. All of a sudden, one of the balloons — just one — floated out all by itself and floated right through the living room. It was pretty weird."
"Yes, weird," I gasped, rapidly losing peripheral vision.
"Also, our ghost seems to have a thing about instruction manuals," she went on, cruelly ignoring my distress. "They're always disappearing, sometimes for months, then they turn up in the strangest places."
It was too much. Pausing just long enough to purchase one of Meredith's hat-size cinnamon rolls, I reeled back up the street to my car and fled down the canyon. With each mile, the crushing weight of horror lifted a bit, and my mind gradually calmed. By the time I got home, I'd begun to apprehend the magnitude of my folly.
I'd been wrong to disturb the reclusive phantoms of Silver Plume; wrong to seek my ghostly muse among its mysterious relics; wrong to undertake the ill-considered quest without bringing a change of underwear. From now on, I vowed, I'll roast my pumpkin seeds, watch “Young Frankenstein” for the umpteenth time and keep Halloween in my heart, where it belongs.
I dug out an old cassette tape of “Monster Mash,” slid it into my stereo, and immediately forgot how to make the machine play cassettes. Now where in the world is that instruction manual?
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