Dakota Jones writes of ghosts and trail runs during a trip to the Mid-Atlantic.

By on November 13, 2013 | 32 comments

Reese’s house in Maryland is haunted. She has been telling me this for years but recently, in light of our trip there, she really ramped up the horror stories. Now, I don’t want to say that I’m scared of ghosts, but… come on. Ghosts, dude. That’s scary shit. As we came out here I tried to laugh it off, but upon arriving at the house I instantly knew that this was not a joke. This house is straight up haunted.

The house was built in the 1740s. That’s not an exaggeration. It has changed hands many times since, but regardless, people have lived (and died?) in here for generations. It’s a huge stone building with few windows, old wood, big walls, and creaky floors. And if there is one thing I know about old buildings that creak, it’s that they are almost always haunted. And okay, yeah, I’m scared of ghosts and haunted houses. But I didn’t want anyone to know, so I kept my cool whenever we talked about it. Like when we arrived and Reese’s mom gave us the tour.

Haunted House

The Ruland’s boo-tiful home. Photo: Reese Ruland

“This is the upstairs landing,” she said, floorboards creaking as she walked. “Here are your two rooms and this is the bathroom. This is where the ghost likes to hang out.”

I looked up sharply. “What? Here? Why here? What’s up there?” I asked, pointing to the attic.

Her mom continued, “That’s the attic. It’s low and dusty and has a lot of stinkbugs. We hear sounds coming from up there all the time, too.”

“What do you mean sounds?!?” I was growing hysterical. “This is a noisy house. Look. Creaky floors. That doesn’t mean anything. Right? Right?!?”

Her mom smiled. “You’ll just hear this…”

She walked slowly across the floor on her heels, the sound of each footstep quietly reverberating throughout the old building. I imagined the abject terror I would feel if I heard that outside my door while trying to sleep. She stopped and an eerie silence fell. The wind picked up outside and a tree branch scratched across a window. At this sound, being the strong and resilient protector that I am, I retreated behind Reese. This wasn’t very effective since she’s nearly a foot shorter than me, but it was better than nothing.

Her mother continued, “We think this used to be her room because she spends a lot of time here.”

“Her?” I asked, my voice starting to crack. “The ghost is a girl? How do you know?”

“Well,” she said, “people have seen her in windows. Several different people, at totally different times, too.”

“In the windows?!?” I cried.

Reese, helpful as always, said, “Mom, tell him the story about the door slamming.”

“No, don’t say anything about th– ” I tried to say, but her mother cut me off.

“Oh yeah. One night I was here all by myself. In the middle of the night, I heard a noise and woke up. I actually sat up, looking around.” She looked at me with wide eyes, mimicking her actions. “I looked around for a second and then all of a sudden, the door in front of the bed slammed shut! Well, I screamed and sprinted down the stairs to the kitchen, expecting to find the doors open–I mean, surely there were burglars in the house–but… the doors were all closed. They were still locked. So I just crept back upstairs and went to bed.”

I listened to her story in horror, and when she finished I had a new respect for this small woman in front of me. Clearly her size did not indicate the great inner strength that allowed her to face ghosts without fear. I hoped that I would find a similar strength within myself but, quivering as I was behind Reese, it didn’t look hopeful. Soon after this, her mother bid us goodnight and went–I’m not making this up–downstairs, alone, in the dark, to read on her Kindle in the living room. The same living room, let me inform you, that is filled with creepy, old pictures of creepy, old people who look at you as you walk around. Feeling myself go cold, I watched her mother descend fearlessly into the haunted darkness, leaving Reese and I to our fate.

If you’re afraid of ghosts, or have seen The Blair Witch Project, then you won’t like any of the East Coast. Immediately upon arriving I realized that every forest in the East looks exactly like Blair Witch and nobody stands a chance against whatever creepy thing got those kids in the end, (The witch?) All of my runs while out here have been colored by this image, so they haven’t been completely up to snuff. But there is another haunting part about the Appalachians that people talk about less, and that is how hauntingly beautiful this place can be! Word and play. Seriously, this place can be magnificent. Let me explain.

We are spending the long weekend in Williamsport, Maryland, which is where the JFK 50 ends. JFK is the oldest ultramarathon in my knowledge, and possibly in the world, and regularly attracts over 1,000 runners. Granted, they spend a lot of time on the completely flat C&O Canal Towpath, but damn! If you have to run a flat trail, the Canal is the place to go. For nearly 200 miles between Washington, D.C. and Cumberland, Maryland (with a resounding 605-foot elevation change over the whole distance), it is lined by tall, arching trees, rolling hills, and the fat ‘n placid Potomac River. Right now the trees are shedding, coating the trail in a thick layer of bright leaves, and the morning sun slants through the trees with a shining autumn glow. My runs have been exploratory excursions into a completely new environment that surprised me on every turn with birds, deer, fish, and completely foreign trees and shrubs. I see something new on every run.

But back in the house, the news wasn’t good. Incidentally, Reese’s dad is strict Roman Catholic, so we weren’t allowed to sleep in the same bed. I reflected for a long moment on the irony of the fact that the one time I needed her by me the most, she was not available to keep me safe. I would have to sleep all by myself, in my own, little room. In preparation for this, I turned on all the lights and found a good, loud radio station. Holding Reese’s hand tightly, I brushed my teeth in the bathroom of horror and then checked the closet and under the bed in my room. I got under the covers and tucked in as tightly as possible with 10 pillows propping me up, deciding to just read my book all night and forgo sleeping entirely.

But focusing was difficult. My imagination ran wild as I lay in bed thinking of all the terrible things that could happen. To calm myself I tried to be logical about this fear, and believe it or not it worked, to an extent. My fear of ghosts just didn’t make sense. Why, I asked myself, was I afraid of the ghost? What did she have against me other than that I was staying in her home? Reese’s family has lived here for 11 years and she has done nothing except scare them a little. She has never actually hurt them in 11 long years, so why would she hurt me? And besides, what was so scary about her? The basic fact is that I am scared of ghosts because I don’t understand them. But that doesn’t make a lot of sense. I have no fear of all kinds of things I don’t understand. A ghost shouldn’t be scary just because I don’t understand her.

For example, I understand almost nothing about how the government works, but I don’t fear the government at all. In fact, they proved that they have absolutely no bearing on my life when they shut down for two and a half weeks and I barely noticed. If the ghost was anything like the government, I wouldn’t have to worry about anything because she would be so incompetent that nothing would ever come of her threats. But… she’s not the government. She’s a ghost. And while I don’t understand the government, I really don’t understand ghosts. There is some undefinable difference between a bickering government and a dead person. Whatever it is, that difference is terrifying, and kept me glued under the covers all night long.

During the days, though, we ran on the trails. In Maryland, the Appalachians don’t deserve the title of ‘mountains’. They simply are not mountains in any sense of the word. But these rocky, rolling hills are beautiful nonetheless and deserve credit for what they do offer. In the Appalachians, one can find rolling fields and idyllic farmhouses, huge, old trees and short, steep climbs. Anyone who has run the Appalachian Trail knows how hard it can be despite its apparent lack of ‘mountains’. This is not an illusion. Clearly, Maryland doesn’t need mountains to be rugged, and I’ve heard much of the AT can be even tougher. Though the East will rarely offer the deep solitude and sweeping views of the Rockies, it offers something else entirely, something undefinable yet meaningful all the same.

My natural impulse is to categorize the places I have visited, such that someday I may have a catalog of places I have been to, ranked from best to worst. Some places are easy. Chamonix, for example, is one of the most spectacular places I have ever seen, but Cleveland, not so much. But in practice this doesn’t work, because most places defy categorization. I simply cannot say that one place is any better than another unless I base the judgement off of some arbitrary point system. If I’m looking for mountains, then the Rockies are cool, the Alps are cooler, and the Appalachians suck. But I just can’t say that the Appalachians suck. I feel good running here and I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t. Even in Nebraska and South Dakota, I didn’t feel out of place. The open prairie can be beautiful in its own windy, thundercloud way. Each place I have been to defies ranking because it defines its own beauty.

But I couldn’t feel much beauty lying in bed the first night. I expected to hear those terrible, soft footsteps, or doors slamming, or voices, or the bone-chilling cold of the ghost’s being passing through my body. I expected the usual signs of rattling doors and falling objects. But nothing happened. The suspense was killing me. Hearing a distant creak, I fled into Reese’s room for safety.

She woke up slowly and I told her that, um, I was making sure she was okay, I’d heard a noise. She frowned and shook off my obvious proof of ghostly activity and asked me instead if I had heard the ghost earlier that night. What? I asked. I hadn’t slept a wink. If something had happened I would have heard it. She responded by saying that I had been snoring when she heard a loud bang in my room, which is right next to hers. My snoring stopped for a minute and then resumed not long after. Reese said that she had lain in bed wondering what had happened, then decided I must have knocked something down. But I hadn’t. The ghost had done it. As I heard this, I realized the risk I had taken in running from my room to Reese’s and I decided to risk fatherly reprisal over deathly retribution.

Later that morning, after waking up in bright morning light to the sound of birds chirping, I investigated my room. Nothing was on the floor. All books, antiques, pictures, and whatnot were exactly where they were supposed to be. This got me thinking. I know that ghosts don’t necessarily follow all the laws of physics (correct me if I’m wrong), but surely they have to follow some of them. I mean, if a ghost is going to throw something across the room, and if that thing is not on the floor later, wouldn’t she also have had to pick it up at some point? How could she make noise without some kind of thing, some kind of noisemaker? Do ghosts have natural noisemakers? I submit that they do not, based on my own cursory and terror-infused research. So if this ghost was throwing things in my room, she must have later picked it up and returned it to its original place. All in all, that’s not such a bad situation.

I mean, sure, she’s making noise in the middle of the night, and yeah, I have an unbounded fear of ghosts that kept me awake most of the night, but at least she’s tidy. And she didn’t hurt anyone either. She just threw whatever it was onto the floor. Maybe she didn’t even mean to do that. Maybe as a ghost she lost her coordination and is now forever bumping into things and knocking them down. Maybe she feels bad for doing that. What if everyone who dies becomes a ghost and they float around silently and beautifully all day long? But then ghosts get old and die, too, and when that happens they start to lose their float and occasionally they bump into things and that’s the part that we see? Or, maybe she just wanted attention, and like a child she knocked something down and then, when attention failed to materialize, she got scared that she might get into trouble and picked up the object and put it back. The possibilities are limitless, and as long as I don’t have any concrete knowledge on the subject I’m determined to think the best of ghosts (except in the middle of the night).

In a way, I have the same thought process for landscapes. Any preference is based on opinion, and completely valid opinions are often in stark opposition to each other. So I’d prefer, in the absence of any concrete value system, to think the best of all landscapes, then focus on the ones I like the most. Personally, my focus is on mountains. That’s because I like tall, cold, and difficult places to challenge myself. But that’s just because I’m trying to climb mountains. If my focus was on finding somewhere worth running, I wouldn’t have to go far. Anywhere would work. So many places are beautiful in their own terms, and the more I travel, the more this becomes apparent. And the more I realize that almost everywhere can be beautiful, the more overwhelmed I become, knowing that I have seen so little of the things that are worth seeing, and I want desperately to see, hear, feel it all. All this incomprehensible beauty in the world, and I have such a short time. I don’t want to die knowing that I missed out on the beautiful parts of the world. I don’t think I could let myself go if I felt I had neglected the opportunity to make the most of everything we have.

I don’t have to go everywhere to see the beauty in the world. I wouldn’t have to go anywhere if I made a good effort to feel all the wonder and excitement in my own home mountains. But if I stayed indoors all my life–if I built a house and dedicated myself to indoor tasks rather than to its magnificent surroundings–I would be haunted forever by a sense of loss, of missing out on something perfect that was always right out the front door. Perhaps I too would wander the house, distraught to have ignored so much wonder and beauty when I had the chance to feel it all.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do certain ‘ghosts’ haunt you in your running? That is, do elements of nature that you don’t understand, know little about, or have experienced but no longer have access to influence your running thoughts?
  • And, do the similar ‘ghosts’ of life haunt you, too?
  • What trails have you found surprisingly pleasant to run?
Dakota Jones
explores the wild places of the world on foot and tells us about it every few weeks. He runs for Salomon and Clif Bar.