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Opinion

Exploration of ‘haunted’ cemetery offers ironic feeling

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November 18, 2011

Mike and I stopped our walk on Meridean Island, paused with baited breath, and listened for any howls from the “Hell Hounds.” Curious about ghost towns in the Spring of 2009, Caryville, an abandoned town in Eau Claire County, Wis., skipped across my desk. After a perusal of the dossier, a field trip to Wisconsin’s desert, also known as “the prairie,” was reckoned in my cards, but I would need company. A friend, but foremost a man of stoic representation, forged from the lake fire of dropout paradise we call “Tartan High School,” was up for the heady task. Days later, we slowed down like so many drive-bys, past the Caryville schoolhouse. Rumor was a child spirit haunted trespassers, passing through their body if they dared sit in an ancient desk he once inhabited. We continued down the dirt road past haggard farms and dilapidated shacks, one earthquake away from becoming a deck of cards.

According to my Google hand-printed map, Sand Hill Cemetery was a few miles down the dirt road. Tracks in loose dirt unpacked from the Spring thaw, threatened to clog the axle as we climbed up the hill, but the Buick Century passed the clearance. The Sand Hill cemetery housed a dozen or so tombstones. Another legend claimed that children can be heard playing in the golden fields adjacent to the plots at night. It must be noted we were visiting during the daytime when ghosts go to sleep. I have forgotten the names of the people whose graves they belong to, but I remember a fatigued white and graying obelisk guarded by a couple plastic American flags. When approaching this American landmark, I passed by a simple square headstone where I saw a doll hiding behind its shadow. It was a mildew color, eyes punched out, with overalls torn hanging by threads, slumped against the tombstone. It felt like one of those courtroom dolls prosecutors ask children to point out incriminating body parts. Vandals inhabit these parts as well, perhaps pranksters were up to creepy tricks. Either way it touched a side of the macabre that had me and Mike’s curiosities further peaked.

We turned down the hill and found a gravel parking lot with a Ford pick-up truck, the residents eyeing our motives up. Their outboard motor suggested they had bigger fish to fry, so we postured at the top of a Chippewa River bank fixing our stare at Meridean Island. The wind blew swiftly down the Chippewa, shaking the budding Quaking Aspen leaves. We listened for the fabled baying of the “Hell Hounds.” We curtailed around a wooded hollow against the grain of the river, but trying to get under the cover of the bushes to avoid trespassing charges. Every so often, we would stop our leaf crunching and listened. At no point did we ever consider what we’d do if we did hear howling. As we probed the banks for a natural land bridge or fallen log for dry easement to the island, Mike entertained me with his adventure to Gray Cloud Island, a haunted cemetery in Minnesota. He seemed convinced of the ghostly vestiges from the ghost car chase, to the nails scratching the underneath of the bridge, to the Indian Chief bedecked in full headdress ceremony riding upon a horse. It is easier to hear these accounts and reach skeptical conclusions until disproven. Though, I have heard many likewise accounts.

We found a dry path across the drink and walked toward the heart of the island as we had supposed. We stopped every so often, but could only hear the trees creaking against the wind throwing down the occasional branch that made us flinch. From riverbank to riverbank, we scoured the island to no avail, reaching the conclusion that Meridean Island was devoid of “Hell Hounds.” Besides the doll, these myths seemed to hold no water, at least in daylight. Next time I look for “Hell Hounds,” I will be sure to pay Hades and the river Styx a house call.

Christopher Pagels is an alumnus of UW-River Falls.