The Oregon Caves are no place for taphophobes — those who have an acute fear of being buried alive.
Early on in the tour that took us deep inside the namesake caves, the ranger turned off the lights, sheathed his flashlight and let us experience the utter, absolute darkness.
We were hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth, and far from the already-tenuous fading light of day, so the effect was memorable — it was terrifying, and also oddly liberating.
The ranger wasn’t tormenting us, he was simply illustrating how the discoverer of the caves might have felt as his last sulfur match flickered out, leaving him stranded in the inky blackness with no sense of direction, lost and alone in the bowels of the mountain in complete silence other than the trickle of the underground stream. (Spoiler alert: the stream saved him; he made it out by following the creek.)
Oregon Caves is a not-very-well-known park and national monument. It’s far from the nearest tiny town (Cave Junction), surrounded by dense forest and steep mountains, has it’s very own river Styx (albeit, a tiny version of the original, which also flows right through the dining room in the main lodge) and — not surprisingly — is a hotbed of paranormal activity.
After our ranger friend brought back the lights, we returned gratefully to the surface — slipping and duck-walking past pale stalactites and stalagmites looming like grotesques in the stygian darkness — and debouched to the Chateau for the night.
The Chateau, a grand old lodge constructed in the 1930s, seems to be built of shadows, creaks and plenty of old burnished timber. There, in front of a roaring fire with drinks in hand and the rest of the guests mysteriously absent, the desk clerk regaled us with stories of Bigfoot sightings, the haunted house she lives in and, of course, the resident Chateau ghost: Elizabeth.
Elizabeth isn’t the only ghost, of course, she’s just the most active.
A lady in blue, Elizabeth is reportedly the ethereal remains of a young bride who, while on her honeymoon, found her betrothed in bed in the sweaty, amorous embrace of a chambermaid. The distraught young bride acted quickly, tragically and definitively — she leapt from their window on the upper floor to die, heart- and neck-broken, in the gully below.
Or, alternatively, she slit her wrists in a nice warm bath.
We’ll never know for sure; there’s no corroborating proof — no police report, no media coverage, no death certificate. All we do know is that a ghost named Elizabeth — a pretty, mournful young blonde — roams the halls.
Our desk clerk saw her many times.
The maids have seen her too, perhaps a bit nervously given the vocation of the original temptress. They say she bangs closet doors, unmakes beds and leaves once neatly folded towels strewn across the floors, and all behind locked doors.
The people working in the kitchen have seen her the most often. She’s apparently quite active in the kitchen, banging pots and pans in the wee hours of the night, rattling doors and making soufflés fall. They even have an image of her, captured in some random photo of a storage area, her sad, innocent face, blonde curls and period clothing clearly visible in an impossible reflection. The picture is in the big book of hauntings behind the front desk.
Guests have seen her too, of course. One little girl — and we all know children are more disposed to the sense the supernatural — crayon-sketched her in in convincing and pants-wettingly terrifying detail, and left it behind for others to see. Also in the big book.
We didn’t see her. To be fair, she died in room 309, or maybe 310, and we were in 201. And truthfully, I thought I was going to see her and didn’t really want to. I got a little freaked out by all the darkness, the spooky talk, the murder home where the desk clerk lived, the Bigfoot stuff and the gift shop clerk cheerfully describing how yetis dismembered people in the Himalayas. And when we were talking about Elizabeth, the ghost detector app on my phone went nuts.
By the time we got back in our room, I was rattled and filled with a sense of dread, expecting to see Elizabeth peering out at me piteously from inside the mirror, or feel her cold, insistent pinches to my feet (one of her favorite mean tricks, apparently).
In that state of mind, sleep — when it was most needed to insulate me from my own paranoia — didn’t come easily and the (probably) natural noises of the ancient building took on a sinister tone. And there were plenty of noises. The merest vibration, the travels of a spider across the ceiling for example, was enough to start the whole building vibrating and trembling. The flush of a toilet upstairs sent a cascade of water flooding throughout the entire Chateau. The steam heat on a cold October night knocked the pipes like the Devil’s own marimba band.
The situation could not have been spookier, and yet, still no Elizabeth.
By the light of day, I was both relieved to be alive and disappointed we hadn’t seen a ghost.
But I wasn’t disappointed about the visit. Regardless of the scarcity of ghosts, Oregon Caves is an amazing national monument. Best of all was that moment when the lights went out deep below the surface of the mountains, below the roots of trees, below even the remains of the dead. We experienced a silence and a darkness and an aloneness that felt a little bit like death. We may not have seen Elizabeth, but just for a few seconds, we ventured for a moment into her world. Luckily, we didn’t have to stay there long.
Contributed by Clark Hays