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I grew up in a house on the edge of town in Craig, Colorado. It sits next to a sagebrush and scrub grass covered hill. A short ways away to the west, Fortification Creek runs high and muddy in the springtime; as summer progresses, it hardly runs at all. The house is within city limits, but when our family moved in, it was well beyond the paved streets and groomed sidewalks part of town. It had untamed space around it and a few neighbors that were equally as untamed.
Our house also had a ghost. Of course I have no definitive proof of such a claim, but I have stories. The stories have been told enough times that it’s possible they’ve changed a little, or that a little color has been added for effect. But I believe them just the same.
The house we shared with a ghost was patched together from two buildings that had originated in Mount Harris, an old coal company town further up the Yampa River valley.
Cruising by at 55 mph, it’s easy to forget that a hundred years ago the company town of Mount Harris was once the biggest town in Routt County. It boasted a population of over 1200 people and was home to businesses, churches, schools and pool halls. In 1942 it made national headlines when an explosion in one of the coal mines killed 34 men.
Today not much remains of Mount Harris — just a few old foundations and an historical marker commemorating it and the mines that were once there. As far as towns go, it was a short-lived. Its first structures went up in 1914 but by 1958 all the bits and pieces of it were sold off and hauled away. Parts of it live on, though, scattered around northwestern Colorado in the buildings that were sold off and moved to new locations.
Our house originated in Mount Harris and I always wondered if our ghost traveled the distance with the structure when it was moved to its new location. There is no way to know of course, but I like to imagine that maybe she made that journey.
Aside from noises and bumps around the house, the first strange thing to happen occurred shortly after my family moved in. One day when my mom was baking, a small jar of cloves disappeared. The first time it happened, she didn’t give it much thought, but when a second jar of cloves went missing she began to pay attention. After the third jar of cloves inexplicably vanished, my mom, half serious and half joking, asked out loud for the cloves to be returned. The next morning when she opened the kitchen cabinet door, the three jars of cloves were lined up in front of all the other spices.
I never saw the ghost, but my mom tells me she took part of my Christmas present one year when I was eight or nine years old. I had been given a couple of blue hair combs and I was working on putting them in my hair when one went missing. My mom and sisters and I searched everywhere for the comb, but it could not be found. Eventually we gave up our search, thinking that I had misplaced it and it would eventually turn up. Soon enough we forgot all about it.
Several years later, my parents remodeled the upstairs restroom. Upon its completion my mom said, “I wonder if our ghost will approve of our new bathroom?” The next morning the hair comb that had been missing for years was sitting on the counter next to the new sink.
It turns out that our house had a bit of a reputation. My mom, when she was still relatively new to the neighborhood, had tea one afternoon with some of the women who’d lived in the area for a while. After a bit of chitchat, she asked them if they had ever heard stories about unusual happenings at the house. They had.
One year around Halloween, my sister and one of her coworkers were decorating the thrift store where she works. They talked about ghosts and haunted houses. During the conversation my sister’s coworker said she only knew of one haunted house in Craig, and she went on to describe our house.
It’s nearly impossible to grow up in a house that is reputedly haunted and not feel afraid at times. I remember being home alone as a young teenager and hearing what sounded like someone rummaging around in the basement, and getting ready for school one morning and hearing something akin to an old metal box spring mattress being dropped from the ceiling of our basement to the floor. I was too terrified to go down the stairs to investigate.
My mom always reassured me though, that the ghost was friendly — it meant no harm. To back up her claims, my mom would retell the stories of the ghost looking out for my younger sister, Marla, when she was a baby.
Marla was about six months old when my mom and step-dad bought the house. One night, in the middle of the night that first winter, my mom was startled awake by the timer on the kitchen stove going off. It was the kind of timer that could only be set for an hour at a time. She got out of bed to turn the buzzer off, and while she was up she checked on the baby. In her crib, my little sister was soaked and cold. My mom changed her, put dry pajamas on her and brought her into bed to warm her up. It happened once more a few months later. The buzzer in the middle of the night woke her up again. This time, Marla had a raging fever.
Being brought up as a Pentecostal, I was not particularly skeptical of supernatural notions. I believed in angels and demons. I believed that the laying on of hands could heal people. I’d witnessed, on numerous occasions, people speaking in tongues. But a ghost in the house was different than anything I’d learned about in church. I had been schooled on the idea of the Holy Ghost, but I had no framework for understanding a simple ghost.
That’s really what was most terrifying about the ghost. Not that I thought it would harm me, but that it represented unknown territory. And in my religion, the spirit world consisted of only things from God or things from Satan. There wasn’t talk of an in-between spirituality. The ghost in our house, however, seemed to be more grounded in earthly things. She was a mystery, but not a particularly divine mystery. As far as I could tell, she was not concerned with our spiritual lives. She had an affinity for spices and pretty things. Sometimes she was noisy. She looked after the baby in the night.
There was a time when my aunt visited from the west coast and she was awakened by footsteps on gravel just outside the guest bedroom window. Then she heard a door open and close on the back of the garage. My aunt was convinced that a prowler had entered. When she woke my mom and told her what she’d heard, my mom explained that the yard was only grass and soft dirt. There was no gravel at all. And more importantly, nobody could enter a door on the backside of the garage because no such door existed. My aunt was baffled and embarrassed by the experience and doubted herself, even though she was certain of what she had heard.
A few years later, when my parents removed the old siding from the back wall of the garage, they found a doorway that had been sealed in. It was in the same location my aunt claimed to have heard an intruder open and close a door.
Of all the stories, the hidden doorway story is the one I find most intriguing. There is no explanation for the footsteps on gravel that my aunt heard and the fact that a hidden doorway was discovered where my aunt claimed to have heard one doesn’t prove anything, but it does suggest that perhaps there was something — something that knew more about the house than we did, something that carried on as if the house had never been changed, something that moved through the world unhindered by the laws of physics.
My mom and step-dad still live in the house on the edge of town that they bought in 1975. The hillside to the north of them is still covered with sagebrush and scrub grass though the road in front of them is paved now. A few of their more colorful neighbors have passed on and the baby that needed tending in the night all those years ago is over forty now.
Nothing out of the ordinary has happened there for a while. Perhaps the resident ghost has moved on, or maybe she no longer needs to make herself known. My rational brain knows I should consider the possibility that she was never really there and that the incidents that happened can all be explained away as coincidences or some kind of magical thinking.
So we’re left with a mystery. Did the stories make the ghost, or did the ghost make the stories? All I know with certainty is that the stories mean something to me and when I visit the house, I find myself wondering if there might be a silent observer–someone or something that hears our conversations, witnesses our family gatherings, pays attention to who comes and who goes. I wonder if she’s just beyond our awareness, in a realm of existence we don’t fully understand, listening to the stories we tell about her.