Why I Went to Paw Paw

Have you ever heard of a Knocker? They were little people that the Welsh, Cornish, and Devon miners said lived underground. They gained the name from the knocking sound that echoed around a mine shortly before a cave-in.

In May of 2021, I felt like a knocker. The pandemic came, and most people took it seriously enough to distance themselves from others. But for people who had cancer that had spread to their lungs, we took social distancing and the threat of covid to another level. We rarely left the house. It was like doing a prison sentence.

This is why I went to New Orleans. Only, I didn’t just go to New Orleans. I went to Memphis, Jefferson, Chicago, Eureka Village, and a dozen other towns. Why did I go to all of those towns and not somewhere more attractive like New York City?  I went to “America’s most haunted hotels” such as the most haunted hotel in Tennessee where ghosts wander around the eleventh floor and the hallway that Al Capone haunted. I went in search of ghosts.

This search has brought me to strange places. It’s taken me to Voodoo priestesses grinding some strange powders on city pavements outside of unnamed parks after midnight. It’s taken me up to the hills of Kentucky where people make home-brews that allow you to speak to the dead. The kind of near-death encounters I’ve had are always talked about in revered and quieted tones and the understanding that only the luckiest have them. And if you come back, there’s a reason you’re supposed to be here.

When I was recovering from my late-stage testicular cancer, I had two occurrences where I was clinically dead. My mother, who has never had cancer and never faced a serious illness, likes to remind me that this doesn’t mean that I was dead. All I know is that since I went into remission, I’ve been interested in any stories about the presence of the souls, phantoms, apparitions, visitors, or whatever you call them.

When I tell people about my quest to stay in haunted rooms, I’m often asked what’s the scariest room in which I’ve ever stayed. That would be the Jay Gould Room at the Excelsior Inn in Jefferson, Texas. Stephen Spielberg was staying there when he was shooting Sugarland Express. After placing his briefcase in the room’s rocking chair, the poltergeist who lived in the room threw the briefcase right back at Spielberg.

Over the years, all sorts of reasons why ghosts don’t exist have been proposed, ranging from the simplistic to the theoretical. My favorite reason why ghosts don’t exist involves CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. If ghosts exist, they would be being of pure energy. The second law of thermodynamics states that overall entropy in a system always increases with time, which means that energy is always lost to heat. The only way a ghost would continue to haunt Earth is if they had a constant incoming source of energy. The Center Collider is the world’s largest particle collider and is yet to record any footage of ghosts even though it has recorded how energy drives our own cells.

I am one of America’s Great Lakes people. Her freshwater people. I’m not a scientist or a theoretical physicist. I don’t know the answer to everything. I have many more questions than I do answers. Like, in October 2015, weakened from chemotherapy, I walked in the dark to the bathroom the day after I finished twelve weeks of high-round chemotherapy. I blacked out. Hit my head on the sink. A few seconds later, my father woke me up and carried me to a couch in his living room. In those few seconds, though, I saw my grandparents, both of whom are long dead. I don’t understand where I went in those minutes. It didn’t feel like a dream. I felt like I slipped over to something that exists somewhere else in the chicken soup of time. Ever since that autumn night, I’ve wanted to go back there. Or if not go back there, to speak plainly about what happened to me that night instead using of shadowy words and amorphous terms.

My focus on the afterlife is not a religion. I’m not even sure I’d call it spirituality. If I had answers of some kind, I see how that would be comforting. Instead, all I feel is like a man who has just been shown a surreal painting. A landscape he can’t quite process of a place he hasn’t exactly been.

I never got to talk to my grandparents in the encounter. Instead, we sat by a small tree at the base of a softly-running stream of water. Too weak to even call it a creek. We looked at each other for a few seconds, and then I was drawn back to that couch. Staring. Struggling for breath. My father’s wild and darted eyes were studying my every move. I was as calm as I could be. I have been tongue-tied in the presence of national treasures like the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. It felt very much the same.

In the six years since I’ve had this encounter, I’ve tried to explain it any way I could. I write for a living, but the event has largely left me at a loss of words. I’ve seen the place. I've been there. But I’m still not really sure if I have after all. 

There is an elbow of West Virginia. Or a pocket. Or some out-of-the-way place you pass through in the middle of the night called Paw Paw. Paw Paw is the sort of place where the radio goes quiet and you feel like if you lose direction, you’d never be able to make it home. The best I know how to explain that bizarre dream I had about my grandparents in the darkest of my cancer days years ago was my own spiritual PawPaw. If I hadn’t been pointed around in the right direction and told which way to go, I never would have made it home.


Photo courtesy of Unsplash.