Steffan Triplett | Longreads | March 2019 | 12 minutes (3,080 words)
The place that held us together was dying. Maybe it wasn’t the place itself, but our perception of it. Amid the sulk of that summer of 2011, we tried to replicate our friendship from years before, and that meant doing things we had always done. So, I picked up my friend Elisabeth from her house, like I always had, and we drove to a meet-up destination, this time, a deli, like we always did. We stood in the parking lot until every member of the group showed up.
Even though I was warned she was coming, my stomach lurched when Sara’s teal truck drove into the parking lot. That lurch turned into anger as she left her truck and I saw the sweatshirt she was wearing, one I had given to her as a gift. I wondered, Did she do this on purpose? It was like seeing a ghost. We piled into two cars.
From the main highway, we took a right into rural darkness. Lights were far and few between — a farmhouse here, a few lights on the power line there. We knew we were headed in the right direction when we saw the black and red pentagram spray-painted on the pavement. From the pentagram, we drove a few miles until trees no longer lined the road and the fields reached to ends we couldn’t see. We parked the car and we waited.
We were on the “Devil’s Promenade.” I don’t know which came first, the name given to this stretch of East 50 Road or the eerie symbol that was so mysteriously maintained, the black and red of it always visible to drivers searching, like we were, for the Spooklight.
I don’t know which came first, the name given to this stretch of East 50 Road or the eerie symbol that was so mysteriously maintained, the black and red of it always visible to drivers searching, like we were, for the Spooklight.
In high school, we often went searching for this Spooklight, an urban legend that persists in the area. The light lives in the outskirts of Joplin, where country and night collide, and a series of disused roads leads you to its home.
My high school chemistry teacher was the first person we had heard call the area the Devil’s Promenade. He liked to tell our class an extravagant story of how he saw the Spooklight up-close.
“I chased it up a tree,” he’d begin.
He described it as a floating, glowing orb that was purple, orange, and maybe green. He said that he tried to grab the light each time he saw it, but it always managed to elude his clutch; like the light had a mind of its own. When he first told us the story, I believed him. Stories of God and ghosts were not extraordinary here.
Southwest Missouri is perhaps a land of ghosts, even. The Devil’s Promenade feels out of time and place. Not technically in Joplin but about 15 miles west, it lies in the now defunct border city of Hornet, Missouri. The Promenade stretches across state lines of Oklahoma and Missouri, looking over the rolling spread of forest and hills in Kansas.
The Spooklight’s occurrence was first formally reported in 1936 by The Kansas City Star, but as a kid I was told the lore surrounding its existence dated back to generations living in the 1800’s. I was told many stories about its possible origins, but it wasn’t until I was older that I started to understand how racism had shaped these narratives.
According to one local legend, the light is the manifestation of two Quapaw spirits meeting up each night in their tragic love, dancing in elation after being reunited. The story goes that the two lovers fled to be together, and, knowing they would face capture and torture, the young couple killed themselves by leaping off a nearby cliff. Another iteration of the story changes the narrative a bit, putting at its center a white miner whose family was killed by an unspecified local nation. In those versions the light comes from the miner’s lantern, his ghost doomed to search for his dead loved ones each night.
In other, more recent theories, the phenomenon has been hypothesized as a result of gasses in the air, or as light refraction from a nearby highway. Perhaps the truth of the area wants to remain hidden. Regardless of the story, the light is always described the same way: a glowing orb.
We parked in our usual spot: next to the gravel driveway of a distant farm house with several cows we could only hear, not see. We sat in the cars for a few minutes before realizing it was warm out. Summers were humid here, which made the nights feel oddly hot. I caught the frizz of my hair in the window’s reflection.
My body remembered the routine. We all exited the cars and dawdled about. Someone peed in the grass. Cody tried to scare some of the girls. Things were normal, though I kept my distance from Sara. We walked along the side of the road. I breathed in the air of the outdoors.
We were not afraid of the Spooklight. We had seen it three years before, though not up close. I remembered it, but it was difficult to picture. Like the stories surrounding the light, it was elusive, like a thing I was unsure was a dream or was real.
“I think that’s it!” I had said, all those years before, looking through the windshield of the parked car.
I was in the back seat and had to maneuver my head to see around Cody, at the steering wheel. I pointed to an orange, glowing light in the distance. It seemed to be moving; it was hard to tell. We all paused in silence. I squinted, trying to determine if the light was really there. It was. It stayed there, bobbing up and down ever so slightly. It was teasing us. We decided to get a closer look.
We got out of the car and started walking up the road towards the light, watching the small orange ball bounce and flicker. We walked for five minutes and realized the Spooklight, still levitating there, seemed just as far away from us as it had five minutes before — it must have been farther away than we thought. We decided to go back to the car and drive to it.
I got back to Cody’s car and buckled myself in. He started the car and I looked through the window once more.
“I don’t see the light anymore,” I said.
We could no longer see it. We struggled and strained, our necks crooking around wildly, searching for any form of light. Someone said we must have scared the light off. Someone wished we had seen the light up closer.
“Well, at least we saw it.”
Sara and I became friends in elementary school. We met in the “gifted program” and became inseparable in middle school when I started going to the same youth group as she did. She had dated my best guy friend in high school and our connection remained even after they split. I was most worried about coming out to her. I didn’t want to ruin to our near decade of friendship.
I came out to her in a Facebook message. I was embarrassed of this. It probably wasn’t the best way to approach such a thing, but there is not really any good way. I was too afraid to say it out loud over the phone. I had already told the friends from home I didn’t think would care. Aside from my parents, Sara seemed like the last remaining, and most important, step toward living honestly.
As I drafted the message, I held tightly to the image of the girl who in third grade did her class project on Florida, dressed up in scuba gear, and emphatically gave the best presentation, sucking of the saliva in her mouth as she rushed through words, excitedly. It was Sara’s mother who prayed with me at church camp in fourth grade when I got “saved,” it was Sara who was my date to Snowball, our winter formal, sophomore year, and it was Sara who was my right hand, VP, and savior when I was Student Council President our senior year, a position I was probably not outgoing enough to beat her out for, though she never complained.
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
It was the longest message I had ever drafted. I sent it to her, and didn’t hear back for just enough time to make me worry and wonder if I would lose her. She responded how I feared she would.
Unlike every other person I already told, unlike all the new friends I had made in my first semester in St. Louis, Sara was not okay with it. She believed that being gay was a sin. She, at least, believed that “homosexuality” existed, that it wasn’t my choice to be predisposed to it, but that acting upon it was failing a test that God was giving me. She ended her message insisting that she still loved me and the relationship we had, though I couldn’t fully feel that would be enough.
It was the longest message I had ever drafted. I sent it to Sara, and didn’t hear back for just enough time to make me worry and wonder if I would lose her.
We tried for a few months to maintain normalcy, and I hoped that she would eventually grow and warm up to what was now an identity I was trying to be proud of. I thought she had made some progress — she would openly acknowledge that I was gay, had even called me and asked for advice on talking to guys, and whether I thought a boy was cute or not.
When I got my left ear pierced she asked, not ironically, “But, isn’t that false advertising?” Annoyed, I assured her I wasn’t trying to advertise my sexuality with an ear piercing and that I thought the left-ear-as-the-gay-one thing was either a myth or outdated — but I was glad we were at least talking about these things over the phone, and not over instant message.
It became clear that the strain between us was something that wouldn’t go away, as long as she kept believing that I was living a life that was wrong. Any progression in conversation we had always came back to the root of the problem — that being gay was a sin.
The final straw had been an argument we got into about gay marriage. I had brought up the subject, fantasizing about my future, hoping she would be on board.
“Well I’m not trying to be rude but it kind of goes against what the church teaches,” she wrote in a Facebook message. She was a lost cause.
We didn’t actually think there was a supernatural force involved in the Spooklight. We didn’t know exactly what it was, or what we had seen years before, and we didn’t need to. We were not scared of it. But there was something eerie and mysterious about the Promenade. It was unsettling. The pitch black of night was scary and seemed as unknowable as the origin of the orb. The lack of city lights and townsfolk, the darkness, and the pentagram left me feeling vulnerable to nature and the world. It was creepy and it was fun. Or, at least, it had been. Now, all I was thinking about was Sara and that damn sweatshirt.
It wasn’t just that I had given her that sweatshirt when we were still friends, but that tonight we were matching. I had on my own gray version; I’d bought them as a pair from my university bookstore, back before I told her. Each sweatshirt had different iterations of “Washington University,” spread across its front. I remember giving the navy to Sara because I was afraid it would clash with my skin tone — people had told me that navy and tan don’t go together, despite my appreciation for the combination.
The recent months had me thinking a lot about purpose and God; I’d already lost a friend to the tornado that May. Maybe it was important to hold onto the ones who were still here. Our town was in a state of rebuilding, and that outlook bled into our relationships. I couldn’t help but think this could be a sign. Maybe there was hope for our friendship after all. Maybe I’d give her another chance.
So far, we saw no signs of the Spooklight. The group decided that maybe we weren’t close enough to see the light. I was hesitant to stray too far from the cars. I wasn’t as fearless as I used to be, was more aware of my position in the world. In the middle of nowhere and with no Spooklight to guide us, my apprehension was rising. I suggested that we drive further up the road, rather than walk.
“But it’s nice out,” Cody said. The group agreed.
At the Devil’s Promenade, we were almost never alone. There were never too many people there on a given night, but there were always one or two cars parked somewhere, cars that would drive by, or police officers who would stop, looking for teens drinking alcohol in the open. I saw no police officers that night, or anyone else parked nearby.
From the distance, I heard a loud radio playing, bass and noise. We all turned around and saw a truck slowly driving our way. The windows were rolled down, and as the car drove by, and I could smell the beer coming from inside. Three men sat in the bed of the truck, drinking. They were white and wore baseball caps, sleeveless shirts, and blue jeans. They looked like what I expected country boys to look like. One of them shouted, “Howdy,” as they drove past.
We continued to walk and we watched as they drove further up the road. We were trying to make it to the top of the hill hoping we could see the Spooklight from a high point.
“Are we there yet?” someone asked.
I watched the truck make it to the top of the hill, then suddenly whip around into a U-turn and head back our way. I felt my heartbeat quicken. They were driving slowly and it made me nervous. I thought, Drive by, drive by, don’t stop, don’t stop. They continued on, passing us, and I felt a moment of relief.
I returned my focus to the top of the hill, seeing our endpoint in sight. Within a few seconds the sound of screeching tires made my heart quicken once more. I looked behind me to see that the truck had stopped diagonally on the road, about five yards away from us. With its lights still on, it stood like a blockade, keeping anyone from passing it from either direction. My heart dropped into my stomach.
“Where do you think you guys are goin’?” one of the guys in the truck bed shouted.
We all turned to face them. I had no intention of speaking. I couldn’t. I knew something was wrong. I prayed this was all going to be a joke, that the men would drop the act and leave us alone.
“We’re just trying to see the Spooklight,” Cody said. I was glad he took a leadership role, although I wished he were more intimidating. With his red hair, and likely weighing no more than 130 pounds, was completely unthreatening. These men weren’t huge, but they were bigger, and at least a few years older than us. I looked down at the ground. My friends and I were illuminated by the light coming from the truck — they could see us better than we could see them.
One of the men walked out of the passenger’s side of the truck, silent.
From the distance, I heard a loud radio playing, bass and noise. We all turned around and saw a truck slowly driving our way.
I was forced to look up when I heard what sounded like chainsaws. Each of the three men in the bed of the truck held a weed-whacker. They revved them up and waved them around, threatening us.
“We don’t want no niggers here,” one of them yelled.
Oh, God, I thought This is for me. I couldn’t move.
I didn’t know what to do. I pulled out my phone, knowing there would be no cell phone signal. I was right. I put it back in my pocket and started taking a step back. The men leapt out of the truck bed and started walking towards us.
“Nigger!” one yelled.
“Nigger!” another joined.
“Nigger! Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!” Their voices swirled together in a chant.
I looked around and saw all of my friends frozen in place. I was the closest to the truck, except for Elisabeth and Sara. Cody began to move forward, asserting his role, and started waving his arms and responding with words I couldn’t hear over the weed-whackers and the heartbeat in my temples. I felt something hit my shoulder, and I stumbled forward.
Shocked, and fearing the worst, I looked around in confusion. The men were still a few yards away from us. What had hit me? Then I saw Sara stumbling up the hill. She had pushed past me to get to safety.
I had so much fear and anger in my head that I felt sick. Something Cody had said convinced the men to leave. I watched as their car drove off and I tried to catch my breath. I didn’t want to speak, I just wanted to go back home. Elisabeth asked if I was okay and I said I wasn’t. I started walking back towards the car, then realized no one but Elisabeth was following me.
“What are you doing?!” I yelled to the group. “Why aren’t you coming?”
I couldn’t believe it. They still wanted to try to see the Spooklight.
“I’m going back to the car!” I yelled.
I walked back as fast as possible, ahead of them all, and made it to the still unlocked car before anyone else. I sat in the backseat, letting out the tears I had held in. I could hear people laughing outside and the sound of someone peeing. Elisabeth checked on me in the car.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Sara and I are never going to be friends again.” I said. Elisabeth nodded to show me that she understood.
“And I never want to come back.”
* * *
Two summers later, after the “not guilty” verdict that acquitted George Zimmerman of the murder of Trayvon Martin, I was glued to the television for weeks. I continued to research the trial, searching for clues of what had been hiding in plain sight.
One day, I saw that someone, online, had called Trayvon Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel, the last person Trayvon spoke to before his altercation with Zimmerman, a “loser Spook.” I had heard many slurs for Black people in my time, but Spook — I had never heard Spook before.
* * *
Steffan Triplett is a Black, queer essayist and instructor from Joplin, Missouri. You can follow him on Twitter at @steffantripplet.
Editor: Sari Botton