I had just walked out on the Rocking Chair Porch where Billy Ray Stern was standing looking southeast. Despite being the middle of February it was a stormy spring-like day. The morning news included severe weather warnings. The normally blue sky had a greenish hue that often accompanies tornadoes. And, in spite of the comfortable temperature showed on the wall thermometer, the jacket I was wearing was ill prepared to ward off the chill carried by the strong breeze.
Billy Ray turned to look at me and said, “Well, it looks like the Devil is stirring up a storm for his premiere tonight.”
Billy Ray was a dowser, or water witch, and a driller. He was at the Manor to discuss drilling an irrigation well. His family, the Sterns, had lived in the mountains for more than two hundred years. And like many such families they held on to many of the traditions and superstitions of the original settlers. So, I wasn’t surprised that a lifelong Appalachian would blame the Devil for the weather, but his welcoming comment didn’t otherwise make sense. I asked, “What premiere? You mean like a movie?”
“Yep! It’s that new movie, premieres tonight—The Devil’s Stomping Ground. The movie was big hit at the Cucalorus Film Festival back in November so right here at Valentine’s Day, it makes its official opening, its premiere. Seems a strange thing to do—having it open on Valentine’s Day, don’t you think?”
“Frankly, Billy Ray, you have lost me. I don’t understand any of this!”
“Mr. Collins, did you know that there is a spot of ground near Bear Creek, North Carolina upon which nothing grows and where nothing has grown long before the foundi ng of our country, before the pilgrims landed on our shores and as long back as the oral history of Native Americans’ can be traced. For hundreds of years, perhaps eons, nothing—not a sprig of grass nor a weed of any kind—as taken root in that tormented spot of land. The people around Bear Creek call it The Devil’s Tramping Ground and that is what the movie is based on, but they changed the name—replacing Tramping with Stomping for some reason.”
“If this spot of land actually exists, how does the Devil fit in?” I asked.
Billy Ray took his time answering me. First, he removed a tin of Copenhagen from his back pocket and place a pinch of the tobacco inside his cheek. Then he resumed his story. “That spot of land is a circle about forty feet in diameter at the junction of two trails through the forest. According to the legend, the Devil frequents the area pacing the circle as he contemplates his evil deeds, deciding what tricks to inflict on us next.”
“You don’t really believe that Satan is stomping or tramping around in your circle or for that matter that he, or it, actually walks like a human being around here on earth, do You?”
“I don’t know, Mr. Collins. There are strange unexplained things that happen in this state of mine and particularly in the mountains. All I know is that no one, including some very smart scientists, has been able to discover why the land is so sterile—dead! Or, why there are so many stories handed down across the years of strange occurrences at the site—accounts of evil beasts, disappearances, and encounters with ghostly figures.”
“What about the movie?” I asked. “Does it suggest any answers to the mystery?”
“No, you know Hollywood. It is produced like a documentary—as if a true story. The documentary supposedly uses found footage shot by fifteen college students producing a film as a school project. The students themselves have disappeared without a trace.”
Billy Ray looked at his watch. “Oops, I’m late. I am having lunch with my wife so I must run.”
“Just one more question before you leave,” I pleaded. “Can people go to the spot, The Devil’s Tramping Ground?”
The rain had started.
“Oh sure, when I was growing up, anybody could go. There was even a sign on the highway. Today, it’s on private property and you must make an appointment and pay a fee. The last I heard it was ten dollars a person.”
Billy Ray was down the steps and running for his car. He shouted back at me. “If I’m late, there will be the Devil to pay!”
Just then there was a blinding flash and an ear popping crash of thunder. “Jeez,” I yelled—thinking, I don’t know about the Devil, but I’m getting the hell out here just the same! I retreated from the porch into the safety of Applewood Manor’s parlor.