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25 May 2011



Desert haunts, scary secrets 

A search for lost souls in California and Arizona raises goosebumps


Are those swings moving on their own? I blink hard. Look again. Ever so slight movement. Up the flagpole; a faint flutter. Whew. Just the wind.

On my sunrise walk, I've stumble upon a playground in Jerome, Ariz. Despite the early heat in the air, goosebumps rise on my arms.

The playground is the one from the book I've been reading, Haunted Arizona. At this hour, the playground is empty. Of humans, at least. According to the book, swings in this playground have been known to thrash wildly with neither wind nor children about.

I climb the steep stairs out of the playground, barely resisting the urge to run like the proverbial batout-of-hell. Memories of childhood taunts from my sister flash through my mind: "Last one up has to turn out the lights." That always seemed to be me, flying up the stairs of the pitch-black basement, the terrifying gloom nipping at my heels, convinced something would grab me and I would never be seen again. Ah, innocent childhood fears.

Yet, here I am, an adult on a road trip, feeling that irrational terror. I wonder what my husband, Garry Sowerby, safe back in our room at the Jerome Grand Hotel, would do if shadowy shapes of the not-quite dearly departed were to whisk me away. But wait, how safe is he, high up on the mountain in a hotel that was the town's hospital and insane asylum, supposedly one of the most haunted hotels in America?

Whose idea was this ghost-hunting road trip, anyway?

We can make a quick getaway if necessary. Our ghostbuster vehicle is a 2011 white-as-a-ghost Hyundai Sonata 2.0 Turbo that has been gliding us through the deserts of California and Arizona over the past few days. Its four-cylinder power plant acts like a smooth six-cylinder. The six-speed automatic transmission with shiftronic paddles makes getting to Jerome, through winding turns, dizzying descents and switchback climbs, half the fun.

Under the word 'cling' in the dictionary, there must be a picture of the town of Jerome, the most vertical city in the U.S. The revitalized ghost town had a population of 15,000 during the copper boom, and now draws thousands of tourists a year perhaps trying to beat the clock before the town slips off Mingus Mountain.

Jerome offers amazing mile-high views of the Verde Valley, worldclass art galleries, cute shops galore and . ghosts. Tourists come in the hope of catching a glimpse of some soul lingering on Earth, too tormented or too bent on mortal revenge to finally leave or find peace.

I think of what we've seen so far on our 'mission' to seek out ghosts and ghost towns of the American Southwest.

Our first stop was California City, where we drifted silently through town in our Hyundai Sonata. No one turned their heads to watch the new kid in town drive by. The wide boulevards of the well-plotted town were eerily quiet. We kept the windows rolled up, inexplicably anxious, trying to pinpoint what was missing. Oh, that would be people, houses, souls.

We were in the third largest city in California by area and nary a human in sight. That's because California City is a perfect example of an abandoned suburb. Cul-de-sacs, street signs, even sidewalks have been scraped out of the desert, but not a single foundation was ever laid and the people never came. A ghost town with no human history, therefore no ghosts, right?

We're surprised to see a brightly painted rock by the roadside. Innocently, I pick it up, flip it over and almost throw it to the ground when I see my name painted in flowery letters on the surface. Cue the Twilight Zone music and step on the gas.

The extreme heat and hardship of the desert out the windshield can't touch us in the climate-controlled comfort of the pretty two-toned interior of the Sonata. I bask in its rich cranberry leather seats for the next few days as we continue our ghost hunt.

The sleek, eye-catching Sonata carries us down wide-open gravel roads deep into the East Cactus Plain Wilderness as we search for the ghost town of Swansea. After a half-hour of uncertainty, and nervous checks of the fuel and temperature gauges, we decide that Swansea doesn't want to be found -the town doesn't want to give up its ghosts.

We motor our way across the scorching, cactus-spiked expanse of the Mojave Desert into Arizona. We wind north along the Colorado River to Lake Havasu, a lake created in the mid-1930s by the Parker Dam, and muse about what watery ghosts lie beneath in the flooded little villages at the bottom of the lake.

In Jerome, I look back down the staircase into the park. The wind has picked up, the flag's string strikes the pole rhythmically, the metallic sound echoes in the quiet morning air. Don't look at the swings, I tell myself.

Don't be silly, of course, they'll be moving, because of the wind. How can I not look? I blink. The swings are still.

Fire up the Sonata. Fast.

Lisa Calvi operates Odyssey International with her husband Garry Sowerby. He is the other half of the 'we' in her tales but we don't mention him much because he writes for the rival Vancouver Sun! E-mail her at lisa.calvi@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter, @FrontLady

Read more: http://www.theprovince.com/cars/Desert+haunts+scary+secrets/4836348/story.html#ixzz1NOr7Cyc5

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