A Ghost Story From the Desert



There are certain places in our country that are known for storytelling, the cowboy poet said to us. From New Orleans Cajun country to Lake Wobegon, a few small, distinctive regions — not New York, and definitely not Washington — have become known for their storytelling styles, and for their stories.

“Western stories are the most intimate stories I can think of,” he said.

Western stories are the most spiritual stories I can think of, I thought.

Spirituality is different from religiosity, at least the Western European forms of religion I grew up with and know. Western spirituality is nature spirituality, maybe some elements of Native American spirituality. It’s deeper meaning derived from the place itself, and not dictated by some imported ancient rules or scriptural strictures. It’s spirituality that is simultaneously rooted in the real.

I am on a dude ranch in Arizona for a week. The first night we were here, our waiter told us a ghost story after dinner. It was not a stereotypical Western ghost story, in that it was not told around a campfire with smoke and s’mores and dirt on your pants. It did feature all of those things, but this was not the setting in which the story was told. Instead, our server Todd told the story while standing in the well-lit ranch dining room, holding a silver pitcher of water, and gesticulating. He talked like a busy waiter in a city restaurant, his words clipped and emphatic. “There are so many spirits here,” he said.

He talked about an old ranch proprietor, who I later learned was one Don Emilio Carrillo. Don Emilio was hanged, four times, on May 7, 1904. The bandits who came for his gold were apparently unskilled with the noose and he didn’t die, at least not that night. Instead he died four years later, of complications from the hanging(s). His ghost might come to visit sometimes.

And there are others, Todd said.

Are there any horse spirits?

“Oh, yes.”

What other kinds are there?

“Oh, all kinds of spirits. Let me show you a picture of one.”

He went to fetch his phone. We packed up to leave, and as everyone filtered out of the dining room, I waited under the beamed ceiling until Todd returned, triumphant, his phone aloft.

“I had another one of the guys send this to me after that night. I said, ‘you have to send this picture to me.’”

I nodded.

“Are you sure you want to see it? Because you might not sleep tonight.”

I laughed. Sure.

On his phone’s screen: A campfire, front and center, on a dark night. At bottom right, a cowboy seated, playing guitar. Next to him, a dad standing and looking toward the flames, hoisting a girl on his shoulders. On the opposite side of the flames, a person in a red sweatshirt, laughing and looking across at the dad. And through the flames, slicing diagonally from cowboy up to red shirt guy, was a weird camera artifact, a beam of light extending off both sides of the frame. If you’ve ever tried to take a picture of a fire, or maybe a solar eclipse, you might recognize a similar lens effect.

“You see that energy disturbance?” Todd asked, pointing at the beam. “That split in the light? Look behind it.”

Holy shit. Chills. There’s a dude there. A DUDE, who was not really THERE. He was semi-transparent. He looked like someone had highlighted him in a photo-editing program and turned the saturation down by 50 percent. His coloring did not match anyone else in the scene. He was facing the photographer, perpendicular to the dad with the daughter and the singing cowboy and the redshirt. You could see his torso, and his cowboy affect was visible through that posture you would recognize from any Western: cocksure but open, maybe a little sad, or pensive. His legs were invisible, hidden by the flames. He was wearing a Western shirt.

This was not Don Emilio, because I saw a picture of Don Emilio and Don Emilio was mustachioed and Mexican. This Dude was a white guy, a cowboy. His head was slightly cocked to his left. His ears stuck out really wide, kind of like Obama. Like you see in photos of young men taken at the turn of the 20th century. I am not making this up.

“Do you see the ghost?” Todd was excited.

Oh, yes. I see him. Who is he?

“Nobody knows,” Todd said.

Was he hanged? Did something happen to him?

Todd smiled at me and shook his head.

There are so many possibilities. Maybe a cougar got him, or a scorpion. Or a bullet. What the hell was he doing in this photo?

Todd nodded, secretively, like we were in on a conspiracy. “I know!”

I can’t explain it, either. It’s too bizarre, too magical, too silly, too profound. Tonight I’m going down to that same campfire, and I plan to look for the Dude, in real time and later, in photographs. If I see him, I can choose to interpret it as a trick of my mind, or of the lens. Western European Enlightenment ideology would stick with one of those. I’m sure there’s a perfectly valid explanation; I’m sure I could call up a scientist or a visual-effects expert and he could tell me all about it.

But the desert gives you choices. The rocks and the barrenness can be used to invoke death and scarcity, if you want them to. Or the crazed tangles of cactus and the dazzling carpet of stars can invoke abundance, and make you feel filled to the brim.

If the Dude appears, I think I’ll just nod at him. I think I’ll choose to see it as a visit from a spirit.

Photo credit: Rebecca Boyle, in Tucson

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