“Get out of here before I lock you up!” the park ranger yells from his pickup truck. “I don’t care what your friends told you, but this isn’t your playground!”
This is actually happening. It’s about 10:00 on a Saturday night, and the park ranger has not noticed that all of us are 23 years old, and he surely cannot tell here in the dark that we all have real jobs and real apartments. Or maybe he can, and that’s why he’s yelling so vehemently at me, why his face is turning so red.
In my memory, his face is the only one I can see — the only thing I can remember. His eyes are blue. I’m certain of it. But gone is the sign for Hilltop Road that we are standing opposite of. Gone are the group of three kids who I noticed after we got out of the car.
The ranger doesn’t ask why we’re here. He thinks we’re kids following a jumbled-up rumor, out for a thrill on an otherwise uninteresting Saturday night.
He’s wrong. We’re on an adventure.
It’s true that we are here to visit the Hell House, just like all the other kids he’s doubtless yelled at tonight. But we are also trying to repeat history. And maybe we’re also trying to be kids again.
I blame The Goonies. The first time I saw the movie, I must’ve been less than 10 years old. I saw kids just like me who got to bike down a foreboding road into an adventure where they got to out-think traps, kiss pretty girls (I only thought one was pretty — ed.), and at the very end, save themselves.
I knew I wanted my life to be like that, even then. But the only way for me to have an adventure in real life was to pretend. If you have a water gun, you can be a commando. If you carry a backpack, you can be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. But the sword fights had to be choreographed with sticks we picked up off the ground, and nobody will ever agree on who shot whom first. It was all made up.
I found out otherwise in college. For the Halloween issue of our campus magazine, we went to a bunch of spooky places one night — some cemeteries said to be haunted, some abandoned houses said to be the site of cult activity. Even after you stripped away the make-believe of ghosts and Satanic rituals, there still was an adventure.
I got to go in a place that had been discarded by daytime, non-adventurous people a long time ago. I got to see in the broken wood and crusted-over bathtubs what fate will someday do to me. And it was plain old terrifying to step over a chain that has a sign reading “NO TRESPASSING” for the first time in my life. It was a sense that you had done something not evil, but wrong. It was a sense that people would likely not be nice to you, that you might come to some harm if you didn’t pay attention.
There was so much to be afraid of. We could have been discovered by the police, or by townies bent on giving kids a good scare and chasing them off the property. We could have been killed by structural collapse.
I remember keeping my flashlight moving over the surface of things so that I could keep my head full of pictures of lighted walls, to make myself forget that it all really was just darkness.
It was really scary, and it felt like an adventure.
I wanted to try again this year, even though college days are over. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve had a bunch of adventures this year, but none of them have been really visceral. I’ve woken up in the middle of the night to remember that my rent is due the next day, and I’ve sat in the darkness waiting for a girl’s words to come through the phone, for her to say what she really means, for her to simply say no.
But there’s a weird tingle you get when you’re really in the thick of it, a sense that just by being in a certain place, you’re doing something dangerous. I got that same tingle from looking at pictures of the Hell House.
According to the legends I was able to dig up on the Web, the place used to be a Catholic school for girls that was closed shortly after one of the priests hanged five of the students in a Satanic ritual. There’s a subplot in the legend, too, of a possibly ghostly caretaker who unleashes dogs and shoots into the air to scare off kids.
The only thing that can be said for sure is that it has been long abandoned, and that in recent years, a fire burned down much of the original structure. What’s left is spooky upon spooky: a ruin of an abandoned place. Debris whose origin you’ll never know. Graffiti made by scared kids. Destruction happening before your eyes too slowly to be perceived.
Rob and Jenn agreed to come with me. It seemed like a perfect place to go until we got lost, several times, and eventually found a road that led up a steep hill. I had read that the house was visible from the top of nearby hill — the building is four stories tall, even after the fire. We ascended an ever-narrowing, ever-steepening road that moved past houses and chain link fences into a dense woods. The bare tree trunks glowed in my headlights.
“A road has to connect two places,” I said to myself. I knew more than anything that at the end of the road, past all the blind curves and swells of hills, there would be something old and perhaps scary. I knew it.
And then the trees gave way to something — I couldn’t quite see what, but there was open space ahead and lines of lights …
We had had ended up in a residential development that couldn’t have been more than three years old. This is where old twisty roads go in the real world. Not ancient manors. Not to monsters’ lairs. Just upper-middle class homes.
And what’s worse is that we’ve been out the car now less than five minutes before this park ranger has pulled over to yell at us. I say that I understand what he is saying as docilely as I can. But I don’t apologize to him. I’m not sure why.
He keeps saying the same things over and over again: every step we could take from the point on which we stand would be illegal. He doesn’t care what my friends told me.
He might be waiting for me to argue, to give him some backtalk like nogood kids do in movies. Or maybe he’s waiting for us to give some kind of lame excuse, one of five you could use in a situation like this, so he can shoot that down.
“Get out of here before I lock you up!” he says. “I don’t care what your friends told you, but this isn’t your playground!”
I say okay, and we walk back to my car. The night is a nice one, actually. It’s cold enough to feel like fall and warm enough to remind me of being inside, of drinking tea, of talking with a friend about some things I’ve been meaning to catch up, some things I’ve been meaning to let out of my skull. I don’t think to look up at the stars, if only to capture them for a brief, forgotten moment. I never think of things like that until it’s too late.
The ranger pulls up again to berate me for parking on private property, and once he is again convinced that I won’t do anything but agree with him, he lets us go home.
We go to a bar, drink things that are legal for us to drink, and eat chicken wings. We dissect the conversation with the ranger like embarrassed children do after the teacher sends them to the office, and then I turn my head and look at one of the television sets.
“Oh, shit,” I say.
“I’m not going to look over there anymore,” Rob says. And even though I sneak a few glances, we can think of abandoned houses, of mean park rangers, of adventure for at least a few minutes longer.