This town is a tourist town. Yes, it’s one of those signs you see from the highway when you speed by as fast as humanly possible: “see the great whatsit!” Most towns have something you can find in any state, like bigfoot. Not us, though. We’ve got the Oolio.
Ask any old timer on the high street and he’ll tell you the Oolio is old Choctaw for “man-swallower.” Bunkum, of course. If the name Oolio showed up before 1964, I’ve yet to see it. Still, the town treats it like it’s a real old legend. The tourist center’s full of pioneer gear and daguerreotypes. A sharp eye might gather that the colloidal snaps only record day-to-day business of a mining town, nothing supernatural, but I guess half the fun is fooling yourself by telling yourself you’re not fooled.
There’s a tour, of course. Man they call Skinny runs it, he’s the best. Folks might not be so charmed by his old cowboy act if they knew his nickname came from the surname Skinner and that he really hails from upstate New York. But Skinny’s such a good act it doesn’t matter that he ages his levi’s with a belt sander.
Skinny’s a volunteer, of course. Everyone who works in the tourist center is. Town’s kept afloat on volunteer work, that’s just how it is. Skinny’s not paid in anything but the adoration of his public. The way he sweeps and bows off that stoop from the tourist center, you’d think he was Hamlet. He’s earned it, though. As one performer to another, I have nothing but respect for the man.
Skinny takes them through the logging tracks, where firs barely taller than your kneecaps are trying to replace the great flaming birch that was all cut away. He talks about the town history first, just a little nugget of something dull to whet their appetite. He knows why they’re there. Skinny takes them up to the old logging camp, where the mess hall is the only building left standing. He gets to the pump in the middle of an anecdote about the time McKinley thought about riding through on the railway when suddenly he’ll break off in mid-sentence. I’ve timed him before, he reaches the pump after five minutes on the dot. The man is a consummate professional.
“Say, any of you folks hear about the Gaffey party?” He’ll ask like it’s a complete mystery as to why they’ve come. The name Gaffey is plastered all over the visitor’s center, which squats on Gaffey road. But the folks will go wide-eyed, shake their heads. They’re so hungry for the story they’d drink their own sunblock.
Skinny puts his arm up and lean on the pump. “‘Bout fivescore year ago—that’s a hundred for you city folks—there was a flock of hunters up this way. Fella by the name o’ Gaffey was in it, ‘long with his brother and his cousin, fella name o’ Croot. They were chasin’ a mean elk up to these parts, a big beast who could feed their families for a week. They decided to water in this camp because it was the only game around for miles. They had full run o’ the place so they decided to bunk in separate lodges. After all, they were alone…” he’ll leans forward and drops his voice. “Or were they?”
Skinny keeps a tin can full of gravel on his person, always takes it out right here. He circles the group, rolling it in his leathery hands as he watches them with a sadistic gleam in his eye.
“They put up for the day in the mess lodge. Nathaniel Croot, he started the fire. Only it was smoky, on account of some kind of blockage in the chimney. They put it out and ate by lantern light.”
Abruptly, he shakes the can. Ka-shk. Ka-shk. The hairs on people’s necks rise.
“They hear summat.” Ka-shk. Ka-shk. “Outside.” Ka-shk. Ka-shk. “Sounds a lot like this here rattler.” Ka-shk. Ka-shk. “Only there’s no gravel out here, unnerstan’. Nothing around that would make this sound.”
Once Skinny circles back around to his starting point he palms the can, playing idly with it like it’s a pen he’s just picked up by chance.
“The brothers, they’re too tough to be put off by noises. Caleb Gaffey gets his shooter and creeps up to the winder. There’s a face at the glass.”
Skinny throws the can with a horrible crash. There are always, always gasps.
“The thing he spies is dead white, hairless, pink eyes that glow in the lantern light. It don’t look right. Takes Caleb a while to figger out it’s because the whole damn thing’s upside-down. It’s hanging from the roof to scream through the winder at them. Caleb gets off two shots. Pow! Pow! Nothing.”
Now Skinny puts on a conspiratorial grin. He beckons the group with him, like the Pied Piper calling to a bunch of naughty children. They hesitate, they always do, but they follow him.
Skinny talks as he walks: “There’s no sleep that night. The brothers agree to bunk up in the mess hall. Abraham Gaffey, that’s the older, he takes first watch. But Croot, he thinks it’s all hooey. He calls a lodge all to himself that night, laughing all the way to bed.”
By this time they’re in the camp proper. They can see the old buildings, slate roof caved in by the years but log walls standing firm and strong even now. They can feel a tickle of fear as they put themselves in that dark night so long ago, so far away from any kind of safety.
Skinny turns to rest his back deliberately on a door that has been artfully crafted to look like the one it replaced.
“The brothers pin up an old gunny-sack on the hole. No one sleeps, despite the watches they set up. Abe knows the thing will be back, he’s got the hunter’s instinct. To keep himself awake, he grips a handful of nails.”
Skinny leans forward and drops his voice, so the tourists have to get closer to hear him. “But they watch the wrong place.”
He turns about-face and slaps the door open, so it hits the side of the building and shimmies a little. The large chunk of missing wood that looks like a bite mark winds up pointed right at them. They draw back. Oh, he’s good. He’s very good.
“Whatever-it-is takes a flying bite out of that door. Whatever-it-is screams like a steam engine as it shakes the hall. Whatever-it-is took Abe’s whole pan of powder and every bullet without stopping. Quick as a flash, Caleb upends the old potbellied stove.” Skinny acts it out through mime. His folksy accent gets thicker with every word. “They roll it over, jest the two of them, to the door. Abe sticks his packing rod in the latch, so the door can’t swing free. Cold and hungry and scairt, they wait up against that potbellied stove and that old door til dawn. The thing screamed right up until sunrise.”
Skinny pauses to take a breath, which lets the group take a breath. They have all been through an ordeal.
“The two brothers roll out that stove and come out. Of the trees surrounding the clearing, not a single branch had a leaf left on it. They go to the lodge to find cousin Croot stone dead, throat torn away but not a mark on him otherwise. Not ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, they lit a shuck out of there.”
Skinny clasps his hands. “That was the first sighting of the thing they call the Oolio in these parts. Abe Gaffey lived to be ninety-one years old, and I tell this the exact way he told me.”
Everyone’s shaken and laughing, everyone’s got the afterglow of a good performance. Most will wander back to the gift shop or accompany Skinny down to the saloon that serves sarsaparilla and horehound tea. But sometimes, every great once in awhile, there will be a straggler or two. They’re out-of-towners who feel the signs don’t apply to them. Or they’re wannabe explorers ready to cut through the brush. Or they’re looking for the bathroom.
That’s where I come in.
I like to situate myself on a particular path leading away from the camp. There’s a couple of these, actually, but I get people to take this one more often than not. How? I’ve cultivated every intrusive plant in the area at the entrances of the other paths.
They amble along until they’re out of earshot of the logging camp, when suddenly they clear a bend in the path and find me. I’ve got a bike with a bent front wheel and an overstuffed bag. Too many things to carry.
“Hey there, folks,” I say, “could you—whoops!” and an expensive-looking camera falls out of my hands and cracks open. I even put film in it to make it more authentic.
They’ll help of course, they’ll rush over and scramble, all while I apologize and beg them not to fret over little old me. I’m just out here being an idiot, I guess, my wife told me to stay with the group and whoops there went my GPS unit.
After they try long and fruitlessly to assuage my clumsiness, they’ll ask to escort me back to the visitor’s center. Oh gee, would they? It’s not far, it’s just this way.
I point them down another path. Sometimes it throws them off. Surely they should go back the way they came?
It’s got to be this way, I assure them, it’s got the green bands.
Every path in this area is marked “safe” by wooden stakes linked together by green bands. Easily purchasable at any hardware store, nice and mobile so I can uproot them at a moment’s notice.
They look down the path, doubting. Am I sure?
Of course this is the way back, I just came this way.
I talk up a storm as they lug my gear down the path, spinning personal anecdotes that carpet their ears and keep them from worrying. As the branches close in and make the path claustrophobic, I keep pressing them on. Just a little further. Just a leeeeetle further. Did they see it opening up yet?
I’ve got a crank flashlight that I click on as we go further into the brush. As they get uneasy, they ask questions. How long had I walked? What happened to my bike? Was I a townie or a tourist? They don’t want to ask the question that’s simmering in their mind, because that would make it real.
The trail dead ends. They’ve started walking ahead of me in anticipation of fleeing at the first sign of an opening. Now they blink at the remnants of a camp. My camp.
“Where’s the visitor’s center?” they ask.
“It’s back the way you came,” I say, clicking off the flashlight.
Then there will be a news story, some speculating about suspicious wounds, and a fruitless manhunt. The last guy they pulled in was so schizophrenic he couldn’t even work his zipper, much less scoop a throat out. They’ll urge people not to come here, which will make them swarm thicker than flies. And for a while, this little town will be bustling again. After all, the town’s kept afloat in volunteer work. My only pay is the satisfaction of a job well done.