For Halloween a few years ago, we ‘fessed up in this space to a secret that would seem to run afoul of our aversion to flim-flam: Once upon a time, reeling from the untimely death of our father, The Observer and his brother spent five full years searching for evidence of the paranormal all over the state.
In that pursuit, we blew thousands of bucks on equipment and float-a-pistol truck-stop coffee, logging at least two weekends a month Out There. As we’ve said before, we mostly found the 10,000 ways the human mind can turn a squirrel in the attic into proof-positive of the afterlife. But we also experienced some things that still haunt us.
After a few years, we decided it was time to go check out the famous Gurdon Light: a ghost light that supposedly haunts an old, crooked railroad track spur in Clark County, near where state Highway 53 crosses the tracks. The light is supposedly the ghost of a railroad foreman named William McClain. He was a real person, beaten to death with a spike maul along that same stretch of tracks. His alleged killer, Louis McBride, went to the electric chair at Little Rock’s “The Walls’ penitentiary in 1932. McClain is buried in the back corner of a little cemetery down in Bryant.
The night was cloudy, cold and moonless; so dark with the lights off that it was like having a black velvet bag thrown over your head. We’d heard that the way to see the light was to park at a little circular turnout off the highway, near the tumbledown cemetery of Sandy Creek, a vanished community that once straddled the tracks.
We parked there, gathered our stuff, then walked miles down the tracks, crossing trestles that looked like they were built by Christ himself. Once we reached the spot the interwebs said you could see the light, we saw … semi-trucks from Interstate 30, which crosses the tracks some miles further on. You could hear the whoosh of tires on pavement just before seeing the flicker of headlights through the trees.
Convinced we’d figured it out, and midnight long past, we started trudging back to the truck. After a while, we saw lights up ahead in the distance. It turned out to be a gaggle of drunk-as-skunks frat boys from nearby Arkadelphia, two dim flashlights between them. We pointed them on toward their goal and kept trudging.
When we got back to the truck, we found that the frat boys had us soundly blocked in, unable to leave the turnout until they returned. Bro had the cockamamie idea that we could just quickly drive down the railroad tracks to Highway 53 in the Ford 4×4 The Observer drove back then. A rough ride, but at least we wouldn’t have to wait for the frat to stumble back. The Observer agreed to walk up the tracks to make sure they were sound enough to pull it off. We walked up to the highway, said we’d give it a try, and turned back.
And there, in the middle of the tracks near the Sandy Creek cemetery, on pretty much the exact spot where McClain had his head caved in, there was a light. It was orange-yellow, flickering like fire, casting a glow up the shiny rails toward us. After a while, it appeared to be getting bigger, as if approaching, to the point we stepped off the tracks to avoid being run over if it happened to be the world’s quietest locomotive. But then it receded. Possibly the returning frat boys? Only if one of them had taken off his pants, wrapped them around a stick, and set them on fire, The Observer mused there in the dark. The Ghost Brothers stood there a long while, shoulder-to-shoulder, curious and awed, watching the light grow and shrink, weave, change from bright orange to bright yellow to a final blue before disappearing all together. Eventually, the frat boys did come stumbling back, their dim lights visible in the distance.
Whatever it was, however it works, The Observer is sure to this day that what we saw was the Gurdon Light. We’ve grown cloudier on other things we witnessed over the years, sure they must have been caused by sleep deprivation, light and shadow, or our noggin playing tricks in a stressful situation. But there are still some things, like the Gurdon Light, that we can’t really explain, no matter how hard we try. Those are the things that often come to mind, especially on dark nights in late October.