The day Tank McDonald died, no one was surprised. He was a pain-in-the-ass bully as a kid, and grew into a major pain-in-the-ass as an adult. He took his talent for extorting lunch money from school mates to a whole new level in his chosen career as an unemployed beer-a-holic; borrowing money from anyone and everyone who might be intimidated by his brute size. He relied on that fear, knowing that they would not expect to be repaid. Tank was smart enough to never accept anything that wasn’t readily offered to him, so except for a couple of minor public intoxication charges, he had no official police record. But officially, there wasn’t a deputy in Haywood County that didn’t want to see him gone, and gone can have so many connotations.
Tank, whose given name was Jedidiah, was found face down in the Pigeon River out in Bethel. He had been beaten to the point of mutilation. There was not much of an investigation; everyone assumed it was a case of redneck justice, and no one seemed particularly upset at his violent demise. But that was before they knew all the facts.
As a young man, I used to go camping a lot. Friends often ask me why I have never been camping since moving up here in these mountains. The easy excuse would be the black bears, the occasional, almost extinct, catamount, poisonous snakes, venomous spiders, or the usually friendly hill folk who after a couple of beers or a mason jar of shine might take offense at a flatlander like me trespassing on their ancestral land. But like I said, that would be the easy excuse; the real reason I stay away from the woods at night lies deep in that ultra-perceptive part of the human soul where a societal paranoia can be birthed from happenstance too rare and too unlikely to be believed, and every individual needs a rational alibi.
A week before Tank disappeared, three young couples had set up camp in the DuPont forest for a weekend of heavy partying. It was on the second night that an argument broke out between two of the campers. Fueled and fortified by alcohol and stolen prescription narcotics, one of the young women grabbed a flashlight and her keys, vowing to drive herself home. She had apparently made it to her car because the 2004 CRV was gone, but no one has seen or heard from the camper since. Over near Brevard, even after all this time, there are still missing person posters in store front windows and each weekend, informal search parties comb the woods for the missing girl. But everyone in the region, knowing what we all know now, is sure that there isn’t any chance they are going to find her.
The next three incidents reported were equally as odd and as seemingly unrelated to both Tank and the missing camper. There was a farmer working late in his fields who vanished; his tractor was found abandoned and still running. Only his prepubescent niece was secretly relieved by his disappearance. A mechanic and his three pit bull fighting dogs were found hacked to death in a makeshift garage of a secluded country barn. The third was an 81-year-old grandmother sitting on her porch enjoying a cigarette and a glass of bourbon. Her husband, daughter and two grandbabies were just feet away watching television inside the family trailer; not one of them heard a sound, but the old lady was found dead, her neck twisted all the way around so that she faced backwards. The family was devastated by the loss of the social security income from their four long-deceased neighbors.
It wasn’t until a married 26-year-old Canton police officer and a 17-year-old high school cheerleader were found naked and mutilated in the trooper’s patrol car that rumors started up about Boojum, the area’s native Bigfoot. The speculation began as the fantastical rationalizations of a group of schoolboys trying to literally “scare the pants off” their girlfriends, but like dowsing a campfire with grain alcohol, the story inflamed the community and spread like flames through the dry underbrush of the rural society.
Within the next three weeks, there were seven new cases of people being killed or inexplicably disappearing; each victim with their own unsavory secret. Boojum was blamed. Our quiet community was suddenly overrun by television crews, news media, cryptozoologists, self-important cynics and naysayers, and scores of professional and amateur Bigfoot hunters. It was entertaining to watch the panic and excitement spread. Of course there were dozens and dozens of unsubstantiated sightings, a few blurry iPhone videos, plenty of audio recordings of howls, whistles and grunts, and many more stories of close encounters than there were factual incidents. The legend of Boojum, the Monster of Eagle Nest Mountain was alive and well with all of its history, lore, fear and tourism garnering insatiability.
Of the outsiders here to document the details, only one had the misfortune of succumbing to the monster. His name was Jared Spence, I know his name because he interviewed me three times. He was a particularly good investigative reporter who was boasting of the discovery of evidence indicating that a human was the perpetrator and not some unknown species of bipedal primate. Spence was found face down in a field off Crabtree Mountain Road. His arms, legs and head had been severed from his torso, but carefully positioned in their proper place to give the appearance of an intact body. Interestingly, his camera, voice recorders and notebooks were missing and never found.
I personally do not find it hard to believe that a monster of this sort could live so close in proximity to a population and stay hidden from view. Whether it be man-like or some other type of beast, unseen monsters live. They reside in the unexplored backwoods of the imagination, and are sheltered in that incongruous amalgam of factual misinterpretation and our fear of the unknown. The one thing that I am certain of is that these incredulous tales that arise from time to time in secluded communities throughout the world bring a color, vibrancy and a communal cleansing to the lives of the inhabitants. It is most unfortunate that there has to be the occasional death attributed to these fables, but without verifiable facts, no one would be tempted to believe in the unbelievable.
I think now is the time to give Western North Carolina a rest. Boojum needs to be gone, and gone can have so many connotations. The mystery of the Eagle Nest Mountain Monster should be boxed up, stowed in the archives of backwoods folklore and relegated to ghost stories told around campfires. The mountain people must resume their quiet rural lives, but preserve the excitement of what once terrorized their community as a mythology whispered to the grateful, visiting tourists and adventure hunters.
For me, I think it is time I was gone, too. I’m considering a move up into the remote Appalachian region of West Virginia and to see what kind of stories I can scare up from those people. I think I have gleaned enough real-life experience from these hills to pepper my true-crime fiction with the goriest of details and first-hand descriptions to keep my readers happy. Who knows, if things get a little too quiet here in Haywood County, maybe I’ll come back, but then again, there are so many places I have yet to visit and too many legends left locked away.