With a promising weekend weather forecast, Lee Henry made the four hour drive
from Upstate New York down to northwest Pennsylvania’s Oil Creek State Park to scout the course. His training plan called for one final long run before tapering for the 100-mile race, and what better way to get in the mileage than by learning the course at the same time? He had recently connected with a local runner through Facebook. Nick, the local, agreed to lead Lee through a 50 kilometer loop of the race course, which would be repeated three times during the 100-miler.
With four hours of driving time all to himself, Lee had plenty of time to catch up on his favorite podcasts. Before he knew it, he was turning into the parking lot adjacent to Titusville Middle School—the staging area of the Oil Creek race. As expected on a Saturday afternoon in September, the middle School parking lot was completely empty of other vehicles. Lee's guide for the day hadn't yet arrived. They planned to meet at 4:00 p.m. so Lee could experience part of the course at night and get some practice running off-road after dark. He had arrived twenty minutes early.
Lee went through his usual pre-run routine—rearranging his pack and removing any unnecessary items, topping off water bottles from the gallon jug on his back seat, and ensuring he'd packed enough calories for six to seven hours on the trail. Then it was some easy drills to loosen the legs after four hours behind the wheel. Lunges, twists, leg kicks, high knees. A few motorists sped past, and Lee felt a little self-conscious doing Richard Simmons style aerobics in the empty parking lot on a blazing hot weekend afternoon.
The minutes ticked by and still no other cars. Lee had previously toyed with the idea of following a rudimentary paper map to run the loop on his own but was afraid of getting lost. He wasn't exactly Magellan when it came to navigation by map, and he'd heard that cell service in the park is spotty at best. "Better to stick with someone who's run the race and knows the course," he thought.
A couple minutes past the hour, a dark green Subaru rolled in and parked a few rows over from Lee. He could tell by the multitude of "OC 100" stickers on the rear bumper that it must be a fellow ultrarunner. Two guys hopped out, and Lee did the same. Lee introduced himself, and learned that the driver was in fact Nick, the guy he'd been in touch with, and Nick's buddy Jared. Both guys looked to be about Lee's age—late twenties to early thirties—and each had the appearance of an experienced and competent trail runner. After some introductory handshakes and banter about gear and weather, the three runners began jogging east down Bank Street toward the bike path that ultimately leads to the trail.
By the time the trio hit the Gerard Hiking Trail it was already nearly 4:30. Lee was inexperienced running at night, having only done so a few times on trails he was very familiar with. Nick and Jared had no qualms about being out there after dark. Each had run the park trails by headlamp many times, and insisted there was nothing to worry about. Lee was reassured by the others' confidence, and decided what the hell—it'd be great training for race day.
As the group hit the trailhead and traversed the rocky singletrack, Nick and Jared—both having grown up nearby in Crawford County—regaled Lee with the history of Oil Creek State Park and the land on which the park sits.
Lee learned of the 1860s oil boom on John Benninghoff's farm, and how the lucky landowner struck it rich with black gold when he discovered how to drill into the surrounding hills. Nick told tales of lawlessness among the oil teamsters at Petroleum Centre, where muggings and murders were commonplace.
As the group made its way along the trail, Lee enjoyed the others’ company and their discourse on the park's history. He took note of trail conditions, landmarks, and road crossings, all of which he’d use to pace himself during the race.
Soon it was dark, the night became noticeably cooler, and each runner donned his headlamp. "Better get used to this darkness, kid," Nick ribbed his new friend. "You're gonna being seeing plenty of it on race day."
Despite his nervousness and tired legs, Lee remained in good spirits. "Yep, nothing like some course specific training to get ready for a hundred."
The three passed through Petroleum Centre, where Jared explained how the flat land used to be a town. They then began making their way back toward the car by following the trail along the opposite side of Oil Creek. The race course was essentially a big loop, down one side of the creek and up the other, following the Gerard Hiking Trail almost the entire way. Around 22 miles into the run, Lee stopped to relieve himself behind a trailside tree. "Go on ahead," he told the others. “I'll catch up in a minute."
"Don't you want us to wait around?" asked Nick. "Just in case."
"Nah, I'll be fine," Lee shot back, not wanting to look weak in front on the other guys. "These yellow blazes and reflectors are easy enough to follow.”
Nick and Jared plodded on ahead, albeit slowly. Once his bladder was empty, Lee took a huge swig of water from his bottle and peered up at the stars. He was in a small clearing that provided a perfect view for stargazing. Deep into the park the land was devoid of all light pollution. Alone, Lee flipped off his headlamp and stared infinitely upward, trying to pick out some star patterns. Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Orion. Ptolemy's ancient constellations brought back a flood of childhood memories—nighttime hikes with his father, visits to their local observatory on chilly autumn evenings. As if by instinct, Lee was able to pick out individual stars, particularly the brighter ones.
"Betelgeuse, Rigel, Polaris," he muttered aloud to himself. "And that bright one across the sky, that's no star, that's Venus." Lee recalled getting fooled by Venus as a child, thinking it was a star whose bright white luminosity outshined all other celestial objects, save the sun and moon.
Lee's mind faded back into the present. He hit the backlight button on his watch to see that he had digressed for nearly fifteen minutes.
"Damn! They'll be wondering where I've been," he thought.
He hit the "on" button on his headlamp. Nothing. He pressed the button again. And again. Still no light but that from the sky. He removed his pack and fumbled around for his iPhone. He located the phone and tapped the main button. The display lit up just long enough to remind him that he forgot to switch to airplane mode. Lee knew the phone well enough to realize that it had been searching for a non-existent cell signal for the past six hours, effectively draining the battery. By turning on the phone's backlight he abruptly finished the job.
"Hey you guys!" Lee shouted into the dark, dense woods. No reply. "Hey, I'm blind as a bat back here!"
He did the only thing he could think of, and made his way forward down the trail in the limited moonlight, yelling ahead the whole time in a vain attempt to make contact with the others.
Soon the trail left the clearing and sloped downward, back amongst the pines. With the moonlight all but blocked by the trees, Lee used the dim backlight on his GPS watch to avoid face-planting or taking a tree branch to the eye. He felt his way forward, catching enough glimpses of the reflectors on the tree trunks to awkwardly follow the trail. He looked around and several pairs of glowing eyes stared back, blankly. As Lee knew from the race website, Oil Creek State Park is home to a variety of woodland mammals—benign creatures like deer, chipmunks, and squirrels, but also dangers such as black bears and porcupines. As far as Lee knew, the source of these eerie oculi could be any of the above.
Lee plodded on along the trail, his eyes shifting this way and that, glancing nervously around at the nearly invisible animals. Finally—after what felt like a marathon but was in reality only one or two tenths of a mile—Lee stumbled out of the woods onto a dirt road. His knowledge of the course map was somewhat dubious, but he knew from reading the course description earlier that he was now on Miller Farm Road and needed to swing a left to head downhill.
Lee trotted downhill, but doubted his ability to find the trail with the little bit of moonlight at his disposal. “Nick! Damn you, what’s happening? Where are you?” He again called out to the other runners, but to no avail.
Now what? Lee re-evaluated his options. It was too dark to read his paper map, and he had no phone battery to view his digital one. He was beginning to feel tired and lightheaded, his confidence waning considerably. He walked down the road, then back up, unable to spot the small wooden staircase that led upward to the white-blazed singletrack. He soon lost his sense of direction and could no longer locate the yellow blazed trail from whence he'd just come. Lee's attempt to yell to his friends once again proved futile. His sat down on the dusty road. The afternoon was so hot, he hadn't packed a jacket or even long sleeves, and certainly hadn't prepared to spend a night in the forest. “I’ve got so much left to do with my life,” he muttered in despair. For the first time in his life he thought he might actually die.
That was when he saw the headlamp approaching from up the hill. Lee yelled out "Hey Nick! Jared! Down here!" The bearer of the light didn't respond, but drew closer. Lee could then make out the steady clop-clopping of a horse's hooves. To his surprise, he discovered the approaching party was neither Nick nor Jared, but a man leading a horse-drawn wagon.
"Who goes there?" demanded a gruff voice. No doubt the hoarse timbre belonged to the load bearer. The driver halted his beast of burden with a commanding "Woah, girl!" and the vehicle creaked to a halt.
"I say again, who's there?" inquired the driver. The man dismounted from the wagon and held a lantern at shoulder height, trying to make out Lee's figure from the roadside shadows.
Lee got to his feet, stepped forward out of the darkness, and greeted the man. He felt it best to be friendly, in case his shouting in the dark had awoken a nearby Titusville resident. Still, the abrupt and unexpected appearance of the wagon and driver left Lee on edge, especially given his current predicament.
"I'm sorry sir." Lee pleaded his case. "I was separated from my friends, and got lost out here when my headlamp died. I was only trying to find my friends. I—I mean with the shouting, and all."
"Some friends they are indeed, leavin’ ya out alone on a night like t’night." The response left Lee guessing as to whether or not that meant an acceptance of his apology.
As he approached the stranger, Lee he could make out his features by the man's lantern light. In fact, the first thing to strike Lee as odd was that this man wielded a lantern—an antique-looking, gas-powered one at that.
The strange nocturnalist was dressed as if from another era. He bore a bushy, unkempt beard of ashen grey. His suspenders and trousers looked like they'd seen much better days. The shirt and pants were thoroughly stained with dark spots—oil, Lee presumed based on the creeping stench of petroleum—and the man's shoes were so worn that each toebox had a touch of patency. The man's graying hair was as wild as his beard.
Lee squinted beyond the lantern light. As his eyes adjusted, he then took in the sight of the wagon. A single horse was attached by a rope, a harness, and two shafts to a derelict, wooden buckboard of about ten feet in length. The wagon's four wooden wheels looked pretty banged up, but apparently the apparatus was well built and able to house the load within. Side slats made for shallow rails around the cart bed's perimeter. A tattered tarp lay across the area of the bed, concealing whatever load was in transit.
The wind began to howl between the trees. The stranger spoke again, this time in a more mild-mannered tone. "What a terrible night for a curse. That is, to be cursed with the misfortune of gettin’ stranded dry and high, nary a candle in yer possession." The old-time country drawl, coupled with his slightly slurred speech, made "misfortune" sound more like "Ms. Fortune."
Lee was caught off guard by the man's sudden shift in tone, and nearly laughed aloud at the dialect. He approached the driver, no longer afraid of charges that he'd been disturbing the peace. As he neared, Lee caught an unmistakable whiff of stale whiskey on the old man's breath.
"What are you doing out at this hour?" Lee inquired. He decided not to question the man's mode of transportation. After all, with Pennsylvania's population of Mennonites and Amish it was possible this guy was a member of one or the other, from a family or sect that had migrated to the northwest corner of the Keystone State. It was the only explanation Lee could come up with in his mind. He had no wish to offend the stranger.
"This ol’ bag of bones never sleeps. I have a schedule to keep so the boss don't throw me out on my ass. Again. A-and that old wench sez she won't take me back ‘til I bring home some bacon after a day's work, instead of pissing it away downtown. Figured I best keep things movin'."
Lee began to grow uneasy around the old cart driver. His haggard appearance and obvious drunkenness, and the remote proximity from any other humans, were enough to put Lee's fight or flight response on standby. Plus he had no idea where Nick and Jared were, and whether or not they'd encountered this old coot themselves when they crossed the dirt road.
As if sensing Lee's desire to get on with his trek, the old man offered some assistance. "I reckon you outta have a light before ya head back into them woods. I happen to have a spare lantern in my cart there."
"Uh, that's okay, sir. I already set you back enough. My friends are waiting just up ahead. I can catch up to them with what I have."
"Suit yerself, then," came the reply.
With that, the driver hopped back into the wagon seat, grabbed the reins, and gave a sharp yelp. As the horse bolted forward the inebriated rider nearly fell sideways from his seat. The horse set off down the road, towing the wagon downhill toward the Miller Farm bridge where Lee knew the race director would have an aid station placed. As the rickety wooden cart bounced past Lee’s position, the jostling was enough to shake the tarp loose, uncovering the cargo within. Curiosity got the best of Lee. He stared into the wagon bed, attempting to make out its contents in the dim moonlight and the soft glow from the driver's lantern. It appeared to be several lidless boxes, with a large metal canister in each box. In the dark it was difficult to tell for sure.
As he pulled away, the disheveled drunk spoke again. "And hey, whenever you see yer friends again, tell 'em ol' Doc Haggerty sent ya." Lee had but a split second search his memory for where he'd heard than name before. But before he could place the name, a blinding light erupted from the cart bed along with a searing blast of white heat. Lee had but an instant for his recollection to morph into sheer panic before everything went black.
"But have you ever seen the woman in white?" Jared whispered to Nick. "Supposedly she hung herself from a nearby tree branch—"
"Hold it," Nick interrupted his friend. "That's a different woman in white. The hanging victim is said to be seen at Petroleum Centre Cemetery, not Miller Farm." The confidence in his voice indicated that Nick knew his local legends well, and to argue about which woman haunted which cemetery would prove useless.
"Okay, fine." Jared shot back. "But you know about the orbs and illuminated tombstones here in this graveyard, right? We outta prop one of our lights next to a grave and see what he thinks about that! He seemed pretty uneasy back there in the dark already."
Nick and Jared stood behind a large oak, just off trail and adjacent to the Miller Farm Cemetery. The two whispered to one another and laughed about how Lee was in for a scare. They'd lurk silently behind the tree, headlamps off, until Lee passed up the hill, then leap out of the shadows and give him the scare of a lifetime. Lighting up an old gravestone in the foggy night would be a nice addition to their little fright fest. They had been waiting awhile, and without discussing it, both wondered if maybe they should forget the prank and backtrack to make sure Lee wasn't actually hurt or lost.
"Let's not be too hard on the guy, or we might scare him out of running the hundred altogether," said Nick. That was when they saw it. A blinding flash of light pierced the woodland and lit up the graveyard like it was high noon, for an instant making the carved epitaphs quite visible. The flash was immediately followed by a thunderous BOOM erupting from the trees. The source couldn't have been more than a quarter mile away, in the direction from which they'd come. The shock shook the ground and rattled the trees, knocking both runners off their feet, while the explosion echoed across the opposite wall of the ravine. The two went sprawling amongst the nineteenth century tombstones that littered the cemetery. Then all was silent. The crisp night air around them began to reek of smoke and ash.
Nick and Jared got back on their feet. Both were severely shaken, but neither was injured.
"What do we do!?" Jared yelled in a panic. "Lee might still be back there somewhere."
"Smell that? The forest is on fire. We need to get some help and quick!" Nick's tone was decisive, and Jared quickly acquiesced. The two grabbed their packs and hightailed it down the trail. Both checked their phones but neither had cell service. Powered by sheer adrenaline, they ran fast enough to break every Strava segment record along the last part of the race course. When they finally made it off the trail, they ran down the road to the nearest house, rang the bell, and persuaded the startled resident to let them call 9-1-1 from her landline.
When the fire department, sheriff's deputies, and local search-and-rescue team all arrived, they scoured the Miller Farm region of Oil Creek State Park but found no evidence of any explosions or fires, and no sign of Lee. The next morning they searched the entire park by daylight and again found nothing. When no other witnesses stepped forward, Nick and Jared were charged with disorderly conduct for making a phony emergency call.
Two days after the incident Lee Henry was officially reported missing when he failed to return home. Meanwhile, his Prius remained parked in the school lot, offering no clues to his whereabouts. He was never heard from again and his body was never found.
The Legend of Doc Haggerty
Reportedly, Doc Haggerty was a nitroglycerin shooter whose job it was to cart around torpedoes and cans of nitro on the land that is now Oil Creek State Park. The torpedoes would be loaded with the nitroglycerin, then lowered into an oil well and detonated so the well would yield more oil. One day in December 1888, Haggerty's load detonated and was destroyed, along with his horse and wagon. There were no eye-witnesses, and no scrap of Haggerty's remains were ever found. At the time, some believed he had faked his death in order to cash in on a life insurance policy. Others believed that he was cremated entirely. Legend has it that on the anniversary of his death—or supposed death—a phantom explosion can be heard around Oil Creek State Park. On a few occasions, people have claimed to see Doc's ghost carting his wagon down a park road.
A few details of the actual legend were altered for the purpose of this story, including the exact location of Doc's demise. His appearance as a drunk is the author's own description—a possible but not necessarily factual one.
This is my first attempt at a fiction story since probably high school, and I hope it turned out well. Let me know in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!