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Geographical Index > United States > Illinois > Jackson County > Article # 718

Media Article # 718

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Fragility of Skepticism: A Report of the Mud Camp Expedition

By C.W. Gusewelle
Kansas City Star

(Author’s note: Nearly 16 years ago, in the autumn of 1973, five of us — three journalists, a lawyer, and an insurance man — set out to investigate the accounts of strange occurrences near the town of Murphysboro in southern Illinois. We sought evidence. We pretended, in a fabulous way, to seek the beast itself, even as we disbelieved that it existed. Our expedition failed, and some reticence, some slight embarrassment, has prevented me from writing about it until now; it has taken all this time for me to understand that the point was not what we may or may not have seen and heard there in the swamp, but rather what happened in our minds.)

In past millennia the Mississippi River changed its course to some 15 miles westward, leaving where it formerly had run a lowland wilderness of muck and water-tolerant trees and bamboo thickets. Ten miles in length, 40 square miles in whole extent, it is a silent and hostile place crept over by vines, crept through by snakes and other things.

The people who eventually came to settle the area built their town atop the limestone bluff that once had defined the primal river’s eastern bank, at its confluence with a lesser stream named the Big Muddy, overlooking the wilderness they called The Scatters.

In winter, when the snakes were sleeping, a few men set their traps there, or shot the ducks that used the shallow potholes of the swamp. But most counted it a place to be avoided. Anyone whose night-running hound followed game into The Scatters waited until morning to try to find the dog and fetch him out.

As it happened, I had flown across the Mississippi in the spring of 1975, outbound toward three months in Russia. It was a season of ruinous floods. Engorged by rain and by snow melt on its upper tributaries, the river had overspread the banks by miles in every direction. From the air, it seemed less like a river than a vast and turbid sea. As far as one could see from the plane’s window, farms and woodlots and whole hamlets had been swallowed up.

It is possible I might even have spied Murphysboro, perched dry atop its bluff, safe from the flood’s harm. But I didn’t know to look. And so it would not have registered in any case.

“It came just to the edge of the yard,” the young woman said, “And stopped there, looking at us.”

Came how? Shambling, perhaps, as a bear might move?

“No, not like that. It walked the way a person walks, arms swinging at the side.”

She was 17 years old, a leader in her high school class — pretty, a good scholar, a cheerleader. Not a girl desperate for notice. Her parents’ house was in a development at the westernmost edge of Murphysboro, backed up directly to the bluff that fell away through thickets and broken ground down to The Scatters. Cheryl Ray and her friend, Randy Creath, had been sitting in the breezeway of the house, the dusk deepening, when they heard a sound of something moving in the bushes at the end of the yard.

She stepped indoors to switch on the yard lamp. When she came out again, Randy had gone near the edge of the brush and faced the thing at near quarters. Seven feet tall, they guessed it to be.

Covered over with tan or dirty white hair, except the face, which was smooth. The eyes gave back the lamplight in red reflection.

And the smell of it, borne to them on the warm air, was unspeakably foul.

With a boy’s bravado, Randy snatched up a decorative stone from the lamp’s base and flung it directly at the creature, which did not react at all but only continued to inspect them levelly — then turned in an unhurried way and walked back as it had come, back into the undergrowth and down the steep incline toward the lowland and the swamp.

“Walked,” Cheryl Ray said again. “Like a man walks.”

Earlier that afternoon, at another house in the outer rank of homes in that same development, a child of four years had come breathless to tell his mother about something he’d spied at the yard’s edge. A big man in a furry coat, he said it was. The mother, busy in her kitchen, familiar with the extravagance of a toddler’s imagination, sent him back outside to play and thought no more about it — until she read the newspaper account of what Cheryl and Randy had seen.

In a small hour of morning — at 2 a.m. in Riverside Park where a traveling carnival was quartered — four carnival workers heard a commotion among the ponies and, going with flashlights to investigate, found the thing standing outside the pen, watching the ponies milling in alarm. Their cries sent it off. And they did not immediately speak of what they’d seen, thinking it might frighten the paying clientele away. Only after the show had closed and they were ready to travel on to play some different town did they report the incident to the police.

Those are seven who saw. And there were two others, although these last two must remain unidentified here.

At the public boat ramp after dark, a young man and an older woman — another man’s wife — were seriously occupied with whatever it was their urges commanded and the privacy of the boy’s parked car allowed, when a cry from the direction of the river chilled their ardor. A cry like neither of them had ever heard: A cross between an eagle and an elephant, the youth would later describe it. Starting high, and sliding down to a roar.

Sitting up and switching on the car lights, he saw it standing thigh-deep amid the floating brush and sodden logs and other flood wrack in the swollen Big Muddy. Its eyes shown red in the sudden headlight beams. It made another horrendous hoot like the first.

Patrolman Jim Nash of the Murphysboro police department was on night duty when those two arrived at the station, their clothing still in disarray, gibbering with terror at what they’d just seen — a vision they had to report to someone, even if by doing so they might risk discovery by the lady’s husband.

Patrolman Nash wrote out their statement. And with a fellow officer he went down to the boat ramp. Flashlights in hand, they made their way through thickets along the riverbank, following the splashing noises made by some large creature that kept always just outside the reach of their lights. Then came a scream. Very close, it seemed, and exactly as the boy had described — a cry altogether unknown to Nash, although he had hunted and trapped the creatures of the area for years and believed he knew all the sounds they made.

“We ran,” Jim Nash would say afterward. “I don’t mind saying it, we plain ran. My partner lost his revolver and had to go back the next day to find it. Now, when a policeman drops his gun and runs, you know he’s scared.”

But there was more work that night. Nash took the department’s German shepherd attack dog from its pen and returned with other officers to the river. The dog made trail, and the track led first along the bottoms, then up a ravine toward higher ground in the direction of a ruined farmstead and an unused barn. At the door of the barn the dog stopped — went flat on its belly against the ground.

They prodded the beast through the door, but it instantly crept out again, whimpering.

The police radioed for support. Sheriff’s deputies came. The barn was surrounded while they waited for morning. Then day broke, and they went inside and nothing was there — if anything ever had been there. All they found was some evil-smelling scum that, on analysis, turned out to be from the municipal sewage lagoon, which lay on a direct line between the river and the barn. Evidently something had waded through the lagoon on the way to the abandoned farm. But what had done that?

“I wish I knew,” said Tobias Berger, the Murphysboro chief of police. “And I’ll bet you wish you knew, too.”

That was our initial task, to hear the testimony. Nine people had seen something they were at a loss to explain or to name — nine people, most of them unknown to one another, whose accounts were consistent in every important detail. Some of them — the carnival men — no longer were anywhere about. The compromised wife, for obvious reasons, preferred not to speak. Their stories had to be gotten from the police reports.

The recitations of those who did agree to talk had a certain quality of polish. There had, after all, been telephone calls from the New York Times — calls from Europe, even. A tale too many times repeated begins to have a practiced sound. And yet …

Ross Lillard, the lawyer in our group, was and is a man of disciplined mind. By nature, by professional habit, he sifts testimony and evidence with ingrained caution. Like the others of us, he listened to the stories, asked several oblique and unexpected questions — subtracting the glibness of the replies to hear what else remained.

“They would,” he said afterward, “make good witnesses in a court of law.”

Then, in a borrowed Jeep and with the light of that first day failing, we clawed our way down a rutted track from the bluff on which the town stood to the beginning of The Scatters. And finally, in full darkness, entered in.

At the start, we were to have been a party of four, not five.

Michael Fancher was a reporter for the Kansas City Star, who shortly would become the paper’s city editor. Rick Solberg was an experienced Star photographer. I was the newspaper’s editorial commentator on foreign matters. Written-out and tired after the long assignment in the Soviet Union, I had noticed the small item in the Murphysboro paper and, conspiring with Fancher, had instigated a lark. Monster hunting beats writing editorials any day.

Harlan Sorkin, a St. Louis insurance broker, agreed to join the expedition as a consultant, having previously investigated similar reports, from the state of Washington to Boggy Creek, and been interviewed on the radio and quoted in print and by that means having acquired a certain cachet as an authority in these matters.

Lillard, my lawyer friend, was an accidental addition.

Our families had had dinner together on the eve of the departure for Murphysboro, and Ross had found the notion of our venture hugely amusing. Returning home, then, he mentioned it to his mother, who was visiting from out of state.

That was indeed interesting, she said. Because his father had seen such a creature once as a boy in the woods of Tennessee. But his father had never spoken of it, said Ross, amazed. Except to her, she replied, he’d never spoken of it to anyone.

My telephone rang that night at a late hour. It was Lillard, of course, and he was no longer just amused. He was on fire to enlist.

Even in the pursuit of chimeras, one goes equipped. Or else the enterprise, whether serious or only a game, becomes hollow and without either humor or point. The job of quartermaster had earlier fallen to me.

“That has a breaking strength of two thousand pounds,” the man in the marine supply store had said, fingering the braided nylon rope on the spool. “For water skiing it’s way too heavy.”

“It’s not for skiing.”

“Well, then, what do you have to tow?”

“Not tow,” I said. “To tie up. We may need to tie something up.”

“A boat or a plane or something?”

“An animal.”

Interest quickened in his eyes. “Yeah?”

“On the order of a gorilla, but maybe bigger. A gorilla can stretch a truck tire like a rubber band.”

“Jeezus!” the clerk said. And stripped 70 yards of the finger-thick rope from the spool.

The zoo director had not laughed. Nor had the zoo’s veterinarian.

The latter presented two loaded darts in a small case, and a third dart, empty, for practicing with the rifle.

“Nicotine is faster,” he said. “But you have to be very specific about weight, which in this case you can’t be. With nicotine there’s hardly any margin for error. Too little, and there’s no effect at all. Too much, and you kill the animal. What I’ve put in these” — he took a dart from the case and turned it carefully in his fingers — “is more forgiving. It’s a controlled substance. A hallucinogen, actually, and for veterinary use only. But I’m letting you take it because of the problem about weight. One of these will put a 400 to 600 pound animal down for five hours, a little more or less. But it does have one disadvantage.”

And that drawback?

“Well, we generally use it only on dangerous animals that are caged. And there it makes no difference. But keep in mind, after you’ve gotten the dart in properly, it will take about 30 minutes to work.”

We thought, together, about the implications of that.

“Do you have a radio?” the zoo director asked. Our plan had not called for one. “Send one of your party out to a telephone, then,” he said. “If you get something on the ground, I’ll fly in a cage. You’ll have it down and tied and if it begins to come around you can always use the second dart. That gives you 10 hours in all, which should be plenty. All this assumes that what you’ve tied up is not just some feeble-minded guy who’s been roaming the woods over there in Illinois.”

(“There’s this to think about,” counselor Lillard would say later, during the long cross-state drive. “Suppose we do find something out there. We can’t know exactly what it is. And if it should turn out to be a hominid, it may very damned well have civil rights.”)

The zoo director had an afterthought.

“I’d take a fire extinguisher. We find them useful in zoo work. The hiss and sudden discharge of vapor will usually turn a charge. Beyond that, I can’t think what else would be helpful. Evidently it’s a primate of some sort, and primates, besides having intelligence, also are curious. So there’s no point tramping around hunting for it. Just make your camp and wait. You’re the bait.”

I wished that he might have put it another way.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “And you might try burning a can of chocolate in your fire at night. All primates are fond of chocolate.”

Thus, before even arriving on the creature’s own ground, the parameters of its probable weight had been considered. And the mechanics of subduing and restraining. Something of its nature was suspected. And its possible standing in law. Something known even of its dietary predilections.

Out of the thin smoke of fantasy, the chimera had suddenly begun to exhibit palpable character and shape.

Now, laboring in the Jeep’s headlights, we winched aside fallen trees and maneuvered between standing ones until we came to the chosen place — unnamed on our topographical map — that would be Mud Camp.

Indian summer had ended abruptly and the weather had turned raw. Several gasoline lanterns were hung out on branches to make a 100-yard perimeter of light. Tents were put up and provisions stowed. Mike Fancher and Harlan Sorkin, as I remember, volunteered to take the first watch.

The others of us crawled warm inside tents and bags as a cold rain began to fall. And soon slept. And, sleeping, sank away a foot at least into the terra infirma. Then woke, immediately it seemed, in a sodden down, tents sliding away from under us, bedrolls soaked.

Mud Camp had no bottom. A forest grew there. The dropped leaves gave an appearance, a similitude, of substance and support.

But that was all illusion. Trees sprang from, and leaves lay upon, the merest crust atop the deposited alluvium of the ancient river.

Wet that crust and then disturb it, as we had done, and the patient bog below opened instantly to receive you.

Fancher and Sorkin, the night watchers, had waited and listened beside the smoking fire through a night that had revealed to them nothing except the outer limits of discomfort — until the fire, too, sank hopelessly and died with a hiss. They came now in their ponchos to help deal with the wreckage of camp.

Sorkin held up his sleeping bag, a mess of mud and wetness without having yet even been slept in.

“Who cares what lives here?” he said. “Let’s all go home.” Of the five, he was the one true believer in the beast. We supposed he said it for a joke, but in his trembling misery it was impossible to be sure.

Logs were dragged and positioned side by side to make a platform on which to re-erect the tents. More logs and sticks and chopped brush were laid as corduroy walkways to still another platform that supported our stores of food and equipment, chiefly contained in the Tanganyika Box — a great hinged crate that many years before had followed me home on a boat, filled with hides and heads, from the East African hunting outpost of Arusha. The Tanganyika Box held all our edibles, our lantern fuel, the portable stove, and the hallucinogenic darts, so its security was paramount.

But the mud, as I have said, was deep. Who knows how deep? The logs gradually sank away and the platforms and walkways vanished. Each several hours new materials had to be gathered and the whole operation repeated.

By these exertions, concerned mainly with various failed strategies for comfort, we managed to waste all of the second day.

I cannot remember the exact order of the second night’s watches.

We stood by twos, so either Lillard and Solberg or Lillard and Fancher must have been first — from dark until midnight — for one of them shook me awake and I went then with Sorkin to keep vigil at the fire. The others were in their tents.

We refilled and pumped the lanterns, brightening the lighted perimeter.

A can of chocolate syrup, forgotten until now, was dug from the Tanganyika Box and opened and put to warm and bubble in the edge of the flames, smelling chocolaty and companionable.

But the cold came seeping and the drizzle commenced again.

Sorkin’s boots were wet inside. His misery had grown profound.

“Christ!” he said. “Why am I here?” And this time it could not be mistaken for a joke.

Far away an owl hooted. Followed by a thin, laughing call of some unknown small night animal. Sorkin peered at his watch, whose hands scarcely moved. One hour of our scheduled six had elapsed.

A twig snapped, an improbable sound in that wetness. Nearer there were more rustlings. Our interest quickened. Out of the darkness came an opossum, dazzled by the lanterns, who proceeded stately across the light circle of the camp. It was an event. We returned then to working our cold toes in our boots and imagining the sensible comfort of distant beds.

Hunkered there with backs against trees, breathing the fire’s smoke and praying for time to pass, we fell away into a vague state between hopelessness and dreaming. And time did pass, for it got somehow to be three o’clock in the morning.

Three o’clock exactly. The hour would afterward be fixed in all our minds.

Like an eagle’s scream. It’s how the sound began, but not as loud as you would expect — if you were able to expect it at all. Not at first. Then growing in volume until it seemed to fill the head. Then sliding down — what, three octaves, four? — to a rumble, vast and guttural, resonating inside some great cavity. This last seeming not just to fill the head but the world as well.

All taking place over an eternity of seconds. Enough time that we were able to turn, Sorkin and I, and each record, as in the slow moment before an automobile collision, the exact sequence of expressions that passed across the other’s face: confusion, followed by denial, then crazy alarm.

There was a plan. We had refined it in the car, and rehearsed it in the wet camp the day before.

One watcher was to activate the tape recorder while the other quietly roused the sleepers. The five of us would then wait facing outward toward the perimeter of the lanterns. As the thing hove into view, Solberg, the photographer, would begin making pictures. If the flash of the strobe light did not turn it — if it still advanced — Sorkin would bring the fire extinguisher into play.

Then, when it did turn, I would fire the tranquilizing dart into the creature’s fleshy hindparts. Or, in case it kept coming in spite of it all, Fancher and Lillard would have shotguns loaded with .00 buckshot, lethal at close range but very much a last resort. We meant to catch, not kill. And the creature, remember, might have civil rights.

That was the plan. In the instant of opportunity, it was forgotten altogether.

As the enormous sound passed to silence, Sorkin and I shouted the camp awake. Lillard afterward remembered the vexing urgency of our calls: “Get up! Something’s out here! Something’s coming!”

He remembered his irritation at being disturbed so soon — only moments it seemed — after managing to achieve sleep in his wet bag and collapsing tent. His instinct was to ignore the commotion.

Then the second cry came, perhaps 15 seconds after the first. It may have been nearer. Certainly it was louder.

Lillard’s next memory is of being outside his tent, fully dressed, shotgun loaded, standing with four other thoroughly unnerved grown men in a line at the fire.

We waited, our curious array of armaments at the ready. The chocolate bubbled and stank as it burned. “At least we have the sound on tape,” someone whispered. But in the first panic, I had failed to switch on the machine.

Night paled to morning. The far circle of lanterns guttered and went out. The chimera did not reveal itself. Nothing ever came.

Emboldened by daylight, we prospected outward from camp in the direction of the cries. We found several impressions in the swamp floor that could, with effort of imagination, have been large footprints, but which, because of their indistinctness in the muck and leaf litter, are safer reported to have been nothing at all. The best of those we duly photographed.

But something else we found I am even now at a loss to explain.

At a distance of 200 or so yards from the tents, we came upon a part of the lowland forest that had suffered a peculiar sort of violence. In a roughly circular area some 20 feet across, every tree had been bent, torn apart at its branchings, or entirely broken off. Not chewed off; broken, as you might snap a wooden pencil.

Living saplings, these were — some no larger than your wrist, but others as thick as a man’s lower leg. Much of the bark had been stripped from them and flung about to lodge in standing trees at the edge of the circle, as if in a furious display. And the damage plainly was fresh, for the bark still was pliant and greasy-slick on its inner side. Some of the samplings had been snapped two or three feet from the ground, some a good deal higher. Can you imagine the strength required simply to lay hold of a living three-inch tree and break it off at face level?

No freak wind had done that, for the night had been uncommonly still. What might have, then? I don’t pretend to know, or care to guess.

It was necessary on that third day, the last one, to make a trip to town for water. I stayed behind to keep the Tanganyika Box from sinking and, if time allowed, to explore a bit alone.

The rain had stopped. The swamp was very empty, very still.

At a crevice in the bluff, I found the entrance to a cave, but had no proper equipment for exploring it — or, to be truthful, much desire to. (Sorkin’s theory had been that the creature might actually live in caves, and that, driven out by the previous spring’s floods, it had made its way to higher ground where, like an opportunistic raccoon, it had discovered the delights of Murphysboro’s garbage cans.)

In early afternoon, I was surprised to see at a distance through the trees the figure of another man. I called to him, but he did not hear, or in any case made no reply. Soon the Jeep could be heard bouncing and spinning along the muddy track, and the others came back — or three of them did.

Lillard, it turned out, had telephoned his law office and had learned that a friend’s father had died and that the funeral was to be the next day. Still crusted with the dried goo of Mud Camp, he had gone directly to the airport.

I told of having sighted another prowler in the swamp. Yes, the others said, they’d seen him, too. While in town, they had gone to the police station to describe for Patrolman Nash the previous night’s cries and compare them to the ones he’d heard. One of the witnesses had been there, the heavy-breathing young lad of the boat-ramp episode.

He had listened to their conversation with Nash. Then had asked where our camp was, and rushed out in great excitement. On the Jeep trip back in, they had met him again, afoot with a rifle. He was goddamn tired, he said, of being laughed at and called “Monster Man.” He intended to look for the thing until he found it and lay it out dead on the ground. Then, he reckoned, the laughing would stop.

Lillard’s gear was packed. Supper was cooked and the tin plates stowed unwashed. Two nights of lost or interrupted sleep had numbed us. The afternoon shortened. Shadows fell long across the litter of the swamp.

By some process of consensus that I do not now recall, it suddenly was decided that camp should be struck and that we should move at once 50 yards or so up a brush incline to relocate ourselves against the face of the eastern bluff. So the rest of the equipment was packed away, all except the sleeping bags, and we accomplished this hasty transfer in the last half-hour before dark.

Some of the others remember that final night for its bitter coldness.

I remember it for the sense of the imaginary become utterly real; for the intimation of some unbearable strangeness about to draw close and perhaps to manifest itself. I thought, lying in my bag, of that flindered piece of woods — of things that rage and break, and fill the solitary places with their cries.

I considered, too late, that there may be things in this world better unfound. Better not even looked for — even in a joke.

Our backs were to the overhanging limestone cliff. To the front, between us and the tip of the declining slope, we had built a line of fires. For warmth, we told each other. Not at all for protection. Not at all to deter something that might ascend the slope toward us. Not to reveal it — face first, then torso — as it mounted the rising ground.

We tried to keep a watch. Two men at first; then one gave up to exhaustion. Then the remaining one slept, his loaded shotgun on the ground beside him pointing outward toward the edge, sparks from the fire burning a thousand pinholes in the shell of his bag.

And that was the end of it. There was no second watch.

We woke in the morning, fires burned down to cold ash. And came directly out of The Scatters and back to our various places of reason.

There is fine currency in any adventure, even a failed one.

A dry length of sapling’s trunk with the bark peeled from one side makes a weight for my papers on this desk. Rick Solberg’s photographs curl and fade somewhere in a drawer. The story, though I have not written it before, has made good telling at years of cocktail parties, and around the cooking fires in several hunting camps. And Ross Lillard still gives a fine imitation of the cry, when he can be persuaded to.

But as I hear the laughter rising — and even as I join it — some part of me stands uneasily aside.

I used to do a fair amount of packing alone through big woods, carrying a blanket roll and a little food, bedding wherever darkness overtook me. I have done that since, a time or two. And may sometime again.

But on that night in the swamp years ago my feeling for wilderness places forever changed. I go less comfortably, a bit less certain of what could be met in some lonely glade.

I offer no conclusions here. For where is the evidence? And without evidence, where’s the case? Some sounds in the night, some broken trees. Beyond those, nothing was found.

Something was lost, though. For me, it was the power ever again to surely, safely disbelieve.

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