Land in the Sky: No Slouch

Slouch Hat“I’m sorry that you don’t believe what I’m telling you, but come with me and you’ll have your ghost.”

It always begins this way. A favorite happy hour prank pulled on unsuspecting summer visitors down at Pandora’s Tavern. Tourists. Those nice folks who drop in because they’ve read the many agreeable reports concerning this place. Mostly on the internet. Mostly on Facebook. Pandora’s Tavern: the kind of watering hole where strangers are welcomed with companionable tales of neighborhood hijinks and unusual goings-on. Like this one about a ghost. It gets them every time.

“Okay, show me!”

Next thing you know, a doubting tipsy tourist is led out the door by one of our “local characters,” a guy who wears a vintage slouch hat and raggedy-ass Dutchman’s breeches. The unlikely pair then heads across the parking lot and through the gates of the big historic graveyard next door to Pandora’s Tavern. Let’s face it, you’d have to be at least a few sheets to the wind to think that bumbling through a stony lonesome at day’s end is an good way to resolve a barroom dispute. Especially one concerning the existence of a ghost. But I’ve witnessed far more ludicrous methods of philosophical investigation. Mostly at universities.

Some years ago, I participated in a seminar called “Environmental Ethics.” The professor explained that the goal of our inquiries was to come up with a compelling argument to “preserve biodiversity.” It was all very rational. The professor insisted our case be pitched in terms accessible to the lay person. “Something,” he intoned with dead seriousness, “that you could use to convince the guy sitting next to you at a bar.” I suggested we just buy the guy a drink. At that point, I was kindly asked to leave the seminar and my brief career in philosophy came to a close. In vino veritas.

But anyways, back in the big historic graveyard, our tipsy tourist and his outlandish guide are making their way across the graveyard through fading Chardonnay twilight toward a distant stone wall at the far back of the enclosure. Here the burial ground gives way to bosky darkness. Dimly seen—low among the polished stones—are the faint flickerings of solar-powered grave lights, now here, now there, now gone. The cemetery air is fragrant with wild mountain thyme. Ground lichens crunch underfoot. Somewhere an owl begins to hoot.

At last the ghost-hunting party comes to a halt in front of a cheerless, bluestone marker. It’s now almost too dark to read, but inscribed near the top of the monument is a name: Rip Van Winkle. It’s just one of many tombstones that bear his name in these parts. A truism derived from literary theory seems relevant here: “The final resting places of fictional characters can fill a large semantic field.” I was taught that in grad school, in another seminar, one I did not get kicked out of. What distinguishes this particular Rip Van Winkle tombstone from all the rest in the Catskill Mountains is the legend attached to it.

The story goes, if you stand in front of this tombstone and call out Rip Van Winkle’s name, his ghost will respond from the forest. I for one enjoy a ghost story that can be ground tested. Apparently, so does our tipsy tourist. He gives it a try. He stands in front of the tombstone. He turns toward the dark forest. He cups his hands around his mouth and calls out: “Rip Van Winkle!” A moment later, he gets a pale response: “Rip Van Winkle!”

“You have your ghost,” says the guide, his own voice now strangely paling.

“That’s an echo, you idiot!” shouts our tipsy tourist.

He turns menacingly toward his guide, only to catch the fading form of a vintage slouch hat, the raggedy end of an eerie deliquescence that leaves our tipsy tourist standing alone and in the dark, at the back of the big historic graveyard down by Pandora’s Tavern.