The Devil’s Tramping Ground–by Stephen Mark Rainey

The Devil’s Tramping Ground: a 40-foot barren circle out in the wilds of Chatham County, NC, a dozen or so miles northeast of Siler City.

According to local legend, the Tramping Ground is one of those rare places on Earth where the wall between worlds is thin, and here the devil rises nightly and paces in a circle, plotting death and destruction for hapless humanity. The stories also tell us that most animals—dogs in particular—shy away from the place. Items left in the circle before sunset will disappear before dawn. And anyone who attempts to spend an entire night there will be driven off by an overwhelming sense of imminent doom.

Reportedly, several years ago, the NC Department of Agriculture conducted a study of the soil there and determined that it was sterile, though the department’s specialists could offer no explanation for its condition.

Not shabby, as far as local legends go. I’ve always been rather fond of haunted places, and North Carolina has its fair share. The Devil’s Tramping Ground isn’t all that far from me here in Greensboro, though until relatively recently, I haven’t had much reason to go exploring there. When the opportunity arose, however, I was more than happy to go check it out.

Some of you who know me, or otherwise keep abreast of my misadventures , are aware that I’m an avid geocacher. If you’re not familiar with geocaching, it’s a kind of scavenger hunt, where you hunt hidden containers using a hand-held GPS device. (To get the whole sheboygan, go to www.geocaching.com.)

As you might imagine, when I discovered that there are not one but two geocaches hidden at the Devil’s Tramping Ground, I was pretty well excited. Even better, one of them was a special kind of cache: a night cache, which is set up specifically to be hunted after dark—this one titled “Hell on Earth.” So, back in the late summer, along with my friend Bridget—a fellow geocacher—I set out for the Tramping Ground, armed with GPS, a strong flashlight, my hiking pole, and a few provisions from the cache bar.

It’s definitely lonely territory out there, enough to make you feel as if you’re driving through the southern redneck version of Lovecraft’s Dunwich. The site is unmarked, and is actually located on Devil’s Tramping Ground Road. Since I had the GPS coordinates, ground zero was easy enough to find; we arrived shortly before sunset, parked just off the road, and hiked a hundred or so feet back to the circle. My first impression was that the place was entirely unremarkable.

The Tramping Ground looked like any other clearing in the woods, save for a fair amount of graffiti on the nearby trees suggesting that I screw the devil. Well, let’s not be hasty. There were the remains of countless bonfires here, but to my surprise, virtually no trash. I have it on good authority that the Tramping Ground is a popular gathering place for excitable young folk, and it’s highly unlikely they’re teetotalers; but perhaps the devil is fastidious. After all, things left in the circle are supposed to disappear before sunrise….

The coordinates for the first cache, titled “The Devil’s Caching Ground,” indicated its hiding place was nearby, so Bridget and I spread out and commenced to hunting. We had a good idea of what we were looking for, and we hunted…and hunted…and hunted…only to come up empty-handed. That rascally devil stole the geocache! (Or so we thought; it was later found by other cachers, so it may just be that the devil does things to your eyes, such as making you require bifocals as you get older.) In any event, by this time, it was starting to get pretty dark, so we decided to abandon the hunt and prepare ourselves to go after the night cache. I will say that, as someone with a great fondness for the outdoors, and lots of experience in the woods, the Caching Ground…er…Tramping Ground was a reasonably eerie place. As the sun fell behind the trees, the ghostly songs of whippoorwills began to echo out of the dark distance, and from close at hand came the distinctive call of a Great Horned Owl.

We began to shine our flashlights into the woods, and it wasn’t long before I saw it: a bright, cyclopean eye, high above the ground, glowing like a fiery ember. We knew this was the first sign, so we made our way toward it. From there, we had to search long and hard for the second sign, but we eventually succeeded. As we proceeded farther into the woods, we would have to find many more such signs. At first, we were able to stick to a well-used deer path, but it wasn’t long before we found ourselves bushwhacking through denser forest, with lots of undergrowth to impede our progress…and still, the occasional glowing eye—sometimes a pair of them—in the distance beckoned us on. I could tell we were on a winding course, occasionally backtracking; on my GPS, I periodically marked a waypoint so we could find our way back to the clearing with relative ease; if I hadn’t, it’s likely we’d be out there still; either that, or hanging out with that vast assortment of items the devil likes to steal from the site.

At last, we came to the final sign…and there was the cache: a nice little container, securely hidden and camouflaged.

About that time, we began to hear voices somewhere in the darkness, though we couldn’t tell whether they were in front of us or behind us. I suspected it might be some of the aforementioned party-goers, but I mainly hoped that, when we emerged from the woods, we wouldn’t be facing any temperamental rednecks armed with shotguns and buck teeth. However, as we began to head back, via the waypoints I had marked, we kept ending up in places we had not passed on our way in.

How peculiar.

At one point, I was only a dozen feet from a waypoint, but I had blundered into the middle of an impenetrable tangle of briers and vines that extended much farther than the reach of my flashlight beam. Okay then. A hacking and a backtracking we shall go, and—finally—we located the deer path again and eventually arrived back at the circle without undue incident (dammit?). Happily, there were no other human beings anywhere in view or in earshot, so we ended our evening at the Devil’s Tramping Ground by heading toward denser population centers and a very late, much-anticipated dinner.

I have noticed, since I’ve been back from the Devil’s Tramping Ground, there are times that my bifocals don’t seem to be quite as effective as they used to be, especially when I’m out caching after dark. Damn if that devil isn’t just a plain old rotten bastard.

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