There's a certain smirk you get from people here when you ask directions to the Devil's Tramping Ground.
What you're asking about is an oddly perfect circular path in the woods, about 2 feet wide and 15 feet in diameter. And, at least according to local folklore, strange things happen in that circle that have begged for centuries for a natural explanation.``There, sometime during the dark of night, the Majesty of the Underworld of Evil silently tramps around that bare circle - thinking, plotting and planning against good, and in behalf of wrong,' writes John Harden in his 1947 collection, ``The Devil's Tramping Ground and Other North Carolina Mystery Stories.'
Harden says no one has ever spent the night at the Devil's Tramping Ground to disprove that it's the devil whose nightly perambulations keep the path clear of vegetation. The author has a good eye for mysteries and a nice storytelling touch. But he's no reporter.
I spent the night.
The short of it is: Nothing happened. Not really.
But that's getting ahead of myself.
People around this Chatham County town have grown up hearing about the spot where visitors' belongings mysteriously move or disappear, where visitors mysteriously move or disappear, where dogs cower and run away. The tales about the Devil's Tramping Ground are at least 200 years old, according to folklorists. But their spookiness is evergreen.
Teenage girls working the counter grill at Harper's Crossroads say they lock their car doors when they drive past the spot, along a country road near the town airport. Several people interviewed for this story claim to have seen a pair of red, glowing eyes from the road. One talks about a harrowing time he tried to drive his car off the road to the spot and it stalled and wouldn't restart. The same thing happened when he brought another car the next night.
``I've seen some strange things up there,' says Suzanne Wolfe, 30. She talks about seeing a dead cat inside the circle on one trip and finding it gone the next day.
Not everyone is a believer. But the supposed skeptics still look shocked if you say you're going to spend the night.
``Some things you just don't mess with,' says Derinda Wallace, 28, a clerk at The Pantry gas station.
The Devil's Tramping Ground today is a little like downtown Siler City, where every third storefront is closed or occupied by a thrift store and the whole place looks about 30 years past its prime. About 100 feet off the road, littered with beer and food containers and the remnants of a campfire, the tramping ground is sporting some serious crabgrass across its supposedly inviolate circular path.
Everyone seems to have heard about this deterioration. It corresponds to an eroding interest in the spot, apparently. There used to be more talk about it, more out-of-towners stopping to ask directions.
``Back in Polk Dixon's day,' says Siler City Mayor Earl Fitts, referring to his late Sunday school teacher, mentioned in Harden's 1947 account, ``every time he got a group together he'd talk about it.'
But just what the tramping ground's decline means isn't clear.
In terms of crime, Maj. Al Craven of the Siler City Police Department says there's no sign the devil has left town. ``If you want to look at people that are unsaved, then, yes, the devil is busy,' he says.
``It's gotten worse, if anything,' says Jan Beal, 40, as she waits for a friend in one of 10 rocking chairs in front of the Bestfood Cafeteria on U.S. 64.
Some people see no contradiction in the two trends. Real evil, they say, has nothing to do with a circle in the woods.
``You don't have to fear a spot in the ground,' says Brenda Walters, 55, who lives a couple of miles up Airport Road from the devil's place. ``You have to fear the devil's work, wherever he is.'
But if that's true, why do all the jaws drop when I say I'm going there to spend the night?
One part of the legend holds that campers who go to sleep inside the circle will wake up outside. My waitress at Hayley Bales restaurant knew that part.
``If y'all go to sleep inside that circle and you wake up outside of it, call me here. Call me here tomorrow. Will you do that?' Carla Thomas asked, a minute after calling the legend an ``old wives' tale.'
None of us woke up outside the circle. (Did I mention I brought along two large dogs and a brave female companion?) My 1988 Nissan Sentra didn't stall when I drove it over the circle. The dogs romped happily - no cowering.
But with so much legend behind the place, a certain power of suggestion was hard to shake.
When we were setting up my 19-year-old pup tent, for instance, my joking references to the devil were all sounding to my ears like lines delivered by the overconfident, skeptical character in horror movies shortly before the slashing begins. Getting up to ``use the facilities' in the middle of the night was an exercise in taming the imagination.
And then there was my slightly embarrassing experience right before going to sleep. There had already been a couple of ``What's that?' moments, when we listened and then dismissed whatever it was.
Then I thought I heard footfalls.
They weren't nearly loud enough to be someone walking around the tent. They were muffled. Sort of ghostly. One of the dogs was staring out the screen window with a dreamy look.
My friend couldn't hear anything, and I soon decided I couldn't either. But I report the experience here for whatever it's worth: as evidence of the power of legend over the most dyed-in-the-wool skeptic; as a shred of affirmation for the believers around Siler City who might otherwise find this story disappointing, if not a little mean-spirited; or just as proof that a lifetime of rock 'n' roll does damage one's hearing.
Meanwhile, if any fluky misfortunes come my way in the coming weeks or months, how many voices - in my head and in my office - are going to fail to draw the connection to my night with the devil?
And one last thought. Another question. If a reporter actually came away from the Devil's Tramping Ground with an exclusive interview with the Prince of Darkness, would anyone this side of the National Enquirer publish it? Or would you find yourself reading a harmless story like this one - while the reporter walked a yellow referral slip over to Mental Health?