It’s hard to hide from the sky in the Dakotas. Manitoba, Saskatchewan, eastern Montana– no matter where you are out there you feel like you’re on a hill, the land all around you sloping gently off to the distant horizon, just laying down and admitting the sky’s supremacy.
You’ll never know how the sky can hold you until you’ve walked along a field out there on an afternoon in early summer with nothing else around but the sun and that infinite blue. You’ll never know how cold you can be until you’ve felt a January wind unroll without a ripple across a thousand miles of uninterrupted sky. And there’s nothing in this world quite like watching a towering wall of textured darkness shot through with lightning flow slowly across that enormous sky toward you.
From indoors, a big plains thunderstorm like that is just impressive. But if you’ve ever been caught outside as one rolls in, caught out with nothing but a jacket or a tent for shelter– then you know what this story is about. You know that primal feeling of fear and helplessness that comes as the first dark clouds catch up with you. You understand why the old stories gave life and consciousness to the chaos that breaks so suddenly around you; called it The Thunderbird and gave it a mind of its own. Nothing without a mind could ever be so crazy.
But you can’t hide from the sky on the great northern plains. And when you have nowhere to hide from the things you can’t control, you may break– or you may learn to call upon the things more powerful than fear. You may begin to understand why the old stories gave so many different sides to The Thunderbird, so much power to hurt and help. The lightning that strikes me down may bring the thunder that wakes you up.
Welcome to the Camp Monsters podcast.
Every part of the country has its own legends to explain that sound you thought you heard in the middle of the storm, or that figure you swear you saw in the instant of a flash of lightning. So every week we’ll be travelling the country, sitting around the campfire and trying scare each other with stories about the things that live… just beyond the firelight.
While you listen, remember that these are just… stories. Sure, some of them are based on the testimony of people who claim to have seen these creatures, but it’s up to you how much you believe… and how to explain away what you don’t. So come closer. Let’s hear this week’s legend.
Some kind of country out here on the Great Plains. Stretch out on your back, away from the fire: the stars just envelope you. No trees, no hills, no mountains– nothing to see but the stars, no reason why there should be anything but more stars behind you. If I’d quit talking maybe you could imagine you’re just another star yourself. No, never mind: too lonely. It’s lonely enough out here as it is.
Funny for a land so wide open to be so empty. In the forest or the mountains you’re closed in, you can’t see very far, you can feel alone even when you know there’s another campsite just through the trees. But out here… when you’re alone you really are alone. You can see for miles, so if you don’t see anyone– there isn’t anyone around. Unless…
Have you ever had that dream where you’re doing something by yourself and suddenly you know, know without seeing, that there’s someone or something else there with you? You’re in a small room, alone, and all at once you know that there’s something just on the other side of the only door… something that’s about to come in. Or you’re outside of a building in the rain, and suddenly you know that there’s something running toward you just around that corner of the building… running much faster than you’ll be able to. Maybe you’ve had some shadow of that same feeling when you’re awake? Watching a show by yourself on the couch, you keep looking down the dark hallway beside you even though no one is down there. Or driving late at night you catch yourself glancing in the rearview mirror though you know the back seat is empty.
There’s nothing there. Nothing that we’d call real, anyway. But that nothing makes you leave the couch and go somewhere else; that nothing makes you pull the car over at the next all-night cafe. Because we can’t observe it we say it’s nothing, it isn’t real, but it influenced your actions all the same. Most ancient ways of thinking blurred that sharp distinction we make between real and unreal; they gave the weight of existence to things we only feel, or see in the shadows of our eyes, or in dreams.
Speaking of shadows: do you see that? Way out over there. No? Watch for awhile, closely, and you’ll see a star or two disappear. Watch longer and you’ll see more and more wink out. Then you’ll think you see them flicker, but it’s not the stars. It’s lightning. I’d say there’s a thunderstorm brewing over there. It may miss us, but… well, say what you will about car camping, but it’s nice to have a little extra shelter close at hand. Those big storms can come up quick out here.
Let’s sit here and watch it come. If it does get close you’ll see a real show: lightning flashes one on top of another, thunder rolling continuously. The eyes and voice of the Thunderbird.
The Thunderbird is one of those things with the power to be real and unreal at once. There was a time when everyone on these plains and beyond told stories about the Thunderbird. According to some, Thunderbird helped create the world– so it’s safe to say that as long as there have been people, they have known about the Thunderbird. From the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts, right across the continent the tales are told, the Native Americans and First Nations people know about the Thunderbird. I say they “know” because it is a matter of knowledge, not belief. You don’t “believe” in this campfire, even though it’s something you can’t touch or hold in your hands. You feel it, you see it, you know that it’s real.
People saw Thunderbird regularly in the old days. In dreams and daydreams, visions… in that place where strange thoughts and pictures suddenly jump into your waking mind; what we call the subconscious. In the kind of unexpected, inexplicable encounters you sometimes have when you’re by yourself in a lonely spot. And in the sky during storms. The Thunderbird appeared in many different forms to many different people. On the Pacific Coast, tribes knew the Thunderbird to catch whales, carry them back to land and eat them– and where the whales struggled, clearings appeared in the dense forests for the people to gather camas roots from. Here on the Great Plains, the Thunderbird came each spring to protect the people by battling the great serpent of the underworld, creating thunder in the process. And in the East they knew that the Thunderbird was a messenger, able to fly behind the sun and back, to and from the land of the creator. To some, the Thunderbird appeared as a creature to be seen– to others it was a force to be felt and heard and known, but never seen.
If those big clouds on the horizon catch up with us and you can keep your eyes open, you might see something. But be careful. The Thunderbird is great power embodied, with its own notion of justice and reward and sacrifice. It’s an element of nature, sudden and unforgiving, like lightning or like… huh, well… like love.
Love was mixed up some way in that story of John you may have heard about a few years back. You might have heard the end of the story, anyway. That big to-do with the state fire investigators? Well, things started for John a long time back, and they started with love.
Mm, there’s the first one. Way off in the distance. That first little whisper of thunder. I’m starting to think we won’t have to worry much about putting this fire out, if that storm keeps coming on the way it is. It may miss us yet, but… don’t fall asleep or you might wake up wrapped in sheets of rain.
We were talking about John. That was a strange story, the way the news people told it. The real story is even stranger, and it started a lot further back. Didn’t start out strange at all, though. Started the most natural way in the world. John fell in love.
This was years ago, long before all the things that happened later, when John and Mara were both just through being kids. Mara, that was her name. She was small and dark and quiet, she was smart and serious. John didn’t know what he was yet, but he knew he was crazy about her. I hope everyone has been young and felt that kind of love, love so much bigger than you are, love like a wild force inside yourself… like a storm. I hope we’ve all felt it but I know… I know that only the lucky ones feel it returned. John and Mara were lucky ones.
Once they found each other they were inseparable. And they shared all the big moments that happen to you as you grow up. But it wasn’t the big things that made the magic between them. It was smiling at the wind in their faces when they rode their bikes along the dirt road down to the creek. It was the old smell of that car that they’d both spent all summer working for until they had enough to buy it, together. It was being able to reach out and hold the other’s hands, and feeling sure that they’d always know each other just by touch.
Yeah, John and Mara were lucky. Maybe too lucky. When you find something like that so young you can’t help but think that it happens all the time. It’s a big world from horizon to horizon out on these plains– knowing that there’s a much bigger world beyond the horizon can turn a young person’s head.
It was a night a lot like this: pleasant, but with lightning on the edges. They were driving around, nowhere in particular, not saying much, just trying to be happy. And that was strange, because usually they didn’t have to try. John kept watching the sky, worried that the storm was going to break. Mara kept watching John, and when she laughed at something he said it came out sharp, like a cry.
The storm broke, alright, so heavy you couldn’t see anything for the rain. John pulled off into an overgrown driveway– a little old abandoned farmhouse jumped into the headlights in front of them and John stopped the car, switched off the lights. The rain went on and on, the lightning and thunder vying to blow the world apart and shake it back together. They sat in their car and tried to ride it out, talking long and loud around the roar of the storm.
Mara was bright, you see. She had promise, she had prospects. She wanted to test herself in the wider world out there. Of course she wanted him to come with her, and of course he didn’t want to go. He knew that this was where he should be, that this is where he belonged and he’d never find any other place, any other sky that suited him so well. He thought they belonged here, they both. She promised to come back if that were true.
The storm was at its worst when John got out and walked away into the mud and wind and electricity. Mara tried to stop him, but he disappeared behind a wall of rain, extinguished in the darkness. She waited there in the car, listening as the storm slowly lessened and the thunder rolled away. When she knew for sure that he was gone, walking home across the muddy fields somewhere, she leaned her head against the steering wheel for a long quiet time. Then she sat up and started the car, turned on the headlights– then screamed and pressed herself back into her seat, staring ahead through the rain-distorted windshield.
There was something, something by the old house, its shadow, there was a shadow that … a shadow … It was just a shadow. Cast by the headlights on the wall, plants and grass waving in the wind, flapping darkness against the black eyes of the empty old house. Grotesque, though, and terrifying, like a huge dark bird of prey, no … no, she thought as she stared at it. Not terrifying, just … wild, other-worldly. Amazing too, the way shadows can give us the wind to look at. Like a living thing, intricate, always changing.
The wind in the tall grass in front of the headlights made the shadow bird flap its wings again. It was beautiful, really. And she was almost comforted by it when she saw another movement, off to the right on the edges of the dark, coming toward the car. She heard the heavy footfalls in the gravel an instant before something was scrabbling against the door, searching for the latch. She screamed again and shoved the car in gear just as the passenger door swung open onto a void of wet blackness. Her foot slipped off the gas pedal and then jabbed desperately for it again as something large and dripping flew into the car.
Then in the dim reflected light she saw, and she slammed on the brake and it was John there on the seat beside her, dripping wet and looking at her strangely. “Are you alright?” he asked, and closed the door.
“Yes,” she said, “where were you?” He didn’t answer. He was soaking wet, water streaming off his hair and clothes. But she thought she caught a brightness in his eyes, and for a moment she had the absurd thought that it was because he’d seen that beautiful shadow, and she wanted to talk to him about it. But in a breath she knew that was silly, and when she looked to where the dark shape had been she realized the car had lurched when she was frightened and all the shadows were changed. She turned back to John, touched his arm and was surprised at how warm it was, in spite of the water. She took his hand but it felt different now; her hand didn’t recognize it.
And the next day she drove away, in the car that he’d insisted she should keep. She did her best to keep in touch, for awhile. And she came back to visit a couple times, but she and John never had the same things to say to each other. She missed it out here, she said. She missed the quiet, and the people, and this big night sky. She seemed happy to come back and sorry to leave, but there were things in the city that kept pulling her away. She always had to go back. The visits got rarer and after awhile, folks lost touch with her. She was gone.
John was gone too, in his way. I mean he was always around, but never here. He worked. He hired out to the farms and ranches, ran and fixed equipment, drove truck, did a little bit of everything and did it well and did it tirelessly. He showed up early, stayed late, and then helped out at the church or the community center afterward. But he was never really there to talk to– not unfriendly, just… distracted. Like he was dreaming about something you couldn’t see.
The first thing John did when he saved up enough money was buy that old abandoned farm where he and Mara had talked that night. A broken down old house and a sturdy old barn. He lived out there, I guess, but he never seemed to be around. He was out working. He kept working and not spending until he had enough to buy some of the land around the old house and set up on his own. Then he really disappeared, spent all his time working his own place. He got to be a bit of a local legend, and the kids made up stories about him: that if you saw the shadow of John stealing through his fields in the evening, there was sure to be a storm that night.
It seems he did have visitors, though. On the rare occasions when someone would call on John out at his place they’d always find him in the barn, working on this or that piece of equipment. And as they walked up they’d generally hear John talking. Well, it’s natural enough for a man alone as much as John was to talk to himself– but one or two folks swear that as they came closer they heard someone else reply– someone with a low, very deep voice. Like distant thunder, they said. Alright, so John had a visitor– but whoever it was must have been as quick as they were shy, because upon stepping into the barn it was always just John in sight, waiting patiently for whatever it was they’d come to say.
Most people, as they get older, their love spreads out. The group of people around them grows: old friends bringing in new ones, people getting married, children being born. For better and worse, most people forget what it was like to love the way they did when they first learned how; to love with an irresistible focus and intensity, to be pulled through life by just one big love. It’s a great thing to experience… and a great thing to grow out of. I don’t think John was ever able to grow out of it. Try as he might, I think Mara was always his north star, out-shining all the other things that happened to him.
That showed a few years later when word of Mara started to trickle back into the community. It was just rumor, you know, she didn’t write a letter or anything. But somebody ran into someone who had heard from somebody else that Mara was having hard times in hard places. It’s a big old world, beyond the wide horizon, and some of it isn’t as nice as this. Most people who heard about it shook their heads and sighed and clucked: oh what a shame, I hope things get better for her.
John didn’t. He went off looking for her. Fargo, Grand Forks, Minot; on a lead or a hunch he crossed the line and tried Winnipeg, Regina, Brandon. He found places she’d been, and people who’d met her, and more rumors … but never Mara. And around here, people started talking. They understood his wanting to find her, but they were worried about him, too. He’d leave town without telling anyone, be gone for a week or more, and the first hint anyone would have that he’d come back was someone would find him walking on the side of the road or across a field in the middle of a thunderstorm.
And what kind of people was he getting involved with? He’d been seen around with a stranger that somehow no one ever got a good look at– there’d be the two of them crossing the field, talking or arguing with one another it seemed like, and then you’d look away for a minute and look again, and here would come John by himself. Or you’d be driving behind John and another guy in his truck, see John park by the hardware store and get out. You’d pull in a few spots away and when you walked past, notice his truck was empty and John by himself in the store. The whole town couldn’t be seeing things– what kind of person would hide out that way?
Louanne was John’s nearest neighbor. Nearest is a relative term since it was a mile or more from her place to his. Louanne is the only one who ever saw that stranger up close, but it was too dark for her to see much. It was the night of the big storm, the town really caught it. The nice thing about the Plains is that things generally blow through– if you don’t like the weather, wait half an hour. But this storm kind of stalled and crawled its way across the sky, dumping rain and getting stronger all the time. When it hit, people took shelter as best they could– there was a tornado warning on.
But Louanne came out into her living room when she heard someone or something pounding against her front door. It was dark– the power was out and Louanne only had a little electric lantern to guide her way. The shadows jumped all across her walls as she walked slowly toward the door. She stopped in the middle of the room, listening to the wind and the thunder, wondering whether the sound she’d heard had really been a knock at the door or just something that had been blown against the house. Then it came again… bang bang bang bang against the front door. She stepped softly over to it, reached her hand out to turn the bolt, felt her heart beating fast in her chest, and opened the door.
The wind flapped darkly in her face and the sound of the storm shrieked louder. There was someone there– someone stepped out of the storm toward her. She backed up and raised the lantern: it was John, in rain gear, dripping wet and looking wild. “I found her!” he said, half a shout and half a harsh whisper. The weak electric light showed the smile on his face. “I finally found her!” he said again.
Everyone knew about his search for Mara, Louanne didn’t bother asking him what he was talking about. She just asked, “Tonight?” He said yes, he’d spoken to her on the phone for a minute before they’d lost the connection. She was in a bad way, she needed help; she wanted help. “I’m going to pick her up now,” he said.
Louanne laughed in his face at that. No he wasn’t. Not in this. It would have a wait a day or two at least, all the roads would be flooded that long. John stepped back like she’d slapped him, looked around as if noticing the storm for the first time. Then Louanne saw that there was that other man with John, dimly outlined on the covered porch, tall and dark with his hat jammed down low on his brow, wearing an old-fashioned black rain slicker with lots of overlapping flaps and folds. John locked eyes with the man and paused– something unspoken seemed to pass between them. Then without looking around John said, “I’m going to help her, Louanne. I’ve found her now and I won’t lose her again. I’m going to help her if I have to learn to fly.”
Louanne said he ought to stay for some coffee first– she had a propane stove and could have some ready in a jiff– but John didn’t seem to hear her. He stepped toward the dark stranger outside and the door closed behind him. Louanne left it closed, sat down at the window and watched the two get into John’s truck and drive off. She sat there letting the lightning trace patterns in her eyes, thinking about everything and nothing. She must have drifted off, because she remembers having a dream about being young and in love, but her love was a dark bird that she could never get to stay; that would fly so high she couldn’t see him anymore. A big clap of thunder woke her up, and that’s when she saw the light in the sky out by John’s place and knew right away what it meant. The phones were working again and she got through to the fire department.
When the first trucks arrived John’s barn was already fully engulfed, shooting flames from its windows in spite of the rain. There was no question of saving it, so they set up to try to keep the fire from spreading to the house. But that’s when the screaming began.
There’s something about the scream of a horse in panic pain that will make your teeth set and your blood freeze. Some of the firefighters will swear to you that that is what they heard that night, louder and more desperate than they’d ever heard before, like a scream from inside their own heads. Others aren’t so sure. Whatever it was it went on and on and on, barely pausing for breaths, getting more and more intense with every second. And it drove everyone into frantic action: it was impossible to stand still in the midst of that awful, painful, pleading sound. They started to fight the barn fire, though they knew it was hopeless. They pumped water up from the swollen creek, then lay in the mud and sprayed it at the flames that billowed from the windows of the barn; they pulled the ladder truck up and shot water down at the roof line.
Then someone got the idea of forcing the doors open. The barn was closed up– it seemed impossible that anything was still living in there but the screaming went on and on, was getting worse all the time. If they could open the doors, maybe whatever it was could get out. One of the firefighters risked their life running up through the heat to the big barn door and passing a cable through an eye bolt that stuck out there. Once they had the cable secured they started the winch.
At first nothing happened. The flames and the screams kept pouring out of the stricken building. Everyone near the winch took cover– any moment the eye bolt would pull out of the door and fly across the barnyard, whipping the cable along with it. But the bolt held, and the huge door began to move, pulling slowly outward from the bottom while the top stuck stubbornly in its old iron track. Then something happened.
They call it a “blow-up,” when a mass of fresh oxygen hits a fire that’s been starved of it. Well in the instant when that big door came crashing down, the old barn blew up. Flames shot thirty feet from the windows and the roof immediately buckled and began to cave in. And from the doorway itself… well, that depends on who you talk to. Some of the firefighters will swear that a horse came running out, a big dark horse, and ran off crazy into the storm. Some of them will tell you there was someone– or something– on that horse. A tall dark man with blazing bright eyes. Or there were two riders, a young couple clinging to each other. Some of the firefighters don’t remember anything about a horse, but will look you right in the eye and tell you that a huge bird, a bird of pure fire, flew out the top of the doorway with one last horrible scream, transformed into black smoke and disappeared.
Louanne, the next door neighbor, was still at her window watching the firelight flicker on the sky. Just after that blow-up lit the clouds like an early sunrise, a car came flying down the road at top speed. Louanne recognized it as that old car that John and Mara used to run around in all those years ago. And by some trick of the fire’s reflected light she could see the two people in it, and Louanne will tell you that it was John and Mara in there, with the years smoothed away from them like the storm had washed them clean.
No one has seen John since. The firefighters broke into the old farm house as soon as they got there, and when they looked it over more closely in the morning found no sign that anyone had lived in it since long before John had bought it. When the barn fire finally burned out and cooled down, they picked through the ashes looking for signs of John or whatever had been screaming in there. When they couldn’t find anything they brought in the state fire investigators with dogs that can smell bone even once it’s burned completely to ash. Nothing. The final report said that the fire had been started by a lightning strike, and that no person or animal had been injured. John’s disappearance was set down to “causes unknown.” Unknown to the state investigators, maybe. Everyone who was at the fire that night has their own ideas.
At daybreak while the barn was still smoldering and the roads in all directions flooded, Mara showed up at her Aunt and Uncle’s door. She was sick, very sick and confused, couldn’t remember anything about how she got there, but there she was. They took her in and managed to get her help. She’s living out here now, working at the church and the local daycare. If you mention John her face lights up in a big smile. She says she knows that he’s alright. She won’t say how, but she knows.
If we want to stay alright we’d better get back in the car. Looks like that storm is coming in right on top of us. The rain is just starting. I don’t think we’ll want to stay outside for this one. And if in a flash of lightning you think you see something that shouldn’t be there, just stay where you are– if the Thunderbird wants you, you’ll know soon enough.
Camp Monsters podcast is a part of the REI podcast network. It is written and performed by yours truly, Weston Davis, and recorded and edited by Nick Patri in the very cozy and campfire-like confines of Cloud Studios in Seattle, Washington.
Be sure to listen to the next episode of Camp Monsters, when we’ll take a very pleasant bike ride along the roads of southern Ohio… and point out a few places where it might be better not to stop.
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