Shaffer: Devil treads lightly over Chatham clearing

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.comOctober 28, 2012 

  • More information The Devil’s Tramping Grounds stand on private property, and permission to visit should be obtained.

— For centuries, the devil has paced a desolate circle of dirt deep in the Chatham County woods, plotting wickedness over a patch of ground too cursed for even a blade of grass.

Nobody knows why the prince of evil chose this spot to calculate our doom, but the story holds that nothing can survive the night within sight of his hoof prints. Leave Satan a trinket, and he’ll drag it with him into the inferno come dawn.

It’s North Carolina’s best-known scary story – a legend that has inspired a thousand Cub Scouts to pitch tents in Lucifer’s path, drawn a thousand beer-soaked campers to light a bonfire where the archfiend writes his rough draft for catastrophe.

So I drove out to the Devil’s Tramping Grounds with an offering for the beast, a basket of goodies to tempt his foulness.

My Satan bait: a plastic skull, a bag of Skittles and a can of Narragansett beer. I set these treats on a copy of The N&O, knowing the dark lord would enjoy the Sudoku puzzle.

Still, rural Chatham County doesn’t strike me as anyplace the devil might haunt. It’s pretty there – rustic as an old barn. Not far from the Tramping Ground, there’s a guy sitting on the tailgate of his pickup, selling sweet potatoes from a cardboard box. If I were Satan, I’d skulk around Youngstown, Ohio, where people are less likely to notice.

But starting down the little trail off N.C. 902, I saw the trees clearing away from the Tramping Ground like frightened sheep. The spot is perfectly round and curiously bare – empty as the bedroom in an evicted man’s apartment.

Explanations for the clearing run on a sliding scale of dubiousness: 1.) It’s the site of an ancient salt lick for bison; 2.) It’s the site of a molasses mill beaten down by the tramping of mules and horses; 3.) It’s the scene of an Indian chief’s murder; and 4.) It’s a UFO landing strip.

But whatever the reason, the Tramping Ground offers no clues other than a few charred fire logs, a can of Busch Light and a Honey Bun wrapper. To this assortment I added my knickknacks.

Hours later, the sun gone down, I imagined the devil crawling out of some tunnel to find my surprises in his den. I figured he’d tuck into the Skittles first, then chug the beer while reading the latest happenings on the Wake County School Board. I expected to find litter scattered around the circle, the Jumble half-finished on Page 5D.

But no.

I returned the next morning to find the Skittles still wrapped, the beer unopened and the skull still resting on the folded newspaper. Satan had rejected my snacks.

At first, this struck me as bad news. The devil doesn’t take breaks.

But now I think I frightened him off with the combined power of candy, alcohol and journalism. Hope endures this Halloween, and the devil tramps no more.

Shaffer: jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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