Monday, August 22, 2011

Ghostly Blood at Camp Sylvester

Camp Sylvester seems like a quiet, idyllic spot in California's Sierra Nevadas. It is used as a get-away for groups ranging from schools to corporate team-builders, and also serves vacationers renting cabins for a mountain getaway.

Most of the time it seems as if there is nothing at all sinister or disturbing about the place. But this changes when it rains.

When rainwater pours over the roads, red liquid begins to appear, and the roads can quite literally be said to run red with blood. In this case, it is the blood of Chinese immigrants, forced to work for low-wages in near slave-like conditions when building California's railroads and working in the mining camps that once dotted the Sierra Nevadas. They are gone now, and unable to tell their stories, but their blood still runs when it rains at Camp Sylvester.

Commentary: When I was a kid, my school sponsored a yearly trip to "science camp" for the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students at Camp Sylvester in Pinecrest, California. The goal of the week-long trip was, I presume, to teach kids about biology, ecology, and the natural sciences, but for the students it usually became an excuse to engage in all manner of behavior that, while usually safe, they couldn't get away with at home or on the school's grounds. My own experiences at the camp were abysmal (owing to a combination of my various childhood social problems and two camp counselors who thought that getting younger kids to beat each other up was fun), while my older sister greatly enjoyed it and eventually became a counselor there herself (leading to at least one impressionable 12-year old boy developing a lifelong crush on her due to her ability to recite the alphabet while belching...a strange thing to hear from someone who runs into you by chance 15 years later, I can assure you).

As often happens when a group of pre-teen and early teen kids get together in an isolated place with minimal adult supervision, much of the social activity between the kids at the camp revolved around scaring the crap out of each other. One night, I recall a group of girls engaging in a "Bloody Mary" ritual in the girl's restroom, resulting in one of them in hysterics (the adult chaperon's had to be brought out to deal with the situation, and there was serious talk of sending the girl home because of her rather excited state), and there were, of course, many ghost stories, most of them told by the camp counselors around the campfires at night, or in the dining hall during dinner.

This particular story was a favorite, and stuck in our minds I suspect largely because most of us had only recently been learning about the use of Chinese labor in building the railroads and in mining. Those of us who were around when it rained thought of this when the red fluid washed over the roads.

Of course, there was nothing supernatural about the red. Like much of the Sierra Nevada, this location was covered in high-iron clays, and the red was due to nothing more sinister than the water moving these sediments across the road during and immediately following a rainstorm. Anyone who looked closely enough would even see that it was more of an orange than a red.

Still, for a bunch of pre-teens stuck inside on a rainy day, the blood of wronged laborers made for an evocative image.

Sources: Local Folklore

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