A gusty wind stirs tree branches along the country road where we wait this mild November night. We stand beside our cars, looking westward where the road takes a rising and falling course over the hills.
"There! Is that it?" We can't believe our good fortune; not everyone who comes here sees this mysterious glow. It's above the place where the road disappears over the brow of a hill, maddeningly obscured by near and far trees.
We are genuine adults in terms of years-myself, my husband Jim Mueller, who is a photographer, and Roger "Buck" Buchanan, a high school art teacher and accomplished amateur astronomer-and we're saying, "Wow! Oh, yeah! Whoaaaa!" We're bobbing and weaving, seeking vantage points, looking through binoculars and a six-inch reflector telescope.
What we watch for the next hour is a conglomeration of light that waxes and wanes, disappears and reappears. Full of surprises, it shimmers, or looks like a necklace of lights or shrinks to mere twinkles. Is its shape due to leaves in the way? And it's far away, but how far?
The experience renders us somewhat inarticulate. Buck, looking through the telescope, says, "It's really, oh, it just fills, it's like a bright star that, it's not clear, oh, come here, there's four. Hello! Good grief!"
This is exciting. This is just plain fun. We have seen the Hornet Spooklight. Or have we? Our experience is only one way this light phenomenon has been seen.
The Spooklight has a nomadic history that may go back over 100 years in an area on either side of the Missouri-Oklahoma line, about three miles west of Hornet, a small community south of Joplin.
The nocturnal light glows in the distance or moves up the road toward you as fast as a person could walk. At closer ranges, people have seen it as round, spherical or diamond-shaped, the size of a lantern light or large as a washtub. You can see trees and bushes through it, says one observer. It may float past you, dance around or split and shoot off in different directions. This itinerant mystery is in the road, in a field, in the woods, at the window of a house. It's golden or red, or it appears as multiple lights in various combinations of yellow, orange, red, green and blue.
Sterling Barnett had a surprise encounter with the light around 1979, when he was a teenager living on the Missouri side of State Line Road. "My dad was always on me to get my chores done before it got dark, and I would put it off," says Sterling. In the barn one evening, he suddenly had light to work by and assumed his father had arrived with a flashlight.
"But I turned around, and there it was, big as life, right there in the door. It gave me quite a start. I was probably about 15 feet from it. It illuminated enough that I could see pretty good. It stayed there for 15 or 20 seconds, and then it went out." He thought, "Holy smoke!"
The Barnett farm is in an area where people saw the Spooklight in horse and buggy days, before some of the present roads were cut through. Ralph Bilke says his grandfather, Lloyd "Dutch" Bilke, told him of encountering the Spooklight around 1910. It was so bright, his grandfather told him, "I could count the buttons on your granny's dress."
Oral tradition says the light was seen as early as the mid-1880s. In "Tri-State Spooklight," a booklet published in the mid-1950s, Juanita Kay reported, "Many settlers camped here on our property overnight when they used to travel by wagon. After investigating the place where they had seen campfires the night before, my mother and father became aware of the light because they found no ashes where the fiery lights had appeared. This was back in the 1800s."
The tri-state marker where Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri meet is three miles north of the light's neighborhood. To generations of area families, the Spooklight is a delightful and mystifying part of growing up. Their stories conjure up a hundred years of images-those couples in buggies, families watching from cars, farm kids riding bicycles around in the dark, carloads of teenagers in a Spooklight rite of passage, hayrides, tourists from afar, lost Spooklight-seekers knocking on doors, characters alarming enough to bring the sheriff, skeptics chasing an elusive glow or being chased by it and scientists prowling for the answer.
To wrestle with the Spooklight mystery, you need to know the lay of this land on the northern edge of the Ozarks. From Hornet, West Hymer Road runs west and ends at State Line Road. There, the Spooklight area of horse and buggy days is just to the south on the Missouri side, toward Warren Branch. If you jog north on State Line about .2 mile, you can turn west again where Oklahoma's E 40 Road begins. Or, if you jog south about .8 mile, you can go west on E 50 Road. Both of these east-west roads have been prime viewing spots. The hills in the region step down gradually from Hornet westward to Spring River in Oklahoma.
My father-in-law, Byron Mueller, laughs about his partial view of the light on E 40 Road, the place to see it around 1939. A friend had persuaded Byron to go on a double date and arranged a blind date for him. The night turned out to be too cool for anyone to ride in the roadster's rumble seat, and Byron's date turned out to be rather plump. With four people squashed into the seat inside the car, Byron could barely see down the road, but he glimpsed the approach of a washtub-sized light.
Karen Allen Morgan, Joplin, says her older sister Rita took her and their brother to that same road around 1944. Their outings required a cooler of pop and some popcorn, as there was usually a wait. Karen sat on the car fender and saw the light top a hill to the west, travel down through a valley and then uphill toward her. "I can remember probably three occasions when it actually came right by us," she says. "I would be terrified at that point and would dive into the window of the car. It was a goldish-red glow when it was close, and translucent."
Her sister Rita Livingston, rural Riverton, Kan., relates another adventure around 1950. After watching without success, she and her husband Robert discovered their car had a flat tire. "My husband took the tire off," she says, "and here comes the Spooklight, right up the road. It was about the height of the top of the car, coming like a big orange ball of fire. It was scary, spinning like a ball, revolving. The light came on up, went over the top of the car and on down the road behind us."
Until it closed in 1962, the general store in Hornet was a jumping-off place for Spooklighters. Proprietors Olivia Buzzard and her late husband O. W. "Bud" Buzzard gave out directions and sold the "Tri-State Spooklight" booklet. "We sent books everywhere, California, Chicago," Olivia recalls. "I've been on the bus down in Florida, and people have said to me, 'Oh, you live at the Hornet Spooklight' when they found out where I live." During World War II, she and her husband took Camp Crowder soldiers to see the Spooklight.
In the 1950s, word went around that the light had moved south to E 50 road, currently considered "Spooklight Road," even though sightings continue on E 40. For years, successive proprietors Arthur "Spooky" Meadows and Garland "Spooky" Middleton ran a small Spooklight museum/pinball parlor on the Missouri side of State Line Road with soft drinks, a view down E 50 and a telescope that cost a quarter to use. On weekends, parked cars lined the road.
L. J. Perkins of Carl Junction can laugh now about her Spooklight outing with out-of-town visitors: "It was a great experience, one I never believed would happen. We saw it off in the distance, and we thought, well, that's it. And then this light just kept getting closer and kind of danced in front of us. That was when I got kind of paranoid. We wanted to get away from it. It kept bouncing along beside us and on us and over us, circled around us. My husband took a dirt road, and the car was never quite the same; we damaged the oil pan getting away."
Aside from such human mishaps, I've heard no stories of the light harming anyone. Most local residents seem to coexist easily with the phenomenon. "I grew up with it and saw it a thousand times," says Charles Dawes, whose family lived on E 40 Road. "I never paid much attention to it." Yet many visitors have watched for it in vain, and a couple living near the Spooklight area on State Line for 37 years have never seen it.
During the 1980s, Ralph and Josie Bilke lived on the north side of E 50, one-eighth mile back from the road. Twice, after having bulldozer work done in back of the house, Ralph saw "a big green glow out over the trees." Another night, after they turned out the lights, Josie says, "We thought someone had pulled up in our drive. It was the Spooklight, and it just lit up our bedroom. It was right on our porch, and then it went out."
One morning an hour before daylight, as Ralph drank a cup of coffee, he saw at the front window "two big red-it looked like eyes - within ten feet of the house."
The lights to the north and south of the Bilkes' house contradict the idea that you must stare westward down a road to view the Spooklight. And as a child, when Ralph visited his grandfather just north of E 40, they'd sit on the front porch and watch the Spooklight in the pasture across the road. They were looking east.
All the accounts I've heard leave me longing to see the Spooklight moving toward me, dancing in the woods or zipping over my head. And I wonder: are the far-away Spooklights and the close-up personal ones completely different phenomena? What did I see that November night? Something explainable, such as car headlights miles away, or a hesitant Spooklight that kept its distance?
Not that I want the Hornet Spooklight explained. It's better to have that capricious glow remain everyone's mystery, promising delight, amusement and a few chills to generations to come.
Mysterious lights have appeared around the world throughout history. Humans have proposed explanations: ball lightning, fox fire (bioluminescence of decayed vegetation), marsh gas (burning methane), peizo electricity created by pressures on crystalline substances in the earth. Observers in Norfolk, England in 1907 were convinced they saw "luminous owls" which had contracted a fungal disease or had come in contact with phosphorescent wood.
Descriptions from many countries will sound familiar to Hornet Spooklighters: fiery colored, amber, yellow or white globes of light; shifts in color and shape; swinging motions; no rays. Some lights appear to interact with people, approaching them, retreating when approached, reappearing behind observers as if playing a game.
Legends are similar too, often based on the theme of lantern-carrying ghosts. Hornet "Spooklore" includes stories about a cruel Confederate sergeant, executed by cannon fire, searching for his head, and a miner seeking his kidnapped children. Another tale tells of a Quapaw Indian couple, forbidden to marry and pursued by warriors. When they leaped from a cliff into Spring River, their spirits merged in a wandering light.
Missouri has been host to other strange lights. During the New Madrid earthquake of 1811, bright flashes burst from the earth. Lights in the sky in the Piedmont area sparked "UFO fever" in 1973; sightings dwindled by 1980. Dr. Harley D. Rutledge, then a physics professor at Southeast Missouri State University, wrote about his study of the phenomenon in Project Identification.
Paul Devereux, an English researcher, included the Hornet Spooklight in Earth Lights Revelation along with nine other persistent light phenomena in his chapter "American Spooklights." He suggests the cause of what he calls earth lights may be a complex matrix of conditions, not necessarily identical for all light phenomena. "We are looking at an end product that is challenging and must ultimately extend branches of our understanding beyond their current reach," Devereux writes.