The cool weight of the tire iron felt good in my right hand as I stepped out of the tent. As far as makeshift weapons go, you could do much worse than a lightweight and pointed piece of steel. The lantern in my left? Turned out I didn’t need it — the moonlight shone bright enough to make it unnecessary.
Looking around the campsite, neither Rob nor I saw what had made the howling noises, or who had fired the gunshots. All we saw were the trees surrounding our clearing and the still lake behind us. Everything seemed calm and picturesque, or it would have if we hadn’t been worried about what was watching us in the night.
Despite the danger, we felt good. It had taken two nights, but here we were, camping on the site of a World War II prisoner of war camp in southern Mississippi. The Nazi and Fascist prisoners were long gone, as were their GI guards and just about every other sign of civilization. We were alone in the middle of a forest and surrounded by… something, but for the first time in two days, things were starting to look up.
The First Night: A Trial by Fire
Our first attempt to camp at POW Lake hadn’t gone nearly as well. We had read about the lake online, and it sounded like it would be a great stop along our tour of the Deep South. The best part was that POW Lake wasn’t even an official campsite; since WWII ended it had been an unincorporated piece of federal land abutting DeSoto National Forest. There would be no park rangers on site, and probably no other campers. It would give us a chance to have a quiet night alone out in the woods.
It also sounded like the perfect setup for a horror movie. The place was barely listed on any maps and the lack of other people meant that no one could come to our aid if we needed any. Years of watching horror movies had taught us that spirits could be trapped in places of violence, and that these lost souls often resented the living. Or to put it another way, camping at POW Lake might very well turn into a combination of Friday the 13th and Poltergeist, with a hint of Evil Dead thrown in. Would we let a horde of angry Nazi ghosts derail our trip? Hell no! Bring ’em on!
Our tone changed when we actually saw them, or thought we did.
When we first got off the highway around POW Lake it was just before midnight, there were no streetlights, and we didn’t have any current maps of the area. We quickly got lost and began driving in circles, hoping to find a sign to guide us.
After a half hour of looping around the forest we got desperate. We rolled down the windows as if that would help us see the area better. It didn’t. I craned my head out of the passenger-side window as if that would help. It didn’t. We could have been two minutes away from POW Lake and we wouldn’t have known it. The only thing we knew about the road we were driving down was that there was a fire burning alongside it.
As we drove closer to the fire bright yellow and orange flames leapt out from… cauldrons? Bonfires? Something was containing the fire, and that something was surrounded by shadowy forms.
Excitement beat out reason, brashness beat out tact. Someone yelled out “THE NAZI GHOSTS!!! THEY’RE BURNING BOOKS!!!” Someone else shouted out “YOU NAZI BASTARDS!!!” At this, the shadows turned to look our way.
We couldn’t tell if these shadows were local people trying to stay warm, Nazi ghosts rising from the depths of Hell, or locals communing with Nazi ghosts. And we weren’t about to stop and ask.
We made our way back to the highway and drove down to the Gulf Coast. We weren’t going to find POW Lake that night, and even if we had, we didn’t want any Nazi ghosts — or pissed off locals — following us there.
The Second Night: A Not-So-Quiet Night At POW Lake
We spent the next day seeing how the Mississippi coast was recovering from Hurricane Katrina. As dusk approached we faced a crossroads: continue on our way north or make another attempt at POW Lake?
Rob and I could tell that Rachel, our friend of some years and companion on this trip, was in favor of never going near the lake again. The two of us put forth a simple argument: it was still light enough that we could try for POW Lake, and if we found it, we’d be able to set up camp before dark. If we couldn’t find it, we’d have time to find a motel on our way north.
When we returned to the outskirts of DeSoto, it was Rachel who found the road to POW Lake. The sign she saw didn’t read “Route 67” like we had been looking for, but “Old Route 67.” We reasoned this was close enough, turned onto the road, and drove deeper into the forest.
Soon a car appeared in our rearview mirror and started following us. When the car pulled up besides us, the woman driving it made a pardon me/Grey Poupon motion for us to lower a window.
Woman: Are y’all lost? Do you need any help?
Rob: We’re looking for POW Lake.
Woman: It’s just ahead, on the left.
Rob: Great! Thanks!
Rob rolled up the window. The other car got in front of us.
Rachel: Such a nice lady!
Dan: I know, right?
Rob: Watch, she comes back tonight with a giant pitchfork to eat us.
On the road ahead, the woman turned on her left turn signal, showing us the entrance to the lake. We took the turn as our guide continued along Old Route 67.
We drove down a short cut-out. It couldn’t even be called a lane, just some gravel between a pair of tree lines. After a few minutes what looked to be earthen bunkers rose out of the ground. And then a clearing, covered in tire tracks. Beyond that, finally, was POW Lake.
The three of us got out of the car. There was nothing else around. The air was still. No other humans in sight, no visible animals, only a few woodland noises. We were here, and we were alone.
At the far end of the clearing stood a bulletin board, the only indication that this was a destination that people might travel to. Once we got close to it we saw that nearly every map and sign had been bleached blank by the sun, save for one sheet of loose-leaf paper with three words writ on it in red magic marker:
We looked at the lake. It had barbed wire surrounding it.
Were we really going to sleep here?
Could barbed wire really stop an alligator?
Would that woman really come and kill us with her pitchfork?
Could we really live with ourselves if we didn’t spend the night here?
We looked at one another again. I said “We gotta do it” and that was enough for Rob. As long as one of us vocalized it, the other was going to agree, giving us a two out of three voting edge. Before anyone had a chance to talk us out of it, I headed back to the car to set up the tent.
Rachel was going to sleep in the car. She had read that bears were also in the area and she wasn’t going to risk getting eaten for the chance to camp outside with the two of us. Rob and I would camp in the clearing, but we would be smart about it: we kept the car keys with us and positioned the tent so that its opening faced the front of car. That way, in case of an attack, we could set off the car’s alarm and scare off the alligator. Or the bears. Or the Nazi ghosts.
As soon as the tent was up I crawled inside. I had been fighting off a cold and a case of sunstroke all day and needed to pass out. The last thing I remember was texting our friend in Washington, D.C., the only person who would have any idea of where we were:
Found pow. Hope to talk to ya tom.
He was too far away to help us should anything go wrong, but at least someone would know where we had been if we didn’t make it out of the forest alive.
“Wait, did you say ‘gunshots?’”
“Yeah, I’m surprised you didn’t wake up. There were three of them, in succession. Sounded like shotgun shells, then it sounded like a car drove through here and back out.”
“I don’t know, but that wasn’t all.”
“A little while after the gunshots I started hearing noises. Frogs, crickets, stuff like that. Then… a howling sound.”
“More like a cross between a howl and a bark. Like ar-ar-aaaoooowwwww. And again, but from the other side of the clearing, ar-ar-ar-aaaaaoooowwww, and another, and another, and another, each from another direction, ar-ar-ar-Aaaaaaoooowwwww. As if they were circling us.”
He didn’t say it, but he could only be describing two things. Either Cerberus had been sent to drag us down to Hell or there were coyotes in the forest. I took a moment to consider both possibilities.
“Hnh. I gotta pee.”
“I’ll go too, let me get the car keys just in case. And grab a weapon on your way out.”
The night air was wonderfully cool. Above us, the sky was dark and full of stars. Behind us, the lake looked serene in the moonlight. A field of tall, skinny trees surrounded us. Owls and other nocturnal animals hooted and chirped in every direction. It felt as if the night was enveloping us. I chose a tree and took a leak.
I watched the tree line but nothing came at me. No sounds of struggle came from Rob’s side of the clearing. Neither of us had been attacked. Success.
With business taken care of, I returned to my sleeping bag to go back to sleep. Just to be safe, I kept the tire iron beside me.
Morning came and I woke up in one piece. We hadn’t been attacked by any alligators, bears, coyotes, or fascist phantasms. Outside the tent, the barbed wire ringing the lake was intact and there were no signs of ghosts, bonfires, or demonic dogs. It was relieving to see nothing had changed.
Then I looked down. Animal tracks were everywhere around the tent. The coyotes, and apparently some deer, had come a lot closer than we had realized.
Rob came out of the tent and saw the tracks. We looked at each other and shook our heads. Rachel came out of the car and told us how she had almost poisoned herself during the night in an ill-fated attempted to kill a swarm of mosquitoes. She learned the hard way not to DEET-bomb a car while all the windows are closed.
But she didn’t die in the car, and we hadn’t died in the tent. We had survived the night at POW Lake.
Two days later we stopped for lunch at Big Bob Gibson’s in Decatur, Alabama. After we ordered Rachel headed right to a booth while Rob and I hit the fixin’s table. She had caught my cold and at this point needed the rest more than the food.
My meal was ready first, and as I turned to go to our table I almost tripped and fell – I was too busy looking at the ancient farm equipment that decorated the walls of the place. As I steadied myself, I looked up toward Rachel and nearly fell down again. Rob came up behind me, looked at her, and started laughing.
She didn’t know what was going on until we got closer and told her that she was sitting directly beneath a giant pitchfork, with the prongs pointed right at her head.
— Dan Meade
Photos: Dan Meade & Rob Bellinger
Nights at POW Lake: May 31-June 1, 2009
Published: February 18, 2014