Dispatches From the Road: On The Trail of the Mothman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (CN) – West Virginia is a spooky place.

The winding, mountain highways snake through the Appalachian foothills that wear puffy clouds like halos, and small towns decimated by the collapse of the coal industry and a spreading opioid epidemic vanish as quickly as they appear.

Billboards advertising attractions like Coal Country Mini Golf watch over Rt. 79, separated every ten miles or so by exit signs for gas stations, many of them with big “CLOSED” decals slapped across their names.

The towns are as lonely as the roads. Most bars shut their doors at 10 p.m., and the streets of Charleston, the state’s capital, are thinly traveled. The isolation between towns, the long stretches of two lane roads passing through farms and over many streams and rivers, is the perfect setting for legends, ghost stories and creature sightings.

There aren’t many creatures not included in West Virginia’s rich history of folklore. Over the years, West Virginians have reported seeing bigfoot, chupacabras, the Braxton County monster, the slender man, and lost spirits wandering the back roads, rivers and train tracks too numerous to count.

But only two myths have caught my attention during this trip: Mothman and e-filing.

The latter is a topic the clerks of many West Virginian courts speak of as though it’s more likely to swoop down from the trees and snatch up their children than the former.

The state piloted its e-filing program in 2015, and since then it’s spread to only seven of its 55 counties. In comparison, Maryland launched its e-filing program around the same time, and now nearly the entire state is on board.

The West Virginia Supreme Court’s plan for the program is to have every county e-filing by 2020, keeping all civil records in a statewide digital “vault” accessible online only to attorneys that pay a subscription fee. Everybody else, including the press, will have to schlep down to the courthouse to review documents on public computer terminals.

But the rollout has hardly gone as planned, and the digital vault is yet to exist.

A friendly clerk in the Cabell County courthouse told me they abandoned e-filing last year with the blessing of the state supreme court. She said the system was plagued by tech meltdowns and created extra work for staff already taxed by more than 500 filings a month.

There are no current plans to re-launch the program, she told me, wearing the memory of her frustration on her sleeve.

About an hour or so north of the Cabell County courthouse is Point Pleasant, ground zero for sightings of the other mythical creature I was seeking, the notorious Mothman.

Exactly one block north of the Mason County Courthouse stands a large, silver Mothman statue, homage to the legendary man-sized bird-like creature spotted by dozens of West Virginians since the mid-60s.

Even CNS’ local West Virginia reporter, who was once a journalist with the U.S. military, has seen the thing, or at least she has no other explanation for the “black superman-like thing” she saw zoom across the road one twilight as her and husband drove home through the woods.

The legend was popularized by John Keel’s 1975 book The Mothman Prophecies, which later became a Richard Gere movie (the movie, although set in Point Pleasant, was actually filmed in a small town outside of Pittsburgh, a fact our reporter’s sub told me, leaving me a bit crestfallen).

The book and movie explore the numerous sightings of Mothman and how they may have been connected to the 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge, a calamity that killed 46 people.

Sightings have been reported as recently as last November, when a hunter snapped a picture of a human-shaped, winged creature jumping from tree to tree. News reports quoted local wildlife scientists as explaining the picture as being an owl or other large bird in flight, but the locals believe it’s Mothman, and they know it’s real.

Next to the statue is the Mothman Museum, which I perused for a modest three bucks, wondering through items used on the movie set, numerous newspaper clippings and an hunk of driftwood labeled, “Driftwood Shaped Like a Bird.”

The gift shop has Mothman shirts too numerous to count, Mothman-brand hot sauce and plush Mothman dolls.

Up until December, if the museum roused your appetite, you’d could mosey down to Harris Steakhouse, aka the Mothman Diner, for a Mothman burger with fries. Carolin Harris, the owner and avid collector of everything Mothman, died the day after Christmas in 2016, leaving the fate of her restaurant, which she ran for more than four decades, unknown.

Harris, who’s son was one of the 46 people killed in the Silver Bridge collapse, was also one of the founders of the Mothman Festival, a two-day celebration of the elusive cryptid.

Driving back to Charleston from Point Pleasant, by way of Putnam County, on an overcast late afternoon, I catch myself glancing across the wooded valleys and hills flanking Rt. 35 and getting caught behind tractor trailers I’d normally pass, wondering if I might see the infamous pair of glowing red eyes looking back.

No such luck, just vast, lonely fields and small clusters of houses dotting the hillsides.

It should be noted that although West Virginia has adopted Mothman as its honorary top-ticket mythological creature, should Mothman grow weary of all the defamation of character, trademark infringement and invasion of privacy being carried out against him, he’ll have to zoom out the woods and file a complaint in person at the Mason County Circuit Court, which has no plans of adopting e-filing anytime soon.

Courthouse News currently provides live coverage of Kanawha, Huntington and Putnam Counties along with both the Northern and Southern Federal Districts for the West Virginia Report. CNS plans to add bimonthly live coverage of Raleigh, Roane, Jackson, Logan and Mason Counties in the near future.

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