A Haunting: Two nights in Groveland, California

For outdoor enthusiasts hoping to spend a night or two under the stars in Yosemite National Park, it’s prudent to be proactive when planning. Campsites in Yosemite are quickly snatched up early in the year; Lonely Planet recommends booking for a summer stay as early as March. As with the majority of our trip planning, Shar and I had waited until mere weeks before to book anything, so it wasn’t surprising to find that all of the campsites were unavailable.

Instead, we settled on a rustic hotel called the Groveland, nestled appropriately in a town of the same name. The responsibility of booking Yosemite lodging had befallen Shar. All I knew of the hotel was that it came highly recommended by TripAdvisor and it was quite a bit pricier than our other accommodations for the trip. With much research, we realized that if we couldn’t camp in Yosemite, the closest places to crash for the night – like the Groveland – were all a good hour or so outside the park.

I spent much of the six hour drive from Humboldt County to Groveland envisioning a hotel comparable to the decadent Best Western we’d called home for a night in Napa Valley. Mostly, I imagined myself dissolving into a thick mattress that boasted the consistency of a puffy cumulus cloud. (Minus the vapor.)

The scenery for much of the drive was repetitive: iron-colored earth, occasionally occupied by a weary cow hunched in the sparse shade of a bristly tree.

“This doesn’t seem right,” Shar noted as the GPS announced we were less than ten minutes from our destination. We’d been driving up a windy mountain path for the past fifteen minutes. (I say ‘path’ because ‘road’ seems a bit ambitious. This was more like a paved mountain ledge.) We neared a steeper hill of road marked with an urgent sign: Turn off air conditioning for next five miles. The dashboard temperature read 103.

With less than ten minutes to go, the unforgiving landscape continued showing no signs of a town when suddenly, there was Groveland. It was as if someone had grabbed a map, blindly pointed to a spot, and cried, “Here! You will build a town here.”

Big Oak Flats Road

Big Oak Flat Road

More accurately, Groveland was built as a shaky outpost of civilization during California’s gold rush in 1848, and it doesn’t seem like much has changed since then, apart from the population. Wikipedia cites the 2010 census, which lists a scrappy 600 or so people who called Groveland home. According to the roadside sign, in 2013, the population now exceeds 1,000, an impressive feat for a little town in the middle of nothing. When researching Groveland, I was surprised to find a page on TripAdvisor promising “7 things to do in Groveland.” Interested, I clicked on the link only to be redirected to a page of hotel bookings.

The town of Groveland modestly occupies two sides of the road that bisects it, Big Oak Flat Road. On either side, along a two or three block stretch, one might easily find the following: a Mexican restaurant, a hotel, a general store (closed by 6), a pharmacy, and the Iron Door Saloon, Groveland’s claim to fame as what may be California’s oldest saloon.

To two outsiders spoiled by suburbia, Groveland seemed like a difficult place to live. What does one do in Groveland? The town appeared to be a Mecca for hermits, ranchers, and prospectors, grizzled folks who despise society and long to reside in a town as hardened, difficult, and isolated as themselves.

We easily found the Groveland Hotel, a creaky structure with a bright white colonnade framed by hanging pots of pink annuals. Bedraggled and pajama-clad, we checked in at the front desk.

“Oh!” the woman exclaimed happily. “Looks like you’ve been upgraded.”

This was more like it! A stroke of luck, I thought as we followed her outside to the front porch and then back inside and up a very vocal set of stairs to Room 115, the door bearing a wooden plaque that read “Lyle’s Room.”

Lyle’s Room was a cross between a china cabinet and a Victorian bedroom: everything in the room was a pristine white and royal blue; heavy, striped curtains hung over a picture window; a round table beside the window offered a ewer if we were thirsty and a gauzy tablecloth for style; the wallpaper, duvet, and trim all stood out in a blue flower filigree; and on the bed, two teddy bears snuggled affectionately.

“We’re staying in a teacup,” Shar remarked.

lylesroom

It was a bit rich in terms of decor, but it would do. As we unpacked, envisioning a peaceful night’s sleep, I noticed a silver book on the dresser.

“What’s that?” I pointed out. Shar opened it and we sat on the bed.

“‘Dear Lyle, Thanks for visiting us and lending us your room! Hope you’re having a great time in the hereafter,'” Shar read. We exchanged a glance.

“Hereafter??” I repeated, snatching the book. “‘Dear Lyle, I didn’t think your haunting was real, but I was wrong! Would never stay here again!’ Is this room haunted??”

Shar’s reaction was one of amusement, a far cry from my own fears of a midnight visit from Lyle.

Within the next hour, my hopes for a few hours of restorative sleep were crushed. Each moment brought a unique, chilling revelation about the hotel we’d be staying in for two nights. On the front of the building, a plaque nonchalantly detailed the Groveland’s history as a town hotspot for public hangings, before being transformed into a brothel. Inside, behind the front desk, I found a pamphlet entitled “Lyle: the Groveland Hotel’s Permanent Lodger?”

Both horrified and intrigued, I read about Lyle, an average, grizzled prospector who’d passed many a night in Room 115 during the gold rush. He was a typical hotel guest, sleeping with dynamite beneath his bed and entertaining dalliances with some woman across the street. As it turns out, Lyle died in our bedroom and his spirit is said to haunt all rooms in the Groveland, specifically ours. The pamphlet explained that Lyle did not like the doll-like interior of his room nor did he like feminine products on his dressers; in the night, Lyle would frequently knock makeup onto the floor. He also derived a strange joy from turning on the sink in the middle of the night.

But these gestures were merely frightening and annoying compared to some of his other favorite paranormal pastimes. Guests reported waking up to Lyle emerging from the adjoining bathroom, approaching the bed before disappearing. On some mornings, a chair would be placed beside the bed, as if Lyle had been watching a couple sleeping. When he was feeling mischievous, Lyle might hide a stapler at the front desk or lock a guest out of the room. The Groveland’s attitude toward Lyle was one of gentle amusement.

In regular circumstances, an old man passing hours at a bedside watching strangers sleep would warrant a restraining order or a Lifetime movie about the horrors of stalking. At the Groveland, the occurrence would merely merit a chuckle and perhaps an “Oh, Lyle.”

Lyle was so famous, in fact, that oftentimes Room 115 would be booked well in advance in hopes of having a Lyle sighting. Upon a closer examination of the silver book on our dresser, I found that more than a few people had come to the Groveland with EVP recorders and had written with obvious dismay and detectable irritation that Lyle had not appeared. “Brought our EVPs and found no evidence of paranormal activity,” wrote one ghostbuster-in-training. “I’d say the Groveland’s not haunted after all.”

With all of the hype surrounding Lyle, I was surprised and puzzled as to why the woman hadn’t mentioned any of this when she brought us to her room. In addition, a third, dead roommate didn’t sound like an upgrade to me.

Notes from a traumatized visitor

Notes from a traumatized visitor

“You did this on purpose,” I told Shar, tossing the pamphlet on the bed.

“Did what?”

“You knew this place was haunted. I bet you even called ahead and requested this room.” It suddenly seemed implausible that Shar wouldn’t have known this. An avid fan of Yelp.com and research in general, Shar had rattled off snippets of reviews she’d read on the hotel. If the place was so centrally associated with Lyle, she must have known. Still, she was adamant that she had not known.

“Are you seriously not going to be able to sleep here?” she asked.

“I’ll sleep here. But if I wake up in the night for any reason at all – a footstep or Lyle sitting on our bed – I’m waking you up. I don’t care.”

“Wake me up! I would love to see something!”

Much to Shar’s chagrin – not to mine – we did not spot Lyle in the night, although the sink faucets turned on twice in the afternoon while Shar was showering. I attribute it to plumbing, but I’m also bolder when the sun is out. If it had happened at night, it would have been Lyle without question.

“Did you have any Lyle sightings?” asked the woman at the front desk when we checked out on our last day.

I told her about the faucets turning on and she smiled triumphantly.

“Are there lots of Lyle sightings?” I asked curiously.

“Yes.”

And that was that. No elaboration, nothing more to add. It was the second time I stayed in a supposedly haunted hotel room this year, and I spent much time pondering which was the lesser of two evils: encountering a hungry bear in Humboldt County or a voyeuristic, dead gold miner in Groveland.

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