Massachusetts was a perfectly normal place, right up until about 10,000 years ago when the first people arrived. Then things started getting weird. Certainly nature left unique marks on the land, such as the water-carved marble of Natural Bridge in North Adams, which was once under a shallow ocean, or Balance Rock in Pittsfield State Forest, a boulder left precariously perched on a much smaller rock during the glacial retreat of the last Ice Age. But it's the people who really make a location distinct. All its residents - from the Wampanoag to the Puritans to my next-door-neighbor, Rob, with his many wind chimes - have made the state a little stranger.
I was born in Massachusetts, and though I have spent the majority of my life living in other states, I came back several years ago. Perhaps I was drawn to find my roots again, or perhaps I'm a generally off-balance guy and Massachusetts is a surprisingly strange place full of monsters, ghosts, UFOs, curses, and other oddities that you just can't find anywhere else. I spent more than a year legend-tripping in search of the curious in the Bay State, and I didn't have to look far to find it. I live in Norfolk County, and this particular tour will begin at the end of my street. Bang a right, and head to . . .
On your way down Route 44, keep a watchful eye for the Rehoboth/Seekonk town line. For more than 50 years, folks have reported the ghost of a disheveled, red-haired man wearing a checkered shirt and trying to hitch a ride. When you pull over to pick him up, he disappears.
Drive farther south and stop at the Lizzie Borden house (it's now a bed & breakfast) and try to solve a century-old double murder in Fall River that captivated the world. But be careful . . . some say the building is haunted.
Heading north up Route 24, you'll be entering the infamous Bridgewater Triangle. The towns of Abington, Rehoboth, and Freetown form the points of an area with unusually high reports of ghost sightings, cult rituals, UFOs, Bigfoot, and other bizarre beasts yet to be categorized. Walk through Freetown-Fall River State Forest or stomp your way through Hockomock Swamp and see whether you have a paranormal encounter. Next stop . . .
After you drive white-knuckled over the Bourne Bridge, keep your eyes peeled for Pukwudgees, magical little humanlike creatures from Wampanoag folklore who are said still to be lurking in the swamps of Barnstable and parts of Eastern Massachusetts. Pukwudgees might help you if it suited them, or trick you into walking off a cliff. It's best not to trust it if you see one.
Heading toward the Lower Cape, look for the Sea Witch of Billingsgate (Wellfleet's original moniker), described as a beautiful woman who walks the shores and has been known to venture into town, ready to lure the souls of wayward sailors.
Going north to the tip of the Cape in Provincetown, stop by Herring Cove where in 1886 a 300-foot-long sea serpent with four rows of teeth as white as polished ivory slithered by local witness George Washington Ready. When you see nothing but water on all sides, turn around and aim for Mid-Cape.
Swing by Yarmouth Ancient Cemetery to pay your respects at the cursed headstone of Mary C. Dolencie. The back of her grave marker reads: "May eternal damnation be upon those in Whaling Port who, without knowing me, have maliciously vilified me. May the curse of God be upon them and theirs." Zing! Let's head for points north.
Boston and the North Shore
Sure, you know the Old North Church (one if by land, two if by sea), but did you know there's a plate on the side of the building that commemorates the flight of John Childs on Sept. 13, 1757, decades before the first manned balloon flight and a century-and-a-half before the Wright Brothers? The plate reads in part: "Here on September 13, 1757, John Childs who had given public notice of his intention to fly from the steeple of Dr. Cutler's church, performed it to the satisfaction of a great number of spectators." Childs was a rope flyer, a daredevil who strapped a wooden plank to his chest and slid down a rope tied from the steeple to the ground.
Now head to Boston's skinniest house, on Hull Street. It's 10 feet wide, 30 feet long, and four stories high. Don't gawk too long. You still need to get to Dungeon Rock, a cave in Lynn with a pirate connection dating to 1658. Local legends say that a cave-in killed the pirate living there and sealed up his hidden treasure. Several have gone digging, but none have found the gold (shovels are no longer welcome there). Next, we'll head west.
As you pass Leominster, give a nod to the birthplace of the plastic pink lawn flamingo and Tupperware. The world wouldn't be the same without either of those inventions.
Head southwest to Wachusett Mountain and stop by the town of Princeton to drink in the ghostly legend of little Lucy Keyes, a young girl who vanished without a trace on April 14, 1755. Her specter has been reported on the mountain, and the desperate calls of her mother are said to still echo off the hills.
Point your vehicle west on Route 2 and stop when you get to Greenfield. Get on Shelburne Road and just after passing the Route 2 Bridge, stop your car and put it in neutral. Mysteriously, your car will appear to roll up Gravity Hill. It's an optical illusion, but it's still weird. Put your car in a lower gear and keep heading west up into the Berkshire Mountains.
Route 2 is the most scenic drive in Massachusetts. But there's one spot that offers both breathtaking vistas and the thrill of knowing you could die if you don't adhere to the traffic signs: the Hairpin Turn in Clarksburg. If you ignore the 15-mile-per-hour speed limit sign, you may just become part of the lovely scenery. Head down into North Adams (slowly). Check out the haunted Houghton Mansion on Church Street, home of the city's first mayor, and by many accounts, still home to his ghost and the spirit of his daughter.
Head south and stop for a hike on October Mountain near Lee (bring your boots). October Mountain has been a veritable paranormal buffet over the years with reported sightings of Bigfoot, UFOs, and ghosts. Then head to the very corner of the state and stop by Bash Bish Falls. The cascading waterfalls are said to hold the glowing spirit of Bash Bish, a Mohican woman who was sent to her doom over the falls. Time to head back east.
Aim for the biggest body of water in the state. In the 1930s, when the land was cleared to make room for Quabbin Reservoir (Boston's drinking water), four towns and over 2,500 people were displaced. Today you can still walk through the former downtown of disincorporated towns like Dana and see the cellar holes where homes once stood. Though all of the buildings, man-made structures, and trees were cleared before the valley was flooded, some eyewitnesses claim that workers moved the headstones, but not necessarily the graves. Enjoy your next drink of water, Boston.
One more lake to visit; this one lies to the southeast of the Quabbin. Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg, also known as Webster Lake, it's the fifth longest-named location on Earth and most closely translates to "Englishmen at Manchaug at the fishing place at the boundary."
Rolling east again, we're back home in Norfolk County, finishing a whirlwind tour through a place that still holds mysteries worth pondering, enough legends to fill a library, and history that's sometimes strange and often significant. Massachusetts deserves a closer look. It's a very weird place, and it's home.
Jeff Belanger, author of "Weird Massachusetts: Your Travel Guide to Massachusetts' Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets" (Sterling, 2008), can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story in Sunday's Travel section misstated the number of towns displaced in the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir. The project affected four towns.