Cassadaga - Best. State. Ever.: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland - Dave Barry

Best. State. Ever.: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland - Dave Barry (2016)


It’s a week before Halloween and I’m checking into the Hotel Cassadaga. It’s the only hotel in Cassadaga, Florida, a community with a population of a few hundred, unless you count the spirits of the dead, in which case it’s about the same size as L.A.

Cassadaga is, literally, a ghost town. It was founded in 1894 by a man named George Colby, who belonged to the Spiritualist Movement, which believes that when you die, your spirit lives on and people can communicate with you through mediums. There’s still a Spiritualist community in Cassadaga, centered on the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp; around it has grown a small industry of mediums and psychics, which is why Cassadaga’s nickname is The Psychic Capital of the World. As you drive into town on Cassadaga Road, you pass house after house with signs that say PSYCHIC.

This is a place where you might have trouble getting a plumber on the weekend, but if you need an emergency tarot card reading, help is only seconds away.

The Cassadaga Hotel is across the street from the Spiritualist Camp Welcome Center in the heart of downtown Cassadaga. On the day I arrive at the hotel it is doing its best to look creepy, having been festooned with fake spiderwebs, skeletons, skulls, etc., for Halloween. In Cassadaga, Halloween is, basically, Christmas.

The hotel was built in the 1920s and it still looks like the 1920s inside. The lobby has been spookified for Halloween, with a skeleton seated on a banquette.

The hotel check-in counter is a desk inside the gift shop. A nice lady checks me in and tells me that I will be staying in Room 2. She also tells me that the hotel is haunted. I ask her how the ghosts manifest themselves.

“They may pet you like a kitty cat,” she says. “They may move your glasses. They may move your key.”

A woman nearby, shopping for gifts, nods her head.

“They definitely will,” she says.

I head for my room. It’s on a narrow, dimly lit, creepy hallway that’s straight out of the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World, except it’s real. I can easily imagine an evil entity lurking behind one of the doors, preparing to spring out at me with an ax, or a knife, or a live lobster.24

I enter Room 2 without incident. It’s a modest room with an old-fashioned four-poster bed and a window air conditioner with the fan set on “Typhoon.” There’s no TV set, no Wi-Fi. It is probably for the best. If the spirits of the departed are, in fact, hovering all around, they’d probably be angry if you started looking at television or a laptop. They’d be, like, “I’ve been sitting around dead all these years and you finally show up and the first thing you do is go on Facebook?”

I spend a few minutes in my room, waiting for ghosts to tickle me like a kitty cat or move my keys, but nothing happens. This is understandable; it’s their busy season.

I head across the street to the Spiritualist Camp Welcome Center. It has a big bookstore and gift shop, offering a wide selection of New Age-y books, candles, incense, tarot cards, crystals and T-shirts, among many other spiritual items; there are bulletin boards cluttered with flyers advertising healing circles, mediumship classes, spirit encounters, etc.

Off to the side is a room where you can make an appointment with a medium. The way it works is, the mediums write their names and phone numbers on a whiteboard, and you call the one you want to meet. A sign says “We can’t recommend which one you should call. Use your intuition in selecting a medium.” There’s an ATM machine right there in case your medium doesn’t accept credit cards.

Using my intuition, I start at the top of the list. After getting several voicemail machines, I reach a live medium, whom I will call Judy. She tells me she just had a cancellation, so she has an availability right away. She says the session will last thirty to forty-five minutes and will cost $60, in cash.

Following Judy’s directions, I walk a few blocks to a small house on a side street. Judy, a plump woman in (I’m guessing) her thirties, ushers me through a kitchen to a darkened living room where candles are burning and New Age music is playing softly. She has me sit on a sofa; she sits on a chair in front of me, with a small table between us.

Judy tells me a little about the history of Cassadaga and explains that she is a trained medium, affiliated with the Spiritualist Camp. She says she doesn’t use “tools” such as tarot cards. In Cassadaga, the mediums, who claim they can communicate with the dead, tend to look down on the psychics, who use cards, crystals and other items, and who claim they have the ability to see into the future, among other powers.

Judy produces a sheet of paper and says she will be writing down things as she goes so I’ll have a record of our session. She writes my name in large letters on the paper and begins talking. As she speaks, she often looks past me, as if she’s seeing a spirit I can’t see. Sometimes she talks to the spirit. “Thank you,” she’ll say.

Judy says she’s seeing canisters and asks if that has any significance to me. I try to think of canisters that have been significant in my life, but nothing comes to mind. To be honest, I can go for months without thinking of canisters. Judy says it might have something to do with oil or an auto shop, and that “placement” is important. She goes on for a while, talking about the placement of the canisters, but it’s not ringing any bells. I’m starting to feel bad, like I’m letting Judy and the spirit community down.

Judy says she’s seeing the number 76. I wrack my brain, but all I can come up with is the song “Seventy-six Trombones,” which is a rousing show tune but not one with which I feel a deep personal connection. I shake my head.

Judy says she’s picking up something about bowling balls and brings up “placement” again. I shake my head again; I’m not a bowler. I am totally failing at this.

Judy asks me if I have trouble eating.

“I wish,” I say. This is turning into a nightmare.

Judy says she’s getting something about a woman who maybe has something to do with race cars.

I shake my head again. My wife happens to be a woman, and she is a fast driver, but not of race cars. She’s an SUV woman. I’m beginning to think the dead people Judy’s talking to have me confused with somebody else.

Then Judy says she’s getting something about turkey.

“The bird or the country?” I ask.

“The bird,” she says.

“I like turkey,” I say.

Judy seems pleased. I feel relieved. Finally, we’re getting somewhere!

Judy says she’s getting something about music. I tell her I’m in a band. This is true: I’m in an author rock band called the Rock Bottom Remainders. We are not good at music, but we do attempt to play it.

Judy asks about the name Ron. I tell her my wife’s cousin’s husband is named Ron. We are on a roll now, spiritually. We are 3 for 3.

Then Judy brings up my parents. “Have they transitioned?” she says.

“Have they what?” I say.

“Died,” she says.

I tell her they have, in fact, transitioned. She asks me if I would like to try to contact them via a Spirit Box, which she says is a device that enables the dead to communicate with us. I say sure. She goes to a closet and brings back a small electronic device, which she connects to a tiny speaker. She explains that the Spirit Box picks up radio transmissions, and the spirits “piggyback” on these transmissions to say things to us.

She tells me she’s going to record me asking some “validating questions” to prove that it’s my parents I’m connecting with. Speaking into the Spirit Box, I ask a few questions, like where my parents were born and what street I grew up on. Then we go through a process wherein Judy plays back my questions and we both listen intently to the Spirit Box, trying to pick out messages from beyond as the box emits static, random sounds and fragments of radio broadcasts. To you, this probably sounds like a load of hooey, but I can state for a fact, as a person who witnessed it firsthand, that you are absolutely correct: It is a large, steaming, fragrant pile of hooey. I have a hard time keeping a straight face. Judy would say, “Did you hear that?” And I’d say, “What?” And she’d say, “It sounded like ‘love you.’ Listen.” Then she’d play a staticky random sound that could have been “love you,” but also could have been “trampoline,” “fester,” “dirigible,” “Neil Sedaka,” “Montpelier” or pretty much anything else, and I’d go, “Huh.”

We do that for a while, Judy hearing my parents telling me that they’re happy being dead and they love me, me hearing static. Finally, mercifully, our session ends. I pay Judy and leave with the piece of paper on which she has written notes about canisters, placement, etc.

As I walk away, I find myself thinking about my parents. They both had excellent senses of humor, and they would have been immensely entertained by the Spirit Box. So I guess in a way Judy did connect me with them. It was totally worth $60.

I spend the next hour walking around the Spiritualist Camp, which is actually picturesque, consisting mostly of older wooden buildings. It reminds me a little of Key West, if Key West was inhabited by mediums and spirits instead of drunk people and even drunker people. It’s a beautiful day, but even in bright sunshine Cassadaga has a creepy vibe. It’s very quiet and I see zero children. There are signs everywhere reminding you that the main industry here is death.

I leave the camp and head over to the psychic side of the street, which is a little more lively. I pass a store with a sign that says WE HAVE GHOST HUNTING EQUIPMENT, then see a place called the Purple Rose, which offers, among many other services, psychic pet readings.

I go inside, where a psychic I will call Rev. Janet (the Purple Rose psychics use “Rev.”) tells me she can do the reading from a photograph. She says this will cost $25. I pay her—the Purple Rose takes credit cards—then find a picture of my dog, Lucy, on my mobile phone. I hand the phone to Rev. Janet, who puts it on a machine that takes a photo of the photo and produces a Polaroid-like print of Lucy with weird colors around her head, representing her aura.

Rev. Janet leads me into an office, where we sit. She looks at Lucy’s aura photo and tells me what it reveals about her. Here are her observations:

“She’s very spiritual.”

“She’s very smart.”

“She loves her owners very much.”

“She doesn’t like being alone.”

“She’s got a lot of passion and energy.”

In short, to summarize what Lucy’s aura reveals, as seen by a professional in the psychic field: Lucy is a dog.

After several minutes, Rev. Janet starts looking behind me, the same way Judy the medium did.

“There’s an older woman,” she says. “Is your mother alive?”

I answer no.

“Well, she’s here right now,” says Rev. Janet. “And she loves this dog.”

My mom is all over Cassadaga.

Rev. Janet tells me that Lucy and my mom are great friends. “Your mother comes to visit the dog late at night. She plays with the dog from the other side.”

I am frankly surprised by this. The only game Lucy likes to play is the one where she prances up to you with a filthy, saliva-soaked chew toy in her mouth and you—pretending that you find this disgusting thing as desirable as she does—make a halfhearted grab for it, and she prances away, victorious. This does not strike me as an activity that my mom would visit a dog nightly to engage in.

Of course, I’m no psychic.

I leave the Purple Rose and head back to the hotel. I have dinner in the hotel restaurant, a friendly Italian place called Sinatra’s, with decent food, a genial older crowd and a piano player doing Billy Joel tunes.

After dinner, I go back out for a stroll. It’s dark now and the streets are deserted. I’m the only person walking around. It is extremely quiet. Cassadaga is definitely creepier at night. I’m reassured by the thought that my mom is around to protect me from the other spirits. Unless, of course, she’s down in Miami battling Lucy for the chew toy.

I wander down the street to the Spiritualist Camp church, which is called the Colby Memorial Temple. I stand in the open doorway, looking in. There are a couple dozen people seated at the front of the church, attending a mediumship class conducted by a man with a hypnotic voice. He’s telling them to picture themselves on a pathway with flowers on both sides. He wants them to decide what flowers to pick. It’s very relaxing, listening to this man. He’s making me realize something, something that I have been denying, but something that I now must face: I’m sleepy.

I walk back to the Hotel Cassadaga, which at night has lighting that gives it an even spookier aura.

I pass by the lobby skeleton and enter the creepy hallway with evil entities possibly lurking behind the doors. I quickly enter Room 2 and close the door. I have to leave early tomorrow morning, so I decide to take a shower tonight. I go into the bathroom and look at the bathtub:

No way am I getting in there. I have seen Psycho multiple times and I am not going to run the risk that I will be standing behind that shower curtain, naked and unarmed, when an evil entity bursts in and stabs me to death or—worse—tosses a lobster at me. I decide to shower in the morning.

I place my wallet and keys on the dresser, plug my phone into the charger, undress, get into bed and, lulled by the gentle 140 mph breeze from the window air conditioner thirty inches from my head, quickly fall into a deep sleep.

I wake early the next morning, feeling refreshed. I get out of bed, stretch and glance over toward the dresser. Suddenly, I notice something: My wallet and keys are exactly where I left them. So either the spirits decided not to move them or—we cannot rule this out—they moved them and then moved them back.

Either way, they have toyed with me enough. I shower quickly in the Death Tub, dress, pack, check out and get into my rental car. At this hour, Cassadaga is even quieter than usual. There’s not a living soul around.

And then, as I drive away from the hotel through the empty streets, it happens: I hear a voice. I swear this is the truth. The voice is speaking directly to me, guiding me. It is telling me to proceed on the path that I am on and then, in 1.5 miles, to turn left.

I obey the voice, because it’s coming from the GPS. I do not understand how it works, but I believe in it. It gets me out of Cassadaga.

I don’t mean to knock Cassadaga: It’s a nice, creepy little town. If that’s what you’re looking for, by all means you should visit, maybe spend a night at the Cassadaga Hotel. Ask for Room 2: It’s windy, but the spirits are reasonable. Be sure to say hi to my mom.