A Spirited Adventure: Facing My Fear of Ghosts Led to a Revelation

Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett


You should do it,” said my husband, Michael. “It” was a fun thing turned scary: a tour of old San Juan Capistrano with a close encounter of the ghost kind. Blame an article I’d read about Orange County Ghosts and Legends, the who-ya-gonna-call folks in O.C. Their ongoing mission: Explore the area’s stranger things. They have the latest, super-sensitive, spirit-detecting equipment and aren’t afraid to use it.

Late at night. In the dark. At a place reputed to be (flashlight to chin) … haunted.

Curious souls are invited to join—add that to my growing list of stuff not to do. I don’t “heart” zombies and generally avoid things that go bump in the night. The last scary movie I saw was 1982’s “Poltergeist,” in which I learned that cantankerous souls can wreak havoc even in a land of sunshine and suburbs, which pretty much describes Orange County.

I said the same to Michael, who countered that I should go, face my fears and all that. He’d even go with me to keep me safe from hitchhiking ghosts. Then he said the words that writers can’t resist: “Just think of the story you’d get out of it.”


I contacted Cris August, owner and fearless leader of the Ghosts and Legends gang. We discussed options before making final arrangements to take a three-hour tour of the Los Rios District, a strip of land with a checkered past and apparently lots of paranormal shenanigans.

August said he knew a guy who could get us into some of the more “active” places after hours—the pivotal mistake, if you ask me, of every ghost-hunting team in horror movie history. You never go in. You always stay out. Even if a buddy has wandered in and gone quiet on the two-way. That’s on them.

“We’ll go at night,” August said. “Better ambience.”

“I’ll bring my husband,” I said. “Better to hide behind.”

It turned out to be a dark if not stormy night, the black sky barely illuminated by a timid crescent moon. First stop: an old brown house that was once the home of Modesta Avila, Orange County’s first felon. Apparently she hadn’t cared much for the Santa Fe Railroad’s encroachment on her property and strung a clothesline across the tracks. A tame protest by today’s standards. But at that time, such unladylike behavior was not to be tolerated, and she was sentenced to three years in San Quentin for attempted train obstruction.

“She was only 22 when she died in prison,” August said. “Some say her spirit has returned to reclaim her home.” With that happy thought, he powered up his iPad. “We believe we’ve captured her voice.” At first, there was nothing but static. Then a man’s voice on the audio recording calling out Modesta’s name. Then … wait, what was that? August played it again. This time, I heard it—a rush of words that seemed to say, “I don’t like the train.”

And I don’t like cold chills down my spine.

We pressed on, crossing over to the other side of the street. August called our attention to a single-story house, windows glowing, set back off the road. “That’s one of the few original adobes still standing,” he said. “Ten generations of the Rios family have lived there, making it the oldest continuously occupied residence in California.”

“Can we go in?” I asked, eager to escape the gloom.

“No, the house is still occupied, but we can go in the next place I want to show you.”

The next place was the O’Neill Museum by day, the Garcia/Pryor House by night, a restored charmer with a haunted reputation: self-rocking chairs and floating lights in darkened windows despite the fact no one has lived there for years.

I did OK with the musty smell and creaking floorboards, and kept calm despite the dim lighting cast by unambitious lamps that never quite reached into shadowed corners. But then we looked into one of the bedrooms. That’s when I saw them. The dolls. Think faded ruffled dresses and wide, glassy eyes that never closed. One was lying on the bed, the other propped up on the dresser. Both were watching our every move—I swear—and looking a little too happy to see us.

Was it my fevered imagination or had that one moved a few inches closer? “Gentlemen, I’ll be outside.”

our last stop was the silvas Adobe. Maybe it was the abundance of added light, but here was a warm, welcoming vibe. No surprise to learn this had been a recent pet project of the local Historical Society, a successful venture to shore up the original structure and keep it standing for another 200 years.

What interested me most were the half-dozen concrete blocks the reconstruction crew had saved when drawings were discovered in them: doodles and designs scrolled into the still-wet concrete long before any of us were born.

I reached down to trace a tentative finger along the embedded scrollwork and felt a strange kinship with the artist. I traced another and another, each time getting the same spark of connection. I smiled. Something about these drawings was more real to me than any ghost sighting could have been.

That’s when it clicked. All night long, I’d been bracing for the Boogeyman to jump out and scare me. In doing so, I’d missed the proof of life right before us.

Like these preserved bricks with their drawings that had once been part of the steps leading up to the front porch.

Like the Rios Adobe we’d seen earlier, occupied by direct descendants of the original family.

Like the rebel Modesta Avila. Was that really her on the recording? Maybe. But that old brown house we’d stood next to was definitely her former home, now known as Hummingbird House Cafe.

We walked back to it now, our spirit quest at its end. An Amtrak train roared by. In my mind’s eye, I saw Modesta standing next to the cafe, not some wispy apparition, but a strong, defiant woman shaking her fist at the dragon of her day.

“Too bad we didn’t see any ghosts,” Michael said as he drove us home.

I smiled. “Oh, but we did. And they weren’t scary at all.”

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