Between fact and fantasy.

12.10.2013

I was 7 years old when I heard my first ghost story. My cousin was no younger than 14, but we were inseparable even then. Amanda was fascinated by legends and myths, stories of murder and mystery. She told me tales of rumored-to-be haunted houses and hotels that she read about in books with titles like “America’s Most Haunted." Her favorite one to talk of was the Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana—a mere two-hour drive from our small town. The plantation was home to a plethora of twisted stories and bizarre happenings, dating back to the late 18th century. Twelve disturbing deaths had occurred in that house, from yellow fever to angry brawls to semi-accidental poisonings, and Amanda was convinced that if there was one place to encounter a ghost, it was the Myrtles. You’d think that as a young child of less than a decade, I would have been driven to more fear than I could handle from her paranormal pursuit. But Amanda was not perturbed by her strange fascinations, and neither was I. Most of the time, I hung on every word she uttered, each syllable soaked in suspense. Granted, I was nowhere near as fearless as my older cousin; when the lights went out for the night, she fell quickly asleep while I lay awake with eyes wide open and a mind racing, silently reciting desperate prayers to the Virgin Mary for some sense of peace and protection. Fear was not enough, however, to stop one girl’s obsession from becoming another’s.

Fast forward ten years, to a warm summer night in downtown Austin. I was on a weekend trip with my parents in the spring of my junior year of high school, visiting the University of Texas as a potential option for college. Only three hours away from home, UT was my mother’s preference over my longtime dream of UNC. Meandering down 6th street after a long day of university tours, I remember being bogged down by the Texas heat and complaining mercilessly about the humidity, reason #52 why North Carolina was much better suited to my tastes. A camera glued to my face (as an inspiring photographer is wont to have), I didn’t see the building until I was standing directly below the steps leading to its entrance. Austin’s Driskill Hotel immediately captured my attention with its regal architecture and shadowy yellow gleam. At dusk, the larger-than-life hotel stood out among the rest of the Historic District gems, like a solitary yellow rose in a field of green grass. Right next to me, off of the sidewalk, rested an old auburn automobile dating back to the early 19th century. The words “1886 Café & Bakery” marked elegantly on its back window suggested it had been resting for quite some time.

The moment I stepped into The Driskill and laid my eyes upon its grand staircase, Romanesque columns, and stained glass lights, I was smitten. Old-fashioned as it was, there was something simply enchanting about it. The soft hum of voices, the sweet smell of freshly baked pastries, and the red and golden hues of the regal foyer overtook my senses and drowned out any previous thoughts of the wretched heat. Upon scanning this magical building, which felt rich in history and memories, I imagined this was the closest thing I’d ever come to traveling back in time: no longer was I a naive teenager wandering through Austin's overwhelming nightlife in 2009, but rather a dignified guest of the city’s most luxurious hotel in 1886. My daydreams were interrupted when a lady in a long skirt and broad-brimmed hat, standing halfway between the café and the grand staircase, began to share with a small group of visitors her knowledge of the ghostly encounters that had occurred at the hotel since its beginning. I can’t tell you for certain if the hotel is actually haunted, but all of the tales I heard that night from the storyteller made me believe that it very well could be. There have been sightings, she said. Unexplained incidents. A history of deaths. Amanda would love this place, I thought.

Five years ago, when I stood in front of the hotel with my family, it was just another enormous building. Beautiful, stoic, haunting. A place of mystery and intrigue that I longed to know personally but never thought I would. After moving to Austin for college in the fall of 2010 (how are mothers always right?), I visited the hotel for the first time on my 19th birthday. Something was calling me back there, and I was certain it wasn’t just the chocolate molten lava cake served in the bakery. The stories were what attracted me. Stories of a nameless broken hearted woman all dressed in white. Little children playing with their toys on the grand staircase. The infamous Room 429, rumored to never be vacant. Little snippets of narrative continued to circulate through the years, but no one ever knows for sure where the line between fact and fantasy falls. As rumors become legends, it’s curious minds like mine that grasp onto the fanciful notions of ghosts and things that go bump in the night. We revel in the possibilities of truths beyond our comprehension, only to stir the parts of our imaginations that have lain dormant since childhood.

In 2011, after a 27-year battle with Cystic Fibrosis, my cousin passed away. A year before her untimely death, however, Amanda made a long awaited trip to her “Driskill Hotel” in St. Francisville, Louisiana, a beautiful bed and breakfast surrounded by mossy oaks and pink-blossoming crepe myrtle trees. She spent the night in the General David Bradford suite – appropriately named after the man who built the plantation home in 1796with a few brave family members. For some duration of her stay, Amanda could be found in the general’s sitting room, staring ever so silently off into the distance. She later told her mom that she felt the presence of several different spirits in the room, who seemed to be just as curious about her as she was about them. Unlike most people, she was never frightened by the idea of lingering spirits. But Amanda wasn't like most people. With a contagious laugh and courageous spirit, her personal interest in the supernatural was perhaps just a strong desire for human connection on another level. She believed in the intimate details hidden within the story, the beauty in each individual, and the celebration of a life well lived. She taught me not to worry about the rest.

It’s no secret that The Driskill Hotel is still my favorite place in this city. Not because of its spooky reputation (though it may have started that way), but rather because of what it has become for me: a breath of fresh air, a refuge from the daily grind of everyday life, a sentimental spot reserved for special occasions. A tradition of sorts, chock-full of intimate details. Every October, November, and January—three best friends: sipping on coffee, losing ourselves in conversation, blowing out birthday candles, snapping silly photos, roaming through the halls to find a ghost. Without fail, Raul greets us at the door of the café and graciously leads us to our regular booth by the window. Without fail, he escorts us out to say goodbye until the next time. And we assure him, there will always be a next time.

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