Listen for the Night Booms

By  |  July 9, 2014

The weather has been weird in western Kentucky. Just last November, a tornado struck a uranium enrichment plant in Paducah. In January, the Polar Vortex not only froze ponds, but also the toes of a convict who had escaped from a Lexington prison (too cold, he turned himself in at the Sunset Motel). Then, in early March, a powerful storm split the skies with lightning and buried all the land in sleet and snow. One Saturday morning soon thereafter, continuing east on a long drive I was taking across the southern U.S., I drove my car from the Bootheel of Missouri onto a ferry that would carry me across the Mississippi River to Kentucky, only to discover that even stranger things were afoot.

Our ferry was a tiny little guy, pilothouse atop a concrete barge, inching its way across the Mississippi. The river, a chocolate torrent cluttered with logs and branches, sparkled in the sun. Here came an entire tree, a small ship in itself, flanked by a convoy of trunks, arboreal patrol boats confident on some unknown mission, victims of some terrific force. A tugboat trailed behind: barges lumped with coal, and then another tug, pushing a seemingly impossible load of twenty barges, four across and five long.

There is something awesome about stacking one form of transport on another form of transport. Trucks put on trains, space shuttles on planes, or, in this case, cars on boats on swiftly flowing rivers. Of course, the earth is moving too: Antarctica once kissed Mozambique, Colombia bordered Texas, and in about 60 million years, western California, moving at the precipitous rate of an inch per year, will cross the North Pacific to clink swords with Alaska.

“I don’t know if you’ve been watching the news but we’ve been hearing cannons go off in the night—huge booms,” a deckhand in polarized shades and a bright orange jacket told me, as he took my ticket money on the ferry’s deck. “And we’ve been having sinkholes opening up all over the place. One opened under a Corvette dealership, right under the showroom floor, and all the Corvettes dropped down into the ground.” I imagined the earth eating all those fancy cars and smiled.

The deckhand waxed on. “They say they heard the cannons before the big one in 1812; of course back in those days they thought it was because the gods were angry at them.” He laughed, frontiersmen and their silly gods.

As we approached the snow-covered Kentucky shore, the deckhand walked away to fix the lines, and I got back in my car. “They also say we’re fixing to have another one,” he called to me. “If it comes again, I hope I’m right here on this boat. That’s the safest place to be.”

We think of North America’s edges as dangerous: dense with people, prone to earthquakes and hurricanes, godless. The middle is mostly empty, god-fearing, guarded by the land. But even here in the heartland the earth is in motion. There’s a relic fault line that zigzags like a lightning bolt from southwest Kentucky and northwest Tennessee, down the Missouri Bootheel and into northeast Arkansas. It is known to seismologists as the New Madrid Seismic Zone, and during the winter of 1811 and 1812 it slipped repeatedly, leading to the biggest sequence of earthquakes the Continental United States has ever seen.

The first of three principal quakes, a magnitude 7.7, was centered in northeastern Arkansas and struck just after 2:00 a.m. on December 16, 1811. In the nearby frontier town, New Madrid, the ground rolled in waves like the sea. Chasms opened and swallowed men and cows—just ate them up. Fissures formed in the forest right beneath the trees, unzipping trunks like jackets. Coal, sand, water, and mud geysered up from the earth, along with the fossilized skull of a long-extinct species of buffalo. Lights flashed up from the ground: a spectacular phenomenon called seismoluminescence, thought to be caused by underground deposits of quartz being squeezed together. Living things rose up, too, namely snakes. Cattle stampeded through the streets. Songbirds mysteriously landed on people’s shoulders. 

“Everywhere there was noise like thunder, and the ground was shaking the trees down, and the air was thick with something like smoke,” recounted Firmin La Roche, captain of a fleet of flatboats transporting furs downriver to New Orleans. “There was much lightning . . . I do not know how long this went on, for we were all in great terror, expecting death.”

In the morning the sun did not rise. Dense vapors welled up from the seams of the earth and hid it from view. The skies became so dark that lamps were of no use. The air smelled of sulfur, the Devil’s scent. Many residents were convinced the Day of Judgment was at hand and prostrated themselves on the ground.

For the next three months the earth convulsed almost continuously, with more than 1,800 aftershocks recorded. The second principal quake occurred on January 23, 1812, a 7.5 on the Richter scale, and the third a few weeks later, on February 7, may have been as strong as an 8.0.

Because the Richter scale increases logarithmically, an 8.0 earthquake releases thirty-two times more energy than a 7.0, and about a million times more energy than a 4.0. The largest single earthquake ever recorded in the United States and the second-largest earthquake recorded on earth was the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, scaled at 9.2—equivalent to the force of sixty-three thousand Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs. But this earthquake occurred along the boundary where two massive tectonic plates grind together. The New Madrid Seismic Zone is in the middle of North America, more than a thousand miles from any such boundary.

“We still don’t completely understand why the New Madrid Seismic Zone has been active in the last millennium,” says Dr. Susan Hough, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “Scientists have really struggled to come up with an answer as to what is going on.”

 

In the parking lot behind an insurance agency in Hickman, on the Kentucky side of the river, I found By-Pass Barber Shop, a blue house not much bigger than a fruit stand. Inside were three people who all looked up when I entered: the barber, the man whose hair he was cutting, and another, a man of solid stature who came in just in front of me. This man had a deep voice, as if a mountain could speak. He was one of Hickman’s four city commissioners.

“So what’s going on with the city, Commissioner?” asked the man in the barber’s chair.

“That’s the problem,” said the commissioner. “Nothing is going on, there’s no money.”

The other two grumbled acknowledgement. On the barbershop walls were mounted deer heads, turkey feathers, and a stuffed mallard in flight, along with one of those old haircut charts where everyone has a buzz cut and looks Egyptian.

The commissioner asked, “Why don’t you have the ballgame on?”

Scissors in hand, the barber walked over to an old AM/FM radio and turned on the Kentucky basketball game. Florida was up, twenty-nine to sixteen.

Their conversation turned, among other things, to racquetball, mosquitoes, homemade tonics (“Mix a little vinegar, lemon juice, people would buy it”), and an eccentric customer who recently fell asleep in the barber’s chair.

“Have y’all heard about the night booms?” I asked the trio.

“I’ve heard it,” nodded the barber. “Sounds like a sonic boom.”

“I heard it once in Clinton,” said the man getting his hair cut. “I thought someone shot a cannon.”

“I heard it, too,” said the commissioner. “My wife said she thought it was an earthquake.”

“Best thing to do in an earthquake,” he added, “is get in the water.”

It’s funny how people here still regard the river as their savior, no matter its capacity to destroy. During the earthquake of December 16, 1811, thirty miles downriver from New Madrid, in the town of Little Prairie, one resident witnessed the riverbed rise up, “like a great loaf of bread.” Huge swaths of riverbank peeled into the Mississippi. Thousands of trees were swept away. The sandbars where riverboats and tramps like Huck Finn typically lay up for the night dissolved. Entire islands dissolved. Old trees stuck in the river bottom shot up like gigantic spring-loaded spears. A twenty- to thirty-foot pulse of water pushed backwards up the river; ghost ships, their crews mysteriously missing, came floating back down. 

 

The commissioner took the chair and launched into a deer-hunting story.

“You ever go out there and hunt them buffalo out West?” the barber asked him. “They make you eat part of the heart.”

“I heard something like that,” said the commissioner, who then delved into a wild hog-hunting story.

When I finally sat in the chair, the barber, Dwayne Uzzle, asked me what I wanted. I told him what I tell everyone: “Clean it up, but keep it long.”

Dwayne was born and raised in Hickman. His father is a senior pastor at a Pentecostal church, and Dwayne is a minister there. “Pretty good-sized church,” he said, as he clipped a back lock. “Sunday morning services usually run 180, 200 people. As far as tradition goes, we’re more modern. Women still wear dresses and all that, but we’re not what you call grubby Pentecostal.”

“Do you find there are similarities between being a barber and being a minister?” I asked.

“They both deal with people on a daily basis,” he said. “Your conversation is your variety. Man comes in with a Harley Davidson hat on, you know you’re going to be talking Harley Davidsons. Man comes in with cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, I’ll ask him about horses.”

“All people want is a friend that will lead them to Christ,” said Dwayne. He took out his razor to clean up my neck.

“How’s this looking?” he asked, swiveling my chair to face the mirror.

“It looks real good,” I told him. He’d kept it long.

Locals like Dwayne have pinned the noises from the weird winter of 2013 on neighbors firing cannons, exploding meth labs, supersonic jets passing overhead, even fracking in distant Illinois. The West Kentucky Star suggested the culprit was a natural phenomenon known as frost quakes, an event that occurs when plummeting temperatures cause water in the soil to freeze and expand, cracking underground rocks. The U.S. Geological Survey hasn’t really weighed in but they do have a webpage about Earthquake Booms, which they believe are caused by shallow earthquakes. These have been reported in Charleston, Washington state, and Moodus, Connecticut, where records of the rumblings date back to 1791. Native Americans originally called the town Morehemoodus, or Place of Noises.

Accounts of the night booms come from as far away as Haiti, where they’re called the gouffre. A 1912 article in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society tells of a vicar from the city of Croix-des-Bouquets, just outside Port-au-Prince, who differentiated between the gouffre at day (“a deep roaring . . . at times like the howling of a dog”) and the gouffre at night (a thundering, howling, wind-rushing sound that ends with a loud detonation, followed by a long echo, “as if a mountain of glass were shattered”).

 

With the sun strong in the sky and the snow melting rapidly, I left the shop and scooted south out of Hickman, past the dock where the ferry landed and through the single-building town of Sassafras Ridge. Around dusk I pulled up to a motel on the shores of Reelfoot Lake, which was created during the New Madrid quake of February 7, 1812. According to the reports of a French trapper named Pierre Nichol, who happened to be out in the woods hunting beaver at the time, the trees “swayed and groaned . . . keeping time with the undulating movement of the earth,” until the forest sank into the ground and water flooded in from a nearby creek.

Native Americans tell a different story. A Chickasaw chief, named Reelfoot because he had been born with a deformed foot, once kidnapped a Choctaw maiden named Laughing Eyes. This angered the Great Spirit who stamped his foot and sent the Mississippi skipping over its banks, flooding Reelfoot’s homeland and drowning him and his bride at the bottom of the newly formed lake.

Later that night in my lakeside motel room, I bolted awake. There was a noise. I rushed outside. The wind was blowing and the water was mauve and the air was frozen. A fog had formed, and in the middle of the lake a glowing patch of gray was spreading. There was a light submerged below the surface. This is how it begins, I thought to myself, the unwinding, the slippage of faults, the catastrophe. The fog was eating up the shoreline, eating up the motel, and soon it was eating up me. I didn’t hear the booms, but I did hear the rushing of wind, and from somewhere else, a howling.

Justin Nobel’s work has been published in Rolling Stone, Orion, Tin House, and Virginia Quarterly Review, as well as Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014 and Best American Travel Writing 2011 and 2016. In 2016, The Story of Dan Bright, a book he co-wrote with a New Orleans death row exoneree, was published by University of New Orleans Press.