“Don’t be alarmed if you sense a presence in the room with you,” said the desk clerk as we checked into the Cassadaga Hotel.
For the people of Cassadaga, otherworldly apparitions are business as usual. In this tiny Central Florida town, the deceased are considered long-term residents, living shoulder-to-shoulder with certified psychics and mediums who make up a majority of the population. Cassadaga is known as the Psychic Capital of the World. Visitors arrive seeking answers, healing or a rendezvous with the dearly departed.
My boyfriend, Dane, and I had come for none of those reasons. I’d written a television pilot based on the town, having never been there myself. I heard about the place from my cousin Dave, who told me he’d been crossing the road one day when a resident stopped him with a message from my grandmother. She warned that he needed to check the electrical appliances in his kitchen. Apparently, my grandmother had prevented a kitchen fire from beyond the grave. Dave said he’d seen a brownish stain on his kitchen curtain and hadn’t understood where it came from — until then.
“In Cassadaga, people just come up to you on the street and ask if they can deliver a message from beyond,” he said. I was hooked. I invented a whole world around a town I’d never visited and showed the script to my new beau.
Dane and I had met working on a TV show in Miami, where I lived at the time with my two-year-old daughter. He lived in New York but traveled to Florida frequently to visit his children who lived there with their mother.
At 6'4", with a close-cropped beard, tattoos on his forearm and a light dusting of chest hair, Dane had me at hello. His blue-grey eyes looked familiar, like we’d known each other forever.
It had taken the Universe three months to initiate our romance. The first time we met, I’d been too distracted by my ongoing divorce to pay him any mind. The second time, I didn’t take his advances seriously. On the third consecutive month of serendipity, when we found ourselves within arms reach again, we finally gave in to a romance the likes of which I’d never experienced.
After that, we found every excuse to snatch a few days together whenever — and wherever — we could.
Dane loved my Cassadaga script. He was stunned to learned I’d never actually visited the place. We planned a “research trip” for the next time he came down to Florida to see his kids.
We met at the Jacksonville airport, and rented a car for the two-hour drive to Cassadaga. We almost missed the tiny sign pointing the way through a tree-lined road off the main highway.
As we got closer to town, signs like “Psychic readings with Sylvia,” and “Tarot by Tanya” beckoned like flashing amber guard lights on an airport runway.
You’ve arrived, weary traveler. All your answers lay ahead.
We parked in front of the hotel at the center of the three-square-block spiritualist camp called Cassadaga. After the hotel desk clerk had issued her perfunctory ghost warning, she handed us a giant room key attached to a thick, wrought-iron ring. Not the sort of key you’d accidentally forget to return.
We left our bags and strolled down Stevens Street, snapping photos of old Florida-style homes. The front yards showcased a glorious array of kitsch: crystals, fairy wings, rows of sunflowers.
At the end of the road, we found the Colby Memorial Temple, where Sunday church services featured meditations, healing sessions and the channeling of spirits. Dane and I embraced in the adjacent gazebo, soaking up the healing vibrations left behind by hands-on practitioners.
Sunflowers took the place of crucifixes. They popped up everywhere. Dane and I both viewed sunflowers as good omens. We took them as a sign that we’d somehow make this relationship work, despite geographical differences and complicated family dynamics.
Back at the hotel that evening, we rocked on the front porch sipping lemonade while the desk clerk regaled us with stories of the hotel’s friendly ghosts.
“Arthur was of Irish descent and quite mischievous. Then there’s Gentleman Jack, he was a ladies man. There are also a couple of young ladies lingering about the property.”
Sounded like a party to us. Titillated by the possibility of colliding with phantoms in the night, we climbed the steps to the second floor. The room looked like it hadn’t been remodeled since 1927, when the hotel was built. We dropped our bags, deposited the key onto an antique credenza by the door and climbed onto the wood poster bed. We slept until the morning light drifted through translucent curtains and woke us.
I padded over to the bathroom, while Dane collected our belongings to check out.
“What in the world?” I heard him say.
He opened the shower curtain, our room key in his hand.
“How’d the key end up on the floor?” he asked, looking puzzled.
We’d been nowhere near it.
“Maybe it got knocked over somehow?” I guessed.
“No, look at this,” he said
The solid, iron key ring had been twisted open.
He tried to twist it shut again but couldn’t. It wouldn’t budge.
“This ring was completely intact yesterday.”
Spooked, Dane went to check the door. Still locked.
Despite the ninety-degree weather, I felt a chill along my spine.
We lugged our bags down to the lobby and handed over the key, prepared to defend ourselves from damage charges.
“We have no idea how this happened,” Dane told the desk clerk.
She glanced at the keyring, non-plussed.
“Yeah, things like this happen all the time,” she said, placing the key on the desk behind her.
We checked out and headed for the car. We wouldn't have time for a seance or psychic reading this time around. However, our visit to the small, quirky town in the middle of Florida cemented our belief in the otherworldly and also in our destiny as a couple.
One prediction we'd make without the help of an intuitive: we'll definitely go back to Cassadaga someday.