I’ve always been fascinated by the phantom, or vanishing, hitchhiker phenomenon. Usually categorized as urban legend rather than ghost lore, the phantom hitchhiker is a common ghost story shared across America. Over the years, I’ve shared some legends and lore which fall into the phantom hitchhiker category, including The Ghost of Janesville Pike and Inez Bull’s Phantom Hitchhiker.
Looking through my files, one of the first stories I had collected was an undated newspaper clipping which claimed the stretch of Route 45 between Montandon in Northumberland County and Lewisburg in Union County. The phantom was a lady dressed in white who was spotted carrying a lantern. She would appear near Montandon and vanish as she approached Lewisburg. If travelers stopped to offer her a ride, she immediately vanished.
Among the stories collected comes the following email from James. One evening in September 1980, had an encounter with a phantom hitchhiker. James, who was living in Brookville was returning home after spending a couple days in the Allegheny National Forest. With him that evening was his cousin, Jerry.
“The sun was just beginning to set as we left Ridgway,” James wrote. “We crested the mountain when we saw this young man walking along the road. As we approached, he turned and stuck out his thumb.
“At the time, we thought nothing about stopping and offering rides to strangers, so we pulled over to offer him a ride. He jogged over to the passenger side window and leaned in. He was a younger man, maybe in his early twenties, with shoulder-length dirty blonde hair and these piercing blue eyes.
“Where you headed?” we asked.
“Dubois,” he mumbled.
“Get it, we’re headed to Brookville,” I knew it wouldn’t be too far out of the way to drop him off. He had a green army pack which he tossed into the back before crawling into the car.
“I drove and we would ask him questions about his life, where he was from and why he was headed to Dubois.
“Home,” was his reply. That was the last words he spoke. I could see him sitting in the seat behind Jerry, just staring ahead. We tried to involve him in the conversation, but he just sat there in silence.
“We were just about to Brockway when I looked in the mirror and he wasn’t there. I asked Jerry if the man laid down. Jerry turns in his seat and tells me the man is not there. I slam on the brakes and both Jerry and I get out and look around. He is not in the seat and his pack is gone.
“I’m shaking and we’re both yelling at each other for answers. Neither of us knew where he went. There was no way he could have opened the door and jumped out without one of us knowing. We debated going back and searching for him, but we decided it was best for us if we just left and I drove us quickly away. I wanted to put a lot of distance between us and whatever was in my car that evening.
“Honestly this whole thing haunted me for years and I refused to give any hitchhikers a ride after that.”
This was not the only phantom hitchhiker spotted in the region. Just south of where James and Jerry picked up their spectral guest, another phantom seeks her way home. In Flatlanders and Ridgerunners (Glimm), he reports two of young men headed from St. Marys to Dubois picked up a young phantom hitchhiker. The spot where they picked the young lady up was roughly twenty-five miles from Dubois, which places the pick-up location near Penfield. They rode in silence and as they approached Dubois, the two young discovered the young lady had vanished.
Another story comes from Dana, who shares her own phantom hitchhiker experience. Dana, who lives in Erie, tells a story that happened to her a couple years ago.
“I was visiting a friend in Waterford and left to head home. It was raining as I drove northward on Route 19. I had only driven a short distance when I spotted a lady in my headlights. As I slowed down, she turned and put one arm up, as if she shielding her eyes from my lights and put her other one out with her thumb in the air. I drove a short distance away and pulled the side of the road.
“I could see her running towards the car and just before she could reach the car, she disappeared. Poof. One minute I could see her and the next she was gone from sight. My first thought was she fell. I got out of my car and rushed to the back, but she was not there. I checked around and under the vehicle, but did not see her anywhere.”
I responded to Dana, asking her if she could describe her phantom hitchhiker. Her response was: “She wore a white dress that went below the knees. She had darker hair, but I could not make out any details with her face.
“But there were two things which stand out in my mind. First, she seemed to glow when the headlights hit her. The second is, well, I got the impression she was hurt. Did I see blood or anything like that? No. But I just got the sense that she was hurt.”
The final email comes from Robert, who shared a story about a unique version of the phantom hitchhiker story. The story, which happened to his great-grandfather, was told to Robert by his grandfather.
“My great-grandfather was an only child and when he was twelve, he lost both of his parents in the matter of weeks. He was sent to live with his mother’s brother, in West Chester, but only stayed there for a couple weeks before running away. He headed westward where he found work on a farm.
“While I’m not completely sure where this farm was, my grandfather believed it was located near Bedford due to some other stories he told mentioned Bedford. According to family tradition, my great-grandfather arrived with nothing but the clothes he wore and the farmer’s wife felt sorry for him. Despite having many mouths to feed, what was one more and they took him in.
“One morning, he was sent to the neighboring farm to pick up some stuff. He took the wagon and went across the fields. Part way across one of the fields this dog runs out and jumps up on the wagon and sits there. My great-grandfather just stared at this small brown dog, amazed by how high it jumped to get into the wagon. The dog sat there until they arrived at the neighbor’s farm. As the wagon left the fields, the dog jumped down and vanished.
“My great-grandfather didn’t mention the strange dog as they loaded up the wagon. Soon he was on his way and roughly the same spot as before, this dog appears and once again takes it place on the seat of the wagon.
“A couple weeks later he had to again take stuff to the neighbor’s and again the dog joined him on the wagon.
“After the third or fourth time this happened, he finally asked about the dog. It seems a neighboring family had a dog that enjoyed wagon rides when they went out into the fields. One day the dog disappeared. The family searched for the dog and finally discovered it dead in one of the fencerows. They buried the dog where they found it at the edge of the field. My great-grandfather believed that the spot the dog appeared was where it had been buried and dog’s ghost saw the wagon, it just wanted to go for another ride.
“My great-grandfather saw the dog numerous times when he was in the fields. If he was driving a wagon, it would appear, jump up on the seat next to him, until he disappeared back into the fields.
“He only stayed with them for a year or two before he moved westward again, leaving the farm and the family behind.
“I often wonder if that dog is still out there, waiting for a wagon ride, or if it had found peace after all these years. I wish I knew.”