How old is that story, bro?: Trucking tales, legends, ghosts

| August 20, 2013

Truckers love to tell stories. The seasoned vets especially love to booger newbies with awful tales, full of ghastly appearances and cops who tell them to run over parked cars or be issued tickets. You can’t get truckers to agree on much of anything other than their urban legends, and even those have endless variations, depending on what part of the country you happen to be in. As it turns out, most of these stories have origins rooted firmly in ancient tales that have been told for hundreds of years.

black dogEveryone on the road has heard the “Legend of the Black Dog.” The black dog supposedly comes when a truck driver has been driving too long and starts to fall asleep at the wheel. He or she will see the ghoul running toward the truck, just before the crash. The apparition causes the driver to steer off the road, or into traffic, and results in an accident that kills the truck driver or an innocent person.

The origins of the black dog are difficult to pin down, though in various pieces of European mythology dogs have been associated with death. Their scavenging habits may attribute to these beliefs, as well as the fact that black dogs are seen almost universally as malevolent. It’s possible the black dog legend is a throwback to a belief held by couriers of freight as far back as Egyptian times.

The vanishing hitchhiker is the story of a hitchhiker who has died in a terrible accident and returns in ghostly form to the scene. In some versions of the legend, a truck driver will stop to pick the hitchhiker up and take them to their designated location. When dropped off, the hitchhiker leaves some kind of personal article on the truck, like a sweater or a book bag. The driver will return the object to the place they dropped the hitchhiker off, only to be told the owner of the personal item is a child or friend of whoever lives there and they’ve been dead for some time, due to a tragic accident on whichever road the trucker picked them up on.

In the song “Phantom 309,” Red Sovine sings about thumbing a ride with a trucker who tells him to make sure the people at the truck stop he drops him off at know who sent him. When Red informs the truck stop crowd of his driver, a waiter tells him the story of a driver who died after crashing his rig to avoid a school bus full of kids at the intersection he was picked up at. The waiter tells the hiker that he wasn’t the first; the ghost of Big Joe had been known to pick up other hitchhikers over the years.

Sovine also recorded “Bringing Mary Home,” in which he picks up a young woman standing by the road on a stormy night, only to have her disappear before he reaches the address she gives him. Her mother answers the door and tells him that he is the 13th man who has come to her, bringing Mary home.

According to folklorists, the vanishing hitchhiker/driver stories may have evolved from earlier European yarns, usually about travelers on horseback. A version of the story actually appears in the Bible (Acts 8:26-39), wherein an Ethiopian driving a chariot picks up the Apostle Philip, who baptizes him and disappears. As time rolled on and the story continued to be told, the chariots, wagons and horseback of yesteryear became the big rigs of today.

Truckers can also be the heroes of urban legends. In one such story, a nasty biker gang harasses a trucker in a restaurant. The trucker says nothing, pays his bill and leaves. One biker brags to the proprietor, “He wasn’t much of a man, was he?” Looking out the window, the owner says, “No, he’s not much of a driver either. He just backed over your bikes.”

This basic plot line shows up in our favorite trucking movies like Smokey and the Bandit and Every Which Way But Loose, and versions of the story have been set in the United States, Canada and Great Britain. Rather than preach the Christian message of “turn the other cheek,” these stories encourage temporary meekness, only to strike back against the prized possessions of the tormentor. Again, there are several European legends involving the same methods, dating back hundreds of years.

Reports of spirits leading truckers to safety are varied and different versions develop as they are told by different drivers. One particularly inspiring story involves a young man, fairly new to trucking, who gets hung up in a blinding snowstorm in the Kansas flat lands. Just as he’s about to pull over and stop on what he hopes is the side of the road, someone comes on the CB who sounds remarkably like his deceased father (who had also been a trucker) and tells him to follow the taillights, which he des, and they lead him safely to a truck stop. The guy grabs his jacket and jumps out of the truck to tell the other driver thank you, and even though there were two sets of tracks in the snow, his is the only truck around.

Soldiers in battle often relate these types of experiences, either being warned of danger or directed away from danger by familiar spirits who have passed. The Vikings had tales of the Goddess Vor (meaning “careful one” or “aware”), who assisted in their conquests by warning of treachery and ill-will before it befell them.

Mark Twain said, “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

The same holds true for our legends and stories, which is why they continue to be told throughout the ages of time. So beware, newbies, you’re not the first and you won’t be the last to hear about Large Marge…. 

  • I depend on truckers

    I’ll bite Wendy, Who is large Marge???

  • Mcmm

    The 1985 film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure includes a scene that is a variation on “Phantom 309″. While hitchhiking across the country in search of his stolen bicycle, Pee Wee (Paul Reubens) thumbs a ride with a female truck driver named “Large Marge” who relates to him the story of “the worst accident I ever seen,” which concludes with Marge’s face contorting very ghoulishly. When Pee Wee announces to the truck stop that Large Marge sent him, one customer recounts that this particular evening is the anniversary of said accident. It is also explained that this accident happened to Large Marge herself.

  • martymarsh

    The same people that go down the road aggravating people on the CB are the story tellers, I’ve known a few of them. The one about the dog, I seen that in a movie but in 39 years have never heard anyone mention that one.
    As a seasoned vet, I would like to think that I have always given everyone sound advise, I have never had times for games.
    I don’t think that I like being lumped in with a bunch of clowns and any honest person with integrity would object also.
    It was confirmed many years ago that when a truck driver opens their mouth they are lying, so let us keep that myth going, we certainly would not want anyone to think we are just a bunch of honest hard working people.
    But hey I got one for ya, and you are never going to believe this.
    I honestly don’t think your intent is to hurt anyone, but the problem is we can’t think like everyone thinks, and as we all know most like to talk just to hear themselves talk.
    As a whole, we are far from a bunch of story tellers, and if it was not for the CB where people can hide, they wouldn’t say jit even if they had a mouth full.
    Hey, keep the shiny side up and God Bless.

  • Wendy Parker
  • William McKelvie

    That black dog is not a myth, not hardly. It signals the time to get off the road, and park it.

  • Mark Arnold

    And you forgot the best one of all. What’s the difference between a Truckers tale, and a Fairy tale? Fairy tales starts off with, “Once upon a time” Truckers tale starts off with “You ain’t never gonna believe this”

  • Certifiably Nutty

    You ain’t never gonna believe this…i was a newbie back in the late 80s and I was driving through northern Cali somewhere wooded at about 11 or 12 midnight…all of a sudden I see this thing shoot across the road in front of me and I throw the anchors out to try and stop but I’m already past the point where it darted out. I finally stop and go back to look because in my panic I thought I saw a kid run across the road on all fours.(LOL yeah, I was tired) It is dark as heck, no one is around, I can;t find anything, I go back to my rig, drive aways to find a place to park and got some shut eye. The only thing I could think of was that it was some sort of coyote or wolf that ran across the road. But ever since then when I hear stories I chalk it up to fatigue because of what I saw, or thought I saw.

    No denying it, we come across some weird stuff on the road but I ain’t never seen a black dog, disappearing hitcher or Large Marge (well, at least not in ghostly form).

  • mike anthony

    sometimes, truth mirrors legends, though. back in the mid-80′s, i once had a horseback mounted cop in nyc actually force me to back into a dock in an alley, regardless of the car that was parked in the alley in a no parking zone, because i had traffic backed up for several blocks in any direction. i made it into the dock without hitting the car, and the cop just said, “i knew you could do it”, or something to that effect, then rode off. i’ve heard the similar story where drivers are told to run over a car, sometimes it’s a cop car, and the location that i’ve heard mentioned is usually new orleans or chicago, but have heard nyc a couple of times. the story always involves the car being crushed by the truck. i usually doubt the truthfulness, but since a very similar incident actually did occur with me, i can’t automatically dismiss the story every time i hear it. at the same time, i am reluctant to tell too many people about the real incident that happened to me, because it makes me seem like a liar to other drivers who have heard the other stories.

  • mike anthony

    also, some of the people who read the comment i posted below will know who i am, and will know that i’m posting as an alias (lol).

  • Rob

    I’ve seen the Black Dog, I was driving through NC late at night looking for a place to park and get some sleep, When I saw two red eyes in the middle of the road, As I got closer it turned into a shadow of what I thought was a wolf. It was coming at me as fast as I was going toward it and right before we hit, It disappeared. that was over 20 years ago and I can still picture it perfectly in my mind.

  • tigerpshaw

    At least Phantom 309 is both an old ghost story and a real event:

    John William Trudelle
    On1/30/1963 the Keene Sentinel headline read

    It is clear Pete “John” Trudelle, a volunteer firefighter and former police officer for Troy, NH made the choice for the well being of others with only seconds left. The school bus burned, the overpass was destroyed, two men died, the bus driver and five children lived.

    There is a movement to recognize “Big John” for the hero that he was. We will post more here as it takes shape.