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

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Updated May 9, 2023

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.

Everyone 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.

black dogThe "black dog" has become common shorthand for the various mirages that appear or seem to appear, as it were, scampering across the highway in front of the operator who's nearing the end of a long night on-highway.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 the time of ancient Egypt.

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.

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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.

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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.

[Related: Have you seen the black dog?]

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 does, 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, trucking newbies, you’re not the first and you won’t be the last to hear about Large Marge....

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