Sunday, October 30, 2016

Halloween on the Highway, or Unending Roads

The open highway has a mystique to it. It fascinates me to think that the humble road outside my door can ultimately lead me anywhere. The vast network of roads and highways can seem to have a life of its own, humming silently with potential. It also carries life, allowing the movement of commerce which is the lifeblood of any society.

When I was a teen, I can recall my friends and I hanging out beside the road near one of their houses. A streetlight, a dry, grassy, shallow ditch, and warm summer nights became our world. This was when where I lived was more rural, and traffic was rare. Yet I could almost believe I heard the faint roaring of tires on a highway emanating from this quiet stretch of asphalt in a backwater Ohio town. We discussed dreams of our future there, the road looming within our souls, ready to take us somewhere far away, someplace we imagined to be our destiny.

As time flowed along, roads and highways became less and less the enabler of hopes, and more a simple tool by which we carried out our daily tasks. Still, on certain days or nights, when thoughts would rise up from the depths of memory, the road would again become a pathway into dreams. Roads are strange things when you think of it; they are permanent structures, unmoving, yet they feel as if they move beneath us as we travel along. They seem to stay the same as the lands around change. At night, the Moon paces us, stationary as the land slides and undulates below it. At those times, the highway is at its most mysterious, carrying us as we hurtle forward into a nightscape.

Tales from the highway are particularly engrossing. Just as roads carry us through the temporal world, it's captivating to think they may also somehow reach into another dimension. Time and space often seem to change and morph as we drive along the temporal world, and it's easy to believe that, perhaps, we can breach the barriers between worlds, between the lands of the living and the lands of the dead. It's a spooky thought, especially when traveling at dusk or at night. Or at Halloween.

A few authors have explored this mysterious aspect of roads and highways.

Haunted Route 66 by Richard Southall

 It's appropriate, given the time of year and the mood I'm in as I write this post, to start off discussing a book about the ghost of a road. For decades, Route 66, the "Mother Road," connected one side of the US to the other. One of the early parts of the interstate highway system, it was finally decommissioned in 1984 with the advent of larger and more efficient highways. Yet it can still be traced, wending its way from Chicago to Santa Monica, a few gaps here and there, and with many of the towns that it sustained gone or much reduced. While a book using the defunct highway as its subject could have been written as a continuous narrative, author Southall chooses to chronicle in a matter-of-fact way the haunted locations that 66 passed through or near. Where history is known, it is recounted, along with the common accounts of what form the hauntings take. This is less a book to be read late on a Halloween evening and more a travel planner. Good, solid info, and occasionally a bit of spookiness comes through in the descriptions of the locations.

Haunted Highways by Tom Ogden

This book is something of an opposite of the previous volume. The author takes oft-told tales and urban legends and writes them as coherent stories rather than the often disjointed and context-free accounts that are heard third-hand and beyond. Phantom hitchhikers, ghostly horse-drawn hearses, and helpful motorists from beyond the grave all get their turns, and famous names like the Hawaiian goddess Pele, abolitionist John Brown, and even Telly Savalas check in. Roads from Colonial Boston to the teeming streets of modern Tokyo offer up their ghostly travelers for the reader's perusal.

Trucker Ghost Stories by Annie Wilder

This is my favorite of the bunch here. I was a kid during the CB radio craze of the mid-1970s, and was endlessly intrigued by the truck-driving culture. Barreling from coast to coast seemed like the life for 10-year-old me. I wore out the few truck driving music tapes I managed to get hold of. I even bought sets of stickers with CB radio lingo illustrated on them. Driving a truck was my aspiration back then. And I get why even today; the highway still calls to me occasionally. Seeing new people and places, exploring roads little-traveled by's a quest to simply know more about the world, and while the internet can take us places we could never go otherwise, there's still a certain satisfaction in going and seeing and experiencing in person far-off places.

Many of the stories in this book have an immediacy to them, reading like dispatches from the road. Brief moments of high strangeness are illuminated like highway signs that catch the beams of headlights. A number of them seem to be transcribed almost directly from email or message board posts, with flawed grammar and misspellings lending them authenticity. So much of this book comes directly from those who make the road their homes most of the year, and that underlays it all with a kind of excitement that is akin to that felt listening to busy CB radio channels way back when. The book strays from its mission statement a bit too often, with stories by actual truckers becoming too few later in the book. Yet, as the subtitle on the cover says, it contains tales of haunted highways, weird encounters, and legends of the road. And that is good enough for me.

With Halloween just about upon us as I write this, I can't let the opportunity slip by to post the ultimate in ghostly truck driver songs (and yes, there was virtually a subgenre of dead trucker songs at one time). Take a listen to Red Sovine's signature song, Phantom 309.

Happy Halloween!

1 comment:

  1. Nice overview. I love this "Phantom 309" tune and am happy to be ending the Halloween season with a new (well, new to me) song for the seasonal playlist.

    I hope that the creation of a "dead trucker" subgenre delights future historians and anthropologists, piecing together the American experiment, as much as it does me.