Montana’s rich history and 147,040 square miles of land easily lends itself to the types of folklore that humans have participated in since the beginning of time. As a state we are not exempt from UFO sightings, ghost stories, or even the tales we spin to stop young children from doing something dangerous. No, you can’t go explore an old mineshaft in the middle of the night, and here’s why… Whether it be hauntings by old ghosts, some form of bogeyman, or even the Flathead Lake monster, at some point, most of us have participated in the tradition of folklore. Now combine all that lore with Montana’s 73,000 miles of publicly accessible roadways, and sure enough, we have tales of what are known as phantom hitchhikers. Also referred to as vanishing hitchhikers, these are ghosts that haunt our roadways. Some seek to hitch a ride with the living and others simply drift through the thin veil between worlds to appear briefly on the side of the road or offer unsuspecting drivers a glimpse of what they had suffered in their final moments.
Folklore in the Age of the Internet
While researching these roadway phantoms, I strayed from the comfort of books with citations and boxes of historical documentation and very quickly remembered that anyone could post anything on the internet, be it true or false. One of the websites where I found some accounts of ghostly hitchhikers had a link to another website that purported to have “lies we’ve told about Montana!” Immediately, I had many questions. Why does this exist? Who has the time to do this? Are the “lies” randomly generated, and again why? It is with this information that I implore to you, dear reader, that you must take all the following information with a grain of salt. This is a collection of just a few ghostly roadside encounters from around the Big Sky State.
Some towns just cannot shake their unsavory pasts, and Bozeman is no exception. Our first possible haunting takes the form of a little girl in a white dress who is said to visit the Bear Canyon area. Some say she can be seen on Bear Canyon Road, while others claim she appears to campers at the nearby campground. Either way, she is said to prefer women, and the girl attempts to draw them away from their cars or camping areas. Some say that this entity could be a demon, masquerading as a helpless ghost girl to inspire pity and lure women into the night. Another theory is that the girl was killed nearby, and she will only trust a woman to follow her to the scene of her untimely death.Others have claimed to see a different ghost in that area, the spirit of an older grizzled man of the woods. He appears while a snowstorm is blowing, walking along Frontage Road between the Bear Canyon interstate exit and Bozeman. Fort Ellis used to be located nearby, as well as farms that dwell on the edge of the forest, so this mysterious mountain man could’ve had various affiliations in the area. He is often seen with his head down, trudging an unremitting path through the dangerous weather conditions and perhaps braving his last storm ad infinitum.
The small town of Lavina sits 45 miles north of Billings, at the intersection of Highways 3 and 12. Many truckers pass through here, working hard to deliver goods around the state, and a few have reported seeing a ghost haunting the roadside. It is said that she appears suddenly out of the darkness near a sign pointing south toward Lavina; the ghost of a girl with outfit and hairstyle of the 1970s disappears before shocked motorists or seasoned, and therefore wary, truckers can offer her a ride into town. The monotony of the central Montana highway offers comfort in its predictability and visibility across the plains, but that can be easily shattered when you slow down near the turn toward Lavina, and your headlights illuminate a spirit.
Highway 287 and “You have now crossed over into…the Twilight Zone.”
Based on Lucille Fletcher’s radio play of the same name, “The Hitch-Hiker” is the sixteenth episode of the first season of The Twilight Zone. A young woman named Nan resumes her cross-country road trip, lucky to be walking away from a rather nasty accident in Pennsylvania. She becomes increasingly agitated after seeing the same hitchhiker continuously as she makes her way west. Eventually, she reaches Arizona and calls her mother, only to be told that her mother has been hospitalized after hearing the news of her daughter’s death. Nan realizes that she did not survive the accident and that the hitchhiker is a representative of Death who had been waiting for her to accept her situation. I remembered that particular episode as I read about a ghost that is rumored to appear along Highway 287 near East Helena. The spirit of a young man wearing a hat has been seen near the edge of the road, appearing every few miles as you make your way down the dark highway. Repetitive hauntings like this have been recorded for as long as vehicles have been in use. From horse-drawn carriages and throughout the age of motor vehicles, these legends have obviously inspired the likes of Lucille Fletcher and Rod Serling…and possibly inspired a legend of Montana’s own.
Imagine, for a moment; you are a driver on your usual route down a highway carved into the side of a mountain. Darkness surrounds you as suddenly, a ghostly Mack truck appears to careen toward you. Time is running out, and there’s no room to maneuver out of the way, so you have no choice but to brace for impact. This is what is said to occur near Lolo, as many truck drivers who frequent the area have claimed to see this highway phantom. Not a phantom hitchhiker, but a mysterious old semi-truck that could scare someone to death. It is said to barrel toward oncoming drivers whose only option is to hold on tight and hope that they survive the encounter. It’s over in the blink of an eye. Nothing happens except the occupants of the vehicle being left shaken.
Black Horse Lake
Legend tells of a traumatic haunting between Fort Benton and Great Falls, with multiple accounts compounding into what is known as “the Phantom Hitchhiker of Black Horse Lake.” Apparently, it is a common occurrence for motorists to see what they allege to be a Native American man walking along the side of the road. As the car passes by, he is suddenly rolling over the vehicle’s hood with a loud thump, much to the driver’s surprise and horror. The most common thread of all these stories is that when one exits their vehicle to check on the man and their car, there is no body or damage to be found. There is even an account of one driver glancing back down the road after looking for the man and checking the car, only to see him walking in the distance as if nothing had happened.