Stories From My Past: The Ghost of Highway 401

My friend Mr. Chen and I used to like to go to Fayetteville on the weekends. It was a short drive from Raleigh, NC, down highway 401. Normally, we’d head down to Fayetteville on Sunday evenings after the restaurant closed at 10:00pm, and we didn’t have to worry about being back early because Mr. Chen had Mondays off work.

Fayetteville had a number of Asian clubs along the famous Hay Street strip back in those days. I have no idea what it’s like today, but at one time there were so many Vietnamese people in the area that locals referred to the city as Fayettenam . Mr. Chen’s favorite place to go was called The Siam Club and featured Southeast Asian topless dancers. Most of the hostesses were Korean, however. On occasion, my Korean skills were put to use as many of the hostesses could not speak English very well. North Carolina used to have strict laws against totally nude dancing so dancers in those places back then could only expose their upper body. Hence the term “ tittle bar ” was coined to refer to places in North Carolina.

On this occasion I distinctly remember a SE Asian girl dancing on the stage. She had very long hair and was doing an excellent job of using her hair to cover her breasts while she “danced.” Neither a professional dancer or a professional stripper, this was some village girl who landed in that town and ended up dancing topless because she couldn’t do anything else, really. I remember seeing how she was very obviously embarrassed and uncomfortable up on the stage. Mr. Chen and I were sitting on the far side of the room and my back was towards the girl on stage.

Mr. Chen and I did what we usually do: drink a few beers, talk to a few Korean girls and then head back home. This evening was no different and we cut out around 2am. We got into the car we had borrowed from Chuck (one of the other workers) and headed back on Highway 401 towards Raleigh. It was a horrible night and Mr. Chen and I settled into a hour and a half drive in the December drizzle just about freezing.

Nights like this did a lot to help my Chinese comprehension skills, as Mr. Chen could not speak English. He would use simple phrases that helped me to develop up Chinese skills over time. On this early morning drive we were deep in conversation that kept me awake. The rhythmic sound and motion of the windshield wipers tended to lull us to sleep and I was thankful for this conversation and the company of my good friend. We were in the middle of nowhere. That stretch of road between Fayetteville and Raleigh was pretty much devoid of life. I don’t know what it’s like there today, but in 1977, Highway 401 was undeveloped in many places. There were vast stretches of open land and scrub brush. We were used to this road, having made the trip quite a number of times before. For the most part it was straight and unremarkable with gentle rolling hills. The traffic was always very light and we’d only see another car every 10 or 15 minutes. In this drizzling rain, visibility was low, so I drove slower than I normally would (Taiwanese readers, please take note of this principle!). The temperature was at that point just under freezing, where the rain stuck to the windshield and the wipers didn’t clean it off very well because the water was semi-solid. Anyone who has driven in that kind of weather will tell you that sometimes the light plays tricks on your eyes. The water leaves streaks as the wipers play across the glass. This evening was no different. Back in New Hampshire we would have called the rain “greasy” as at that temperature just under freezing, it tends to stick on the window glass and doesn’t want to wipe off easily. Add to that, the condensation that we desperately tried to keep off the inside, and it’s a wonder we could see anything at all out the front windshield. Every time a vehicle approached, the oncoming headlights caused such a glare that I would have to strain just to see the lines in the road. We had the defroster on and with the wipers, that was just about all that could be done. The shadows were really doing bad things though. Because everything was shiny and glistening with the almost-frozen rain, the trees that lined the road gave off strange shadows as the car headlights illuminated hanging branches. The road sometimes reflected back strange shadows and the light was playing tricks on my eyes. Bad. I saw what appeared to be a figure crossing the road, but I dismissed it as just another one of those shadows and light tricks. But I did ask Mr. Chen if he saw anything. He said no, but then suggested that perhaps I had seen a ghost. We both laughed, but I couldn’t get the image of a figure out of my mind. I had a weird feeling. I took a mental note of the tripometer as I thought about the figure image. Could it really have been someone out there, that late at night, and in that awful weather? My mind kept replaying the image as it had flashed in front of my eyes, from left to right. I really couldn’t be sure…. But, the more I thought about it, the more I though that I had seen a human face.

I asked Mr. Chen if he would mind if I turned around and went back to take another look. He joked saying he didn’t have anything better to do, so I slowed down and turned around. I don’t know why I had made a mental note of the tripometer reading but now I realized that the image I saw had more impact upon me than I had first thought. I was probably imagining things, as this “image” I keep referring to was certainly more of a specter than anything. Even still, I turned around and if there was something there, I was determined to find out what it was. I proceeded slowly back towards the area were I had seen something flash in front of the car. It was dead silent in the car. We were going along about 25 MPH and I had put the wipers on high speed to clear the windshield as much as possible. The only sounds were the wipers and the defroster as we peered though the darkness trying to see.

Suddenly, Mr. Chen cried out in surprise as a figure jumped out in front of our car ! There was no doubt about it – something was there, outside in this weather and had crossed the road just a few meters in front of our car. Immediately I pulled over and Mr. Chen and I jumped out. We found a man lying on the side of the road, soaked to the bone and shivering. This was no ghost! He could barely speak, but he told me how he and his friend were in a pickup truck when it went off the road, apparently forced off the road by other car. I immediately asked him where the truck was, and he pointed across the road. I asked if his friend was still alive and he said “I don’t know.”

I went across the road, and in the darkness I could make out the shape of a pickup truck about 30 feet off the road, down an embankment. The pickup truck was upside down and resting on the roof of the cab. I made my way down the embankment towards the truck, and as things got clearer, I noticed a pair of legs sticking out of the back window. The bed of the pickup truck was hanging in midair as the truck rest on the roof of the cab. The occupant of the truck was halfway in and halfway out. At first glance, I thought for sure “ This guy is dead” but I had to check to make certain. I crawled under the overhanging bed and put my hand on his ankle under his pant leg. His skin was warm. I gave him a little shake and said “Are you alright?” My inquiry was met with an agonizing moan of pain. I told him to not move and that I was going to get some help.

We went back to the first man we found. We had nothing to offer this guy, no blankets, no warm liquid, nothing of immediate value. He had been outside for approximately 4 hours, running back and forth in front of virtually every vehicle he could, then collapsing on the opposite side of the road until another vehicle came along. As time went on, he got more and more desperate and had been waiting longer and longer before bolting across the road, coming closer and closer to each passing motorist as visibility was poor. Out of all the vehicles that he has passed in front of, only I had seen him. I expect that eventually he would have been hit because visibility was so low that no driver could clearly see him until they were practically on top of him. The guy was so exhausted that he couldn’t even get up and get into the back seat of our car. He was content to just lay there on the ground….

Remember, back in those days there were no mobile cellular telephones. All we could do was wait until a truck came. As soon as I saw an approaching truck, I began flashing my high beams on and off. Then as it got closer, I got out of the car, stood in the light beams and waved my arms. Thankfully this truck driver saw me and stopped. I explained the situation and the truck driver got on his CB radio and called the local React station on channel 9. He kindly confirmed our location to the React station and then went on his way. We thanked him and waited. Within 10 minutes the first rescue vehicle arrived – a volunteer fireman. He had a couple of blankets and put them to good use covering up the shivering man. The victim in the truck however, was a different story. We’d have to wait until the rescue ambulance arrive. I have to hand it to the North Carolina authorities because honestly, the rescue people were all on scene in this remote location within 30 minutes, with nothing more than an unverified report from a trucker on the CB. I was impressed.

The rescue ambulance arrived and the EMTs went right to work. A couple of them rushed down the embankment with flashlights and med kits, while another one engaged motors on the ambulance that raised a pair of huge light towers. Within minutes the entire scene was lit bright as daylight. There was broken glass everywhere and the man’s legs sticking out of the back window had been cut up pretty badly. On this occasion I can say that the low temperature was actually a blessing. The EMTs went right to work on removing him from the pickup truck. Another pair of EMTs were busy winching a gurney down the embankment. In less than 10 minutes they were winching him back up, wrapped in blankets and very much alive.

I never knew who those 2 guys were. Remember seeing the ghost one last time – only instead of being on the road, he was laying on a gurney in the ambulance. As I walked past the ambulance back towards the car to leave, our eyes met through the window. The look of gratitude on his face is one that I will never forget.

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