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Lydia's Bridge

The overgrown underpass in Jamestown where Lydia still flags down passing drivers.

Lydia's Bridge

The inside is covered with graffiti, most along the lines of "Lydia Lives."

Lydia, the PhantomHitchhiker

On certain rainy nights, where US 70-A twists around a sweeping curve that passes by an old, overgrown underpass, drivers will see a young woman in a white evening dress standing by the side of the road, desperately trying to flag down a passing car. If anyone pulls over to help the young lady, she climbs meekly into the back seat of the car and explains that her name is Lydia, and that she's just been to a dance and now she's trying to get home. She gives the driver an address not too far away, and he kindly agrees to take her there. The driver may try to engage Lydia in conversation, but she seems distracted and in a world of her own, so he just leaves her in a respectful silence and concentrates on the road ahead.

When the car pulls in to the address that the young woman gave, the chivalrous driver invariably hops out to open the door for her — only to discover that she has vanished.

Perplexed, the man goes to the door, where an old woman answers. The man explains that he's picked up a young lady named Lydia by the overpass who asked to be brought to this address, but she's no longer in the car. He wonders if she may have run out before he could open the door, and he just wants to know if she's safe and if everything is as it should be.

A faint, pained smile of recognition passes over the old woman's face, as she reaches for a picture in a silver frame sitting on a table by the door. It's a photograph of the young woman the man drove to the house.

"Lydia was my daughter," the old woman says, "She died in a car wreck by that overpass in 1923. You're not the first one, and I suppose you won't be the last. Every so often, her spirit flags down a passing driver. I suppose she still doesn't understand what happened to her. I suppose she's still trying to get home."

That's why the overgrown underpass near Jamestown is called Lydia's Bridge. Drive past it on a rainy night and you may see Lydia, too.

Vanishing hitchhikers are a staple of American folklore. Seemingly every state in the Union has some variant on the story of a young woman who died in a car crash on the way home and is still trying to make her way back home. In his book The Vanishing Hitchhiker, Professor Jan Harold Brunvand records multiple variants of the story, including one of eleven recorded in North Carolina in the Sixties. The legend seems to date from even before the invention of the automobile, as there are recorded versions with ghosts hopping on buggies or horses. Sometimes the mysterious passenger is a religious figure — a Catholic saint, a Mormon wandering Nephite, or even Jesus in person — on the road to deliver a helpful warning message for the driver about the impending apocalypse.

But like any oral tradition, these stories have shifted through the years. A few central points of the North Carolina legend remain stable - the girl's white dress, her sitting in the back seat, and the fact that it's raining seem to turn up in every version. It's only relatively recently, when the influence of the internet began to give our oral culture a more static format, that the variant where the girl is named Lydia and specifically identified with the overgrown bridge has become the most often told one.

Versions of the story circulating in the Sixties usually insisted that the girl's name was "Mary" and that she was trying to return home to Greensboro, having attended a dance in Raleigh, and the point where the driver picks her up is usually given as somewhere along US 70. But the bonus of having a specific, and genuinely creepy, destination associated with the story seems to have fixed our homegrown hitchhiker halfway to High Point and perpetually flagging down passing motorists from Lydia's Bridge. The fact that Lydia's Bridge is not actually a bridge, but a culvert to carry the railroad tracks over a now-dry stream bed is accounted for, in the wonderful way that oral tradition compensates for unhelpful reality, by the story's usually specifying that the road "has been rerouted." Recently, the tidbit confirming that a ghost hunter found the death certificate for a "Lydia Jane M       " who died on December 23 (or 31st) 1923 from "fatal injuries from a motoring accident" has been circulating with online versions of the story.

So what does the story of the phantom hitchhiker mean? Why do we keep telling it time and time again? Its probably worth noticing that most versions of the story place the accident sometime in the 1920s, a time when the death of a young woman in an automobile accident would have been a relative rarity, and not the unfortunately common occurrence it is on today's overcrowded roads. There may be similar folk memories of that first, fatal accident which took the life of a young woman from the town kept alive in the phantom hitchhiker stories. There also may be something in the way the story captures the excitement of a teenager's first few years driving, where making the journey from Raleigh to Greensboro alone at night can seem like an adventure and where anything is possible — even picking up a hitchhiker who died nearly a century ago.