Auntie could tell you the exact name of the old highway that runs along the Ocoee River between Cleveland, Tennessee and Murphy, North Carolina. It’s a frighteningly serpentine ribbon with a dizzying drop into a rocky, frothing river on one side and great bluffs looming like threats over your head on the other. Either way, there’s nowhere to go when trouble starts.
There have been many fatal accidents on the River Road over the years. At least one of them produced a ghost story. I first read part of the story of the redhaired woman in SPECTERS AND SPIRITS OF THE APPALACHIAN FOOTHILLS by James V. Burchill and Linda J. Crider (Rutledge Hill Press, 2002); the rest I learned in bits and pieces.
I’m inclined to think the legend of the redhaired woman began in the 1950s, when a Cleveland woman vanished into thin air, one morning as she was traveling the river road on her way to a new job. After her disappearance, stories began to trickle out of a redhaired woman who would appear in the back seat of vehicles traveling too fast on the dangerous road, warning them to slow down, and then disappear as abruptly as she appeared.
One of the most notable stories is told in Burchill and Crider’s book, of a young Air Force recruit’s experience. He was stationed in Arkansas when he received word that his mother was dying, and that she wanted to see him before she passed.
He obtained compassionate leave and began the long drive back home. He arrived in Cleveland some fourteen hours after he left Arkansas, stopping only long enough to gas up his car and call home. His mother was still living, but if he wanted to see her he needed to hurry, he was told.
His home was in Murphy, and he took the old River Road. On that night it was more dangerous than usual; a light rain slicked the pavement, and fog was beginning to rise off the river. Still, he drove with desperate haste.
It was about three-thirty AM, and he was just passing an abandoned power station (a wellknown landmark on the river) when he spotted a woman in the rearview mirror, sitting quietly in the back seat. Startled, he looked over his shoulder. He noticed the red hair, held in a knot at the base of her neck, and her oldfashioned clothes.
Before he could speak, she said, “You need to slow down. Your mother is already gone.”
And then she was gone.
He did slow down, disturbed by the encounter. He arrived at home around five AM to learn that his mother had passed away at three thirty AM–the very time the redhaired woman had appeared in his back seat.
She is no longer missing; her car, with her still in it, was finally located, in the deep water near the old power station. I wonder if she still slows reckless drivers on the River Road though, helping them avoid her fate.