March 24, 2023

The Phantom Hitchhiker

To provide an example of the kind of mysterious and mind-bogging experiences John Audette describes in his new book, Loved by the Light, I will simply reproduce one of the stories he relates. But to John, it was just one more instance of an event that seemingly kept him from having a fatal automobile accident. Another “angelic intervention?” Well, see what you think after you finish reading it.    

The fourth “angel encounter” in my life took place in April or May 1976 in southwestern Virginia. I was a full-time graduate student at Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University in Blacksburg. One of my interests in graduate school was thanatology, the studying of death and dying, along with gerontology and medical sociology.

The year before, I had the great pleasure of meeting and befriending Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the late prominent Swiss-born psychiatrist who single-handedly revolutionized treatment and care of terminally ill patients in the U.S. and abroad, and who pioneered the hospice movement in the United States and elsewhere. I had read her books and attended several of her workshops and lectures during that time period. I deeply admired and respected her. She was a true original. 

One day in March 1976, Elisabeth called to tell me that the she would be flying into the Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Blountville, TN. It was about 130 miles from where I lived at the time, or a little over a two-hour drive. Elisabeth was to be the keynote speaker at a gathering of nurses there. She was also to receive an award for her work. 

Elisabeth asked me to pick her up at the airport, which I was more than pleased to do. Spending time with Elisabeth was a true honor, so much so that I was willing to skip classes for a couple of days and drive better than a hundred miles for the privilege of having some private time with her, which was hard to come by in those days.

Her plane was due to arrive from O’Hare early in the morning, around 8 a.m. as I recall. This meant I had to set my alarm for 5 a.m. to allow enough time for the drive and other things that needed to be done. The night before, I didn’t get to sleep until after midnight. I had stayed up later than usual to finish a term paper that was due on that very same day. 

When the alarm rang, I reached over in my sleep to turn it off. I then started to drift back to sleep once again, but after a few more moments of light dozing, I finally roused myself out of bed. After a quick shower and a quick bowl of cereal, I ran out the door and jumped into my white mist-covered Aston Marina. I headed to my first stop, which was the mail box of a fellow graduate student who had agreed to deliver my term paper to our professor. 

It was a foggy morning in rural southwest Virginia and in 1976, street lights were not all that plentiful along Interstate 81, so the highway in front of me was quite dark. Visibility was very limited. I drove along speedily headed southbound, determined to get to the airport on time for the arrival of Elisabeth’s plane. There was hardly any traffic heading south. I mostly had the entire interstate to myself.

After an hour or so of driving, my eyes began to close. Tired from not getting much sleep the night before, I began a dangerous descent into falling asleep at the wheel of my car (yet again). More than a few times, my eyes would close completely and my head would drop, whereupon my car would veer over onto the right shoulder of the interstate. The sound of gravel heading the undercarriage of my vehicle would abruptly awaken me each time. My eyes would open wide and I’d quickly pull back on to the pavement.

This happened several times in fast succession. Each time I’d hear my inner voice warning me to pull over and sleep for a while. But I stubbornly ignored that voice, bound and determined to arrive on time to meet Elisabeth. She was counting on me to arrive on time and I was not about to let her down. She had a tight itinerary during this visit and I was not about to be responsible for getting her off to a late start. 

About 50 miles or so from my destination, I could no longer keep my eyes open. I was running off the road with much greater frequency. Once, I almost lost of control of the car as I had a knee jerk reaction and turned too sharply in an effort to bring my car back onto the pavement. It was scary, and I tried everything I could think of to keep myself awake, but to no avail. No matter what I did, my eyes kept closing as I sped down the interstate. 

This part of Virginia is hilly and mountainous. Steep drop offs, ravines and gullies were commonplace on both sides of I-81, and there were no guard rails in place at this time to stop a wayward car from going over a cliff. I knew that I could easily kill myself if my car was to crash into one of these ravines or gullies. I knew I would be a sure traffic fatality if I continued to drive and continued to allow myself to fall asleep at the wheel. 

My inner voice grew louder and louder. “Pull over and go to sleep for a half hour or so, dummy, before you kill yourself!” But I kept turning a deaf ear to it. In desperation, I even slapped myself in the face several times in a vain attempt to wake up, but to no avail. My eyes kept closing, even though I sensed that my life was in peril.

I admonished myself. I gave myself stern warnings, thinking I could somehow scold myself into staying awake. “Next time you fall asleep you’re going to run off the road and nose dive into one of these deep ravines down there,” I told myself. You’ll die a horrible, ugly, nasty, gross death in that dark, black void down below and they won’t even find your body, so WAKE UP!” 

I fully expected that the next time I fell asleep, it might be permanent. Nevertheless, foolishly, I kept on driving, tenacious as ever about making it to my destination on time. Sensing the hopelessness of my careless attitude, and the immediate prospect of certain death, I believe God then intervened in a supernatural effort to save my life.

Half asleep at the wheel, with eyes mostly closed, I barely noticed a man with long black hair, wearing a white suit with his thumb outstretched, hitchhiking alongside of the road, mostly obscured by fog. I zoomed by him in a rather oblivious state. When my brain registered his presence there amid the fog, I pulled over to the shoulder of the road better than 150 feet in front of him. Yes, my reaction time was that bad as I was so very, very drowsy. 

I stopped the car and sat for a moment to absorb what I had just seen. I could hardly believe my eyes. For an instant, I wondered if I was imagining the sudden appearance of this man. I thought to myself, “That guy just materialized out of thin air. What’s he doing out here in the middle of nowhere in the pitch-black dark, hitchhiking?” I mean, there was no one around. No other cars. Nothing but nothingness. He was not even close to an interstate exit. I could not understand how he got way out there in the middle of nowhere. The scene was weird and eerie. In fact, it was surreal, so surreal, I wondered if I was dreaming the whole thing, but I was not.

I wondered whether it was safe to pick this guy up, but then I realized that his company would keep me awake. It occurred to me in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t pick him up, some terrible fate might befall me as I would probably continue falling asleep at the wheel. So, reasoning that I had nothing to lose and everything to gain, I put the car in reverse and backed up to offer this gentleman a ride.

By now, he was running toward my car as I was backing up to meet him. But I did not have to back up very far because surprisingly he was right there already beside my car.  I could not figure out how he got up to my car so fast, but in my half-asleep brain-dead state of being, I did not seriously question it or think too much about it.

He came up to my car door on the passenger side. I turned on the dome light and rolled down the window of the passenger door. He politely bent down with one hand on the door and asked if I would give him a lift. I asked him where he was going. He said west to Reno, Nevada. I told him I could take him as far as the exit for the Tri Cities Regional Airport near Johnson City, Tennessee and Abingdon, Virginia. He said that would be fine, so I invited him to step inside. 

We quickly introduced ourselves. He told me his name was Michael. He said he was going to Reno on instructions from God to raise money for his church. He said he was a preacher and that his fledgling church in northeast Virginia needed funds to pay for renovations.  He went on to say that God had told him where to go and what to do when he gets there to procure the needed funds. He said God instructed him to visit a certain casino there, and to play “blackjack” at a certain table. He did not reveal the name of the casino, but he was certain that God was guiding him to the right place for the right reason. He was sure of it, and was a driven, determined man on a mission as far as I could tell.

Michael was about 34 or 35 years old; I would guess. He was approximately 5’ 11” and weighed about 175 pounds or so. He had collar length wavy black hair, black eyebrows and piercing soulful brown eyes. He was wearing an all-white suit. Even his shoes were white. All he was carrying with him was a Holy Bible with a black cover. That book was his only possession, no suitcase or shaving kit or duffle bag with a change of clothes, nothing else but a black Holy Bible. Again, very strange.

Michael and I talked and talked, non-stop. We spoke about God, about religion, about good and evil, about forgiveness, as well as social theory and my studies in graduate school. We also spoke about Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and her work. The conversation was enlivening. 

Suddenly, I became wide awake. The sleep that had clouded me earlier was gone, long gone. Michael’s company was invigorating and strangely comforting, like I was having a reunion with an old friend. His company quickly put an end to the driving equivalent of Russian roulette that had overtaken me in my drowsiness behind the wheel only minutes before. 

We had driven for more than an hour together, but it seemed timeless. As I looked into his eyes, I felt deep recognition, almost at the soul level, like we had met before, or like I knew him from some other place, perhaps some other time. I remember wondering if he could be an angel sent to save me, but it was just a passing thought at the time. 

Soon, the sun rose and the new day had begun. Before I knew it, we arrived at the exit for the airport. I liked Michael and was not ready to say good-bye. So, I invited him to join me in meeting and greeting Elisabeth. Politely and graciously he said, “No thanks. I don’t think that’s going to work out.” I thought who in their right mind would turn down an opportunity to meet Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross at the height of her fame and popularity? Well, Michael did. I was about to find out why.

Just before the exit, I pulled off onto the shoulder of the road and stopped the car momentarily. I asked Michael for his address and told him I would write him in a month or so to find out how his trip to Reno, Nevada turned out. He obliged and wrote down his name and address. He handed me the paper with his address on it. I placed it in the glove box of my car. I wished him lots of luck. We shook hands and said goodbye. I pulled away and headed up onto the exit ramp, watching Michael in the rear-view mirror for part of the time, feeling grateful for his company which clearly kept me from meeting with certain catastrophe. 

As I turned left onto the overpass from the exit ramp, I lost sight of the place where Michael was standing, but only for a few moments. When that spot came into my view again just a minute or so later, Michael was gone. He was nowhere in sight. He could not have walked to under the overpass so quickly. It was too far away from where he was standing to have walked or run there in the short time that he was out of my sight. And no other car could have picked him up so quickly without me catching a glimpse of it. He had to be around there somewhere, but he was nowhere to be found.

I drove slowly along the overpass looking for Michael. I surveyed the median and the shoulder of the interstate, up and down, through and through, but he was nowhere in sight. As I searched around for Michael to discern where he might have gone, I did not see any place for him to go except to keep walking straight ahead along the shoulder of the road toward the overpass. 

Puzzled by Michael’s sudden disappearance, I made a mental note to write him as soon as I returned to Blacksburg, where I lived at the time, to inquire as to where he went once I drove away from him. I then parked my car in the airport parking lot and proceeded into the terminal. Once inside I quickly made my way to the gate designated for Elisabeth’s arriving flight. I arrived there ten minutes or so before the plane pulled in to the gate, right on time.

All of the deplaning passengers strolled by me, every single one of them except Elisabeth. Then the procession stopped. A few moments later, the flight crew came walking through. I asked if any other passengers were on board. They said there were none. I went to the ticket counter for the airline she was supposed to have flown and asked them to page her. The nice lady at the ticket counter obliged by paging her three times for me, but all was for naught. A supervisor then returned from break, and said “Are you Mr. Audette?” How did she know my name? I wondered. “Yes, that’s me,” I replied. She said Dr. Kubler-Ross had called earlier and left a message for me. I was to call her at home.

I changed dollars for quarters, and then made a long-distance call to Elisabeth from a nearby pay phone inside the terminal. Elisabeth was at her home in Flossmoor, Illinois. She was home sick in bed. She had taken ill at the last minute and could not make the trip. She canceled her flight and her appearance. She had tried to reach me too at my home, but apparently sometime after I had begun my journey to pick her up at the airport. She apologized to me and, of course, I said no apology was needed. I then wished for her a speedy return to perfect health and said good-bye.

As I walked through the terminal on my way back to the car, I stopped in the gift shop to buy a post-card to mail immediately for Michael. Now my mind was really racing. “How did he know that this was not going to work out before I knew it was not going to work out?” I asked myself. “Who was that guy?” I wondered. 

The first thing I did when I returned to my car was to open the glove box to retrieve the paper with Michael’s address on it. I wanted to send him the card right away as my curiosity had gotten the better of me. There was only one problem. The piece of paper which contained his address that I had carefully placed in the glove box maybe an hour or so before was not in there anymore. It too had vanished, just like Michael. Just like Michael, it was nowhere to be found. I looked through everything in that glove box, including each and every one of the pages in my car’s owner’s manual. Not there. Gone. Vanished. 

As quickly as Michael had appeared, he disappeared. As quickly as the paper with his address appeared, it too disappeared. “This is really strange,” I thought. Could he have been another guardian angel sent by God to keep me from dying before my time? I think so. No other explanation makes any sense to me. 


  1. Wow! Prodigious! Thank you John and thank you Ken! Olivier

  2. susanschoenbeck11@gmail.comMarch 24, 2023 at 3:31 PM

    A hospice nurse at home after a busy shift, smelled the scent of a patient as she cleared dishes from the kitchen table. The nurse took pause to think about her patient. Upon return to work, the nurse checked what time the patient died. Records confirmed time of death was approximately the same as the time when the nurse recognized the familiar fragrance of the patient. Susan L. Schoenbeck, MSN, RN