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Strange But True Story

My strange but true story starts twenty-five years ago, when I was sixteen. I had just hitched a ride back out to Interstate 90 as the sun was setting. The previous night I had been caught alone in the back country on the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park, in a freak May blizzard. A grizzly bear pawed the ground outside my tent in the middle of the night, scaring me half to death. That, however, is another story.

This strange-but-true-story starts with me standing on the side of the freeway ramp, with my thumb out. Even here in the valley near Livingston there was snow on the lilac flowers, and my tennis shoes were still wet from stumbling (lost) through the mountains earlier in the day. After an hour or two, a car finally pulled over, and this is how I met Violet.

It was tough to determine her age, but from the stories she told, I guessed she was in her fifties. She was on her way home from her brother's trial in Bozeman. When I asked her what he was on trial for, she told me "He killed his girlfriend," and in case I doubted her, she flipped over the newspaper on the seat. There she was on the front page, with the headline, "Sister Says He Should Be Hanged."

"He just cut her up for no good reason," she explained. Not knowing what to say, I said nothing. Although she seemed perfectly comfortable talking about it, she graciously changed the subject.

"Having a hard time getting rides here?" she asked. I told her I had waited a while. "That's because a few years back a man was killed by a hitchhiker right on that highway down to Yellowstone," she explained. "They found the hitchhiker in the woods near the road, roasting the man's heart over a fire."

"I guess that explains why it's hard to get rides," I agreed.

Violet had only had trouble with a hitchhiker once, she told me. "He was even younger than you, and he pulled a knife on me and tried to rob me." When I asked her what she did, she replied casually, "Well, I just pulled out my gun on him and told him he better behave if he wanted a ride." That seemed fair, I agreed.

She told me about the last time she was camping in Yellowstone, back in the fifties, when her husband was still alive. They and others saw a missile come out of the sky and hit a mountain, triggering an earthquake. Army officials came and told everyone in the area that it was a matter of national security, and they couldn't say a word about it. I nodded and asked for a few more details.

Then there was the story about the UFO. An alien spacecraft had hovered over them during another camping trip, picking up their trailer in a "tractor beam" and lifting it off the hitch on the car, into the sky. It was dropped in a field nearby, and the sheriff, who was driving behind them at the moment, saw the whole thing.

Violet let me spend the night at her house, in her brothers room. In the morning, before driving me back out to the freeway, she even offered to let me take any of her brothers clothes or cowboy boots, since, "He won't be needing them anymore." I declined.

Later in the year, safely home in Michigan, I got a letter from Violet, wishing me a Merry Christmas. She had drawn a picture at the top of a dog in a spacesuit, which she labeled "Space Dog." In the meantime, I had discovered that there had been an earthquake in the Yellowstone area when she claimed they saw the missile, and it had been strong enough to form a new lake.

I still was assuming that the killer hitchhiker was at least an exaggeration. It wasn't. Years later I heard all the grizzly details in the news because they were letting the killer go free now that he was sane. Amidst the publicity, the authorities were having a hard time finding a town to place him in.

To this day, I still haven't read or heard anything about an alien spacecraft that picks up camping trailers, but I'm waiting. Who knows? Montana is full of strange but true stories.

About the Author: Steve Gillman hit the road at sixteen, and traveled the U.S. and Mexico alone at 17. Now 40, he travels with his wife Ana, whom he met in Ecuador. For travel stories, tips and a free e-book, visit:

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