Today’s guest post was written by Keith Jones.
The Demon Driver of Dawson County (GA) by Keith Jones
Of course he didn’t start out as a haunt. Decades ago, long before the Elliotts gave up selling building supplies to gain NASCAR fame, little Danny DeWalt was just one of a crowd of skinny backwoods boys who wore their untucked cotton shirts and patched, hand-me-down jeans and overalls to the dusty halls of Dawson County’s schools. Dr. Herschel Vester Dyer, the high school principal, was sympathetic to the poor underfed students, since he himself had grown up in cornbread poverty in one of the nearby mountain counties. He hadn’t noticed Danny DeWalt—the family pronounced it DEE-walt—in any particular way until the truancy report came in and Danny’s name was on it. He watched for him in the hall.
“Danny, can I talk to you for a bit?” “Yessir.” The boy stood with his head down, not making eye contact, like so many of the bashful farm kids. “I noticed you’d missed several days of school. What’s been going on?” “Awww, Dr. Dyer, I was a-drivin’ a load of shine for my Daddy’n them, and the law cotched me.”
Dr. Dyer knew that though Danny was underage to be driving, the local moonshining families often had their younger sons drive loads of whiskey to customers, since the county judge rarely sentenced them to more than an overnight jail stay.
“Danny, that doesn’t explain why you’ve been out over a week.” The boy seemed to glance through the window into the piney distance. “Ummm, well, Dr. Dyer, it’s like this. Me’n Daddy’n them had to make a couple more runs to pay m’fine.”
In a way, Dr. Dyer may have been the originator of Danny DeWalt’s nickname. After Danny had passed his car in a flurry of dust late one afternoon, Dr. Dyer warned him, “You better watch out! That demon driving is going to catch up to you!”
In some ways, Danny DeWalt remained that shy, backward country boy the rest of his life. In other ways, he became very sophisticated. And one of those ways was speed. About the time he dropped ‘Danny’ for plain, serviceable ‘Dan,’ he got a nearly-new 1948 Mercury Coupe—the kind with the front grille that’s either eight panels of whale baleen, or a mouthful of fangs. As his midnight whiskey runs became more successful, the Merc got a better engine and a deep purple paint job, the exact color of NuGrape soda-pop. Eventually the ’48 became Dan’s race car, tearing up the dirt tracks across north Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and South Carolina. But it wasn’t Dan’s fastest car. That was a ’51, painted the same NuGrape color, that Dan used to continue his midnight runs out of the pine thicket hills of Dawson County.
Racing gained in popularity, and the track owners began to promote Dan as the “Demon Driver of Dawson County.” Even though he used no more ‘dirty tricks’ than some of the good-guy drivers, the promoters painted him as a dangerous ‘black hat’ character—which only endeared him to his ‘good ol’ boy’ fans. Meanwhile, reformers had vowed to stamp out the illegal whiskey trade, so Dan had to drive more and more recklessly on those nights he carried his dad’s product to the markets of Atlanta.
Of course he was doomed to a tragic end. The yellowing newspaper files say he crashed and burned eluding a police roadblock. But other legends say he went into the Chestatee River off the old Keith Bridge road, or hit a logging truck head-on, or blew a tire and went over the side off the mountain curves leading up toward Gilmer County.
Old-timers still remember that long, long funeral procession of cars and pickups from Dawsonville out to the tiny country church cemetery where they buried him amidst many generations of DeWalts. The twisted remains of the purple car rusted away in a back corner of a junkyard, overgrown with blackberry bushes and kudzu.
About the time the junkyard started advertising itself as a ‘recycled auto parts dealer,’ and crushed all the old models that no one drove anymore, there were reports of strange sightings on the back roads of Dawson County. At first, they only happened on the night of the new moon. Gradually they became more and more common, until finally only the nights of the absolute full moon were safe from the ghost car’s wild rides.
People started talking about the black-looking car that would pass you no matter if there was a blind curve, a double-yellow line, or even oncoming traffic. And as it went by, in your headlights’ flash before the car pulled rapidly ahead, you could tell that it wasn’t black—it was deep purple, the exact color of NuGrape sodas. In a few seconds, all you could see was the red tail lights, with the little tiny violet circle in the middle. Whispers started spreading, first only in Dawson County, and then across all of north Georgia. “The Demon Driver of Dawson County is back behind the wheel.”
I’m pretty sure that I had an encounter with the ghost, or spirit, or demon—whatever it is. I was driving home to Blue Ridge from an evening class at Dahlonega’s North Georgia University. A mile or two after you enter the northern part of Dawson County, the road runs by the entrance of Amicolola Falls State Park and Burt’s Pumpkin Farm. At the time of night I was traveling, there was no traffic into or out of those tourist spots. Right after passing Burt’s, the highway enters a looping triangular intersection where Georgia highway 52 turns north toward Gilmer County and Ellijay. Just as I swung through this intersection, I noticed a car roll up to the stop sign, heading the same way as me. As it pulled out behind me, I seemed to sense something vaguely classic in the set of the headlights. Maybe they had those chrome half-reflectors that seem to intensify a car’s lights.
We were running four or five miles above the speed limit, but the car pulled up toward my bumper. Ahead, the twin marching lines of gold reflectors looked like a sinuous queue of poisonous snakes, rearing their heads as we snapped by. I kept expecting the car behind to pass me, but it never did. A couple of times, it got uncomfortably close, but as I maintained a steady pace, it backed off a bit. Of course we slowed down just a little as we began to navigate the ess-curves leading up the escarpment toward the Gilmer County line. Surely this car would pass me when we crossed the line, took the last curve to the left, and entered the first really good, long straightaway since the triangle intersection.
Instead, while we were still coming up the mountain, the car behind once again got right up on my bumper. Then as I crossed into Gilmer County, the headlights of the car behind suddenly, without slowing, whipped to the left. I knew there was a nearly-abandoned driveway there, but surely that car was going too fast to safely make the turn. I craned my neck to the side to get a good look up that driveway…and the lights had disappeared. That’s when I decided I had encountered the Demon Driver of Dawson County, and lived to tell about it. I remembered how I’d been told that he never left the confines of the Dawson County line.
Not all encounters with Dan the Demon Driver—if that’s who it is—have been so benign. If you ever have to drive the back roads of Dawson County at night, especially a dark, cold, clammy, moonless night, be extra cautious. If a driver comes up behind you, don’t hit your brakes, even if they aggravate you by coming too close. Just keep up a steady speed, not too fast, and especially not too slow. Don’t glance over if the car passes you. If you do, you’ll see something all right—a ghostly figure, translucent somehow, sitting casually with a skeletal right hand gripping a ‘suicide knob’ on the steering wheel, the glow of a lit, unfiltered Camel unnaturally lighting up a hawk-like face. The eyes you won’t see at first, because the driver is wearing dark Ray-Bans. For heaven’s sake, keep your nerve steady if you see Dan. If you swerve in the slightest, he will glance over at you—and then you’ll see his eyes…glints of red like burning white oak chunks that have fallen out of an old stone fireplace.
And whatever you do—what EVER you do…DO NOT SPEED UP. If you try to race, or keep the other car from passing you, you’ll hear the howl of the old Mercury’s engine, like eight hellish banshees. You’ll smell burnt rubber from where the old race car made tracks, even at 65 miles per hour. The car will swing by you, nearly clipping your left front, as twin gouts of flame blast downward from the chromed pipes under the purple monster’s rear bumper. The car will race away from you, as if taunting you with its speed, until suddenly, when it’s almost out of sight, it will slew around in an old dirt track slide, and head straight back toward you, right in the middle of the highway, its headlights now blazing like shooting stars. Now it’s too late to get out of the way. You try, but the car matches your every move…
No, you won’t die in a fiery crash. You’ll stand on your brakes and swerve wildly, but if you’re a reasonably skillful driver you won’t roll over or even hit the ditch. But as that NuGrape purple mechanical impossibility drives through your vehicle, as your ears ring with the insane laughter of the maniacal driver, as you will your heart back to a survivable rate of beating, you will feel something. And you will know that, every dark night from now on, down the lonely years and decades, the tiniest sliver of your soul will ride…with the Demon Driver of Dawson County.
I hope you enjoyed Keith’s ghost story as much as I did!