This story was told by my grandfather to my father, and my father to me. I told the story to my children, and now tell it to my grandchildren. It’s true, with many iterations. My grandkids are held rapt by the narrative; if I forget something they’ve remembered in the telling, they remind me to include it.
One beautiful August Saturday in Wyoming’s interior, Dan and Virginia Johnstone set out in their cabover camper for a weekend camping trip, Their destination was a favorite spot 20 miles west of Casper on the Yellowstone Highway. As dusk approached, Dan got a fire started in the river rock fire pit scorched from repeated fires, while Virginia prepared dinner, hot dogs and beans. Night fell, and there wasn’t much for the 25-years married couple to talk about, and that was fine with both of them.
Around 10 p.m. Virginia walked outside the circle of firelight on a nature call. Five, then 10 minutes elapsed, and she hadn’t returned. “Virginia,” Dan called, at first only loud enough to carry the several paces a person would typically go. But there was no answer, so he called louder. Dan got his flashlight and followed her footsteps into the forest. He kept calling, all the way to a meadow about 50 yards back from the campsite, now bathed in starlight. After an anguished 45 minutes of searching and calling, he got into his pickup with the intention of hauling back into town to get help.
Dan and Virginia were well-known and well-liked in Casper as the proprietors of Central Feed Supply, and so Sheriff Tate Miles had five deputies and several good-old-boys following Dan to the campsite within an hour. Sheriff Miles told Dan to get a fire going again. They fanned out, flashlights ablaze, calling Virginia’s name. By Sunday morning the word had gotten out, and there were 35 searchers, including 11 women, covering what Sheriff Miles figured was a half-mile in all directions. On Monday, which dawned windy and cooler, yet more searchers drove out from town, and a state rescue helicopter flew up from Cheyenne to circle the skies for any trace.
By Tuesday morning the search party had dwindled to two deputies and three good-old-boys. Sheriff Miles told Dan that he was going to have to call off the search. On Tuesday night Dan lights a fire at the spot where he last saw Virgina, spends the night alone, and cries. Wednesday morning he drives back into Casper and opens the feed store. By the following Saturday night he’d resigned himself to having lost Virginia forever.
Three weeks later, early September, a cold Friday night. A Boy Scout troop is camping in a spot about three miles up and across the highway from the Johnstone campsite. They were dropped off by a troop leader earlier that afternoon, and are telling ghost stories. They hear the crunch of pine-needle duff outside the circle of firelight. From out the forest comes a woman. Below the cuffs of her camping shorts, her knees are scraped and scabbed. Her blouse is torn on one shoulder, and lays open like a flap. One shoe is almost falling off her foot. Her face is clean, but has somehow turned wild. She seems so tired.
“I’m Virginia Johnstone,” she says, her voice like a scratch on dry wood. The boys know exactly who she is. They gently sit her by the fire. They’ll have to wait till morning, when the troop leader comes to pick them up. She tells them how she got lost, how she survived on berries and fish she caught in a creek and ate raw. Only Mrs. Johnstone sleeps that night.