The stretch of Highway 246 that runs between the towns of Buellton and Santa Ynez in the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barabara County is said to be haunted by a few odd apparitions.
The first is a ghostly horse-drawn carriage, often said to be a hearse, that traverses the road late at night. Some versions of the story update this to an automobile. The hearse continues down the road, headed to the west, unimpeded by any physical object that blocks its way, some say carrying the souls of the recently dead to the afterlife. Some locals have interpreted the hearse as being part of the Santa Ynez Chumash belief that the spirits of the dead must travel westward in order to reach Point Conception, the gateway to the afterlife. A more sinister version of the tale holds that the hearse is bearing the souls of the damned to Hell.
The second story concerns a black, spectral dog that people have reported running along the road at night. Though nobody claims to have been attacked by it, it is said to be a terrifying sight to behold. It is often claimed to not be a ghost, but rather a demon, wandering the road looking to do harm.
Interestingly, the third story concerns the ghost of a young boy that is said to appear on the side of the road. He seems to be lost and frightened, but will accept a ride from any motorist kind enough to stop for him. When the driver reaches the place that the boy asks to be dropped off, he has simply vanished. It is said that this spirit is the ghost of a young boy who was killed in a car accident while his mother was driving. The mother survived, but the boy was dead at the scene, and now wanders the highway trying to get home.
Commentary: The ghost stories of Highway 246 are interesting for a few reasons. The first, related to the story of the ghostly hearse, is the desire to connect the ghost story to the beliefs of the native peoples of the area. The popular view of Chumash folklore holds that Point Conception was thought to be the gateway to the afterlife, but when I have spoken with people knowledgeable about the ethnographic record of the area, it comes out that the Chumash view of how one reaches the afterlife may not be so clear-cut. There was no centralized church that kept the religious canon in order, and so it is entirely possible that some people did think there was a physical gateway, while others did not, and the precise location may have varied by person telling the ethnographers of it.
In fact, the story of the ghostly hearse is a relatively common motif in European ghost stories, and so this is likely an old campfire story that has been adapted to a California setting, and later had a veneer of faux-antiquity added by the reference ot Chumash religion.
Similarly, the ghostly dog is common in European folklore (and served as the inspiration for the Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles), and is likely also a transplant. Demonic black dogs show up in Medieval and Renaissance stories, and remain a popular aspect of many European haunted outdoor spots to this day. The connection between these dogs and demonic forces may be tied to earlier pre-Christian folklore, though that is of little direct importance as the story of this dog likely was brought by Christian Europeans.
The vanishing hitchhiker story is interesting because it has all of the common elements - strange, frightened person who will accept a ride, vanishes when you get them to their destination, etc. etc. - but changes the age and gender of the hitchhiker. These stories are normally about young women - between the age of 16 and 25 - and not pre-adolescent children. This has an interesting effect: While one might feel sorry for the young women who are doomed to hitchhike for the rest of time, the stories nonetheless remain creepy. The young boy, though, is simply a sad and lonely character, with very little creep factor to him. It changes the story from creepy but sad to just plain depressing.
Sources: Published Book, Internet, Local Folklore