And my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold
Well, my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold
Now I believe what the bible told
There's just one last favor I'll ask of you
And there's one last favor I'll ask of you
There's just one last favor I'll ask of you
See that my grave is kept clean
—Blind Lemon Jefferson
Yesterday, a briskly windy day, the power went out. Again. A tree collapsed on the line downhill, blacking out our road for several hours.
Rather than sit around in a dark, cold house waiting for the Dominion Power guys to do their slow and steady thing, I decided I'd go look for old John F. Hartman, the fellow who carved his name into Buzzard Rock in 1851. Or at least what's left of him.
I knew which cemetery he'd been buried in, but I'd never visited it. I knew of its existence, but only in theory.
From the 1830s to the 1880s, there was no Methodist church on this side of Short Hill. The nearest churches in this valley were in Lovettsville, some four miles away from the ridge, and they were Lutheran and Calvinist. The pious area Methodies along the eastern foot of the mountain would walk over it to attend Ebenezer Church in Waters -- so what if there was a hulking great 800-foot-tall obstacle between them and the Lord?
The road over the mountain, imaginatively called the Ebenezer Church Road (or, alternatively, the William Graham Road, for reasons I've not yet figured out), began to fall into disrepair in the 1880s, when a Methodist church was built on this side of the mountain. The Ebenezer Church itself was moved to a more central location in Waters, and the old graveyard abandoned.
When we hear "abandoned graveyard," I think most of us might be tempted to think that they simply stopped burying people there, and leave it at that. But for reasons I can't yet fathom, this particular graveyard was not only discontinued, but left to return to a state of nature.
Even though I knew its approximate location, it took me quite a while to find it. I even had to call a friend who had visited it before for help. Although it's just off the road, you wouldn't know it was there unless you actually dove into the woods looking for it. It must be completely impossible to view in the summer, when the undergrowth is impassable -- not to mention the snakes and ticks that would no doubt feast on you.
On a forbidding January day, to say this place is creepy is a world-class understatement. I'm not a believer in ghosts in any nonmetaphorical way, but I wouldn't blame you for getting a little spooked here. Quite a few horror-film conventions crept into my mind as I gingerly tiptoed around. Holes opening up and swallowing me, a bony hand reaching out of the rotting leaves and grabbing my ankle, a disembodied voice calling me...
When a nearly impassable high ridge stands between two towns, there is a very real "this-side" and "that-side" feeling to the human relations between them. When you have to work quite hard to walk to a place, you might be tempted not to do it. Nowadays, when I want to visit my friend Marty, whose luthier shop stands quite high on the other side of the mountain, perhaps two miles from me as the crow flies, I have to drive around the mountain, crossing the Potomac at Brunswick, MD, and back into Virginia at Harpers Ferry. The whole thing takes a good half-hour, door-to-door.
Not so in 1840. The walk is certainly hard, but the spots where the road is still usable go quickly. "This side" and "that side" wasn't nearly such a barrier then. You could visit a sweetheart or a business partner or a relative in a reasonably short time. This graveyard is evidence of the existence of the road: There are both "this-side" and "that-side" names here. Everhart: This side....
...Demory: That side.
Demory's gravestone is merging with that tree; the tree is literally consuming the stone as it grows.
What's most affecting about this place is the forgottenness of it. We carve our names and the dates of our lifetimes in stone to preserve them, and we trust our descendants to honor and remember them. There's something quite wrong about finding these unhonored and unremembered names here, like a trust has been violated. As I've said, I don't know why this graveyard was allowed to fall into this silent decay (I suspect money was somehow involved), but it's ineffably sad to witness it.
I may have made the walk sound too easy. I've never gone up and over Short Hill twice in one day; my treks have almost always been to the summit of the ridge and back down again on my side. A few times I've climbed over the mountain and then returned by the riverbank at the north end, but never up and over twice. I was utterly destroyed during the second descent, my thighs and knees burning and my new hip bitching awfully.
So I bear the folks buried here, the "that-siders," enormous respect, and unmitigated admiration. To make that walk to attend church every Sunday must have given them a quiet pride and self-satisfaction. We, I can hear them saying, we walk over this mountain for the Lord. We don't make a big deal out of it, we just do it. It's what we do.
I never found Hartman's gravestone. The name preserved in stone at the top of the mountain, which I imagine he carved as a casual lark on a bored afternoon, is the inscription that testifies that he lived. The stone meant to commemorate his life, at the mountain's foot, is gone.