Sunday, February 22, 2015

Escape from an Abandoned Cemetery

As I pulled my blood-filled gloves off my hands, I contemplated the folly of jumping off the fence rather than climbing down the other side. Also, why I did this before my sprained back had completely healed will forever puzzle historians. It all started with the notion that no one would be around the abandoned cemetery on the day after Christmas. We certainly never expected to get mauled like this.

We got in with little difficulty. A very controlled climb up and over the fence, easy as a ghost leaving a man. Would anyone care that we were in here, with the main gates locked up tight and the high fencing and stone walls thwarting all but the most intrepid and curious? Hard to say. We spent about an hour or so on the grounds, photographing the brilliant decay. Fallen angels and busted mausoleums, everything overgrown with weeds and trees. The invasive and even domesticated foliage had grown so dense and with such aggression, that choking vines had pulled statues off their pedestals. There is beauty in entropy, to be sure, but when actual damage is done, the picture is quite sad.

Nature is simply reclaiming its own, as it does in abandoned amusement parks and the lands once occupied by Olympic Games. However, when a cemetery occupies the land, we consider that land more sacred. These people and their families tried in vain to preserve their memory. I don’t believe that it is enough that the occasional voyeur gets to see their monuments and statuary, to read the inscriptions on the stones in their family plots. But in the quest of making abandoned site photographs, at least some attention is being paid.

Sometimes we need to hold a mirror up to ourselves to realize how much we really don’t care about certain things. Memories forsaken – all these people were once alive, and these monuments were intended to memorialize them, so future generations would remember. We might be that "future" generation.

After exploring much of this once grand Victorian graveyard together, Rick and I temporarily went our separate photographic ways. As I was scrambling through a wilderness that was filled with monuments and tombstones, I realized a car was driving around the access road inside the cemetery! I never expected this. I threw myself to the ground and hoped the occupant (s) wouldn’t see me. The car slowly circled the dirt road and disappeared. I quietly got up, half expecting it to be parked there, but it had gone.  I saw my cohort and motioned to him to get down.

I moved through the weeds toward Rick and said, “It’s go time.” We made our way across the dirt road the car had just traversed and climbed the embankment to the denser weed cover and ultimately, the fence blocking our escape. Exactly why we were afraid of being caught is open for interpretation. We were just a couple of old guys taking pictures in an abandoned cemetery.

As we peered through the thicket of dead “mile-a-minute” weeds for a glimpse of my car, I got a glimpse of something else – a white car, sporting what appeared to be a roof rack. My guess was that it was a police cruiser. With pulses quickening, we scrambled through the high brush along the abandoned cemetery side of the fence so we could get a better look at the car parked on the opposite side – the opposite side happened to be an active and open cemetery. It is ironic that the only way to get into an abandoned place is to climb in from the adjoining active place. Again, would anyone working here have cared if they saw two guys go over the fence?

So, the white car had police lights on its roof. We needed another exit strategy. I had a “Plan B,” but it was not well thought out.

Quietly (well, as quietly as we could), we made our way through the tangle of vines and weeds and crackling tinder along the fence to a place where an old oak tree and its thick vines seemed to offer a way over the fence. I wasn’t really thinking of the way down the other side – gravity would help in that respect. The first tree didn’t have any low branches, so off we scrambled to the next one. Although vines grew up and through the old cyclone fence, they did not offer any protection at the top, where the barbed wire lay.

I climbed the tree and fence, using vines as footholds - that is, until the last vine near the top snapped under my weight. "Power through this," I thought to myself. I pulled my two hundred pounds to the point where I was balancing on top of the fence, looking out over the active cemetery next door. Not a living soul in sight and no way to climb down. Ah, my kingdom for a rope ladder …

Six feet does not seem a great height from which to jump. But it is – especially if you’re on the wrong side of fifty and not in the greatest physical shape. I hung my cameras on the barbed wire for later retrieval and threw myself off into space. I would love to see a video of this graceless act. (Maybe after we die, God will show us home movies of stupid stuff we did.) I suppose when you’re falling you subconsciously, automatically, reach out for something to hold on to. The something in my case was, unfortunately, barbed wire.

I landed it pretty poorly, falling backwards onto the ground. Rick asked if I was okay. I got up and grabbed my cameras off the barbed wire. My wife, who is always at the gym, would appreciate the fact that this experience was great cardio exercise. My heart was racing, muscles burning, etc. My inner thigh hurt as did my feet. I told Rick to hand me his cameras and find a way over the fence. I would walk over to the other side of the cemetery to draw people’s attention. Godspeed! 

It wasn’t really cold, forty-ish, and my black leather gloves felt sweaty. Upon removing them, I saw that they were squishy with blood. The barbed wire had ripped through the leather in a number of spots. I quickly put them back on – I would not want to have to explain bloody hands to a police officer in a cemetery. (Note to self: pick up bottle of spray hydrogen peroxide on way home.) It took Rick about half an hour to finally find a tree he could climb, with vines that would facilitate his descent on the other side of the fence. I kept checking back every few minutes to see if he was making any progress. He finally did it, methodically and with relative safety. He tore his clothes to shreds, but did not hurt himself and did not have to jump!

We walked as casually as two injured and exhausted men could across the clean-cut cemetery. Our intent was to approach my car from the direction opposite the fence we had just climbed. There was the cop cruiser on the roadway a little below my car. Nonchalantly, we got into my car and drove off. I don’t think either of us took a breath until we made it through the exit gate onto the highway!

The Unanswered Questions:

So was the cop just there killing time eating his lunch? Would he have cared if he had seen two old guys climbing the fence? And what was up with the driver of the car inside the abandoned cemetery? He must have had access through the locked gates. Did the driver see me? Us? It almost seems that he must have, he was so close, as he circled slowly around us. Did he call the police? Is that why the cruiser was parked near my car? If the driver saw us, perhaps he was more afraid of us than we were of him. Or maybe he was just there to toss a Christmas wreath on a grave, a wreath purchased long distance by a descendant of someone interred in this mess of a place. There always are one or two Christmas floral arrangements on the odd grave here. So I guess there are some people who do remember and respect their ancestors who were long ago buried in this overgrown jumble of a cemetery. My guess is that they have no idea that this beautifully laid out Victorian-era garden cemetery is locked up tight and has been left to grow wild and crumble.

I understand changing societal tastes, people being more mobile, less focused on the material extravagance of the wealthier ancestral plane, but don’t people want tangible reminders of their past? Perhaps, but maybe not if they have to pay for their upkeep. An abandoned cemetery is clear evidence of people wanting to escape from the whole idea of death.

You know how people conveniently “forget” things when the things are, well, inconvenient for them to address? An abandoned cemetery is a good example of “An Inconvenient Truth” - as former United States Vice President Al Gore called his campaign to educate people about global warming. There is an an inconvenient truth buried in the act of discarding, abandoning, things. Maybe abandoned-site exploration and photography are so popular because these acts attempt to get to the heart of the matter. They hold a mirror up to us, showing a reflection of something we may not necessarily want to see.

There is always a reason things are abandoned. Ghost towns sometimes became such after the gold mines had been tapped out. There are many reasons why cemeteries become abandoned. I learn about some of them as my cemetery travels take me down strange roads, and over strange fences. Although I have yet to understand the situation with the cemetery in question, there is learning to be had if you're willing to venture to the edge, and occasionally, even, to jump off.