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A View from the Top

Graveyard Running

Gordon Cherr, February 21, 2019

"Gary and I walked up to the graveyard, talked shop, figured out the answers to our friends' troubled lives and saw the wagon axle gravestone. Gary found it. He had no idea. I was stunned at how ordinary it looked, just a metal rod in the ground to mark someone’s passing life. Nothing etched in it, just the axle and the dirt depression shaped like a box."

                                                          Mike Baker, walking the Hickory Hill Cemetery of Welaunee Plantation, with Gary Griffin.
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There is a tiny, unassuming graveyard that is found off the single track trail that parallels the Miccosukee Greenways. I had not thought  about it in a long time, until Mike mentioned it in a note he published the other day. You can't run the graveyard, but you can hop the old, broken fence and walk in it, which I have done often, reading the names and dates, and with some few headstones so old, there is no inscription apparent to read, but you know someone who was born, was loved, lived and died, remains there for all eternity. I take solace in that little peaceful place.

I have run in many graveyards over many years, I find peace and tranquility during the run in almost all of them. Running collegiately in Boston, there were many old graveyards found in the oddest places. We did not run them though, we felt that it was disrespectful, or at least my older teammates did. I did find one large ancient graveyard in Beacon Hill that I ran often, but only by myself and always in the evening hours before night. I never got caught, never was yelled at, didn't feel that I was dis-respecting anyone. Besides, no traffic and it was an escape from the pressure and rigors of my day. But that was long ago.

There is a little roadside cemetery on Baum Road, on the right as you top a long hill that T's out onto Miccosukee Road, outside the Tallahassee city limits, in Leon County. I have stopped on the run and sat in that cemetery from time to time. It is quiet, nearly hidden, and there are always many flowers there. The flowers are plastic and I have never seen fresh flowers there. In fact, I have never seen another living person there except for myself, and no hint that anyone visits to clean up or just commune with loved ones, long gone. I run there about each month and have for years, just a little ritual and a swell place to catch your breath. There is little to no traffic on the road and the birds always are singing in the nearby woods.

When I first moved to Asheville in 2001, I ran with a large group of hardcore mountain runners who sometimes ran the Riverside Cemetery, almost every week. It was an old cemetery with some giant mausoleum, fancy statues and ornate headstones. Hey, when you're gone, you're gone, right? Some people need to hang on no matter what I suppose.

The Blue Ridge Mountains around Asheville is wonderful running with mountain trails and quiet, hilly neighborhoods closer to downtown, but in contrast, the hills and lanes in the Riverside Cemetery are very short and very steep and it is a tough run, constantly up and down and gut busting for short bursts. I used to feel funny running in the Riverside Cemetery and was even called out there by someone driving through in a Cadillac, on a Sunday morning. I thought that to be rather hypocritical of him, driving through and belching carbon, but he did not take kindly to my talking points. Interestingly enough, when I moved back for a spell in 2015, there were newer signs posted at the cemetery entrance asking you to simply keep your dogs on a leash, and no skate boards please.

But Mike's comment, above, really reminded me of something else and I feel the need to talk about it. It has been so many years, but I had these great high school running buddies and we had state championship worthy teams in cross country every year. Swanny, Rak, Kid Keating, we ran everywhere and we ran often. And one early morning before school, we found ourselves running along Dwasline Road in Clifton (NJ), the next city over from where we grew up, Passaic. And suddenly we came upon the entrance to the King Solomon Cemetery, and we most naturally started into the quiet cemetery, where we had never run before. But then it hit me like a ton of bricks and I couldn't go in. I hadn't thought about him in so many years, but my little brother was buried there. I was but four years old when he died, he was a tiny two months old. I felt shamed for not thinking about him for so long. I so wanted a brother, I had no brother, but worse, I suddenly remembered the morning when he died, the screaming of my mother, her running footsteps on the wood floor as she dashed out to the car with the baby in her arms, racing to the hospital in the vain hope that he could be saved. Some things you never forget, they never ever recede even with time.

I collapsed at the entrance of the cemetery and began to cry. It all happened so fast, I had the weight of an elephant upon my chest. I don't know how long I stayed like that in the grass and gravel, but remember the voices of my friends, my very best friends, consoling me, not even knowing of what they were consoling me about, scary times for four high school kids. I explained to them as best I could between sobs,and eventually we got up and ran back home. They surrounded me and protected me for the few miles back and I have never forgotten their kindnesses that day. We were runners all.

We never went back to the King Solomon Cemetery to run. But I did. Alone. It had to be that way. I eventually found my little brother's gravestone and cleaned it, weeded around the headstone and cleared away the leaves.

I ran to that cemetery many times after that. Mostly I sat for a spell, sometimes we talked, mostly I listened. I so miss my little brother, who I never knew. I feel as though he lives on, or at least his memory does, through me. Maybe it gave him a small part of the life he was never able to live for himself. 

I have never told anyone of this in my entire life, but I tell you now, cemeteries in some ways are a place of life for me. I will run through them when I can, respectfully and with reverence to those therein. 

So, Mike and Gary, you did well to stop your run, albeit momentarily, and visit those souls who need to be remembered, they needed to be reminded that someone, somewhere loved them and missed them greatly. I wish I had been with you. 

And thank you for reminding my of my little brother, Richard Lee.