The Veteran’s Cemetery

The sun is shining but my thoughts are dark today.  It might have been the Sunday drive we took to the Veteran’s cemetery.   Who goes for a Sunday drive to a grave yard?  Yet, I’ve always found cemeteries interesting.  The first time I went to Europe I lost my passport wandering in a cemetery outside Exincourt, a little town in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France.  The cemetery was on the quiet outskirts of the village, as French cemeteries often are, and full of granite tombs and statuary.  These kinds of resting places are called “monumental” cemeteries, this as opposed to our American “lawn” cemeteries.

At the VA cemetery my eyes scanned row upon row of the same simple, white headstones (government issued).  I thought about the difference between soldier grave sites and civilian cemeteries.

Civilian cemeteries are cities of the dead, and like cities of the living, they’re filled with all kinds of colorful characters.  You can see this easily just reading through some of the epitaphs on the headstones: “I told you I was sick,” and “I was hoping for a pyramid.”  A gay veteran buried in a civilian cemetery had engraved on his headstone: “A Gay Vietnam Veteran, When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

Names, birth/death dates, and rank are basically the only thing carved on military tablets.  I stood in front of a “Stephen” and a “Rita,” both corporals at one time.  Neither appeared to have died in combat.  I wondered what made them join the military.  I don’t think many young people dream of becoming killing machines.  Rather, they see being in the military as serving their country, or a way to get training in a specialized field without the expense and headache of college.  Perhaps they like all the benefits military service offers, i.e. free funeral, burial, and memorial.

Though people buried in the VA cemetery must have some military experience, it’s a mistake to think this time period of their life defined who they later became.

I know a man and his wife who plan to be cremated and have their ashes scattered over the Memory Garden at the VA cemetery.  And though it’s true the man served during the Viet Nam War era, after that his life took an entirely different path, marrying, moving to the West, and experiencing a long career in education.

Still, those early years of our lives and what happens to us does seem to have some lasting significance. My son is a software developer, but every year or so he gathers together with a few of his Marine buddies to remember those crazy times at Camp Pendleton or stationed in Hawaii—just like college friends do when they look back on dorm life.  I don’t know if my son’s even considered where he wants to be buried yet.  People younger than fifty rarely do.  No one wants to be accused of having a morbid fascination.  But he has the option of a veteran’s burial—an option, by the way, I don’t have.

Memorial Day is almost upon us and with it the VA cemetery, like cemeteries everywhere, will be covered with bouquets of irises, lilacs, and peonies.  The flowers are beautiful and smell good, but I prefer somber, sedate lawns of green grass and hushed breezes, the cemetery—sans holiday. As we slowly drove out of the VA cemetery on Sunday, I thought of an old verse I saw once engraved on a colonial-era headstone in New England.  Apparently, this poem was a popular Puritan epitaph, the words carved right under the skeletons and imps decorating the top of tombstones:

“Remember me as you pass by,

As you are now, so once was I,

As I am now, so you must be,

Prepare for death and follow me.”

 

Image credit:  Veteran’s Cemetery

 

Out of the Suburbs and Into the Desert

I grew up in a little box of a house in an Indiana suburb.  There were houses on either side of us and one across the street.  As far as the eye could see was a flat landscape littered with driveways and asphalt.  So when I moved West after college, I was in awe of the mountains and deserts.  I still am: all this empty space and rugged beauty.  It never grows old.  Every year when May rolls around and the weather warms up, I feel compelled, like the great explorers of the West, John Muir and John Wesley Powell, to take a look around.

The month of May I call Desert Appreciation Month. The temperatures are still cool enough to make hiking pleasant–and all the wildflowers are in bloom. 

May, with its warmer weather, not only beckons people, but other creatures too. Yesterday, hiking the Wilson Creek Trail I came across a long, patterned bull snake gliding peacefully through the grasses.  The Wilson Creek Trail climbs the Owyhee Mountain front in Idaho.  When I saw the snake of course, I jumped back, startled.

Bull snakes look similar to rattlesnakes and I’ve come across enough rattlesnakes in my desert wanderings that I try not to repeat that experience.

A couple of years ago I was walking in sneakers and shorts along the side of a dirt road when I heard a distinct rattle sound warning me away.  I froze, aware of my exposed legs, and looked down to find a rattlesnake coiled not three feet from me under a sagebrush.  I softly stepped back thinking I really needed to wear boots and long pants hiking around in snake season.

trailhead

On the Wilson Creek hike I crossed several bends in the little ribbon of a stream known as Wilson Creek. 

Apparently, the snow melt coming off the peaks of the 8,000 foot Owyhee Mountains formed the headwaters.  Two hundred or so head of cattle drifted in and around the creek bed blocking my path.  I walked through them keenly aware of bawling and nervous cows worried about their calves.  Cows are generally docile animals but have been known to charge if they think their calves are being threatened.  It was difficult to ignore the damage done to little Wilson Creek by this big herd of cattle.  The banks of the stream were all caved in and the vegetation around stomped down, flattened, and covered with cow pies.  I wondered what this oasis in the high desert would look like minus cows—or at least with fewer cattle feeding from such a fragile stream.

Above me, on the hillside, I saw neat planted rows of crested wheat grass.  No doubt the Bureau of Land Management had tractors drill seeds into the soil, probably hoping to restore such a heavily grazed area.  It always makes me shake my head when I hear ranchers complain about the federal government infringing on their rights.  The government supports ranching in so many ways: including keeping grazing fees phenomenally low ($1.69 a month per cow/calf pair —this as opposed to approximately $25 a month to feed a cow/calf pair on private land).   They not only plant hearty grasses to ensure better pasturing for cattle herds, they also fence miles and miles of pasture—free of charge.

Fortunately, away from the stream bed I noticed plenty of undisturbed native wheat and rye grasses.  I watched their leaves blow gently in the breeze.

“Multiple Use” is a phrase, a paradigm for public lands today.  Multiple use was everywhere evident on the Wilson Creek Trail.  I saw hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders on the trail.

Off in the distance an RZR (a Razor, a crazy-fast, steep-climbing recreational vehicle) drove, dust billowing behind. Still, for all the uses made of the Owyhee Mountain Front that day, it was blissfully quiet the farther I hiked up into the mountains.  I didn’t see a street sign or hear a car honk.  I almost pinched my arm to remind myself I wasn’t dreaming, I wasn’t still living in a dreary Indiana suburb.  No, I was happily awake, enjoying the mountains and deserts of the American West.

 

Image Credits:  Diana Hooley on the Wilson Creek Trail, southwest Idaho