Cemetery Run

**Author's note: this week's Herald article was excerpted from a photo essay Donald published on his website last year. See the complete post here on Running and Rambling.

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“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living”
- Cicero (106-43 BC)

One of the most mysterious and fatefully haunted locations in Monterey County also happens to be the destination of one our favorite trail runs.

The “cemetery run,” as we refer to it, takes us approximately 8 miles along the fire roads and single track of Fort Ord, and ultimately to the graveyard of a long forgotten pioneer family. Very little is known about the souls who rest there, and the few visible details only cause further speculation, like a real-life Monterey County ghost story.

The area was once the homestead of the Whitcher (seriously, that’s the name) family in the late 1800s, who vanished almost without a trace towards the end of the 19th century. They occupied this land for nearly 60 years, and once owned thousands of acres. However, unlike other owners of original “rancho” or “adobe” land grants, practically nothing in Monterey County bears their name.

We run up and down two major climbs on our way to the site, passing silent trees that probably knew the Whitchers personally. Their reaching branches seemingly strain to tell us about other explorers of these trails so many years ago. Finally we reach the outskirts of an abandoned military community, and about 100 yards off the main road is our destination: a humble cemetery, only 20’ long by 10’ wide, that is the resting place for five members of the Whitcher family.

Grass grows long in the center of the plot, but the site shows signs of occasional visitation: a wreath on a cross, flowers at its base, and trampled weeds on the perimeter. Below the cross is a marker for Mary H. Pearson, who at age 36, represents the oldest person in the plot. The remaining stones decrease in size according to the age of the deceased. They contain brief, touching hints of the hardships the family experienced:

Ned Eliger Whitcher, November 8, 1862 - April 29, 1879. Ceased breathing.

Floria Elvira Whitcher, July 19, 1866 – February 17, 1875. Returned to God who gave her.

Harry Whitcher, August 5, 1875 - September 16, 1875. Quit acheing.

It’s enough to break your heart, even 130 years removed. Little Harry’s marker is the most heartbreaking, but another is the most mysterious: a small, plain, chipped slab, with nothing more than the initials H.W. No indication if this is another infant, or a pet, or a member of the family who died when the family couldn’t afford a proper tombstone.

The answer might be in the wind, or in the trees ... but when our group of runners visit, neither of them are ever talking. So we ponder the gravesites for a few minutes before it’s time to be on our way.

As the minutes tick away on our return trip, the Whitcher plot is a somber reminder that time is always running out: on our days, on our precious moments shared with those we love, on our very existence. The run back is generally quieter than the journey out, as we contemplate the scene we’ve just visited.

Ideally, those who came before us – even the most downtrodden, star-crossed, and unfortunate souls among them – can live on somehow in those of us who remain here afterwards. We honor the dead by remembering them – and running to the cemetery is our unique way of ensuring that this particular family stays with us for a long time.

1 comments:

Anonymous,  December 22, 2011 at 7:46 PM  

I'm a writer who has been researching the Whitcher story for years and am writing my second novel about the family who homesteaded and purchased land throughout Monterey County in the mid-to-late 1800s. For more information, check out my website. I have an article about the Whitchers: www.gmweger.com

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