“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living”
For many years, my trail running group has occasionally done a “cemetery run”, winding our way through fire roads and single track trails in order to reach the tiny graveyard of an old pioneer family long forgotten by time and neglect. Recently, I tried to learn more about the family who eternally rests near my favorite training ground, only to find that very little is known about them.
So in honor of Halloween weekend, I altered the course of my weekly bike ride with my 11-year-old son in order to explore the area better, and tell him about one of the most mysterious and fatefully haunted locations I’ve ever come across. Think of this as our true-life Monterey County ghost story.
Our tale begins on the former … hang on a second. That doesn’t look quite right. Let me just reach down to this dial here …
There, that’s better. Halloween stories should be told in black and white, don’t you think? OK then – our tale begins on the former Fort Ord military area, more than 7,000 acres of land now used as recreational open space by trail runners and mountain bikers alike.
The landscape welcomes us gently, and I use our warm-up period to introduce the story of the Whitcher (seriously, that’s the real name) family who homesteaded on this land in the late 1800s, only to vanish almost without a trace aside from the remote, meager cemetery that hints at their hardships.
To reach the site, we’ll have our work cut out for us; Fort Ord is known for its rolling, rugged terrain, and our destination lies nearly eight miles away across several ridgelines that we’ll go up and over along the way. (If you’re curious, I did a GPS profile of the ride here.) It was easy for us to imagine how difficult it would be for anyone to forge a comfortable existence out here nearly 150 years ago.
The Whitcher family occupied this land for nearly 60 years, primarily residing in a farm house in the nearby Corral de Tierra area, better known to Steinbeck fans as the Pastures of Heaven. They once owned thousands of acres here, and yet – unlike nearly every other owner of an original “rancho” or “adobe” land grant – absolutely nothing that I know of in Monterey County bears their name.
After cresting our second major climb, our route takes us past a locked gate and down a lonely fire road …
… where even the normal sights begin to acquire an ominous veneer. It’s very likely that these trees knew the Whitchers personally - and their reaching branches may be silently straining to tell us about the other fathers and children who passed this way so many years ago.
The tree cover remains fairly dense until we reach a clearing on the outskirts of a long abandoned community (more on that in a minute) – and about 100 yards off the main road, we finally reach our destination.
The humble cemetery that is the resting place for the family of Thomas Rose Whitcher. It’s only about 20’ long by 10’ wide, but holds the gravestones of five people.
The grass grows long in the center of the plot, but the site shows signs of occasional visitation: a wreath on the cross, flowers at its base, and an artificial cluster of berries or grapes on another headstone.
At the base of the cross is the marker for Mary H. Pearson, who at age 36, represents the oldest person in this plot. The remaining stones – with one uncertain exception – start larger but decrease in size according to the age of the deceased.
The next gravestone is the most heartbreaking, even 130 years removed:
If little Harry’s marker was the most heartbreaking, this final one is the most mysterious:
A small, plain, chipped slab, with nothing more than the initials H.W. Is it another infant? An animal? Had the family become too poor to have an official tombstone made? The answer might be in the wind, or in the trees ... but neither of them are talking.
Overlooking the gravesite from a slight rise is a boarded-up barracks from a former Army post. For most of the 20th Century, the East Garrison barracks housed hundreds of servicemen, and this area also contained a schoolhouse, church, and general store. The Army closed the base in the early 1990s, and the land was eventually turned over to developers. A housing project broke ground, but ran out of money in the recent financial meltdown – so now the whole area sits vacant: abandoned barracks, vandalized and dilapidated buildings, streets halfway built and then forgotten. It’s a literal ghost town, all within shouting distance of the enigmatic graveyard.
That’s also the reason for the chain-link fence around two sides of the burial site: it’s technically part of the Army land turned over to developers, but a consensus was never reached about what to actually do with the site in the context of building a subdivision. There was talk of refurbishing the site, and whispers of relocating it … and then the project stopped, so the decision never had to be made. Now the fence is there as a token gesture of protecting a sacred area that very few people pay attention to anymore.
As my son and I pondered the gravesites in the fading afternoon, the air was growing cold, the wind was beginning to howl, and we still had almost 90 minutes of riding to get home, so it was time to be on our way.
The dying sunlight cast long shadows throughout our return, 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. There’s really nothing like a visit to a graveyard on a cold autumn evening to give you a serious case of the chills.
Our ride back was a lot quieter than the journey out – not necessarily due to being spooked, but more likely because we were tired and cold, and contemplating all that we had just seen.
(But maybe a little bit spooked, too. I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.)
Winding through dense patches of trees, now it seemed as if they were reaching out in hopes of capturing us. They wanted us to stay with them longer – either to tell us more stories, or just to keep them company during the approaching cold night. Whatever the reason, my son and I declined all offers, and just kept on pedaling.
Eventually we reached our sta… oops, wait a minute again … let me switch this back on:
Eventually we reached our starting point, threw on some sweatshirts, and loaded up the bikes to drive home.
I’m not exactly sure whether 10 or 15 years from now my son will think back on this ride with fondness, or just feel creeped out by how his father told him morbid stories while dragging him to an abandoned graveyard on a cold gray evening. However, the story of the Whitcher family has captivated me ever since I discovered it, and I think it’s important that those who came before us – even the most downtrodden, star-crossed, and unfortunate souls among them – live on somehow in the people who come along afterwards.
We honor the dead by remembering them – and if nothing else, this was a ride that I think will stay with us for quite a long time.