houses near tress

One Grave at a Time

It took more than 20 years before I discovered the cemetery across from my home.

As strange as that may sound, I have reasons for my oversight. My cabin house is at the top of a mountain, and so “across from my home” is in the valley below. It’s a small cemetery, with a footprint no larger than a car. A huddle of tall pine trees blocks the cemetery from view. Up until recently the gravesite was on private land, and so its existence was a secret known only to the land owners.

Now part of open space trails accessible to the public, the cemetery still keeps its secrets. “Gravesite Spur” is its official listing on the trail map, while metal trail signs point hikers to the “Gravesite and Picnic Area,” an odd combination. Seated on a picnic bench beneath the pine trees and across from the actual cemetery, I read the cemetery sign nailed to the closed gate, a sign that provides scant details. “Replicated late 1800s cemetery fence,” is all that can be said about the gravesite and the people buried in it. The fence is replicated only because the original pine wood posts—their thin gray bodies severely weathered by over a century of hail, blizzards, and—at altitude 7,000 feet above sea level—punishing sun—were beyond repair, and so they were replaced. The few surviving original posts are clustered inside a corner of the cemetery.

We don’t know who is buried in this cemetery, or how many bodies lie beneath. Two indentations in the ground possibly mark the actual burial sites. In the summer the site is covered by mullein, its stalks sprouting higher than the wooden stakes. In the winter, by flabby, crumpled mullein leaves, broken stalks, and feet of snow.

It’s likely the dead were 19th-century settlers who traveled across the historic Santa Fe wagon trail to homestead in this area. Trading posts, with names like Palmer Lake, Spring Valley, Husted, Pring, and Greenland sprouted every five miles or so, and some of those early settlements have survived to this day. Greenland is now marked as an exit off of Interstate 25 (I-25), the North /South highway that bifurcates New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. Greenland has no services, and lost its status as a town in October 2007. The dead in the graveyard would have likely traded at Greenland or passed through the town, when it was a thriving settlement with a train station, several businesses, a hotel, and a saloon. They would have raised their cattle in Greenland valley, sourcing the pine wood to build their cabins and stake their barbed-wire fences from the nearest mountain.

I live on the nearest mountain to their cabin, at the end of one of the logging trails branching throughout Colorado’s Rampart Range. Built into the side of the mountain, my home perches on the mountain’s spine, overlooking Greenland valley to the east and the foothills to the west. The logging trail is about a quarter mile long, a narrow catwalk carved from the side of the mountain. This house was built on the mountain almost 40 years ago, barely a drop in history, but a very long time in mountain home terms. Mountains are hard on homes and vehicles, and the dirt roads that sustain them. Road graders, tractors, front end loaders, and heavy duty plow trucks are just a few of the tools that keep the logging trails clear, when summer monsoon rain floods and spring heavy snows threaten to, and sometimes do, shut down the trails.

Except my logging trail. To snowplow my trail, I don’t rely on a plow truck. I rely, instead, on an old-fashioned sleigh shovel. It’s a simple piece of equipment, about double the size of a regular snow shovel, with a horizontal metal bar that the operator pushes forward like a stroller rather than lifting up like a standard shovel.

Both hands wrapped around the bar, I push the blue sleigh shovel with a gliding motion to clear the snow, using my entire body—feet, calves, thighs, back, stomach, arms. At its best, with only a few inches of fresh powder snow on the ground, typical in high altitude, low humidity regions, plowing is a gliding, rhythmic motion: push the shovel forward, tip the snow over the cliff, retreat, repeat. It’s a simple, basic exercise. Repetitive, effective. In that way, plowing by hand is not unlike the relaxing experience others report from engaging in physical tasks like sweeping floors or ironing clothes. Over the years, living alone, I’ve plowed this logging trail by hand so many times I know the divots in the trail, the bowls where the snow collects, the tufts of grass and yucca that rise up, the pine branches that droop with heavy snow, the sections of trail where the snowdrifts pile high, the breaks on the catwalk edge where best to tip the snow. I know the weight and feel of seasonal snows; I read my weather reports direct from the sky.

Of course, my neighbors on the mountain think I need my head examined. Why spend the hours and the energy to push snow manually when a plow truck or an ATV with a plow can do the job in a fraction of the time. I’ve thought about that question a lot over the years, and the answer is a simple one. I plow by hand because the mountain is never more still than when it’s snowing and I’m plowing. It’s a stillness that approaches silence. I say approaching silence because very few regions of the Earth are truly silent, and this mountain certainly isn’t one of them. Winter and summer, the mountain hums with life, from the incredible but eerie call of red-tailed hawks to the intrusive but necessary buzz of chainsaws. Snow muffles all sounds, animal and human-generated, until the mountain is (almost) silent. Those are the times I most look forward to, the hours spent in a landscape so quiet snowflakes sprinkling my down coat and the whisper of the sleigh shovel are the loudest noises in the forest.

As I write these words, snow is falling outside the kitchen window. It’s a heavy spring snow, driving straight down in large, fluffy clumps. On the mountain, I measure snow not in inches and feet but in hours and days. This snow will take several hours to plow. Last weekend’s blizzard was different. It took a week to plow, dig, and excavate the drifts by hand, some higher than my five foot five inch frame. The remnants of that blizzard will lie below this snowstorm, and the history of seasonal snows builds. In March 2019, a blizzard generated by a bomb cyclone (an event that occurs when the barometric pressure drops more than 24 millibars in 24 hours) dumped so much snow on the catwalk, after the storm, I photographed my progress moving tons of snow as proof to myself that I’d actually dug out. By June, all of this year’s snow will have melted, although, I remind myself, 2020 offered many unexpected events, including a significant snowstorm that swept through on June 1st, becoming the latest snowstorm I’ve recorded in my years on the mountain.

People tend to romanticize this mountain life, and I’m certainly not denying its inherent beauty, the spectacular morning sunrises over Greenland valley, the heady smell of pine forest, the taste of wild raspberries plucked from the vine. But it’s a hard-won life, whether plowing blizzard-driven snow or encountering mountain lions on my daily hike. It’s also a life that causes others to wonder why a person, especially a middle-aged woman, would choose to live on a mountain, especially alone. I was once asked during a business interview, by someone who was quite serious, if I saw ghosts on these old logging trails. Unsure how to answer—was she measuring my sanity or hoping I’d agree with her own spiritual beliefs—I responded, “No, but sometimes I wish I did.” As I plow the logging trail, I don’t think about ghosts, but I do think about the loggers and their horses and mules who once traveled these trails, the dead buried in the gravesite in the valley, and in all the other unmarked gravesites on the mountain. As the years pass, I think about my own death as well, and I’ve left formal instructions in my will to scatter my cremated ashes on the mountain. In that way, my unmarked, obscure life will join the others that have passed along these trails.

When I first moved to the mountain while still in my 20s, I developed a habit of treating the inside doors of my kitchen cabinets and pantry like a corkboard. One of the items taped inside the cabinet with mismatched dishes is a quote from the Mary Oliver poem, “I Have Decided”: “I have decided to find myself a home in the mountains, somewhere high up where one learns to live peacefully in the cold and the silence. It’s said that in such a place certain revelations may be discovered. That what the spirit reaches for may be eventually felt, if not exactly understood. Slowly, no doubt.” Next year I will have lived on the mountain 30 years. In all these years, the mountain is still revealing itself to me, one trail, one storm, one grave at a time.

© 2021 Susanne Sener, All Rights Reserved


Susanne Sener has lived alone at the top of a mountain since 1992. She’s trekked in or around the Rocky Mountains, Andes Mountains, Himalayan Mountains, European Alps, and the Brooks Range (Alaska). She completed the Everest Base Camp trek in 2012 and the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru in 2013.  Susanne is the copy editor for The Writer’s Republik.

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