Charyl Says


Coal Creek Cemetery

Recently my small brood and I decided to have a local mini-adventure.  There aren’t many truly adventure-worthy (and free) spots in this area of the state–but if one looks hard enough, places can be found; for us that place was Coal Creek Cemetery (AKA Mount Cemetery) a few miles outside of Pana, Illinois.  Only a couple of miles away from my deceased grandfather’s farm in rural Central Illinois, it had been childhood since I had last visited this cemetery.

A short, country drive toward the Rhodes-France Scout Reservation/Camp brought us to this cemetery.  (Click Here for a map.)  Once we arrived at the sign denoting the cemetery’s presence, we parked and began walking.  It was about a mile walk (one-way) on a grassy path between fields on a cool, but clear Fall afternoon.  The path gave way to woods which brought us to the cemetery, neatly tucked into a hidden treeline.  Even though the cemetery was overgrown with dried prairie grass, it was a beautiful place.  Old, discolored stones peeked up from the tufts of grass.  The late afternoon sun filtered through trees that were ablaze with orange and red leaves.  It wasn’t a huge cemetery–but fairly large as old rural cemeteries go.  Situated on a wooded bluff and hidden from the world, it gave off a magical feel.   I’m unsure if there are any paranormal stories associated with this graveyard (other than ones proliferated by nearby Boy Scouts sitting around campfires and teenagers out trying to find a secluded night-time spot)–but I sensed nothing untoward here.  In fact, it felt quite peaceful.   The last burial seems to have taken place in 1914, but most of the stones contain dates from throughout the 1800’s (including some war veterans).

While those buried here all seem to be ordinary folk and the stones are modest, a visit to this cemetery is a good way to get out and do something interesting, connect with the local past, get some exercise, and see some beautiful natural scenery.  Remember to be respectful of those buried here.  For more information about the burials and location visit:

http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=cr&CRid=2160511&CScnty=776&

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If the World Would Pause for Just a Moment…
November 11, 2013, 3:09 pm
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OldPoem

So my mother was cleaning out some of her drawers today and found this small notebook with just one written page.  Judging from my signature on the outside, the patent date on the notebook, and my writing–I wrote this rough draft sometime in the mid-90’s; probably 1994 or 1995 (around 16 years old).  I have notebooks full of my writing and poems in high school (and before) and this poem isn’t exactly prize-worthy (it’s actually kind of embarrassingly bad!)–but this particular poem and finding it after being stored away for so long… it just seem special.  It reads:

If the world would pause for just a moment,
and time would cease to be.
If I could see your face if you had one
I wonder how would your eyes make me feel?
Maybe someday I will see your face
though just through chance we would meet.
But is there such a thing as chance,
or is it all a scheme?
I wonder if I might awake
and realize this all is just a dream?
The world is a sea of heartache
that frankly never bothers me.
What that is, poses a good question.
Yet another earthly mystery.
 

Seems like even back then I knew there was someone special I needed to meet.

 
 
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Nothing But Light

Note: I began writing this piece a few weeks ago. When I got several lines into the story, I started to realize that the subject matter seemed a bit cliche and the dialogue somewhat juvenile.  Normally, at that point I would abandon the project altogether–but something kept me working on it to the point that I finished it, typed and edited it, and arranged it in a public format.  I decided not to pursue normal publication, but felt (for whatever reason) that it still needed to be read… even though it isn’t up to the standards I set for myself and honestly just doesn’t feel “good enough.”  There’s a reason I was pushed to finish it and put it out there; so hopefully whoever needs to see this… will.

P.S.-The photograph at the end of the story was taken by yours truly earlier this year in the woods surrounding Serpent Mound in Ohio.

 
Nothing But Light
by Charyl Miller
 
I drove in a haze, inside and out.  Over the hills, around each bend—methodically.  The car hugged the road as if it were an extension of my body—difficult to discern where flesh ended and the metal and plastic of the car’s mechanics began; melded together in a fusion of steel and numb indifference. I let the road take me where it wanted me to be.
 
Somewhere along the journey I was overtaken by a forest.  Surrounded by trees, even the branches seemed to join together above—blocking out what little light existed that day.  Quite suddenly, something unusual gripped me, erupting from my chest and stealing my breath.  A wall of panic hit me, enveloping me in the wholly unpleasant sensations of suffocation and urgency.  I pulled my car off to the side, grinding to a halt in the weed-strewn gravel that lined the road. 
 
Like shedding my skin, I stepped out of the car onto the buckled pavement.  It was silent… incredibly so; the kind that drowns itself out with the overwhelmingly loud hum of blood rushing in your ears.  No birds, no insects.  I couldn’t remember when I had last witnessed another car passing by mine.  Where was I?  I’d driven on the rural roads outside of my hometown many times before—yet I couldn’t recall ever experiencing this dark passageway before.  The forest seemed endless and strangely cold, though it was the height of summer in the Midwest.
 
For a moment I stood outside of my car—watching and listening—nearly forgetting about the twin feelings of sadness and loneliness that had propelled me to drive vacantly for hours each day.  The creeping feeling that nothing existed Beyond—not God, not an afterlife, not even a soul—began to crush down on my life like an elephant that could no longer be ignored.  The trauma, the ongoing pain, seemed to prove as much.  Nothing in life (or after) was worth it anymore.  I couldn’t explain why I was still alive; why I had allowed myself to live to that point.  Maybe I felt that the more I took to the roads, the more likely statistics would prevail, and do the one thing for me that I somehow was unable to do for myself. 
 
The abrupt call of a single cardinal standing on the roadside within feet of my car startled me into the present.   We stared at one another.  I began to walk slowly toward him, expecting him to take flight and disappear into the treetops.  He did not.  Instead he nonchalantly turned and hopped on his delicate bird feet off the road and toward the woods; stopping only when I stopped and glancing back at me with his black-masked face as if to say, “You coming?”  Intrigued, and with nothing to lose, I pocketed my keys and cell phone and followed him into the woods.
 
I was taken aback to discover a partially-groomed path hidden just beyond the tree-line, barely visible in the all-encompassing darkness of the forest.  Upon turning to look for my new friend, I caught his bright red tail-end out of the corner of my eye as he seemed to silently dissolve into the murkiness.  The promise of what might be at the end of this mysterious path far exceeded my curiosity about the bird, so I stepped onto the walkway, leaving my red companion to his own devices in the woods. 
 
The path consisted of alternating grassy patches, bare spots of forest floor, and moss.  I carefully maneuvered my way over the uneven terrain, fearing the pain of exposure to the elements or eventual starvation if I happened to fall and injure myself.  It would likely be days before anyone noticed my absence—and even longer to actually locate my whereabouts here in this forgotten woodland.  Even with a death-wish, it wasn’t a chance I was willing to take.
 
I walked for about a quarter of a mile when the path abruptly opened up onto a hillside bathed in bright sunlight.  Funny, it had been quite overcast before I had driven into the woods several minutes earlier—but now it was beautiful… and warm.  When my eyes adjusted, I realized I was standing in an old graveyard.  Toppled and broken stones littered the open (but overgrown) field.  I hesitated to walk any farther into the weeds, fearful of what critters may be lurking underneath the tangled mess—but as I scanned the tranquil disarray before me, I noticed my little red friend perched on a leaning tombstone tucked away in the corner across the yard.  I gingerly took some steps forward, pressing into the tall grass.  My fears were realized within moments as a black, sinewy form jolted beneath my feet and quickly wound its way deeper into the tangle.  It seemed every other step I took a snake was laying in wait, just under the grass.  But the cardinal still sat atop the stone—staring at me expectedly—so I cautiously pushed forward. 
 
I got within arm’s length of the bird, my full attention on him.  As I slowly reached out my hand to touch him, he spread his wings and went aloft—a blaze of red disappearing into the deep, blue sky.  For a moment, I stared up in dismay, but as my attention returned to the ground below, I noticed a depression in the grass behind the crumbling tombstone.  Inching my way closer, I could see a mass of black shrouded in weeds.  I balanced with one hand on the stone, and with the other I pushed away as much of the unruly mess as possible. At first I wasn’t sure at what I was looking.  The realization hit me, creating a sickening pit in my stomach; five skeletal fingers covered in patches of leathery, black and weathered skin, rags of ripped and discolored clothing, tufts of golden hair poking up from a broken skull.  It was a body; lifeless and decomposing, that likely had been laying there for days—if not weeks.  Facedown, cradled by the grassy overgrowth, it was impossible to identify who this was at first inspection.  Gender, age, injuries—all concealed by the twin agonies of death and time. 
 
Despite the warm sun, a chill overcame me as I pulled my cell phone from my pocket.   Surprised that I had any cell reception at all, my hands shook as I attempted to dial 911 and describe to the dispatcher what I had found.  I couldn’t explain exactly where I was—only where I thought I might be and the appearance of the terrain around me.  She explained that they might be able to get a general idea where I was based on the pings off nearby cell towers, that it might take awhile to find the location, and requested that I stay put.  I took another look at my surroundings and reluctantly agreed.  After all, it wasn’t as if I had anywhere to be or anyone special to be with.  Placing the still-connected phone on top of the nearest tombstone, I found an old stump within feet of it—short enough to take a seat, tall enough to keep me up over the snake-infested grass.  I sat down and prepared for a long wait, thankful that the body had decomposed enough that it didn’t seem to be giving off much of an odor.
“Hello?” I heard a small voice say from behind me, beyond the tree-line.  Startled at first, I turned to find a young girl emerging from the darkness.  Maybe fifteen, she was quite lanky and had long, blonde hair and striking blue eyes.  She smiled and began to make her way over to me.

“Careful!  Snakes all over in here!”  I cautioned her.  Brushing me off, she continued into the old cemetery

“There’s also a dead body,” I added, almost as an afterthought.  I pointed to the grass next to me.

“This is a cemetery,” she stated.  “There are lots of dead bodies!”

“No,” I said, a bit exasperated.  “A body that isn’t buried; that’s been dumped.”

“Oh,” she responded, looking at the blackened pieces sticking out of the grass in front of her.  I was a bit surprised at her unusually composed reaction, considering the circumstances.

“I called 911 awhile ago.  They’re trying to locate us,” I explained.

“Good,” she replied, climbing up onto one of the more stable gravestones.

“You look a little young to be hanging out in the middle of nowhere by yourself,” I ventured.  “Is there a reason you’re here?  Do you live nearby?”

“Someone dropped me off and left,” she replied.  “I was waiting for you to come by.”

“Well, I can give you a ride home once the police arrive,” I offered.

“Sure,” she replied.

There was silence for a moment as I searched my brain for the appropriate small talk.  She spoke before I could.

“That’s really a shame,” she said, staring at the remains below us.  I nodded my head in reply.

“Where do you think that person is right now?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” I said, hoping she wasn’t about to go down a pointless metaphysical or religious road.

“Her soul… her spirit,” the girl insisted.  I almost rolled my eyes, but thought better of it.  If God was just a comfort for the masses, now was the time—if any—for Him to do His job.

“Where do you think she is?” I asked, wondering why we had both silently agreed that this unidentifiable mass of decaying flesh was female.  Playing with the metal cross pendant that hung from her neck, she thought for a moment, and then smiled.

“I think she’s in another dimension… right here, one on top of this one,” she mused.

“If that’s true, why can’t we see her?” I challenged.

“Each dimension vibrates at a different frequency and is on a different wavelength… like a radio,” she explained.

“Hmm,” I replied, unsure if what she had said had any real scientific validity or was just an attempt to rationalize what couldn’t be rationalized.  “So you don’t think she’s in Heaven?”

“Maybe Heaven isn’t some far off place in the cosmos,” she speculated.  “Maybe it’s right here… it just can’t be seen through the physical eyes of a soul in a body that isn’t vibrating at the right frequency.  I mean, scientists have observed that different kinds of matter vibrate at different rates depending on how solid they are… so it shouldn’t be that hard to believe.”

I stared at her, trying to judge if she was as educated as she seemed; or if she was just spouting off nonsense she’d heard from some pseudo-scientist.

“Heaven or Hell is what you make it… what you create it to be based on your own personality and beliefs,” she added.

“So is there room for a Higher Power in all this?” I ventured.

“How do you think it all got here in the first place?” she asked.

“Yeah… but how do you know He… She… It is still around, caring individually for each of the billions—if not trillions—of us in this universe?”

She thought for a moment.

“Perhaps God isn’t one separate entity, like everyone imagines,” she replied.  “It might be more like an intelligent energy field that permeates us all… everything.”

“And the age-old question… why do bad things happen to good people?” I prodded.

“How would you know what good is without bad?  How would you grow if everything that happened to everyone was good?” she replied.

“Good question,” I said, contemplatively.  I was nowhere near believing in anything supernatural, but the girl’s ideas had given me cause for thought.  I wanted to inquire of her belief in a variety of concepts such as angels, ghosts, demons, Jesus, prophets, religion, soulmates, and on and on—but I could hear sirens approaching.

“They’re here,” I said, jumping off my stump, my mind instantly clearing of any abstract thought.

Soon officers (uniformed and otherwise) began to filter into the open field, slowed only by the tall grass and hidden serpents.

“Over here!” I yelled, waving an arm emphatically.  For a moment there was a sense of confusion until one of the men appeared to catch on, leading the others to us and the remains.  I began to rattle off what had led to my discovery, but the investigators seemed more concerned with the task at hand.

“Maybe we better step back and let them do their job,” my metaphysically-minded young friend suggested.  I reluctantly followed her lead, watching as the group meticulously documented and photographed the body as it lay.

It wasn’t until they began to carefully turn and lift the decaying remains that something seemed not quite right (other than the fact we were in the presence of a body that had possibly been murdered and dumped).  A hint of light from the corpse’s chest caught my eye for a fraction of a second.  There was a glint of something shiny and metal in the sun.  I leaned over and peeked in closer at the remains as they were being zipped into the thick, dark body bag.  It was a necklace.  A cross.  The realization hit me slowly.  I looked up at the girl standing across from me.  She stared back at me expectedly.  My attention focused to the pendant hanging just under her exposed collarbone.  Except for the tangle of rotting flesh and dirt… it was the same cross.  I began to speak, but didn’t know what to say.  She spoke for me.

“It’s me.”

“What?”  I replied, unable to truly process the scene before me.

“The body—it’s me,” she restated.

“Oh, ha ha,” I answered, sarcastically.  “You’re standing here in front of me, solid as anything.”

“So are you.”

“So, what?”  Are you claiming you’re a ghost?”  I responded, a mix of confusion and irritation in my voice.  “Sweetheart, you’re nuts and your joke is in incredibly poor taste.  I’m leaving.  You can grab a ride with the cops.”

With that, I picked up my cell phone, put it in my pocket, and defiantly made my way back across the overgrown graveyard.  The temperature difference between the warm, sunny field and the cool forest gave me pause, but I trudged on until I was halfway down the path; my car coming into sight through the darkened woods.

I had every intention of getting into my car, speeding off, and somehow finding my way out of this godforsaken forest.  I just wanted to go home and shake off this odd and nightmarish day; but then behind me I heard one of the investigators yell out, “We’ve got another one here!”

I stopped in my tracks.  Something made me turn and retrace my steps.  I reached the blinding sunlight of the cemetery and watched at the tree-line for a moment.  Indeed, they were clearing the weeds away from what appeared to be a second body.  I inched back into the open field, cautious of the hissing chorus.  The young woman was nowhere to be found.

My heart sank as I watched the crew circle the second corpse, documenting it as meticulously as they had the first.  Others began fanning out into the grass, searching for more victims.  A call for a lawn mower was placed via police radio.

As they manipulated the second, half-skeletal body into the bag just feet away from me, I heard a slight jingling noise and a barely-perceptible thud, as if something had hit the ground.  I watched as an officer carefully picked it up off the ground with gloved fingertips.  It was a small, thin black object.  Even with the weathering it had endured, I could identify it immediately.  It was a cell phone.  He reached over one more time and picked up a second object—a dirty set of keys.  This might not have been an unusual find on a dumped corpse, except dangling from that set of keys was a very peculiar keychain… a string of colorful wooden beads.  It had been made and given to me by a co-worker’s child a couple of years ago.  She claimed it was a one-of-kind creation.  My fingers had rubbed along those vibrant beads a thousand times over the months during moments of anxiety and contemplation.  I knew it well.

I patted my side.  My keys and phone were right there in my pocket; yet somehow also in the officer’s hands just feet in front of me.  I didn’t know what to say.  This had to have been some odd cosmic coincidence.

“It’s you.  You know that, don’t you?” came a voice from behind me.  I turned.  There she was—the girl wearing the cross.

“This has got to be a joke,” I said, exasperated.

“Well, if so, it’s an awfully extensive one… not to mention morbid; and for what reason?” she asked.

I drew a blank.

The investigators continued to work as the others started the clumsy job of heading across the field with the two body bags.  Brushing her off, I turned and followed them.  It occurred to me that none of them had acknowledged my presence—or that of the young woman’s; though it was obvious (at least to anyone who could see us) we were the ones who had discovered the remains and thereby essential to the investigation.

“Hey!” I shouted out to them.  No response.  “Hey!”  Not so much as a glance as they continued trying to maneuver the body bags around the old gravestones and through the tall grass, occasionally tripping over a startled snake.  I watched them disappear past the tree-line and into the dark wood.  The girl walked up behind me.

“Do you believe me now?” she asked, quietly.

“No.  No, I don’t believe it.  I can’t.  There has to be some other explanation.  Maybe I’m dreaming,” I insisted.

“In a manner of speaking, you are,” she said. “Only it’s taking place outside your head… not inside.”

“But how?  How could I have driven here in my car, used my cell phone, have my keys in my pocket—or for that matter have clothes on at all?” I demanded.  “How is it that you have a necklace on that’s actually with your dead body?  I just saw my car still parked on the side of the road a few minutes ago.  How could it be there?  How can I touch this?  Speak?  Hear?” I asked, putting my hand on a nearby gravestone, feeling its cool, rough exterior.  I looked her directly in the eyes.

“How can I see you… or you see me… if neither of us have a body with eyes?  How is any of this possible if we’re nothing but blobs of energy floating around in the physical world now?” I ranted, tears of confusion and trepidation welling up in my eyes as my companion stood in place—watching and listening.

“Even in life we make up our world as we go along.  We see what we want to see and create what we need to—unconsciously—never questioning why.  More so in death—especially in the in-between dimensions, where you’re not quite here and you’re not quite there.  It’s almost as if you exist in a dream world—malleable and indistinct.    The challenge is either walking up and learning to control it, or moving on to the next.  You felt you should have been alive in the physical world—and you were—or so it seemed.  You created the illusion of having a physical body and all its accoutrements and abilities.  But in this world—except under certain circumstances or with certain individuals—no one would have been able to see you, your car, your clothes, or anything else you created.  Perhaps they would have been able to sense your energy field and emotional state—but that would have been the extent.”

“In reality you were murdered and then dumped here in this graveyard several weeks ago—as was I.  You’ve been drifting in and out of time and space, driving endlessly.  Your beliefs kept you from acknowledging the truth.  I, on the other hand, have been waiting here for you; waiting for a disruption in the cycle to draw you to me so we could both move on together,” she calmly explained.

“But if this true, how was I able to call 911, talk to the dispatcher, and report the bodies?” I questioned, my head over-flowing with thought.

“It’s fairly easy for those in-between to alter electrical and other fields invisible to those existing on the physical plane.  You unwittingly manipulated those fields in order to place a call and speak to the person on the other end,” she replied.  A mischievous smile crossed her face as she continued, “I’m sure that department is going to have a story to tell for years to come about how they received a 911 call from a dead person that led them to the body… and from that person’s own phone no less!”

“So… what do we do now?” I asked, ignoring her attempt to humor me.  “How do we move on?  Should we move on?  There’s a murderer out there.  He took our lives.  Shouldn’t we stay and try to help find him—to protect others and get justice for what was taken from us?”

“No,” she replied, emphatically.  “You called the investigators here.  That’s enough.  We’ve done all we can do in a place we no longer belong.  Let the living take care of the living, and the dead take care of the dead.”

At that moment a red flash streaked by me, landing in front of us on the path at the tree-line.  As before, the bird looked at us expectedly.

“Maybe we should follow him,” she suggested.  And so we did.

The cardinal took flight the moment we passed into the forest.  We watched him soar down the path, just a few feet above the ground—before disappearing into the shadows.  The second we lost sight of him, a point of light appeared in the distance—like a single, lonely star shining in the cold darkness of the space.  Suddenly it exploded, showering the entire forest in a blanket of bright, white light.  The trees disappeared—as did the road, my car, and the emergency vehicles.  There was nothing but a vast, bright field before us.

And then, we were nothing but Light.

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Nearly 150 Years Later: a Photo Comparison
September 27, 2013, 6:29 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

During research for my last post on Lincoln’s Tomb (https://charylmiller.wordpress.com/2013/09/24/a-visit-to-the-lincoln-tomb/), I came across a Library of Congress image originally published in an 1865 issue of Harper’s Weekly.  I decided to make a second trip to the tomb and take a photo from the same spot.

I present to you Abraham Lincoln’s original burial vault in Oak Ridge Cemetery in 1865 (top)… and almost 150 years later (bottom, the final monument where his body is now is at the top of the hill, obscured by trees):

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A Visit to the Lincoln Tomb

Even at nine in the morning the warm air bore down on me as I walked across the sun-baked cemetery lawn early in September.  Personal business had brought me to Springfield Illinois on a daily basis for several weeks, and always up for an historical jaunt (especially one involving the Civil War era), I decided to set aside some time to visit the tomb of Abraham Lincoln and family.  It’d been years since I’d last visited the site; just a child at the time.

The mugginess of the day combined with the weekday morning hour made Oak Ridge Cemetery a solitary place.  Save for a couple of elderly tourists, the occasional maintenance crewman, the insects chirping in the trees, and the thousands of silent dead—I had the place to myself.  Odd to wander through this city of the dead, surrounded by a bustling living city just outside the gates where at one time most of these people had walked in a different era; but then that’s a large part of what makes the cemetery such a magical place.

The enormous stone monument situated on a hill and adorned by a soaring obelisk and several Civil War-related statues, towered over the sea of gravestones below.  A large bronze bust of Lincoln sat on a pedestal, guarding the entrance to the fort-like tomb—it’s nose bright and shiny from the millions who have rubbed it for luck over the years.  I was no different.  Not that Lincoln had had a lucky fate as it were—but if there was any supernatural favor to be derived from the likeness of such an historical giant, who was I to shun it?

I approached the main entrance to the granite tomb.  Standing before the locked thick, metal door, I placed my hand on its surface—mentally projecting myself through the dark interior corridors where Abraham, Mary, and three of their sons lay in final repose.  The energy that returned to me through my palm, down my arm, ensconcing my shoulder blades—was one I had seldom experienced.  It wasn’t that of death, sadness, or loss—but of a solemn reverence of touching on something much deeper than myself and the small time frame in which my life currently inhabits.

I slowly walked around the curves of the monument, gently touching the rough surface—until I came to the back of the tomb.  Iron gates displaying the wreath-enclosed Lincoln surname protected a lovely stained glass inner window on the back wall, behind which the remains of one of the greatest men in history lay only feet before me.  For a few surreal moments the realization that it was just Lincoln and I there together in the quiet cemetery morning hit me.  The sun had just reached the treetops, throwing dusty beams of light across the manicured lawn.  There was nothing to say, nothing to do, but stand there and feel—take it all in.

Lincoln’s spirit has been seen many times over the centuries in a variety of places (including his tomb).  I don’t doubt this.   Factoring out deception and imagination, some sightings may simply be residuals (energy patterns imprinted on time, playing themselves out over and over); others may be the actual intelligent spirit of President Lincoln, occasionally checking up on what he cared about the most in life.  But I think there are moments where we, as ordinary people, can reach out and tune into those from history who inspire us and draw them to us—even for just a moment—no matter their location in this world (or the next).  While usually private about his beliefs, evidence has been found that Abraham Lincoln was a man of spiritual (and possibly mystical) constitution.  I am certain this concept would have agreed with him—and indeed he may have experienced supernatural and inspirational connection with those who had gone before him when staring down the troubles and extraordinarily major decisions that marked his mission while on this earth.

After a few minutes I turned and walked down a flight of stairs to the to the base of the hill wherein sat the the temporary receiving vaults used to hold Lincoln’s body during construction of the permanent tomb.  In actuality, his body was moved several times over the years (even nearly kidnapped) before it was finally laid to rest in 1874.  The receiving vault was nothing but a small, plain mausoleum built into the hillside—gates protecting the rows of individual crypts, which were covered in rust and a mildewy-green substance.  The floor was littered with decades’ worth of pennies thrown in by the many visitors paying their respects. Standing before the gates, I pondered the amount of people since Lincoln’s death in 1865 that stood in that very spot weeping, praying, and contemplating.

As I left the cemetery that morning, I felt that I had experienced something significant (as likely many others had before me); something I’ll carry with me the rest of my life.

*It should be noted that Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield Illinois (where the Lincoln Tomb is located) is a large cemetery of tree-lined rolling hills and winding pathways.  There are many lesser-known historical figures buried within its gates, each with a roadside marker; and there are some impressive war memorials at this location.  A small informational center stands next to the Tomb (which happened to be closed during my visit) as well. It’s worth taking another hour or two to explore the rest of what this historic burial ground has to offer.

For more information:

http://www.illinoishistory.gov/hs/lincoln_tomb.htm

http://www.oakridgecemetery.org/tour.html

Springfield is full of historic sites mostly centering around Abraham Lincoln.  For more information on those visit:

http://www.visit-springfieldillinois.com/Things-To-Do/Attractions/Historic-Sites.aspx

LincolnTombLincolnStatuesLincolnGates

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The Joy of Cemeteries: visiting the Graves of Annie Oakley, Edgar Lee Masters, and Ann Rutledge

There’s something profound about visiting the grave of a legend–no matter what kind of legend he or she may be.  It’s incredible to consider that the remains of what used to be his or her body–the flesh and blood body that breathed life into and lived through what inspired historic events–lies just below your feet.  Those closest to that individual (and the many others who came after) stood where you stand; touching the stone that you touch.  Recently I made two such trips–one to the gravesite of Annie Oakley (“Little Sureshot”) and the other to the final resting place of Ann Rutledge (said to be Abraham Lincoln’s first sweetheart).

Phoebe Moses–or Annie Oakley, as she was known to the public– is buried in a small, country graveyard called Brock Cemetery just north of Greenville Ohio–the area where she lived much of her life.  Born in 1860, she died in 1926 of complications from anemia.  (Note: If you are unfamiliar with Annie’s notoriety, visit this link: http://www.annieoakleyfoundation.org/life.html )

AnnieOakleyGrave

It was a beautiful May afternoon when I pulled into the cemetery and parked alongside her gravestone, flanked by a State of Ohio historical marker.  Surrounded by fields dotted by the occasional farmhouse and patch of woods, the brilliant blue of the sky gave way to the greens and browns of the earth below.  I stood alone in the graveyard taking in the scenery, watching the leaves and grass sway gently in the breeze.  Closing my eyes for  a moment, I listened to the birds and breathed in the heady air.  In its simplicity it was as beautiful of a resting place (if not more) as any dark and extravagant mausoleum.

Approaching her gravestone, I slowly placed my hand on its rocky, mottled surface.  For a moment, I talked to her out loud–speaking in general pleasantries, introducing myself.  Concentrating a little more deeply I reached back in time, ferreting out Annie’s personality–her soul–feeling it quicken with life inside me.  Suddenly, it was as if that energy–that essence of her spirit–existed outside of myself, standing behind my left shoulder, observing.  The only communication between us was that of emotion; imparting her wisdom and expressing to me more than words could ever say.

After a few minutes, I wished Annie well and calmly (almost begrudgingly)  walked away from her resting place.  Yet she didn’t seem quite ready to let me go, as I felt her following me closely as I browsed her neighbor’s gravestones.  Thankfully,  as I headed back to my car I sensed whatever piece of her that had joined me dissolve back into the web of time and space.  I felt a pang of regret as I pulled away, wishing I had the time to whip out my lawn chair and sit a spell with “Little Sureshot.”  Alas, the day was drawing to a close and loved ones waited for my arrival home–so I tipped my metaphorical hat to Annie and went on my way.

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Not long after my visit with Annie, I decided to look into the gravesite of another historic woman who intrigues me–that of Ann Rutledge, the alleged first real sweetheart of Abraham Lincoln.  (More info about her here: http://www.mrlincolnandfriends.org/inside.asp?pageID=107&subjectID=11).  Some scholars disagree about the seriousness of their relationship and how much truth there is to the story.  A few things are certain: She lived in New Salem Illinois the same time Lincoln did, she was the daughter of a prominent inn-keeper in the town, the locals claim to have frequently seen them together, and Lincoln fell into a deep depression when she died (possibly of typhoid) in 1835 at the age of 22.  A reaction like that doesn’t happen with just any fellow townsperson.  I like to imagine that the grief caused by her death, helped propel him to change his life–spurring him on to Springfield and Vandalia as a lawyer/politician and eventually onto the presidency.  Who knows if this is the truth, but it’s certainly an intriguing thought.

After an afternoon of visiting the historic New Salem village, I set out to hunt down Ann’s grave in nearby Petersburg Illinois in the Oakland Cemetery.  Oddly enough, I first ran across the grave of poet/author, Edgar Lee Masters (http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/masters/life.htm)–who I soon realized had written the epitaph on Ann’s stone.

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After paying my respects to Edgar, I discovered Ann’s grave only a few feet away, right on the corner. A large, chiseled  stone surrounded by an old metal enclosure bore Edgar’s words:

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A much smaller and older stone–barely more than a smooth river rock–had been placed inside the enclosure.  Assuming it to be her original grave marker, I ran my fingertips over the engraved name and dates–picturing generations of others (perhaps even Lincoln) doing the same.  A stranger had placed a bouquet of flowers on her grave.

AnnRutledgeStone

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I decided to walk for a bit and explore some nearby markers.  The cemetery was of a moderate size, with new and older stones.  Rolling hills were dotted with towering oaks (the largest of which had been named in Ann’s honor) that nicely shaded the grassy burial grounds. For whatever reason I kept being pulled back to the peacefulness of Ann’s resting place.  I took in the beauty for a moment more then returned to my car to briefly sit and rest.  I closed my eyes and listened to the insects chirping in the trees and the leaves rustling all around me.  The sound of tractor hummed in a distant field.  A gentle breeze moved the warm summer air.

I lost myself as (eyes still closed) I daydreamed back in time–picturing Ann’s family dressed in black mourning attire and gathered around her stone.  I pictured a young and tousled Abraham Lincoln weeping over her buried remains–his energy becoming one with the very grass, trees, and air around him.  I saw him bent over, kneeling.  I heard his voice lilting, alone–speaking to her in an urgent and mournful tone.

Opening my eyes I was back in present day, sitting in my car.  I reached down to pick up my camera phone to take a picture of the site before heading home.  To my shock, in that few moments of meditation, my phone had gone from 80% charged to 0, and had completely turned itself off–something that this particular phone has never done before.  Battery drainage is typical of paranormal phenomena and investigation.  It made me wonder if I had unwittingly drained my own battery, using its energy to mentally (or perhaps astrally) transcend time; or if I had been joined by another soul using that energy in an attempt to manifest.  Maybe it was just a coincidence.  In any case, it struck me as odd.

It occurred to me that somewhere in my research I had read that Ann’s body had been exhumed from her original resting place and re-interred in this cemetery decades ago.  A quick search revealed her original grave to be in a small, old cemetery called Old Concord burial grounds outside of town in the middle of farmland.  I felt drawn to the area–feeling strongly I needed to explore it and wanting so badly to soak up the residual energy that may still exist on a spot where Lincoln wept over the grave of his beloved (that is, before Mary came along).

I located it on my GPS and headed out, only to find myself parked in the drive of a farmhouse where no one seemed to be home and two large dogs barked at me from the yard.  I looked out over the fields marked off with fences, where in the distance I could see a patch of land that clearly indicated an old cemetery.  One could almost see a young Lincoln standing tall on that hillside–but unless I was willing to trespass on this farmer’s land–navigating the rough field, climbing the fences, while being mauled by a couple of dogs–it didn’t look as if I’d be having my sought-after experience anytime soon.  Like so many other things in my life… it was within sight, but just out of reach.

OldCemetery

Some scouting along an old road called the Lincoln Trail revealed that a long, overgrown grassy swath between the fields might have provided a back way into the cemetery.  Unfortunately being alone, without the proper attire, and knowing the day was coming to an end soon (especially since I was over an hour’s drive away from where I was staying in Illinois at the time)–I thought it best to not attempt the trek until conditions were more favorable, I had more time, and a possible partner could be rounded up to accompany me.  You can be sure that once I experience it, I will post an update.

Regardless of my ability to see everything that I set out to on my daytrip, I left the Petersburg area that day with a sense that I had indeed touched the past–and that another adventure awaited me in the near future.  A good day, by any means.

And now you know one of the (many) reasons why I enjoy visiting cemeteries, burial grounds, and historic sites.  Far from being morbid places of death, sadness, and monotony (that is, if you can get over the fact that there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of skeletons and decaying corpses mere feet below you)–cemeteries are alive with energy, history, beauty, and adventure, free for anyone to experience…  if only you’re willing to look just a little deeper!

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Inspiration from the “Grand, Gloomy, and Peculiar”: the Story of Stephen Bishop
In keeping with the spirit of adventure, I recently decided to drive a few hours south to spend the day at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky–the largest cave system in the world.   I have a great fondness for caves; it’s hard to say why. There’s something magical about the quiet, dark underground.  The cool air mixed with the scent of the musty deep earth brings a sense of grounding and peace.   I know I’m not the only one.  As mankind has been drawn to them for ages, each cave invariably holds its own history (both geologic and human)–preserved deep below the surface.  This gives caves a fascination unique to anything else in our world.
 
Mammoth Cave does not disappoint in any of these aspects.  It offers inexpensive exploration and adventure for all levels of cave and geology buffs, history lovers, and nature enthusiasts.  The caves are breath-taking and the guides rustically charming.  But it was the unexpected inspiration I gained from the depths of that “grand, gloomy, and peculiar” place that truly surprised me. 
 
Gathering us in a large chamber deep below the surface, our tour guide recalled the story of a man named Stephen Bishop.  In 1838, Stephen was a 17-year-old slave bought by the cave’s owners to serve as a guide, giving tours of the passages to the adventurous elite.  Imagine for a moment, being a young man (born into slavery) and being taken from your family and everything familiar to a place in the woods where your masters have told you that you must go far into the dark earth with nothing but the light of a tiny oil lantern; spending all day, everyday leading strangers through the winding passages of a cave without the benefit of pay.   For the most part, the passages in Mammoth Cave are not easy walk-throughs (even with today’s modern pathways and staircases).  Boulders litter the paths, odd critters hide in nooks, pools of water and deep pits are strewn here and there, large passages turn into tight squeezes in which one must crawl, duck, climb, and maneuver. In Stephen’s day, going through this largely-unexplored cave must have been even more dangerous and intimidating.  It would be very easy for one to get lost or injured in the complete darkness and isolation–never to return to the surface (and in fact, some have–dating all the way back to the prehistoric Native Americans in the area).
 
Not only did Stephen lead the tours through the risky environment of the known pathways, he is credited with discovering and mapping several miles of unexplored areas in the cave (including a dizzying landmark called “The Bottomless Pit”–which the modern day caving enthusiast can see on today’s tours).  He came to love the cave–considering it his personal domain; and preferred exploration in the underworld, than the unfair treatment he received in society above-ground as a slave. 
 
In and of itself, his story to that point is amazing; but what he continued to do is what stirs the deep wellspring of inspiration.  As a slave, Stephen was not paid for his services; however he was allowed to keep tips from the sympathetic tourists he guided.  He also noticed that people enjoyed leaving their mark on the cave by writing their names, dates, and hometowns on the rocky, limestone walls.  Stephen decided to sell implements to his guests so that they could write, carve, or burn their information and leave their mark on history.  Those writings are preserved inside the cave and can still be seen today.  Over the years, Stephen taught himself to read and write from the markings the tourists left behind; astonishingly he learned to become literate not only in English, but a few other languages as well, as many of his charges were scientists and explorers from other lands.  Eventually Stephen saved up enough money from his tours that he was able to buy his freedom (and that of his family’s), and buy several acres of farmland.
 
While Stephen never became a wealthy man, I find his story to be greatly inspiring.  Here was a man in the lowliest of status and circumstance.  He was forced into what, at first, seemed to be a frightening, difficult, and dangerous position.  Yet over the years he not only found passion in it–but it became his best (and maybe only) way possible to gain some education, contribute to history (via his discoveries underground), and be put in a position where he and his family could eventually be free to live their own lives. 
 
It is a story that reminds me that while at times it may seem life and God have closed all doors, leaving one in what seems like an impossibly bad situation–an opening can still be found in the most unlikeliest of circumstances; and what sometimes at first appears to be a horrible turn of events pulling a person off their path, may actually be what leads them to a greater destiny.
 
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More information: 
 
–While Wikipedia is not normally considered to be a definitive source, I found this entry to be very straightforward and educational: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Bishop_%28cave_explorer%29
–There were  other slaves and African Americans that worked in the cave as well (including those that ran the saltpeter mining to supply ammunition for the War of 1812): http://www.nps.gov/maca/historyculture/black-history.htm
–Stephen Bishop’s Grave: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=10041751
–General information on Mammoth Cave National Park: http://www.nps.gov/maca/index.htm
 
 

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