April 29, 2018

On Refusing To Throw In the Towel (Or, The Campo Cemetery Tour I Almost Missed)

The other night, I ordered a cocktail called a "Hope Monkey." The bartender looked at me, smiled, and said, "Terrific drink. Terrible concept."

But he didn't mean the mixological concept behind the drink—he took issue with the name of it.

As he explained it to me, the phrase combined two principles from Buddhism.

The first is that we're all living with a monkey mind. (In traditional cognitive-behavioral therapy, it's usually referred to as the "lizard brain.") Many of our reactions and mental processes are no more sophisticated than those of our primate cousins.

The second is that hope can often be false hope—and, therefore, a waste of time. Perhaps you'd be better off just accepting that you're not getting that job, that guy is never his wife for you, and you couldn't possibly catch that flight no matter how fast you run.

Move on, the theory is, instead of clinging on to the slim chance of something unlikely happening.

Of course, this is completely antithetical to my personal ethos. I have proven to myself time and again that I have to try. I've caught those trains, busses, and planes. I've made it just under the wire. I've won by a nose.

My whole life has been characterized by survival against the odds.

So, I have to pretend impossibilities are possible. I have to act like something's going to happen, even when it seems like it couldn't possibly.

I have a hard time giving up trying the knob on a locked door.

I'm convinced that it'll open eventually.

Such was the case last weekend when I took a trip back to Campo, California to tour a number of private cemeteries with the Mountain Empire Historical Society. It was the perfect excuse to return to the area after 10 years—and although I filled my time with other explorations, it was the "main event" of my weekend trip.

I'd gotten up at 6 a.m. that morning, leaving behind a tipi and a guinea rooster a few miles down Campo Road (a.k.a. CA-94 a.k.a. Old Highway 80) early enough to do some exploring before our 9 a.m. meeting time. I drove as far as Jacumba, took some time to explore—all the while keeping my eye on the clock—and headed back to Campo just as fast as I could, stopping only for a few minutes to get some breakfast at the only truck stop I found open that early.

I arrived eight minutes late, which isn't so terribly unusual for me or anyone else in California who's got to deal with freeway traffic and the multitude of distractions that the landscape and the weather have to offer. I should've been OK, as the plan was to leave promptly at 9:15 a.m. and depart for the first cemetery from there. But upon my arrival, all I saw was an empty parking lot and a locked door. I thought the group must've left without me—must've just left, as I wasn't that late. So, I began trying to track down the event organizers to arrange a meeting spot for me to catch up and join the group somewhere along the way.

I called the museum I was standing outside of and left a message. I left another message on the home answering machine of the historical society president, whose email message to me I'd had a hard time finding in my inbox but finally replied to. With no immediate response and little faith that I would get one, and with the clock ticking away, it occurred to me to read the original flyer for the event a little more carefully—at which point my worst suspicions were confirmed. I'd gone to the wrong meeting spot.

Fortunately, Campo is a pretty small town, so if I went to the right meeting spot, I could possibly spot the caravan of cars somewhere along the way. At least I could position myself somewhat close to where they were supposed to be, which was better than staying in the wrong spot, where no one would come looking for me.

Sure, I considered just bailing on the adventure—despite that being the entire reason that had brought me to the Mountain Empire area—but the little information I had seemed to be enough to do a little detective work while I sat in my car. After all, I knew the names of the cemeteries that had been included in the day's itinerary. But since they're not open to the public, they weren't not listed on current maps and their addresses weren't published anywhere. I don't know how long I'd sat there in my car in the parking lot of the community center, staring down at my phone, when another car pulled up and its window rolled down.

"Did you want to take the cemetery tour?" the woman asked. "Yup," I said, deflated but emphatic. "Do you want to ride with me?" she asked. "Yup," I said, as I began to pull into a spot and gather my things so I could ride shotgun with who turned out to be the wife of the historical society president—who'd come to my rescue!

It turns out that where I'd been sitting in my car was literally just around the corner from the first cemetery stop, and the car caravan had passed me by on its way to the second one. Arvilla—or, Arvy, as she introduced herself—was bringing up the rear as the sweep and apparently was the only one to notice me, the sole orphan straggler. And thanks to her eagle eye, I got scooped up and delivered to the Ortega Cemetery without a hitch.

This medium-sized cemetery dates back to about 1891 and, despite already having about 80 graves, is still an active burial site, located within the boundaries of the former Camp Lockett Army base, across Sheridan Road from the Old Cavalry Stables. Formerly used as a ranch, the U.S. military began using some of the area for the cavalry as far back as 1878—and is perhaps most famous for its history with the "Negro Cavalry" of the post-Civil War era, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers.

But Camp Lockett's more recent history is as a WWII outpost to protect the U.S. border from invaders coming in through Mexico (which never happened and, as far as we know, was never even attempted).

And the Ortega Cemetery is where many of the early pioneers of the area (then known as the "Milquatay Valley") were buried—including members of the Cameron, Adams, and of course Ortega families. The cemetery is perhaps named after Ortega in honor of the former owners of the ranch land that the Army commandeered.

One of the challenges of getting to burial sites like Ortega Cemetery—even if you know where they are (which I did not)—is gaining access through the locked gates of the private cattle ranches where they're located. And then, of course, there are the locked gates of the cemeteries themselves.

Not to mention the cow pastures you have to drive through to get to them.

The next cow pasture brought us to the Milquatay Pioneer Cemetery, also located within the bounds of Old Camp Lockett—though, having started as a family plot in 1868, it predated the military occupation of the land.

It was only active from the late 1860s to the late 1890s—and in the century-plus that followed, it fell into severe disrepair and is only now being fixed up and restored by the Mountain Empire Historical Society.

Known as Campo's "Boot Hill," those buried in Milquatay Cemetery by and large died pretty horrible deaths. After all, back in the late 1880s, nobody really died of old age. Nobody made it that long before they were murdered or otherwise killed in some horrible accident.

In fact, only one person buried at Milquatay seems to have died from an age-related disease—specifically, prostate cancer, though it wasn't the cancer itself that apparently killed him. Some radical treatments by a not-exactly-licensed physician went horribly wrong.

Others died young of unknown causes.

And still others were "killed by Indians"—though back then, the "Indians" took a lot of the blame for a lot of what happened.

Because this cemetery has suffered so much damage and vandalism—including headstones being broken, moved, and stolen—it's hard to know exactly how many people are buried there and where exactly certain individuals are. Ground penetrating radar has been used to identify where there might be unmarked graves (including outside the fence line), but the budget ran out before the historical society could analyze the data. (Fortunately, they've got it when they're ready to look at it.)

Before the death toll could really get to us during our death trek, the area surrounding this cemetery reminded us of how much life there is out there—between the birds chirping in the trees and the newborn calves with their umbilical cords still dangling, just days old. I couldn't believe I almost missed this—this view that so few people get to see, of a town so few people visit (especially from LA).

When Arvy dropped me off back at my car, I couldn't help but exclaim, "Thank you for rescuing me!" and we both thanked our lucky stars that she'd found me and that I hadn't missed out. But, in truth, I had missed out on something—the first graveyard, known as Old Campo Cemetery—so I set out to find it behind the county sheriff's station, just a stone's throw from where I'd been idling in my car, awaiting rescue.

Setting out on my own, again separated from the group, I almost didn't find that one, too—having overshot my target, despite parking on the correct street and knowing where, in general, to look for it. I even knew that it was protected by a partial chainlink fence that had been positioned outside of an old wooden fence—and that turned out to be the dead giveaway (so to speak) when I refused to drive away until I could find my third cemetery of the day, the one that was supposed to be my first.

In the end, it was a little anticlimactic. No markers, no flowers, no stone angels, and no baby cattle. The smallest of the three cemeteries on our tour, its occupants are largely unconfirmed, save for two members of perhaps the most famous pioneers of Campo, the Gaskills.

I didn't realize it at the time, but my cemetery mishaps had brought me full circle, back to the same family whose name adorned the two-story stone structure where I'd thought we were supposed to convene and carpool at 9 a.m. that morning.

My inner monkey delighted in the hope I'd had—or, if "hope" is too strong a word, at least the refusal to surrender to the mistakes I'd made that had thrown me off track.

Because if you spin out off the road, you can get back into gear and back on course. When a late arrival means you can't drive through a locked gate but you can run around it, go ahead and chase that car caravan on foot. And getting your wheels stuck in a sandy parking lot doesn't mean you have to die of exposure in the middle of the desert, even without a cell phone signal and six miles from the main road.

Just keep turning the wheel. It's not always futile.

Related Posts:
Sunset, Sunrise in the Mountain Empire
In Search of the Mother Lode Along the Mother Road

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