The ride didn’t mark the first time I had slept in a graveyard, though it did for Gizmo. I have mentioned that I did a lot of hitchhiking and riding freight trains during my youth. That activity continued almost up until the time of the ride. And during those times, graveyards were my friends. The first of the many cemeteries I spent the night in was outside of Salinas, California, while I was thumbing my way back to Los Angeles from San Francisco in 1967. I was stranded at a place called Spreckles. In those days, Salinas was still a wild cow town, and Spreckles wasn’t even on the map. As was often the case when hitchhiking in a remote place, you could easily be stuck in one spot for hours—oftentimes for an entire day or more—while you waited for a benevolent soul to stop and pick you up.
I found myself alone on Highway 101 with the sun having set over the Monterey Penninsula to the west. In most cases, I would try to find a drainage culvert to squeeze into or a bridge to crawl under, so I could sleep the night there, near the road. They were easy to find along major highways, but the small two lane road that was Highway 101 back then didn’t provide anything for me on that particular night. So as darkness settled, I picked up my grip and my guitar and made my way along a dirt road, away from the two lane. I knew that if I didn’t find a place to hide, I would likely wind up in the local jailhouse as I had on previous occasions. The two most popular offenses used by police back then to put away hardened criminals like me were vagrancy and loitering, both of which I was, technically speaking, guilty of.
After I had covered a short distance, it occurred to me that I was walking through a cemetery because I stumbled over a bulge in the ground that turned out to be a grave. I could barely see the headstone, which lay flat on the ground at one end. Not one to let that stop me, I wandered between the graves until I saw a massive oak tree nestled within some large bushes, and figured it could hide me for the night. I wasn’t sure how exposed I might be the next morning when the sun came up, but as it turned out, I spent a restful and uneventful night there and was able to flag down a semi truck on the two lane early the next morning. I filed the idea of “graveyards as sleeping quarters” away for future reference.
The first time Gizmo spent the night in a graveyard was when we were in northeastern New Mexico, out in the badlands east of Las Vegas and almost to the Texas panhandle. We were crossing open range, along the headwaters of the Canadian River, following a line on my topographic map that indicated an old wagon road, but which was nothing more than faint wagon wheel ruts that appeared at intervals, left over from the days of the great trail drives. The so-called road wound around the north side of a small mesa, often coming to an abrupt ending when it would disappear into a canyon or a washout. It was slow and tedious going, and we had to backtrack frequently, sometimes for several miles. Toward the end of the day, we came to an old settlement, or what was left of it.
I was surprised that it wasn’t on the topo map, though it did show a well nearby. There were four buildings still standing. The settlement consisted of two houses, a large barn, and another small outbuilding that looked to have served as a corn shed or workshop. Corrals were set up next to the barn, with one still mostly intact, so I dismounted and turned Gizmo out into it while I scouted around.
“Hello, is anybody here?” I called. I shouted several times but received no reply, nor did I expect one. There were no tracks—animal, human, or vehicle—anywhere to be seen. There had been no one there for a very long time.
I unlatched the barn door and dragged it open far enough to squeeze through. It took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the faint light that came through the slits between the weathered siding. The light shone in strips along the dirt floor and onto the walls. There were a few items hanging on the barn walls—an old harness, a couple of sets of collars and hames for horses or mules, a length of log chain, sets of singletrees and doubletrees, and an old tarp—along with various items that were scattered about: some buckets, a pickaxe, a horse-drawn plow blade, and various implements and tools.
Three horse-drawn vehicles were parked inside. Directly in front of me was a typical farm dray used for carrying heavy loads. Next to it sat a buckboard, or what might pass for a buckboard. It was actually a light carriage that had been modified by removing the original body and replacing it with a flat bed and a single spring seat and footrest.
The one last really caught my eye. It was a beautiful enclosed carriage that was hanging from the rafters and tied there with four lengths of old manila rope. I found out after the ride that this carriage was a Clarence. It was black (as most carriages from the late nineteenth century were), and its graceful driver’s seat sat perched atop the front axle and two undercut front wheels. The seat gave way to an enclosed cab that held four people (six if they were small). The windows were still intact, with curved glass panes that created the refined front end. The wheels looked to be in very good condition, if a bit dried out from the northern New Mexico weather. A set of black shafts and singletrees that matched the vehicle were hanging on the barn wall behind it. It was an elegant vehicle and seemed out of place in this remote spot.
I exited the barn, making sure to latch the door securely, and made my way to the first of the two houses. The old building had taken a beating from the elements, but it was still serving its purpose. I shouted as I approached the house and again received no answer. I stepped onto the front porch and turned the door handle. I was amazed, and a bit unnerved, by what I found inside.
The house had two rooms—basically, a living room and a bedroom. There was a kitchen area that had a sink built into the counter, although there was no indoor plumbing. Shelves filled with old cans of food, dishes, stacks of old newspapers, and other odds and ends stood against the wall. The masthead on the newspapers said, “The Santa Rosa News,” and the papers all dated from 1934 and 1935.
The two small beds in the other room were made up, though they had long been home to packrats and other critters. The old quilts that covered them were full of holes and had been stuffed with all manner of paraphernalia that the rats had collected. There were some bits of clothing—a work shirt, a blouse, and a pair of pants—hanging on a hat rack in the corner of the room. A very weathered pair of lace-up work boots rested on the floor beneath them.
I checked the other house and found much the same—a fully furnished home, complete with dishes, clothes, and furniture, with no one living there. They had even left an old treadle sewing machine, with thread still in the needle and extra thread and other sewing notions in its drawer. Cans of food—mostly beans and peas, from what I could read of the bleached labels—were stacked in the cupboards as well.
At first, I had thought this place was a line camp, used by cowboys when gathering cattle. But I had seen no cattle sign for several days, and besides, there were signs of women here—clothes, nice dishes, and sewing items—so I figured it was a settlement and not just a line camp. There was no evidence that anyone had been to this place for a very long time.
The whole place spooked me. The people had up and left without packing anything, without saying goodbye to their own home. I had a very bad feeling about it all, a sense that something terrible was going to happen if we stayed here, and I decided that Gizmo and I wouldn’t stay the night. I had never had a premonition like that before. I had never been frightened that way. I wasn’t a believer in ghosts, and I still don’t believe in them. But there was something about that abandoned settlement that made my hair stand on end, and as I threw my leg over Gizmo, I was glad to be shut of it.
This is supposed to be a story about graveyards, and it turns out that this settlement had its own graveyard, which was located a couple of miles to the east. As we followed the wagon ruts away from the buildings, Gizmo and I came upon it, nestled in the cup of a small confluence where two dry arroyos met. Several large cottonwoods grew, which meant there was water there regularly, so I looked around until I found the spring that fed them. The water formed a small pool, and I found animal tracks all around. It would serve us for the evening, so I made camp away from the water to allow the wildlife to drink.
Three marked graves and what looked like two others that were unmarked lay nearby. The markers, made of wood, were no longer legible. What was left of a small picket fence still formed the line that once enclosed the graves. The fence was strong enough at one of its corners to picket Gizmo, and I decided to sleep there. We spent a quiet and peaceful night under the stars. I felt comfortable there, sleeping with the dead, and I decided that if any troubled ghosts lingered about, they were probably back at the settlement.
Gizmo and I slept in more and more graveyards as we traveled east. There were a couple of reasons for this. One was that we were moving into more populated areas to the east, which meant fewer open areas for Gizmo to graze at night. The other was that, as we traveled east, we encountered more and more news media who interviewed us and spread our story. And as the story spread, it became more difficult for us to find places to be alone. I became more and more protective of my horse as the daily search for water in the desert gave way to a daily search for solitude in civilized areas. So, what better place to hide?
Cemeteries vary in size, shape, location, and condition. Some are huge, with hundreds—maybe thousands—of people spending eternity in them. Others are like the lonely graveyard back on the New Mexico prairie—just a handful of graves surrounded by a picket fence. Some cater to rich people, some to paupers, some to Catholics, Baptists, Jews, Methodists, or what have you. Some have manicured lawns with fancy water fountains and crews of workers tending them, while others are neglected and left to decay in lonesome patches of history, untended and forgotten.
But all graveyards have one thing in common: their residents are the best neighbors you can have when you’re traveling across the country with a horse. They don’t complain if you rest your head against a gravestone. They don’t mind if a horse wanders across their eternal resting place and eats the grass and recycles it on top of them. They don’t make noise, and they don’t mind if you do.
Also, no one comes to visit them at night—ever. In all the nights Gizmo and I spent in graveyards, I always felt at ease, at home, and welcome. I would often turn him loose so he could wander around. He would roll and lie down between the headstones, nibbling on flowers and leaving his hoofprints across the burial places of countless lost souls. I rested with my back against a tombstone, reading aloud or playing my harmonica for the dead. And the truth is, I very much respected those who were interred there. But graveyards service the living, not the dead. And since Gizmo and I were still very much alive, I was glad that we had a sort of carte blanche. Sometimes we find our deliverance in the least likely places.