Anytime my mother and I were driving somewhere and it could have been anywhere, even places we had been before, a roadside historical marker would be the cause of a diversion, “let’s see what it says,” “it could be something important.” Important only for that place in time and these diversions, these roadside markers and historical monuments were the entr’acte for the larger and more important stop on any trip; the undiscovered cemetery.

The hills and plains where I grew up were dotted with small, often abandoned resting places for the hardscrabble homesteaders that fought a valiant fight against nature to make a living from the land.  When you see pictures of the plains interrupted by the Black Hills you think, “an ocean, a plain, how beautiful, how fertile, how amber waves of grain.”  I don’t know why I associate “America the Beautiful” with my mother, but I do and it always makes me think of the photo that you see above, taken when she was just 18 in 1934.  Could she not have been our Lady Liberty, our Marianne?

Of course, the truth is that the land always won.  And hence the numerous unmarked cemeteries that dotted the back roads of western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming.

We would traipse—I use the word traipse because one had to always be conscious of the possibility of rattlesnakes—through the overgrown plots, stopping here, there, to comment on a date, a glass jar turned purple from the sun, dried carnations yellow with age weeping at the gravestone.    Sometimes we would recognize a surname, perhaps that of a school mate’s family or my mother would say, “they lived down the road from the Russell’s (she married to Bill in the 40′s — see above photo from 1949)” or “I wonder if she/he/they are related to the ______’s who homesteaded in Recluse.”

On one of our last journey’s through the Hills, in May of 1971 we went up through old Highway 16 that meanders through the hills—that’s Sundance Mountain in the background—and paused for a photo—she with the cigarette that killed her, a gravestone if ever there was one.

But can you see the beauty here, the grand, eloquent majesty (purple) and the love my mother had for this land?  I, too, take some of that with me wherever I’ve gone.   It’s hard to let go of something so magnificently raw and powerful and when I look back at my life I see these moments just like those historical roadside monuments, markers, and attractions; a place to pull over and pause and think and wonder whatever happened to, what was their life like, what possessed them to try to make a life out of so much and yet so little? [Rhetorical questions were free today, indulge me.]


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© Robert Patrick, and Cultivar, 2008-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, photographs and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Patrick and Cultivar with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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