Cowboy Graveyard

There once was a time when I lived on a mountain.  I rode along its flanks, I partied sinfully at its feet, and I nearly lost the plot in its shadow and stayed forever. I didn’t, because one spring day I fell off the mountain and broke myself. It wasn’t long after that that I had to pick up the pieces of me and move on. Now I live half a world away and treasure those times when I get to come back and visit.

01 a three sistersIn the mountains I try to breathe for the whole year, filling my lungs with air for what feels like the first time in months. I cough out the dusty corners of city air that linger, and try to make a new reservoir of fresh mountain air to last the rest of the year.

This year I drove up with my mom and we spent a sunny spring day  wandering around Banff. I love Banff, so little seems to change over the years. This is partially because of the spirit of conservation that is the backbone of the parks system, but also because every year a new crop of young people go up there to take on the mountain, and drink and party and have lots of sex. Every year brings new kids, but they are all looking for the same thing: pleasure, mountains, drugs, hiking, finding yourself, wearing a pair of filthy snowpants as pants for a whole winter and feeling pretty darn cool about it.

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Even the things you think will change stay the same. Remember how the parks closed the Cave and Basin interpretive center for two years and we all thought it would be completely different? Now it’s finally open and it’s exactly the same. I mean, they  removed the goofy mannequins of those three railway guys hanging from the roof of the cave, and there’s a new gift shop, but otherwise, the same. The Cave and Basin is the historical site where the Banff Hot Springs poke out of the ground and hot, smelly water creates a strange habitat for a tiny endangered snail. An animal that apparently thrives in hot sulfur water and has nearly been wiped off the earth by careless bathers seeking miracle elixirs.

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After exploring the area to our satisfaction, and somehow overcoming the instinct to put our hands in the warm water – a thing one is no longer allowed to do because of the snail – we drove down to the Old Banff Cemetery.

You may notice from my last post that I have a bit of a morbid bent, but that’s not why I love visiting old graveyards. For one thing I have never really been afraid of cemeteries. Where my family is from in Germany, graves are visited often, beautiful gardens  are regularly tended on the plots, and fresh flowers are frequently replaced. On Christmas Eve folks from the village head to the cemetery after church, to light lanterns or set up small trees with lights on loved-ones graves, making departed family a part of the Christmas celebrations.

Unlike here, plots are usually only kept for a period of about 25 years, after which, unless the family decides to purchase the plot for longer, the gravestone is removed and the space can be used again. You won’t always find old graveyards like we have in Canada, where space is more abundant. You might forgive me my fascination then, with the large old rambling cemeteries in Canada. Where else is our history written upon the soil so intimately and yet so opaquely? Where else can you puzzle at the stories behind the names and dates you can just barely read on the crumbling stone?

During that last spring of my residence in the Rocky Mountains I had once spent a delightful afternoon rambling around the Old Banff Cemetery on crutches, charmed to recognize names of mountaineers and explorers that I had seen written across mountain ranges and as the names of certain Lake Louise restaurants where I had gone on dates.

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In  the Old Banff Cemetery, where they have not been eroded from the gravestones, you can read the names of the men who are remembered for the mountains and lakes they “discovered”, you can find the names of men who were lost in the coal mines at Bankhead and Anthracite, and you can find the names and nicknames of women and children who, for one reason or another, traveled hard miles stretching back across the world, to leave their bones in the Rocky Mountains.

Climbing through the Banff Cemetery in my high-heeled rubber boots (it did occur to me that my younger self would have hated my present-day self for wearing such frivolous footwear, but these boots are awesome) my mom and I were drawn to the Bankhead miners memorial. I eventually recognized the name of the ghost town historic site we had visited once, a fun excursion if you have any interest in rambling around the ruins of an old mining town in the valley, rather than dragging your out-of-shape ass up a mountain.

One of the stories that endure about the town of Bankhead is regarding the Banff cemetery. There was originally no cemetery in Bankhead, apparently nobody thought of this eventuality when they constructed the town around the mine. Once they finally did build a cemetery, the townspeople avoided it, as local superstition had it,  bad luck may befall the relatives of the first person buried in a new cemetery. Instead, the town would carry their dead in a rowdy funeral procession all of the five or so miles to the Banff cemetery. After the funeral, the attendants would descend upon the sleepy mountain town, filling up the bars and saloons. Soon Banffites started complaining about the unruly Bankhead visitors, but we’ll never know if the complaints from the locals would have eventually overcome the squeamishness of the superstitious, as the Bankhead mine was shut down soon after and the town was abandoned.

Cemeteries are always quiet and peaceful places, but rarely do you find them so picturesque as in the Rockies. After our trek in Banff, my mom couldn’t resist showing me the pioneer graveyard in Canmore on the way home. By now you should guess that it is a special place when I say that I’ve never seen anything like it. I also can’t help but mention that the view was simply extraordinary.

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Each gravestone was surrounded by its very own faded wooden picket fence. I don’t know why. I can only guess that it might have been intended to keep animals out. And if you follow the logic here, could we further assume that perhaps graves were also more shallow, maybe due to the hard frost in winters?

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It was a stark reminder that life in the Canadian West used to be vastly different. While today the city seems to be largely a haven for pleasure-seekers boasting top-brand outdoor gear, at the turn of the twentieth century Canmore was a mining town, a brief stop on the CP Rail line. This beautiful land was once brutal and unwelcoming. Up in the mountains the winters were long and the land was hard, the work was unforgiving, and the winter clothing sucked. Of the 33 surviving graves in the pioneer cemetery overlooking the Three Sisters Mountains, 19 were graves for children.

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In both the Canmore and the Banff cemeteries, I wondered most about the graves of the young women and children buried over a hundred years ago. I had to marvel at the bravery of these young mothers who came to this hard land to write their futures on these tiny mountain towns. I was especially sad for the families who mourned at these small gravestones, in the most beautiful cemeteries in the world.

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