I spent the first 9 years of my life in a little city called Ashtabula, Ohio. My family and I lived in an old Colonial house with a big backyard on McCreery Avenue. We often walked over to main street to buy a dozen donuts from the Swedish Pastry Shoppe or colorful candy from the corner convenience store.
Our sidewalks were crooked where the tree roots had pushed up the cement slabs. We walked to school. We wore polyester. We packed our lunches. We led an idyllic 1970’s life. We scrambled for change when we heard the ice cream truck coming our way. Everyone knew each other on our block.
Every Sunday, my mom would gather her three children into the car and drive us to the country to visit our grandparents’ farm. We always drove the same route; over the rickety bridge above the railroad tracks and plunging down into the magical world of “The Gulf”.
The Ashtabula Gulf is a deep, tree covered river gorge that was made into a state park. It covers 369 acres of forest, hiking trails, footbridges, waterfalls and wetlands. Lots of places for wildlife, camping, fishing and the reason we went there: SWIMMING! The water was clear and golden because the bottom was made of shale, smooth as silk. The road that goes through and past the gulf is a scary series of steep and twisting hills.
At the top of this beautiful fairy wonderland, there was a cemetery. It was only visible if you turned your head to the left just before you descended into the Gulf. After that, it was the dark, mysterious forest and that scary, twisting road.
For years, I thought about that cemetery. How does one get there? Where is the entrance? It looked very old and full of secrets. I wanted to go there, but my mother would think it a silly idea. “We don’t know anyone buried there”. I still thought about it. Maybe someday, I would be buried there. Then, I could look down at all the cars going into the Gulf from my lovely secret garden.
It took me fifty years to get there, but visit that cemetery I did! The Hermit and I drove around a bit to find the entrance and, to my delight, the road goes all the way to the top. Its name is Chestnut Grove Cemetery and the beauty of the place did not disappoint.
It was old and full of secrets, just as I had suspected. Glorious trees all around us and the gulf and river below us, it was just the sort of place to rest one’s bones. It was peaceful and shady and green. I felt as if I had discovered paradise! Every turn was a new surprise. A gothic mausoleum with the name of Collins (I wonder if Barnabas Collins is in there! ) cast a pretty shadow.
This is the place where they built a monument for the Ashtabula Railroad Disaster of 1876. The bridge failed just as the train was passing over and all but the lead locomotive plunged into the gulf and the Ashtabula river below. Then, stoves and lamps set the wooden cars ablaze, so many who survived the crash ended up burning to death. Ninety two people died. It was the worst rail accident in the U.S. in the 19th century.
All morning I felt as if I was under a magic spell. This place, so special to me in my fantasy world as a child, was still here. Gently changing with the seasons and the years, but unchanged in its quiet solitude. Chestnut Grove remains. Always here, as long as the Gulf remains wild and alive, fed by the river that flows through it, like a secret garden belonging only to me.