Walking among the dead

MP entrance

Hard to believe you’re in the middle of a city when you’re all alone on this path.

I didn’t know what to think when I leafed through my urban hiking guide and spotted the 4.5-mile route called “Marshall Park Canyon and Cemeteries Loop.”

I’d never heard of Marshall Park. Walking through multiple cemeteries, let alone one, seemed like an odd wrinkle. But after completing the hike in Southwest Portland in mid-August, I’ve got to say it ranks among the most interesting I’ve done this year.

This particular route, outlined in Laura O. Foster’s “Portland Hill Walks,” has a little of everything going for it:

  • A spectacular urban park with giant trees, shaded paths and pristine creeks tumbling over rocks.
  • Quiet streets off the beaten path in neighborhoods with few sidewalks.
  • Cemeteries offering solitude and a space to reflect on the thousands of lives represented by so many graves.

Since January, this gold mine of a book has led me into neighborhoods I never knew before, enriching my appreciation of a city I thought I knew rather well. My recent hike revealed yet another major gap in my knowledge of Portland.

(Click on images to view captions.)

Let’s start with Marshall Park. It’s east of I-5 and south of SW Terwilliger Boulevard as you head east toward Lewis & Clark Law School and Tryon Creek State Park. More specifically, the park lies just east of SW Taylors Ferry Road in the South Burlingame neighborhood. The western entrance to the park is on SW 18th Place in the middle of a residential area.

From the moment I left the parking area and stepped onto the trail, all I could hear was the sound of my own footsteps.

It’s a magnificent space, smaller than but reminiscent of Lower Macleay Park and Balch Creek Canyon. Here in Marshall Park, you have Douglas fir and maple trees, and a tributary of Tryon Creek. There are foot bridges, a children’s play area and trails crisscrossing the park and its 400-foot-wide canyon. It’s hard to believe it was once a quarry.

According to Foster, F.C. and Addie Marshall donated the land to the city in 1951 and additional acreage was later purchased. Good call.

Emerging onto SW Maplecrest Drive, you head east toward Terwilliger Boulevard, crossing at SW 2nd Avenue,  located just west of the law school.

It’s a steep climb into the Collins View neighborhood. Like the homes on Maplecrest, each house up here is decidedly different from the other. No bland sameness at all.

At the top of the hill, turning right onto SW Alice puts you an unpaved stub of a street. And here, to my delight, was the Ahavai Sholom Cemetery, established in 1869. Its name means “lovers of peace.”

It was a toasty afternoon so I made my way to a shaded bench and quietly admired the gumption that Portland’s earliest Jewish immigrants must have had — to settle here, establish businesses and synagogues, raise their families, and acquire a site to bury their loved ones.

One grave marker, with a running water feature, caught my eye with a small plaque bearing these words:

We determine how we are remembered

By the way we live our days.

MP. Ahavai water

A grave marker with a water feature offers a profound thought about our legacies.

I left the cemetery, headed one block north and one block east and found myself at the southern  entrance to Riverview Cemetery. Unlike the modest, crowded Jewish cemetery, this vast, sprawling site offered a park-like setting with rolling green hills of manicured lawns, a huge variety of trees and an eastward-looking view that included a distant Mount Hood.

Except for two bike riders barreling through and the occasional maintenance truck, I was all alone. Hiking through a cemetery on an urban walk might strike some as creepy. But, honestly, it was a calming experience. Surrounded everywhere by silence, I felt respect for the dead and reverence for life.

Where the Jewish cemetery was chock-full of headstones bearing the Star of David, Hebrew characters and names like Kaufman, Sherman and Schwartz, Riverview was filled with names like Smith, Gardner and Stevens.

One particular feature of the cemetery gave me pause. Beneath a massive oak tree there was a section dedicated to babies. Some who died when they were days or weeks old, others a few months, still others the day they were born. Seeing those rows of grave markers set flush with the grass, with dates going back to the ’50s and ’60s, made me keenly aware of the losses endured by so many families. Imagine all those lives cut short and the enduring heartbreak.

In the midst of all this, another thought came to mind: how death truly is the great equalizer. Rich or poor, young or old, accidental death or not, all these people were now in the ground, where status didn’t matter.

***

Winding through the cemetery, I emerged at the northern exit from the cemetery — within shouting distance of three more cemeteries — and crossed SW Taylors Ferry Road into another cluster of homes largely free of sidewalks and, on this hot summer afternoon, people.

The route took me south toward Terwilliger, where I crossed again and found myself in the South Burlingame neighborhood, a more affluent area of single-family homes. Continuing south, I worked my way down to Taylors Ferry Road and then Taylors Ferry Court and SW 12th Avenue, yet another area of the city short on sidewalks but long on character.

Once again, I felt as if I were taking a walk down a country road. Yet, I was very much in the heart of a city of 600,000 residents. SW 12th led me into the eastern entrance to Marshall Park, where I escaped the heat on trails that led me back to my car.

I literally paused in disbelief. Here I was in the middle of a forest less than a mile from the roaring I-5 freeway. How had I not known about Marshall Park? What a jewel on the city’s west side.

***

I’ll end with this quote from the naturalist John Muir, displayed in a poetry post on SW 2nd Avenue. Seems to perfectly capture my experience on this hike.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

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2 thoughts on “Walking among the dead

  1. “I tramped through the country
    To get the feeling
    That I was not a separate thing from the earth.
    I used to lose myself
    By lying with eyes half-open in the woods.
    Sometimes I talked with animals.”
    Edgar Lee Masters,
    Spoon River Anthology

    I well remember walking through these same places, as I often did during one of my daughter’s years at Riverdale High School. I love old cemeteries. Cemeteries are peaceful and calm. One gains perspective and focus. We are reminded to pay attention, seize the day and understand that we are all moving forward through time. If there are wishes unfulfilled, there is no time like the present. Thanks for writing so eloquently about these lovely places, George. I’m always up for a little time travel.

  2. Patricia,
    Even your comments have such a lovely literary quality.
    Thanks for the poem and for sharing your reminiscences.
    As for the post itself, high praise coming from a great writer like yourself.

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