Spokes and spooks

Jackson Griffith is a one-man peloton, touring the city in search of undiscovered faces, places and their stories.

Let’s start at the end and work backward, OK?

The end, of course, is when we shuffle off this mortal coil, or take that long dirt nap. Death is inevitable. And as an adult, I’m comfortable with that idea; as a child, not so much. Back then, the most tangible reminder of mortality was the local boneyard, or cemetery, whose imposing granite and marble monuments would scare the daylights out of me. I’d imagine what lay beneath: skeletons and decaying bodies encased in crumbling caskets, with Cthulhu only knows what kind of Lovecraftian nightmares slithering among their bones.

Today, a bicycle ride around a Sacramento cemetery is a peaceful proposition. Nearest to where I live is St. Mary’s, just off the 65th Street expressway on 21st Avenue. On the last Saturday afternoon in October, I pedaled around its green expanse, modeled on the memorial-park concept developed by Herbert Eaton at Southern California’s original Forest Lawn in Glendale: grave markers laying flat on the ground, which makes mowing the grass a lot easier.

A few families there encamped among the graves, some with accouterments you might bring for a day at the beach: umbrellas, ice chests, dog-eared novels. Two were finishing the touches on a plot, dressed up for Halloween with plastic jack-o’-lanterns and stuffed scarecrows. And there were a number of other plots decorated in similar fashion dotted around the cemetery.

After pedaling past an adjacent Greek Orthodox yard, with its many signature double-bar crosses marking the graves, I got the desire to visit a proper Victorian marble orchard. And, in this area, nothing compares to the Old City Cemetery at Broadway and Riverside Boulevard.

To get there, I rode west on 21st Avenue, with its huge lawn divider, then north on Stockton Boulevard across Broadway, then west on Second Avenue. This route travels through several neighborhoods: Oak Park, with its strip of Broadway you cross, then pass the King of Fades, then under the freeway and across Franklin Boulevard to Curtis Park, past Crepeville and across the railroad tracks into leafy and moneyed Land Park. Keep going and you’ll run right into the entrance to Masonic Lawn at Riverside. And once inside Masonic Lawn and about halfway back, a right turn provided a back-door entrance to the Old City Cemetery.

I’ve visited cemeteries around the country, and our own necropolis is among the finest. Silently gliding along the avenues of the long dead on a bicycle can be a tranquility-imbuing experience, especially on a temperate and sun-dappled late afternoon when the lighting is near perfect.

When I first moved here in the 1980s, I lived near Greenhaven and used to bike to work, which took me up Riverside and past the cemetery. The early-morning light would catch the back of a blue soldier statue atop a tall monument. From the front, a fresh-faced soldier with a bushy mustache, holding a rifle barrel, the stock at his feet, marks California’s Civil War dead atop the Grand Army of the Republic monument.

The cemetery is rich with Victorian symbolism—obelisks, some topped with half-shrouded urns, along with plenty of human figures and even a family of sheep. Several huge monuments on the western side are topped with toga-clad women. I stared into their blank eyes, remembering an account in a ghost book of a figure in a Chicago cemetery said to trigger visions of its onlookers’ demise, but saw nothing.

Next week, I’ll try the still-living instead.