The sun rises over the Blue Mountains, and the Walla Walla Valley comes to life.
I am at the Old Pioneer Cemetery on the hill above Milton-Freewater, the first stop on a four-leg cemetery tour.
A few minutes earlier, the neighbor’s rooster served as my alarm clock. I forego coffee and groggily climb in the car.
I park the Prius near the gate on Southwest Eighth Street, which leaves Main Street just south of the city library. The hill is steep. I set the parking brake, get hit with a punch from the upper 30s temperature and begin the climb to the cemetery.
The first surprise is the lupine. The lavender flowers bloom in profusion around the tombstones. I follow a mower path around the perimeter, seeing tombstones dating back to pioneers born in 1828, when headlines were of Nat Turner and the slave revolt and the “Tariff of Abominations,” long before Facebook, TV, radio, cars, Walmart even.
There could be older tombstones cleverly hidden. I pay respect to the dead Milton pioneers — and the living lupines — and limit my exploring.
I arrive at a sitting bench under the “rooster tree,” which can be seen throughout Milton-Freewater and, from the right angle, resembles my alarm clock.
Sunrise happens fast. Suddenly, the cemetery is bathed in TV light and rows of tombstones glow radiantly.
In golden light, I drive north to my second destination, Valley Chapel Cemetery on the corner of Frog Hollow and Valley Chapel roads.
A smattering of tombstones stick out of the tall grass as meadowlarks tune up their pipes on nearby fence-posts. A horse in a neighboring pasture ambles over to say good morning. It’s a quiet, peaceful place, modest, unpretentious amidst the rolling farmlands.
Soon, I drive on, heading east through the southern neighborhoods of Walla Walla. I turn south on Telephone Pole Road and return to Oregon.
A dust rooster follows me along the gravel road until I reach Bowlus Cemetery.
This is wild country. Spooky clouds gather over the looming Blue Mountains. Lilacs bloom in profusion, and an oversized cross is silhouetted in a morning sunbeam.
The people buried here are strangers to me. I imagine them working and playing hard, enjoying their families and neighborhood shindigs, giving back to the community, their legacies living on through their descendants.
I walk around and look at markers, being careful to show respect. To the east the hills steepen until reaching the pine forests of the Blues. To the west, wheat fields sweep down to Milton-Freewater.
I drive on, circling back on Whiteman Road to Milton-Freewater’s other cemetery, where pioneer graves and more modern graves intermingle. A robin hunts for breakfast amid the burial markers. A tree encased in ice from sprinklers glistens in the morning sun. The view north rolls away through wheat fields and vineyards before reaching Walla Walla and the moguls beyond.
I take a moment to walk around. Each tombstone or grave marker tells a story of triumph and tragedy, lives well lived, secrets hidden and taken to the grave. Each is someone’s grandmother or grandfather, uncle or aunt, son or daughter, and each had a role in making the Valley what it is today.