Thursday, October 4, 2012

Black Diamond Mines

Mount Diablo Coal Field Marker

On a hot September day at Black Diamond Mines, a regional park located in California's East Bay, a couple of friends and I walked together up the dusty road to Rose Hill Cemetery, a small, abused plot of land on an eroding hillside and the only remnant of the the mining town that was once settled around it.

Entrance to the Hazel-Atlas Mine

We'd just come from the cool, cathedral like silica mines, and the earth and heat we surfaced to felt unreal in what it was and what was beneath it. Who could ever know such a place existed, tucked into the California landscape: vaulted subterranean rooms held up by massive pillars, down, down, down, seven levels, and beneath, and parallel, even older: coal shafts where children as young as seven donned soft hats, clutched miner's candles and rooted through the earth like grown men?

Graffiti Carved into the Sandstone 

The short film we watched at the Visitor's center, located just inside the entrance to one of the silica mines, made life in the coal boom town of the mid-19th century sound  idyllic. Miners, it said, liked to be beneath the earth. Sometimes they worked seven days a week for months without the sun, living, breathing, eating in darkness, a darkness that fed their families and the ever hungry and growing city of San Francisco across the bay. They had a schoolhouse, a choir, even a baseball club. They were mostly Welsh Protestants, some Catholics. The latter were denied burial in the town cemetery.

A View from Chaperel Trail

When we climbed the rocky trails above the center, the early Autumn sun was burning, the sky clear, the path steep and smooth. At the crest and out in the distance, we could see the city of Antioch, the bay, and a huge energy farm, its propellers spinning hypnotically before us. There was something ineffable about the land, the way the hills rose up like the muscular back of a lion sleeping in the heat, the blue sky pressed against its yellow fur. Lower down, Manzaneta trees grew in dense thickets, their bark alternately smooth and red and rough and gray, was striking up close; far away the colors blended to a heathery purple.

Manzaneta, the park ranger told us at the Visitor's Center is great for poison oak. The berries are tasty. Foxes and other small animals love to eat them.

Manzaneta Tree?

I've been trying lately to learn about the flora, fauna, geology, and geography of the state I've come to make my home. Back in Michigan, I could probably narrate a nature walk from memory. In California, I don't know anything. As we hiked the steep trails of the old coal field, I couldn't identify the Manzaneta's even though they are a common plant, and I'd brought a field guide complete with glossy pictures to help me find my way. Compared to Michigan, everything in California looks like it was culled from the pages of a fairy story. I wonder: did those old-timey miners who lived there far from their native Wales feel as disconnected and dumb as I do sometimes?

After hiking a short loop of trail through the park, my friends and I ate lunch in the shade of some tall pines at a picnic table in view of Rose Hill Cemetery and the golden hills above it. I thought the Italian Cyprus trees, so alien on the land, looked as if they were pointing a pathway to heaven. We learned later, in the mines, that this was the reason they were planted there, so souls could find their way to God.

A Distant View of Rose Hill Cemetery

In the silica mine, we watched a slideshow about the park and the eras that came before it. We donned hard hats and jackets, grabbed flashlights and followed the old tracks of the mining carts down into the earth. The docent told us stories about mining life and technicalities. As we passed through, we learned that the ceiling was the floor of the ancient ocean that California rose out of millions of years ago. Above our heads, prehistoric waves and sea life, time past but present, hung preserved in the sandstone ceiling.

How could such a place not be full of ghosts? When I asked the docent, he said the only known "ghost" was actually a lady who cooked meth in a squatter's trailer on the land in the 1980's. This meant as we walked to the cemetery together, we had nothing spooky to speculate on but the real nature of humanity, of life and of death. I suppose that is spooky enough.

The trail up, a dusty twisting road cut through the yellow hills, did something to quiet us anyway. The wind picked up, and the light at the end of day, when everything feels suspended, began to spread over the hills and valleys.

An Up Close View of Rose Hill Cemetery

Ahead of us, a lone woman walked in Nike running shoes. She wore a t-shirt with the Pittsburgh Pirates logo. She carried a plastic wrapped package of cookies and a dented water bottle. At the top, she sat beneath the swaying peppercorn tree that marked the entrance to the cemetery. She took a few raspy breaths before moving on. It was quite a climb up, and there was something strange and sad about her and in the way her body heaved with exertion. There was something mournful in the way she looked out across the land.

I wondered, for a moment, if she was a ghost -- then, if I was a ghost -- then, if my friends who bowed their heads dutifully to read the information placard at the gate were ghosts. I felt a chill, even in the heat. There was nothing left but the dead. When the coal shafts were exhausted, the miners and their families packed up the town that fed the lonely cemetery. Board-by-board, nail-by-nail, down came the houses, the schools, the church, the saloon. Everything went; nothing remained except remains, and even those had been defiled.

As dusk came on, the wind picked up and with it, the dust around the graves. We wandered through what was left of the headstones in silence. When a gust of wind stole my friend's sunhat, she chased it through the cemetery, and I chased after her, laughing.

1 comment:

  1. I know that ghostly feeling that descends on you when you visit a ghost town, when you imagine the lives lived there with so little left behind. I didn't know of the existence of this place after all my years in the Bay Area. Just where is it? I wonder if that lovely red tree isn't a madrone? Thanks for this, Sarah.


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