Saturday is typically my long run day, when I go out early in the morning and run anywhere between eight and twelve miles. I know there are some in the running community who swear by the Sunday long run and who would consider it blasphemous to do it on Saturday. To that I say tough shit, we did our long runs on Saturday when I was in college and I see no need to fix what isn’t broken.
Anyway, today I ran through Vale Park in Schenectady for the first time. Vale Park is interesting in that it follows a creek along a very narrow valley, so secluded that if you got dropped there without knowing where you were you’d never guess you were almost smack dab in the middle of a city. It also has quite a lot of dead people in it. Vale begun its life as the city burying grounds, and on the adjacent land to the southwest there is a pretty typical-looking cemetery, also called Vale. The cemetery was all there was until the 1970s when the land around the creek, considered too steep for burying people, was sold to the city as a park. There isn’t a clear dividing line between the cemetery and the park so even when you’ve entered the wooded nature trail if you look from side to side you’re still likely to see weathered, overgrown headstones perched at odd angles amongst the trees.
I had to run through the cemetery to get to the park, which was a little disconcerting as I’ve never intentionally plotted a run through the middle of a graveyard. I wasn’t too concerned about zombies or being haunted but it was such a peaceful quiet morning that I felt as though I were disturbing all the people there with my heavy footsteps and labored breathing. I’ve never been a believer in any sort of sentient higher power, or an afterlife for that matter, so I knew deep down that there wasn’t anything or anyone to disturb but something about the eerie stillness made me a little uneasy.
There are a few people of moderate historical significance buried at Vale. Charles Steinmetz, a pioneer in the field of electrical engineering (and also the namesake of Steinmetz high school in Chicago) is here, as well as members of the Stanford family (one of their sons, Leland, would later move to California and found Stanford University) and the Westinghouse family. There are hundreds, even thousands more inventors, pillars of the community, and other local families signified by their wealth. Even centuries later, despite the slow and deliberate creep of erosion and vines and moss, their mausoleums still stand as a testament to the money and influence they’d gathered during their time on earth. I had no idea who most of these people were but with each crypt I passed, adorned with columns and marble and family crests, it was as if they each had one brief moment to tell me, “Hey, I mattered.”
What I thought about the most, though, in the couple of minutes it took me to run through the cemetery and into the park, where the rows upon rows of humble, utilitarian headstones and the memories of people they signified. With Memorial Day having passed and the Fourth of July coming up I was pleased to see hundreds of the graves of war veterans ordained with flowers and little American flags. But what of the others? The dozens that I passed with each step, hundreds every minute, thousands in the time it took me to cross the cemetery. According to Vale’s records website, there are 33,000 people buried here. How many of those graves get visited regularly? How many have family and relatives still living who know who they were? How many headstones have become illegible with the ravages of time?
Surrounded by so many remnants of generations gone by I became so wrapped in thinking about them that I briefly got lost and had to stop and get my bearings. I stopped at a small stone obelisk, about as tall as I was, emblazoned with a single family name: “Doty.” At its base were half a dozen smaller stones, all nearly flush with the shaggy grass. Parents, children, relatives, the last of whom had died in 1941.
“Who were you?” I said out loud, the sound of my voice jarring against the quiet. What were their likes and dislikes? Where they happy people? What were their greatest triumphs, the darkest tragedies? What were their passions, their callings? All these questions for just one family, and yet I was surrounded by thousands more, lives that were long and full, some cut tragically short, dreams long ago realized or forever deferred, the culmination of every sight, sound, and feeling that entwines us within the human experience all distilled down into a lump of granite with some numbers on it.
I started running again, faster this time, and a couple of hundred yards later the path sloped down into the trees - I was in the park now. Still, there were crypts dug into the side of the hill, although these had been vandalized, their proclamations of “I was important” marred by graffiti and cracked stone. The rest of the park was very nice, cool and green, and a few minutes later I emerged at its entrance near the edge of downtown Schenectady, back into the hurried bustle of the city. Cars cruised down the streets. People strolled on the sidewalks, walking dogs, talking on cellphones, studying the menus posted outside restaurants - the minutiae of modern life. I wonder if any of them knew about the cemetery, the little break in the buildings along Nott Terrace where there stood an ornamental metal arch reading “Vale Park” and all the history beyond it.
I don’t think of myself as a morbid person but reading back over the last few paragraphs might make me reconsider that. Regardless, spending time amongst the dead can alter your perspective on being alive, however briefly. I still had nearly six miles to go on my run and I wasn’t feeling too great but I had that voice in my head telling me I should appreciate it. To think, to breathe, to feel are so automatic that we barely give them any consideration but they are finite. The people in Vale Cemetery don’t have that luxury anymore. For a period they walked and lived in a world that was theirs but then, one by one, they all ran out of time. Personally I plan on living a whole lot longer but I know that some day in the distant future everything I believed, everything I loved, and everything I stood for will too be represented by a stone block with my name and some numbers on it, maybe in a cemetery not unlike Vale.
Down the street I ran, only slowing when I had to make the turn onto State Street. The small metal arch leading to the park vanished out of sight behind me. The many thousands of people in Vale, sheltered in its calm leafy embrace, were still in eternal repose as I continued my run through the world of the living.