Recently, I went hiking up a mountain, in search of the remains of a ghost town.
What was left of the road was steep, and not in good repair. I got lost for a bit as well. But I finally found what I had been looking for—what was left of a ruined farmstead.
It was a bright sunny day. The sky was blue and the birds were singing.
Lichens grew on the large rocks that littered what had once been the pasture. A tree had grown in the middle of the remains of the small barn (which had long ago lost its roof). What was left of the foundations of the house was so overgrown with tall weeds that it was hard to gauge how large it had once been.
It was a lovely and yet despairing place.
The original settlers had been allotted that isolated swathe of rocky land up the mountain, with the promise that if they could build houses and produce crops on it that it would be theirs. They had come there expecting that they were getting land that could be farmed. They had had high hopes, thinking that the several families who were coming to farm there would establish a village, which would then become a town.
But what they found once they laboriously cleared the trees from the land was soil that was too thin and poor to grow wheat or corn or oats or much of anything. It wasn’t even very good for pasturing cattle.
The remains of their back-breaking labor were still evident in the stone fences and what was left of the buildings. They had moved those stones with oxen. They had cut, prepared and notched those logs by hand. But no matter how hard they worked, they had barely been able to scratch a living from that land. Within fifty years, the last of those settlers had come down from the mountain, abandoning their farms.
I stood there in the bright sunlight, thinking about the hopes and dreams that those settlers had had. How deeply disillusioned they must have been once they realized that this land was not really farmable. How hard they had worked, against all odds, in order to try to salvage at least some fragment of their dreams… and how sad it must have been to have had to finally admit that no amount of hard work was going to make it possible to make a living up there.
I wondered where they went after that. Whether they had lost their life savings on their farms. Whether they had tried to farm again on more forgiving land, or whether they had given up on farming and pursued other occupations instead. What their lives had been like after that. Had it been a relief to finally leave their farms behind? Had they been able to move on? Did they find success elsewhere? Or had their experiences on the mountain broken them?
The sun was declining, and I couldn’t stay there any longer. I went back down the mountain. The road was steep and difficult to walk on, but as I went down, I felt lighter, somehow. It was an odd feeling—as though a burden was being lifted from my shoulders.
* * * * * *
I was still thinking about that old farmstead the next day. And the next. It haunted me somehow. There was something so sad and yet familiar about it.
And then I understood where the sense of familiarity was coming from. The story of those settlers reminded me of my own.
We too got caught up in someone else’s visions and agendas, which were laughably unsuited to the realities on the ground that we were dealing with. We too were misled into believing that what we were engaged in was possible, if only we put in enough effort. We too stayed on and persevered, even when it should have been obvious that this wasn’t going to work and that the problem wasn’t that we didn’t have enough faith or that we hadn’t worked hard enough—it was that we had been lied to.
I can’t change the past. But that memory of feeling somehow free as I came down the mountain is one that I need to hang onto. When all those memories of shaming and fear-based manipulation and nit-picking nastiness and community pressures and so forth come calling, I now try to picture myself laying it down on the mountain by that ruined farmstead and walking away from it.