Dense fog broken only by scattered showers made my early morning drive to Rockland a stressful journey. There was no stars or moon to break the darkness, only thick, cloying whiteness and occasional city street lights. It wasn't until I was within ten minutes of my destination that the sun began to break the night, dimly lighting the trees around me.
Irish Hollow Cemetery and Rockland's South Bluff were my destinations this morning. The cemetery was of particular interest to me as I've heard an old tale about it. Around the turn of the century the people of Rockland were about to dedicate the new Irish Hollow Cemetery, a big event for a small Upper Peninsula mining community. The town was rapidly expanding thanks to the nearby, and very successful, mine. There was a little girl who had to stay at home, a girl who liked to play with firecrackers. Her parents had told her not to play with them anymore but as soon as they were out of sight she hauled out her stash. One of the firecrackers lit the house's curtain on fire. Unable to stop the spreading flames the girl ran up the hill to the cemetery, desperately calling for help. No one believed her. I'm not sure if she had a boy-who-cried-wolf problem or was just known to be annoying, but everyone ignored her until they saw the smoke rising from beyond the trees. By then it was too late and most of the town was lost. The cemetery's beginnings was at a time of great growth and devastation, an ominous start for a final resting place.
Today's weather did little to cheer up the area. I parked near the sign, barely able to see more than a few dozen yards into the woods, and headed along the slushy two-track. The plan was to visit the cemetery first and then head up the trail to the bluff. Always prepared, I did not do much research into the area and was surprised when I saw some headstones intermixed with the trees a short distance from the highway. There was no fence or cleared area, just cement monuments marching away from where I stood into the forest, fading out in the fog.
I pulled my shirt a little tighter around me from the chill of the fog and continued down the path. Some of the graves were marked with large cement spires, while others had only small, leaning markers that blended in with the stumps. I've never seen a cemetery like this, one that seemed so natural. Smooth cut grass and neat geometric plots are what I'm used to. This felt more like an Indian burial ground than an established, religious cemetery. It felt more familiar, more hallowed, and I felt myself connecting with the eroded names on a deeper level than a strange name usually would.
Passing the graves I found myself drawn to the far corner, where the track started looping around. There was a path here, barely defined in the wet snow. The first grave here was ancient, only four low posts left standing from what must have been a small fence. Beyond that was a taller monument with a small military flag at its foot. Smaller headstones went further into the woods but I stopped at the veteran's site. I didn't recognize the name, didn't recognize anyone's name here, but I paused here for the fallen soldier.
The track looped around back to the entrance and I followed. I was starting to wonder if the cemetery was still used when a newer plot opened up on the right. Several large monuments and a row of markers were laid out on the flat, even ground. It was almost weird to see it so planned out compared to the older areas, but I assume that one day the forest would overtake this land as well. I walked away from Irish Hollow Cemetery with a somber but curious feeling and headed up to the second destination.
Leading away from the highway and my parked car the two-track actually leads due south, with a loop branching off to the east for the cemetery. The main route heads up the bluff after transitioning into a four-wheeler path. A combination of slick snow and mud along the trail forced me to zig and zag up, slowly making my way up the steepening path. The climb was short but strenuous, leading through a spookily foggy forest, before flattening out on top of the bluff.
I wasn't sure what to expect up here, if the trail would lead straight to the rocky outcroppings along the south face or if I'd have to bushwhack off the path. I should have expected the fog, though. Thick and dense it hid the cliff's edge. As far as I knew anything could exist beyond the forest's end: a steep drop, more trees, or imaginary sinister creatures. In no rush to venture out of the protective woods yet I followed the thinning path westwards, parallel to the bluff's edge. Eventually I forced myself off the path onto the rocky edge, creeping along the snow-covered slope. The density of the fog was unnerving and blocked a full 180° of view.
This was not worth furthering the hike. After staring helplessly some more at the sheer curtain ahead of me I turned and headed back down. I knew I would return, maybe during the next fall color change, especially after knowing just how short and easy the climb here was. As I skidded down the slope I also thought of the cemetery and what it represented. There are other old mining resting places, like the old one up by the Cliffs beyond Calumet. This one seemed special for some reason. Maybe it was because the people of Rockland still use it, or maybe because of it's history, but Irish Hollow Cemetery seemed different. I drove away from here glad that I had visited, even if the bluff's towering views had been completely nullified by the morning's weather.