Unearthed: Digging Up Secrets at Bayview Cemetery, Chapter 5

Jim Donaldson, online editor of The Bellingham Herald, has worked at the newspaper since 1986. He lives in Lynden with his wife, Carole.
Jim Donaldson, online editor of The Bellingham Herald, has worked at the newspaper since 1986. He lives in Lynden with his wife, Carole. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

The cool wind swirled over Ali and threatened to overtake the warm air blasting from the vents in her Miata. Sure it was October, but it was not raining yet and so she was driving with the top down, the windows up and the heater on full. With her auburn hair pulled back in a pony tail and her fleece sweater zipped to the neck, she was determined to make the most of owning a convertible in the Northwest as she cruised up Highway 9 toward Everson.

She had the day off, not by choice but because the city budget was tight and she was on furlough. Every classified staffer in the police department had been ordered to take a week of furlough, staggering the days over the last three months of the year so shifts still got covered. Meanwhile, the workload, already impossible, piled higher.

Yellow roses lay on the floor below the passenger seat. Nana's favorite flowers.

Ali was heading to a little cemetery just off South Pass Road, barely kept up over the years but the final resting spot for her beloved grandmother, a free spirit who lived until she was 96.

Mom and Dad never liked to talk much about family or Nana, but she had enchanted young Ali with her stories of the men she had romanced, the fortunes they had won and lost, along with tales she'd been told about the early days of Whatcom County.

Ali marveled at that. Over the years she had settled into work at the police department, and Rex settled into landscaping, first working for and then taking over his father's business. Somehow the last 20 years had slipped away. Rex still looked at her with longing, but lately he seemed distracted. All this business about empty graves and buried treasure.

Ali smiled an uneasy smile. She was restless, badly in need of a new adventure.

"Hey, I found a place where it's quiet. Dead quiet," Rex smirked as he drove his rusted-out '73 Vega, Ali as close as she could get in the bucket seats, the radio fritzing "Sweet Emotion" through its tinny speakers.

"Really? Like, no parents, no annoying little brother? That could be fun." Ali winked at him.

It was the summer before her senior year at Sedro-Woolley, when she and Rex took turns driving up and down Highway 9 just to hang out, tubing on the Nooksack and wandering the back roads because there was nothing better to do.

"It's an old cemetery," Rex said. "There's even a marker from the Civil War."

"Rex, that gross!" she chided. "I am not making out with a bunch of dead people around."

"Babe, it's a cemetery. The residents are six feet under and won't be watching, I promise," Rex said, turning down the music even though Joe Perry was kickin' into his favorite jam.

"Well, I guess it will be quiet," she giggled.

Rex pulled off of South Pass Road and the Vega gave all it had to chug up the hill.

"Oh my gosh, I think I know this place," Ali said as they reached a cemetery buried among cedars. "Rex, this looks like the place where my Nana is. I remember going to her funeral in the woods."

"Hey, it's getting dark. No way we would find her now," Rex said as he eased off the road. "Besides, half the graves here are just low spots in the dirt. Not even marked."

"Maybe we could come back in the daytime. I loved my Nana. You wouldn't believe some of the stories she told me. She was a naughty one," Ali said.

"Must run in the family," Rex said as stepped out and opened the back door. He pulled a bottle of cheap wine from under the seat. "C'mon, I've got some exploring of my own to do."

Ali threw back her head and laughed. "Oh, who's the naughty one now?" she said.

Rex never did take her back, but Ali remembered the spot. You don't forget a night like that.

It was several years later, but she made a point to go back in daylight, alone, and after an hour of clearing dead leaves and squinting at worn-down gravestones she found Nana's marker.

Since then, Ali had been back every year on Nana's birthday, to tidy up and arrange the roses. Local Boy Scouts had taken on care of the cemetery and cleaned it up a bit, so the marker was easy to find.

For the last five years Ali had taken care to write a letter to Nana - nothing weepy, just retelling adventures she had been told, of log cabins, rum runners and train robbers. The letters were her way of keeping Nana close, and she kept them her secret. Not even Rex knew.

Each year she would carefully dig out the sandstone marker and pull out the Ziploc baggy underneath, sometimes rereading her previous adventures and always adding a new letter to the collection. Then she would carefully replace the stone and throw some leaves about to hide her tracks.

Most of the time she never saw another soul. So she seemed startled when she pulled up to the cemetery and parked behind a pickup truck marked "Western Washington University." Two men walked among the graves - one dressed in a wool jacket and khakis, the other in dirty coveralls, carrying a shovel. The air was crisp.

Ali carefully gathered up her roses and her thoughts as she got out of her car. As she walked past the low headstones, she recognized one of the men standing near Nana's grave. It was Dale Harris, their neighbor who worked in the library at Western.

"Ali. What an unexpected surprise," Dale said, his tone flat. "Come to visit your relations?"

"How did ... oh my god, how do you know?"

"Oh, I know plenty," he said. "You see, I've always had a certain interest in local history, but my colleague and I have been doing some more intensive research the past several weeks. Fieldwork, you might say."