San Diego, USA – December 2016
A few years ago I was in San Diego attending yet another conference. I was due to fly out the morning after the last day, but had an afternoon on my own to spare. I decided to venture outside of the downtown area to check out the Cabrillo National Monument, located at the tip of the Point Loma peninsula. To get there, I took a bus from central San Diego and headed west past the airport, then south towards the Cabrillo National Monument.
Point Loma is a rugged, hilly peninsula separating San Diego Bay from the Pacific Ocean to the west. Its geography naturally protects the bay from the open ocean, together with Coronado and Silver Strand. The peninsula has had a longtime association with the United States military since the mid 1800s when the area was designated as a military reserve, and it continued to play an important defensive role in the 20th century during both World Wars.
Looking out the windows on the road south to the Cabrillo National Monument, I saw row after orderly row of headstones facing west towards the Pacific Ocean. There were still quite a few hours of daylight before nightfall, and I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to disembark prematurely and take a gander.
I soon discovered the place was a federal military cemetery called Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. It was a built on the site of a former Army coastal artillery station, and named after a Union general in the Civil War. The remains of 112,000 people are interred here. The majority of these were US veterans who fought in military conflicts dating back to the 1800s; in fact, the cemetery’s very first burials laid to rest the remains of casualties from the Battle of San Pasqual during the Mexican-American War.
If you would indulge me, I’m about to go off on a tangent here. We don’t really learn about this war in school, but my very rudimentary understanding of the events are as follows: when Mexico gained independence from Spain, it was a much bigger country that included the territories comprising present-day California, New Mexico and Texas. Native Americans kept bothering northern Mexico with violent raids, so Mexico imported migrants from the United States – yes, the irony should not be lost here – to create a buffer in the Mexican state of Tejas against the incursions.
This strategy backfired when the Texans staged a revolution against the Mexican government and declared itself an independent republic. The United States Congress offered to annex the Texan Republic, and the Texans agreed, becoming the 28th state of the Union. Not surprisingly, Mexico (who had obviously refused to recognise the independence of Texas) was extremely unimpressed with this annexation situation. That same year, the newly elected US President James Polk proposed purchasing Alta California and Santa Fe de Nueva Mexico from Mexico, and Mexico countered with “gracias gringos, pero… no“. Polk tried to negotiate but eventually sent armed forces in, because Manifest Destiny! What came next was a string of ensuing battles, more battles, death, destruction, etc. To cut a long story short, Mexico lost almost a third of its original territory and the Union gained a couple of new (eventual) states.
Obviously I’m skipping a whole lot of detail, but hopefully you get the gist.
The cemetery grounds really were beautiful, with immaculately kept lawns and rows of white marble headstones converging towards the horizon in geometrically satisfying lines. I’ve always loved cemeteries, which is probably an odd thing to admit to, but there it is. (I also think about death a lot, so.)
I saw no one else around the place on this particular afternoon. A light breeze blew in gently from the ocean, and it was fairly quiet besides the muted sound of waves breaking on the shoreline some distance away.
There was something strikingly egalitarian in how one marble memorial was essentially the same as any other; while a few had fresh cut flowers placed in front of them, there were no peculiarly ostentatious graves seen. All are equal in death, I suppose. I drifted through the cemetery without any particular direction in mind, stopping occasionally to look upon the concise epitaphs on the tombstones. Reading the inscriptions gave me pause for thought, and I found myself wondering what these veterans did in their lifetimes, and what sacrifices some of them might have made for the freedom of their compatriots. Although certainly not a blanket endorsement of all US military action throughout history, I must say that I did and still do admire the brave men and women who gave their lives in service of their country, whatever cause they may have fought for.
As I crested a small hill, the view across the cemetery to the Pacific Ocean opened up before me. And wow, talk about a view. It was a glorious sight. How lucky to have a final resting place like this, I briefly thought to myself. The late afternoon sun broke through the clouds and streamed down in bright patches, dappling the sea with shifting pools of soft light. The magnificent vista reminded me (for some reason) of The Lord of the Rings characters departing the Grey Havens for the Undying Lands, at the end of The Return of the King. A shimmering, Tolkienesque picture.
Having had my fill of the serenity and the silent company of departed souls, I found my way back to the roadside bus stop, only to discover from the weathered timetable that the next bus wasn’t due for another hour. Seeing how low the sun now sat in the sky, I figured it would be quicker to continue on foot and headed south in the direction of the Cabrillo National Monument. After about twenty minutes, I spied the stone statue marking the tip of the peninsula.
Point Loma was the landing site of the first European expedition to come ashore in present-day California, when Portuguese navigator Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo led an expedition in the name of the Spanish crown from Mexico to explore the west coast of what is now the United States of America. Cabrillo docked his ship on Point Loma’s east shore was the first European to see San Diego Bay. The peninsula has been described as the place “where California began”.
This large stone statue, presumably sculpted in the explorer’s likeness, sits elevated above the shoreline where Cabrillo first stepped ashore in 1542. It was commissioned by the Portuguese government and donated to the United States. He stands an imposing 4.3 metres tall, surveying San Diego Bay. Facing east from here you can see the naval air station on Coronado across the water, and beyond that, the high-rise buildings of downtown San Diego.
Perched upon the southern tip of the peninsula, not far from the Cabrillo statue, sits the small two-storey Old Point Loma lighthouse, the best known landmark in Point Loma (occasionally seen representing the city of San Diego).
For 36 years, from 1854 to 1891, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse guided ships into San Diego Bay. They realised pretty quickly that at such an elevation, the fog and low clouds were often dense enough to obscure the light from view at sea, impairing the utility of the lighthouse, and so a new lighthouse was built closer to sea level at the shore. The flame of the old lighthouse was extinguished and it was turned into a museum.
It was close to sunset by now. I hopped on a bus headed back towards the city, but not before making another quick stop along the route to a detour I couldn’t pass up, based simply on its name: Sunset Cliffs.
I actually missed the setting of the sun as I underestimated the time it would take to walk from the main road to the ocean, but I managed to catch the remnant colours of the afterglow and it was still spectacularly scenic.
I stayed at Sunset Cliffs for a while and listened to the sound of the Pacific rushing in to meet land again and again, the rhythmic crashing louder and more brutal here than back at the national cemetery. I watched the ocean spray and foam against the rocks. The lingering light started to vanish, the line of the horizon blurring between inky sky and inky sea. I turned and wandered back up to the stop, then rode the bus back to the bright lights of downtown San Diego.
We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the Nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and found mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice of neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of free and undivided republic.
If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain in us.
― General John A. Logan, General Order No. 11