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A visit to the Brainerd Mission Cemetery finds no Cherokee spirits
SIX FEET OF CHAIN LINK TOPPED WITH three strands of barbed wire send a clear message as we approach the old cemetery. We did not come here expecting to engage in criminal trespass, but we are ghost hunting and the idea of breaking laws and scaling fences adds to the excitement. The sun has already set, but it is not yet dark and I ponder if we should come back later, when we can hide in the shadows, be shiftier, avoid detection. Surely such an entry would make us more acceptable to the spirits. I do not share these thoughts with my girlfriend Lisa who follows behind with her camera.
Reaching the southwest corner of the cemetery, we find a break in the chain link and a low iron gate attached to a knee-high stone wall paralleling the chain link just inside. I am puzzled by such an angry border serving no purpose other than to funnel those who might step over the beautiful stones rather than walk a few yards to the gate.
Above the gate, a large brown sign bears three words in the Cherokee language, followed by this in English: Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. Then, in much larger print: Brainerd Mission Cemetery. This is all I know of this place.
There is no lock. The gate swings in with the kind of creak synonymous with all things haunted—and we are granted entry. At first glance, the place seems to have been abandoned years ago. On our right, a shiny granite stone commemorates the life of Shelley Hahn Stack, 1909-2008, remembered as Treasurer of Old Brainerd Mission Cemetery for 31 Years. The marker seems oddly modern and out of place in this forested patch dedicated to the Cherokee people. In front of me and too far off the path to be read by my flashlight, an information board is dense with hand-drawn maps and faded history.
Darkness is encroaching and a monkey grass border in bad need of weeding is all that keeps us on the path. Almost immediately, the path splits tracking east and north. We choose the east fork and follow until it curves north and abruptly stops, leaving us standing between two rows of small, unmarked tombstones. The grave markers lean at odd angles, and have the feel of a mock graveyard created for trick-or-treaters—simple blank slabs with no names or dates.
I sit down amid the stones and listen as Lisa wanders further with her camera. Not far to the south interstates 24 and 75 drone steadily. A jet screams loud and low overhead. Closer and seemingly from all directions I hear brakes squeal, engines accelerate, and transmissions shift. Between peaks in the sounds of human progress around me, I hear a lone insect trill a steady beat from the top of a hickory tree. Other than the occasional crunch of early autumn leaves under Lisa’s feet, this is the only sound coming from inside the walls.
The photographer disappears into the darkness, leaving me to sit in the quiet waiting for creepy shadows, voices on the breeze, unusually cool air pockets, any sign of the otherworldly. Of course I would never want anything to happen to Lisa, but I secretly hope for a scream from the darkness, a loud thud, a sinister laugh, but the only thing delivered on the faint breeze is diesel exhaust. I rise and move on.
I pass through the center of the cemetery where the largest and most prominent monument stands—a short white obelisk atop a large block with extensive script engravings. The entire monument stands roughly six feet and I wonder what great Cherokee chief is remembered here. Not far from the monument, a bench commemorates the Golden Jubilee of the Chickamauga Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.