“You know, those stairs aren’t actually haunted,” the secretary says, eyeing me warily after I gain permission to wander the grounds. “Oh, I know,” I assure her, and myself. “I don’t believe in ghosts.”

The afternoon is so humid I can feel its resistance, like I’m going the wrong way down a one-way street. The byzantine map the secretary gave me only makes me feel more lost. 

Although Spokane’s Greenwood Memorial Cemetery is scarcely 130 years young, it feels ancient. This is the way of woods. A sign in front of a thickly wooded area reads Non-endowment Section. This, I later learn, is where you go if you want to be untrammeled, to really rest in peace, to be the most forgotten. 

In 1980 every single brass ornament—even the brass elk that stood atop the mausoleum—were unceremoniously pried off and sold for scrap by the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks to help pay off its substantial debts. This abandonment of the order’s fallen, and their once illustrious resting place, is widely considered the source of the haunting. 

Photo by Nick Thomas

I finally spot the stairs, hidden back in the woods a few yards. The staircase rises above me, much shorter than I’d imagined, and nowhere near the mythic thousand—yet somehow far more treacherous. I raise my camera to snap a picture just as blurred shapes drift into view at the top. Someone else is up there, the flash of a phone points down the stairs. I start to climb and try not to let the presence affect me. None of us are alone in this place anyway.

Many steps are broken, and all are off kilter. Some are gone entirely, swallowed by time, so that you have to stretch a bit to haul yourself up. “There’s my workout for the day,” I say to the three women who flitter about at the top. They smile hesitantly then drift away, not breaking their silence. 

A gray granite vault stands before me, the backside covered in decades of graffiti. The front is remarkably clean and dominated by rusting gates. Constructed by the Elks around the turn of the last century, the mausoleum now stands as a monument to the excess of the Gilded Age. It is filled not with the bones of brothers, but rather sadly, discarded lawn care equipment: coils of rotten hoses, splintered wheelbarrow handles, rusting t-posts. The brothers are scattered around in graves. Some inscriptions are lichen encrusted and rendered illegible. The air feels more humid than I can ever recall, practically suffocating. Every time I look down at my notepad I feel like I am being watched. When I look up no one is there, save a sprinkler’s incessant shushing. It is at this point I take my leave, scurrying down the steps, feeling no need to count them. Best stick with 1,000. As I climb in my car and start the engine in one fluid motion, I realize there’s nothing like a short walk down a long and crowded cemetery to be reminded of one’s mortality, or make one feel more alive.