THE CUSTOM of marking the site of a death on the highway has deep roots in the Hispanic culture of the Southwest, where these memorials are often referred to as Descansos ("resting places").
Traditionally, Descansos were memorials erected at the places where the funeral procession paused to rest on the journey between the church and the cemetery. The association thus created between the road, the interrupted journey, and death as a destination, eventually found expression in the practice of similarly marking the location of fatal accidents on the highway.
"Introduction/Dios da y Dios quita", from "Descansos: An Interrupted Journey", by Rudolfo Anaya, Juan Estevan Arellano and Denise Chavez (Del Norte , 1995).
This project began several years ago when I took several photographs of roadside memorials on a driving trip to the Southwest. As I made similar trips in the following years, I began photographing them more systematically, and I eventually collected a large number of images from Midwestern and Southwestern states, particularly Colorado.
In part, my focus on this particular subject matter grew out of my interest in the objects as pieces of folk art. As Thomas Mann said, "a man's dying is more the survivor's affair than his own", and this is so where roadside memorials are concerned: they are more a reflection of the persons who made them, than of the person in whose memory they were erected. Roadside memorials are almost always hand-made, and they vary a great deal in form and style. They communicate an imagery and an iconography which is (at least as yet) not driven by, or even much affected by, commercial or media influences.
In part, it was a self-assigned photography exercise. Roadside memorials are distributed more or less randomly along the highways -- no one chooses the place where they will meet death in an accident on the highway -- and the memorials erected at these sites therefore tend to present the photographer with a wide range of situations in terms of light and surroundings. The objective I set for myself was to photograph every highway roadside memorial I saw on my travels, and to attempt to make an interesting and aesthetically justifiable photograph of each one, capturing some of its individuality but also placing each one in the context of the landscape in which it is found. I did not always achieve this objective, but the attempts taught me more about black and white landscape photography than I would have learned by simply wandering around shooting whatever I happened upon.
In large part, though, I photographed these roadside memorials simply to give myself a chance to experience them in a way which is not otherwise possible. Roadside memorials communicate something with a meaning and emotional power which calls out to travelers, but which is hard to retain when flying by them at 70 mile per hour. I stop and stand in front of them so that I can photograph them; but just as much, I think, the very reason that I photograph them is so that I can stop and stand in front of them. As I stand there, in the tall grass past the shoulder, in the quiet cacophony of insects and wind, these roadside memorials re-set my sense of perspective, my sense of what is important and what is not. When I finally turn and walk away, I find that things that may have been troubling me as I drove along that day seem small and distant.
Obviously, the power of roadside memorials derives from the fact that they remind us of our mortality -- and, perhaps more significantly, of the mortality of those we love. Roadside memorials are so effective at this, because they confront us with the reality of death as an actual event that arrives for a particular person, at a particular place, at a particular time.
I HAD some reservations about using these intensely personal phenomena as the subject of a photographic study. Roadside memorials represent a very private experience, and part of me felt that it was an invasion of sorts to focus on the expression which grew out of that experience and to record it in photographs to be viewed by unknown strangers. At the same time, though, roadside memorials reside in an extremely public space: the side of the public way. There is also something in roadside memorials that seems to embrace this public aspect: it is a nearly universal feature of such memorials, that they face the highway. As private as they are, they clearly evidence the understanding, and indeed the expectation, that they will be seen by the passing stranger.
I cannot say that I have resolved all of my misgivings, but I have reached a sort of truce with them. The terms of this truce require my observing standards of respect for these objects which include not touching them (even to move flowers or other objects in order to be able to read inscriptions) or altering them in any fashion, and not portraying them in a way which could be seen as disrespectful or dismissive of the feelings of the persons who erected them.
I do not find it difficult to keep the terms of this truce. These memorials may be easy to deprecate when one is speeding by them in a car, but when one stands before them on the side of the road, they command respect. Their reality, and the reality of what they represent, overcomes whatever shallow objections we may think we have to their presence or to the way in which the persons who erected them chose to express their feelings. There is no "right" way to mourn. These memorials are reflections of genuine emotions experienced by real people, and they are surely entitled to be respected as such.
ABOUT THESE PHOTOGRAPHS
"Randy Nolan, Randy Archuletta". US 285, South of Fairplay, in South Park, Park County, Colorado. These two memorials are on the east side of U.S. Hwy. 285 (visible at upper right), near its bridge over the South Fork of the South Platte, and near the intersection with a county road leading up to Weston Pass. "9-28-57 Randy Nolan 9-16-94"; "4-7-56 Randy Archuletta 9-16-94". A cold and furious wind, bearing down from the mountain range to the west (right, in this photo), buffeted me when I took this shot. From the lean of the two crosses, it seems that they may face that wind most of the time. The symbols on each cross -- a bow and arrow ? -- suggest some shared bond beyond their given names.
"nacio 8 29 75". U.S. Hwy 24, in Tennessee Park, north of Leadville, Colorado. North of Leadville, Colorado, US 24 straightens out for a three-mile stretch as it runs across Tennessee Park, a large flat grassland surrounded on all sides by mountains. Except for a railroad overpass, the view is unobstructed from one end of the park to the other. This cross lies on the west side of the road, far from the overpass and from any intersection. I would have had to disturb the memorial to be able to read the inscription fully; I chose not to do so. I could see, however, that it read "nacio [born] 8 29 75", and that it bore a number of names -- children? family? friends? In the background are Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert, the highest peaks in Colorado.
"Gregory P. Bachman". Chaffee Co. Road 162, between Salida and Buena Vista, Colorado. "3-18-56 Gregory P. Bachman 7-13-94 / Father, Brother, Husband, Friend / Rest in Peace". This memorial is off to the side of a curve on this quiet county road that leads up into the mountains of the Collegiate Range. Mt. Princeton is in the background.
"Tysee Crites 1980 1998". U.S. Hwy. 36, west of Joes, Colorado. This marker was at the intersection of Hwy. 36 and an unpaved road. I had seen the Crites family name on a ranch some miles east. I heard from a man who grew up just a few miles from where this memorial is located, and who recognized it. He told me that he knew the young man who had made the memorial; the same young man had also made a similar memorial for the niece of the man who contacted me about the photo. I think he told me that the young man who made this memorial was 18 -- the same age Tysee had been.
Shannon Rivale; Charlie Murphy. U.S. Hwy 285, north of Saguache, Colorado. These memorials were on the inside of a wide curve just to the north of Saguache, a little town tucked in the northwestern end of the San Luis Valley in south central Colorado. In addition to the bower decked with plastic flowers, Shannon Rivale's memorial ("Shannon Rivale 12/22/79-7/3/97") had several bouquets of plastic flowers at the base, a cement statue of a cherub, and other mementos . . .
. . . Right next to it, is Charlie Murphy's plain white cross, which bears a small metal plaque reading "Charlie Murphy Age 64 Gone But Not Forgotten July 3, 1997". When I stopped to take this photograph in 1999, it was decorated with one small cluster of plastic flowers.
From their names, their ages, and the styles of their memorials, one is left to wonder if there was any connection between these two in life. It could well be, that their only connection was that they met here on this curve on July 3, 1997.
Unmarked. U.S. Hwy. 24, a few miles north of Buena Vista, Colorado. At the base of these two crosses, among the rocks, were a few bouquets of plastic floral decorations -- or were they dried flowers ? -- still in their cellophane wrap. They were not the large, garishly colored plastic roses and petunias found on many descansos, but smaller, more restrained decorations. The paper label was still on the wrapping of one, but it was badly faded by rain and sun, and the only words I could make out were "A Lasting Tribute".
"Casey Jones" . Colorado Hwy. 72, south of Ward, Colorado. This memorial was well back from this winding mountain road, on the outside of a curve. It was draped in an old t-shirt, its inscription mostly faded but still clear enough for me to make out part of a date ("199?") and the word "Sturgis". The cross, painted bright red, bears the words "Casey Jones" and "We Love You".
Unmarked. U.S. Hwy. 50, west of Cañon City, Colorado. These crosses are on the grade up from Cañon City, heading into the canyon of the Arkansas River where Royal Gorge is located. They bore no markings, and there were no flowers or other decorations present. As I pulled back on the highway after taking this photograph, a bighorn sheep ran across the highway in front of my car. It was big, and unlike the well-groomed beasts seen in much nature film and photography, it was distinctly dirty. It loped across the highway, eyeing the traffic out of the corner of its eyes; and it looked, to me, tired, and harried, and sick of the traffic that whined up and down its hillside.
"Amy". U.S. Hwy. 24, near Red Cliff, Colorado. Just north of the high bridge at Red Cliff on US 24 between Leadville and Vail, the highway begins its winding climb over Battle Mountain. Until recently, some stretches of this road did not have guard rails between the road and the steep plunge to the bottom of the Eagle River canyon below. This cross was in a pullout along the highway, 700 feet above the bottom of the canyon, where there were no guard rails or other markers to show the edge. Amy, a young woman from Leadville, accidentally drove off here in the middle of a summer's night in 1999. I took this photo a few weeks later. When I passed this spot in May, 2000, there were some plastic flowers tied to the new guard rail that now protects this pullout, but this cross was gone.
Amy's car, however, is still there. The canyon is very narrow, with no access by road, and barely enough room even for the railroad track that winds through along the river. Cars that fall into this canyon -- and Amy's was not the first -- are much too difficult to remove. Instead, they are simply pushed off the tracks and left where they are.
"Jim Roybal", "Cecil Reagan". U.S. Hwy. 24, near Camp Hale, Eagle County, Colorado. These crosses lie in a grove of aspen off to the side of U.S. Hwy. 24 as it makes its southbound climb up out of Camp Hale, on the long approach to Tennessee Pass, north of Leadville. Motorists catching a glimpse of them might assume that they mark an automobile accident, but they have a different story behind them than most roadside crosses.
Jim Roybal was the engineer, and Cecil Reagan was a student engineer in his cab, when their freight train ran out of control while coming down the north side of Tennessee Pass in a blizzard one night in February, 1996. Getting a freight train down a mountain pass is risky even in the best of conditions; if the brakes are not applied properly, the momentum of the train can build to the point that the brakes become useless, and the train simply keeps gathering speed until it is unable to hold the rails. The 3% grade they were on is one of the steepest stretches of train track in the U.S.
The train Jim and Cecil were operating was over a mile long; these crosses are near the place where the engine left the tracks, not far from the highway, up the slope through the trees. The crosses bear the markings "51 Jim Roybal 96", "62 Cecil Reagan 96", the numbers in each case being dates of birth and death.
"John Kundinger 12-31-73 11-13-94". U.S. Hwy 91, on the descent from Fremont Pass, north of Leadville, Colorado. There is no guard rail along this stretch. The shoulder drops off sharply on the east side of the road, down a steep slope, to the valley floor and the headwaters of the Arkansas River. This large wooden cross is attached, well off the ground, to a metal post like those used for traffic signs, which is driven into the slope. It leans back over the valley, like some kind of giant arrow shot from the mountains on the other side, which fell to earth here.
"Levi". Illinois Hwy. 164 and Illinois Hwy. 94, west of Monmouth, Illinois. Corn fields on all sides, with the road(s) rising up to the north and east. In July, when this photo was taken, the corn was high. From the intersection, the horizon is not far away, whichever way you look. Shortly before I arrived at Levi's corner, I was passed by a car with a couple of young guys in it. Hot summer afternoon, windows open, out on the back roads. They were doing at least 80.
"Eleanora Lopez". U.S. Hwy. 24, just north of Leadville, Colorado. This cross is barely visible from the highway, which drops off sharply at that point. Small pieces of shattered auto glass lie on the ground. The highway sign indicates the curve to the left that Hwy. 24 takes here. There are no dates on this descanso, but its weathered look suggests that it has been here for some time. A year after I first photographed it in 1999, there was a bouquet at its base which had not been there in the previous year.
"John Morgan". Kansas Hwy. 96, west of Leoti. "In loving memory / John Morgan / 6-26-1907 12-1-1990 / Killed by the train he could not see or hear". I had to look several times at the inscription on this memorial, which is in the wide grassy space between Hwy. 96 and the tracks of the railroad (the old Santa Fe line) which parallel it, before the nature of the story it told began to sink in. 83 years old. Was he driving across the tracks? Walking?
"D. J. Roberts, Rochelle Roberts". U.S. Hwy 63 near Ottumwa, Iowa. This cross stood high on the embankment above U.S. Hwy 63 near Ottumwa, in southern Iowa, at the top of a long hill where a local road makes a blind intersection. "In Memory"; below that, "Died August 23, 1997 Love Daddy & Mommy". This is one of the few memorials I photographed which I subsequently researched in order to try to learn more about the story behind it. Having done so, I wished I had not. Like all of the stories behind memorials such as these, it is a painful one. Suffice it to say, that what I learned confirmed the suggestion created by the inscription: D.J. and Rochelle were children.
The name Rochelle Roberts is on the right-hand part of the cross piece; it does not appear in this photograph because it is in yellow paint and the red filter I was using effectively made it disappear.
Unmarked ("M C"). U.S. Hwy. 24, south of Leadville, Colorado. This memorial was located just past the US 24 bridge over the Arkansas River. These striking crosses are both works of art. One is tooled silver metal, perhaps aluminum, in a style reminiscent of a concha belt; a metal hummingbird - a Colorado symbol - hovers on the upright. The other is wrought iron; it bears the only identifying marks on either, the letters "M C" on the hanging "ribbon" -- which is also metal.
When I stopped to take these photographs, in July,1999, there was a large bouquet of fresh flowers here -- a rarity -- and two Colorado blue spruce trees had been planted on either side of the memorial. The morning sun was just hitting the peaks in the back when I took these shots . . .
In May, 2000, when I passed again, the wrought iron cross was gone. The remaining cross was somewhat tarnished. The small spruces which had been planted on either side had died. There were no flowers.
When I passed again in August, 2001, however, the wrought iron cross had returned -- now painted white, with the iron rose in the center painted red. A spruce had been replanted, and there were again flowers.
"Wences J. Martinez". U.S. Hwy 84, outside Hernandez, New Mexico. "Born 12-17 1959 Died 10-3 1989". This cross is located only a few yards from the spot on Hwy. 84 where Ansel Adams shot his famous "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" in 1941. It looks out at the same scene which is captured in that photograph: the old church and its cemetery, and the Sangre de Cristo range in the distance, across the broad San Luis Valley.
The passage of time has altered the scene that Adams captured, though. The old adobe church and cemetery are still there, but an ugly metal roof has been added to the church. Other buildings have sprung up in the foreground, and the cottonwoods and weed shrubs have grown to obscure much of the scene. The crosses still stand in the cemetery, though, and in the distance, the mountains carve the same line across the same sky.
Unmarked. Iowa Hwy. 44, just west of Kimbalton, Iowa. It is hard to say if this wreath of artificial flowers, tied to a fencepost, was really intended as a roadside memorial. It was directly across the road from the local cemetery; it could just be something that blew across the road and was tied to the fencepost by the local farmer who could not know where it belonged. However, its location is at a point where the highway crests a hill.
Roadside memorials seem to appear randomly, but a moment's reflection on their surroundings can identify the factor that may have contributed to the event they memorialize: the curve; the intersection; the long straightaway on which the car in the other lane seemed so far away -- and the crest of the hill, in which the car in the other lane was unseen, and unanticipated.
Unmarked. US Hwy 36, just east of the Colorado/Kansas line. Highway 36 runs across the entire width of Kansas, in the northernmost part of the state. It used to be an important cross-country route, with truck traffic and tourists motoring to and from Denver and the mountain west. With the construction of the interstate highway system -- I-80 to the north, I-70 to the south -- it grew increasingly quiet. Now, it is frequently empty, from horizon to horizon.
Just east of the Colorado-Kansas state line, Hwy. 36 takes a great, sweeping curve to the south, probably so that it can cross the railroad track there at more of a right angle. These 2 crosses are on the north side of the highway, at the top of a low embankment -- about where a west-bound car would come to rest if it simply kept going straight when it entered that curve. When I stopped there to take this photograph in 1999, the grass still clearly showed the tracks of a vehicle, coming from the highway. The embankment where the tracks come to an end is actually the old roadbed of the highway, which used to turn there much more gradually. Pieces of the asphalt of the old road are still visible; in fact, there were chunks of that asphalt instead of rocks around the bases of the crosses. There were a few wires tied around one cross, where flowers may have been placed at some point. Otherwise, there were no markings or other remembrances -- except for the Bud Light bottles, one resting at the base of each cross.
U.S. Hwy 24, in Tennessee Park, north of Leadville, Colorado. When I saw this, in July, 1999, I was unsure if it was a descanso, or just an odd choice for a decoration in an odd place. It was on the end of a cattle guard on local road where it met Hwy. 24, in Tennessee Park where the traffic shoots across the long, straight section before winding up to Tennessee Pass. Nearby was the sign for the Trout Creek resort; it might have been a decoration placed there by them. However, I also noticed the small bits of metal and shattered pieces of glass -- clear, red, yellow -- mixed in with the gravel on the side of the road where the wreath was located.
When I returned in May, 2000, the wreath was gone. Then in August, 2001, there was a wreath again -- this time with a cute, smiley-faced doll in the middle.
Decoration or descanso? I'm not sure anymore.
Unmarked. U.S. Hwy. 285, South of Fairplay, in South Park, Park County, Colorado. This memorial is on the east side of U.S. Hwy. 285 in South Park, about 15 miles south of Fairplay. It is well off the highway, but it is still easily visible in this stark and barren landscape.
Multiple memorials almost always have all of their crosses facing in the same direction -- and almost always, they face directly toward the highway. This memorial is unusual in that the two unmarked crosses face in different directions, one to the north and one to the south.
"Blue Skies / Deep Powder / Forever"; Memorial above Loveland Pass, on Colo. Hwy. 6. When I first passed this memorial, which is located at an elevation of over 12,000 feet about a half mile west of (and a few hundred feet above) Loveland Pass, I didn't even see it; I was focused on a small group of Mountain Goats that was grazing desultorily on the alpine tundra, slowly moving higher in order to keep their distance as I headed towards them. I only spotted it as I came back down the slope.
The inscription on the side of the cross facing uphill, "Blue Skies / Deep Powder / Forever" suggested that it was erected in memory of a skier or snowboarder. On the other side,there was the inscription, "In memory of J. J. Johnson / B. 5-1-54 D. 12-23-00". The upper surface of the top of the cross and of its arms are covered with small stones, placed there, I assume, by friends who have left them there as a further remembrance.
TECHNICAL NOTES: The photographs were shot using (mostly) Kodak T-Max 400 and (in some cases) Tri-X. They were taken using either my old Pentax K-1000 with its 50 mm Pentax lens, or in my Pentax P3 with a Vivitar Series 1 24-70mm zoom lens.
I frequently used either a red filter or a polarizing filter in an effort to darken the sky as much as possible, both for effect and so that the range of values between the sky and the foreground objects (including the memorial) was reduced somewhat.
Originally, the digital images seen on this website were scanned from my hand-made 8 by 10 prints. I have since replaced most of the images here with ones worked up from high resolution (3072x2048) scans of the negatives.
MORE INFORMATION -- LINKS
SOURCES OF INFORMATION ABOUT ROADSIDE MEMORIALS: In recent years, the volume of material on the internet relating to roadside memorials has grown dramatically. In addition, a growing number scholarly studies of the phenomenon have been done and some of these are available, or at least referenced, on the internet
A starting point -- at least it was for me -- is "Descansos: An Interrupted Journey" by Rudolfo Anaya, Juan Estevan Arellano and Denise Chavez (El Norte Publications, 1995). The book, combining essays, poetry and photographs, speaks to the deep roots of this tradition in the Hispanic culture of the southwest. It is out of print and hard to come by, but the short essay "Public Shrines Are Reminders Of Interrupted Journey" by Patrisia Gonzales and Roberto Rodriguez (published in their weblog "Column of the Americas" in 1998), mentions it and touches on the same points. A 1999 article from Denver Westworld, "Cross Purposes", also provides a well-written overview of the subject. For a more comprehensive and scholarly treatment, see "Roadside Crosses and Memorial Complexes in Texas", by Holly Everett, published in the journal Folklore in 2000, and "Locating the Gap between Grace and Terror: Performative Research And Spectral Images of (and on) the Road", by Rebecca M. Kennerly, published in Forum: Qualitative Social Research in 2008; both of these are accompanied by extensive notes and references, a number of which are hyperlinked to the sources cited.
Another good starting point for anyone who wants to do internet research on
roadside memorials is the Links
page at the Roadside Memorials of Ireland website. The site's author
has selected and sorted from over 750 sites to extract an extensive
collection of links to photography
sites with photos of roadside memorials, as well as articles
and essays, and resources on laws
and legal issues pertaining to roadside memorials.