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.
"THE FIRST DESCANSOS were resting places where those who carried the
coffin from the church to the camposanto paused to rest. In the old villages of New
Mexico, high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains or along the river valleys, the coffin was
shouldered by four or six men.
"Led by the priest or preacher and followed by mourning women dressed
in black, the procession made its way from the church to the cemetery. The rough hewn pine
of the coffin cut into the shoulders of the men. If the camposanto was far from the
church, the men grew tired and they paused to rest, lowering the coffin and placing it on
the ground. The place where they rested was the descanso.
"The priest prayed; the wailing of the women filled the air; there
was time to contemplate death. Perhaps someone would break a sprig of juniper and bury it
in the ground to mark the spot, or place wild flowers in the ground. Perhaps someone would
take two small branches of piñon and tie them together with a leather thong, then plant
the cross in the ground.
"Rested , the men would shoulder the coffin again, lift the heavy
load, and the procession would continue. With time, the descansos from the church to the
cemetery would become resting spots.
. . .
"Time touches everything with change. The old descanso became the new
as the age of the automobile came to the provinces of New Mexico. How slow and soft and
deeper seemed the time of our grandfathers. Horses or mules drew the wagons. 'Voy a
preparar el carro de vestia,' my grandfather would say. I remember the sound of his words,
the ceremony of his harnessing the horses.
"Yes, there have always been accidents, a wagon would turn over, a
man would die. But the journeys of our grandfathers were slow, there was time to
contemplate the relationship of life and death. Now time moves fast, cars and trucks race
like demons on the highways, there is little time to contemplate. Death comes quickly, and
often it comes to our young. Time has transformed the way we die, but time cannot
transform the shadow of death.
"I remember very well the impact of the car on the people of the llano and the
villages of my river valley. I remember because I had a glimpse of the old way, the way of
my grandfather, and as a child I saw the entry of the automobile.
"One word describes the change for me: violence. The cuentos of
the people became filled with tales of car wrecks, someone burned by gasoline while
cleaning a carburetor, someone crippled for life in an accident. The crosses along the
country roads increased. Violent death had come with the new age. Yes, there was utility,
the ease of transportation, but at a price. Pause and look at the cross on the side of the
road, dear traveler, and remember the price we pay".
"Introduction/Dios da y Dios quita", from "Descansos:
An Interrupted Journey", by Rudolfo Anaya, Juan Estevan Arellano and Denise
Chavez (Del Norte , 1995).
PHOTOGRAPH ROADSIDE MEMORIALS?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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".
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".
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
("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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
ROADSIDE MEMORIAL PHOTOGRAPHY
SITES worthy of attention: When I first put these roadside
memorial photos on-line in 200, there were relatively few such collections
available. There are now many more, as a look at the photography
link at the Roadside Memorials of Ireland
website demonstrates. Here are a few sites that I particularly like:
Baccus: "Roadside Memorials"
- Color photography of roadside memorials, in the American Southwest.
Ilan Ginzburg: "Lieux de passage
- Black-and-white photography of roadside memorials of France
OTHER MEDIA: "Resting
Places", a documentary film
about roadside memorials and the controversy that surrounds
them. Narrated by Liam Neeson, "Resting Places" was
produced and directed by independent filmmaker Melissa Villanueva, and written
by J. Michael Kipikash, who was also executive producer.
The director of photography was Joe Mandacina.
"Resting Places" had its premiere on September 20, 2007,
at the 2007
Kansas International Film Festival, and it was also an official selection at
the 2007 Santa Fe Film Festival,
Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, and the 2008 Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.
Ilan Ginzburg and I were
both interviewed for this documentary and some of our images appear in it. We have both posted pages with photos about our
weekend in Kansas City in early August, 2005, hanging out with the
production team and being interviewed for the documentary: