ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — This is where they left us, where they breathed their last, or nearly so, their lives gone in a crush of metal and mistakes and very bad timing.
The roadside markers, or descansos, mark their deaths along New Mexico highways, memorials to who and what was lost, reminders of how quickly life ends with the fatal turn of a wheel or twist of a tire.
The markers include the “ghost bikes,” painted white and entwined with flowers, a newer form of roadside memorial that signifies the place where a cyclist was killed.
Most descansos, though, are crude crosses of wood or steel or stone, adorned with fabric flowers or rosaries or weather-beaten toys, mementos of what that person loved.
New Mexico has thousands of them, not just because our roads are so deadly – because they can be, given their rural nature and our continued battle with drunken driving – but because here, unlike in many states, descansos are held as sacred, traditional.
“New Mexico celebrates its markers,” according to the website RoadsideAmerica.com. “And local newspapers report when a new one goes up.”
Which is not to say they are permitted. They’re not. But state agencies and contractors tend to look the other way when possible out of deference for the dead.
“We respect them,” said Phil Gallegos, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. “We leave them alone as much as we can as long as they are not safety hazards.”
At the northwest embankment of the San Antonio exit off northbound Interstate 25 in Albuquerque, three crosses have stood sentinel for years. One of them was placed there shortly after a June 12, 2001, crash that killed Eddie Naranjo, a 30-year-old photo technician at the Journal who went out on his evening meal break and never came back.
Another one – a white wooden cross with a Harley-Davidson sticker and a spray of white fabric roses at the base – honors Danny O’Daniel, who was 59 when he met his fate Nov. 11, 2011, at the San Antonio exit.
It’s hard to tell whom the third descansos commemorates. There are no names or dates visible. It’s made of thick, industrial metal chain welded in the shape of a cross, tipped in orange paint, adorned with black crepe and flowers and accompanied by solar lights.
On occasion, flowers are refreshed. This time of year, luminarias appear.
But sometime after construction began in October on the nearby Paseo del Norte interchange, the descansos disappeared, the sandy embankment of ragged sage and residual weed groomed and graded over, wiped clean of any vegetation or structure.
As part of the $93 million overhaul of the I-25 corridor, the bridge above San Antonio will be widened and the northbound freeway entrance ramp – which abuts the northwest embankment – will be eliminated. The grading of the embankment is part of the process of closing off the entrance.
But soon after the descansos disappeared, they re-emerged on the northeast embankment, below a Denny’s parking lot, mirror images of what they had looked like across the frontage road.
It’s not entirely clear who moved the crosses, who took such care and reverence to reposition these reminders of lives lost, but the Department of Transportation’s Gallegos said the contractor – in this case, Kiewit New Mexico – is responsible for removing and replacing items found in the construction zone.
Calls left with Kiewit were not returned.
“It’s pretty common procedure,” Gallegos said.
He recalled a project that required grading in the medians where several descansos were situated. The contractor placed concrete barriers around them as protection from the tractors.
During major construction work on U.S. 550 – peppered with numerous descansos northwest from Bernalillo – contractor E.L. Yeager surveyed, removed, boxed up every cross, flower and teddy bear and replaced them once construction was completed.
“They do go to certain lengths to keep things as is,” Gallegos said.
The custom of marking the spot where someone died is deeply rooted in our Southwestern culture. The term descansos roughly translates to “resting place” and refers to those days when coffins were transported by horse and cart or the strength of several men to a final destination. When the caravan paused along their journey, they erected markers made of stacked stones.
They are part of who we are, part of who they were. They are reminders that our journeys here on the road of life do not go on forever.
Thanks to conscientious road crews and contractors, these markers just may.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.