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Honoring New Mexico’s descansos

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — They stop – they always stop – on the side of the road, camera in hand, and click away.

Traveling around New Mexico, Pam and Doug Rietz of Belen always find something to see, something to photograph – adobe ruin and rock formation, mountain ridge and desert bloom, abandoned building, brilliant sunset, bird, balloon, bizarre curio, curious folks.

They are in love with New Mexico.

“Belen is smack dab in the middle of the state,” Doug Rietz explains. “You can literally wake up on a Saturday and reach nearly all of the state in a day trip or an overnight trip. Do you feel like the desert to the south? Or the wide open roads near Fort Sumner? Or west to Indian country? Or north to the Rockies? You just fill up the tank and go.”

And shoot.

The Rietzes have been touring and taking photos since moving to New Mexico from California six years ago, back when Pam Rietz used a simple Kodak camera (she’s a Canon woman these days).

Which is to say they have traveled thousands of miles and taken hundreds of photos, many that have gone on to be featured in Doug Rietz’s YouTube videos and Facebook pages – one dedicated to exploring New Mexico, the other to appreciating Belen.

It’s life, wild and wacky and wondrous, along the highway.

And then there is death.

One of the more poignant descansos the Rietzes photographed memorializes Marcos Walker Lopez, 4, of Los Lunas, who died in a rollover crash May 2, 2009, on I-25 near Isleta Pueblo. (Courtesy of Pam and Doug Rietz)

One of the more poignant descansos the Rietzes photographed memorializes Marcos Walker Lopez, 4, of Los Lunas, who died in a rollover crash May 2, 2009, on I-25 near Isleta Pueblo. (Courtesy of Pam and Doug Rietz)

So much death, symbolized by the crosses, weathered flowers, teddy bears and trinkets, memorials to those who lost their lives on those same highways.

Like many who come to New Mexico, the Rietzes were intrigued with these roadside markers, or descansos, placed where someone, or several someones, died. Though descansos are scattered across the country, New Mexico holds the tradition so dearly that even highway crews reverently work around or carefully catalog and remove these markers during road construction, then replace them afterward.

Descansos are deeply rooted in Southwestern culture. The word means “resting place” and refers to the days when coffins were transported by horse and cart or carried by hand over the miles for burial. When the mourners rested for the evening along their journey, they erected markers made of stacked stones.

Today, descansos are far more creative. And far more prolific.

People die a lot on our roads.

“I remember seeing them as a kid,” said Doug Rietz, born and raised in Albuquerque until he was 16 when his father moved the family to California. “You look at these descansos and you think about how they died there, how they left this world here, and you wonder what could this person have contributed had he or she lived. What would their lives be like today? How many people were devastated by this loss?”

Two years ago, he suggested to his wife that they pay tribute to those lives lost by respectfully photographing as many descansos as they could find, beginning near Belen.

“We started working our way up to Albuquerque and we honestly meant to get there,” he said. “But there are so many.”

He estimates that over the course of two years they have photographed about 100 descansos, each unique and lovingly maintained.

The Rietzes shot crosses in every size and style, in crude wood, ornate iron or PVC pipe, adorned with faded fabric flowers, stuffed animals, angel statuettes, heart-shaped gravel beds, names and dates and photographs.

One of the most poignant, found off Interstate 25 near Isleta Pueblo, bears photos of a smiling child, the white box on which the cross stands covered in stuffed animals, the base ringed by solar lights and neat rows of tiny toy cars.

The child was Marcos Walker Lopez, a 4-year-old Los Lunas boy traveling with his family on a hail-slicked highway in May 2009 when the car skidded, spun and flipped into the median. Despite being strapped in a car seat, Marcos was flung from the vehicle, news accounts reported.

Pam and Doug Rietz say they enjoy traveling around New Mexico, capturing what they see with photographs and videos. “We feel we live in our vacation spot,” Doug Rietz says. (Courtesy of Pam and Doug Rietz)

Pam and Doug Rietz say they enjoy traveling around New Mexico, capturing what they see with photographs and videos. “We feel we live in our vacation spot,” Doug Rietz says. (Courtesy of Pam and Doug Rietz)

Just like that, he was gone.

“One thing we never counted on was the emotional toll this project would take on both of us,” Doug Rietz said. “We read the names on every cross. We figured out their ages. We saw what their loved ones had left at the site. It was heartbreaking knowing that a life was lost at or near the very spot we were standing.”

Last year, he took his wife’s descansos photos and created a video, dedicating it to those who continue to maintain the memorials years later. This week, he shared the video on his Explore New Mexico page and on the local nostalgic site, Remember in Albuquerque when…, both on Facebook.

The response has been overwhelming. Some reported watching the video and crying. Some shared memories of their own lost loved ones and of other descansos out on the highway somewhere.

Many thanked the Rietzes for reminding them to drive a bit more carefully, a bit more purposefully, because life’s highway does not go on forever.

But until it does, it’s good to enjoy the miles and, like the Rietzes do, stop to admire the beauty and the bizarre that life lays out along the way.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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