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Cross Purposes

Not just another roadside attraction, descansos mark the landscape of the human heart.

He told himself that Lenny was gone, that he would not be coming back, but Robert MacLaren couldn't make himself believe. He talked to the police and he talked to the doctors, and he saw his little brother lying on the hospital table, ashen skin under a white sheet, all the charm and mischief drained away, and still he expected someone to come up to him and say, "There's been a mistake."

But no one came. So Robert went home to sleep, but there was no sleeping, so he got up to work, but there was no working, so he drove from Boulder to his family's machine shop in Longmont and stood among the grinders, drill bits, welding torches and metal rods that Lenny had arranged so carefully. After a while, Robert selected two bars from a scrap pile and began.

Lenny was 34. He had been drinking that night. He was not wearing a helmet, would not wear a helmet, and one of the headlamps on his Harley-Davidson was busted out. So when the driver of the white car pulled onto the road, he didn't see Lenny's red motorcycle rumbling his way. Lenny never even hit the brakes.

In Weld County, a symbol of love for a dead daughter.
In Weld County, a symbol of love for a dead daughter.

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Robert imagined all of this as he stood beside the highway, holding the stainless-steel cross and memorial plaque that he'd crafted one letter at a time, pounding hard and true with a hammer and stamp until he drove home the meaning of the words, "In memory of Leonard Gregory Simmons..."

He crunched through the gravel and broken glass until he found the skid mark where Lenny's bike had rear-ended the compact, the bloodstain where Lenny's head had hit the ground. And on that spot, he drove the gleaming marker deep into the hard earth. Then he lit a cigarette, hugged his wife and watched headlights flicker in the distance as the summer sun slowly faded away.

And he knew.

A memory: Rolling down a New Mexico highway in the back of a '66 Comet, trying to sleep, gazing out the window at a cross on a hill. Someone was struck by lightning there, your mother says, just like her uncle Juan Mora, who was killed while irrigating near the Rio Puerco. His spirit cried through the village and shook the bedpost of his wife. "Soy muerto!" he wailed. In the field where Juan died, there is a wooden cross and a pile of stones. So when you see a roadside memorial, be respectful, she tells you. A soul is there...

They are called different things in different places, these shrines to the dead, but in the Southwest they are known as descansos. In Spanish, descanso means "resting place" -- to be precise, the ground where pallbearers stop to lay coffins and say rosaries on their way from the church to the campo santo. Scholars have traced the memorials as far back as ancient Rome, when soldiers honored the ground of fallen comrades. Later the tradition spread to Spain and then to the New World, where wooden crosses dotted the long and treacherous paths leading north from Mexico. Today you can find descansos not only in Española, New Mexico, and San Luis, Colorado, but in Atlanta, Las Vegas, Atlantic City and on the World Wide Web under the heading "virtual graveyard." Descansos have become pop-culture curiosities and are now as common as sunflowers along certain highways. No longer just symbols of religious faith and tradition, they serve as universal statements of grief. And they are everywhere: outside the home of Princess Diana, outside Columbine High School.

Descansos are as varied as the people who make them, as unique as the dead they commemorate. They are made of wood and iron and stone and plastic. They are posted on guardrails and telephone poles and hilltops and medians. They mark the sites of car crashes, murders, lightning strikes and pet roadkills. They are decorated at Christmas, repainted at Easter, visited on the upcoming Día de los Muertos. They are adorned with silk roses, plastic carnations, hockey sticks, baseball gloves, horseshoes, cowboy hats, balloons, Teddy bears, rosaries, religious medals, electric lights, votive candles, bags of pretzels, cans of beer, T-shirts, tennis shoes, snapshots, paintings, poems, Post-it notes, bits of lace, twisted metal.

In some states, such as Colorado, the highway shrines are forbidden. In others, like New Mexico, they are revered. But legal or not, descansos have become fixtures on our landscape -- powerful reminders, as one scholar says, of interrupted journeys.

There were four of them, including Sammy, who was seven months old. They were headed from Wyoming to Colorado for a visit. It was raining, so maybe that had something to do with it, but what made the car swerve and slide and flip onto Interstate 80, no one knows for sure. Sammy's car seat failed -- the family concluded that much -- and its strap unhooked. The baby was the only one killed.

Natalie's husband made the memorial. Sammy was his nephew. On the day of the funeral, while Natalie headed to the service with their kids, he pulled over off I-80 where the tumbling car had carved deep gouges into the ground. He collected an armful of stones, arranged them in a neat pile and placed a pole in the middle holding a bouquet of roses. He didn't think about what he was doing. He just did it.

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