Cross Purposes

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.


Photo Gallery

View our image gallery of roadside descansos in Colorado -- or submit your own images.

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.

If you didn't know it was there, you'd probably drive right by that little pile of stones. But Natalie Morgan and her husband, they know.

Charles Collins is a geography professor at the University of Northern Colorado. He is fascinated by the relationship between the private and the public, particularly when the public and the private cross paths on the back roads of Colorado. He has studied rural outhouses and he has studied decorative mailboxes, intrigued by what these roadside objects say about the people who make them. "The human landscape," Collins likes to say, "is our unwitting autobiography."

Few subjects intrigue him more than descansos: the perfect marriage of the public and the private. Collins says he stumbled on them the way most of us do: on long, lonely road trips down long, lonely highways. He'd be driving along some rolling landscape and see a flash of color by the side of the road. All of a sudden, he'd find himself standing in the weeds, contemplating a weathered cross and a bundle of dried flowers. He'd snap photos (he has dozens), make a mental note of the location and spend the rest of his trip wondering who had died there and who had marked the spot.

Three years ago, Collins began studying descansos in earnest. He compiled surveys, questioned state officials, interviewed victims' families, mined archives and established a network of writers, photographers and others just as drawn to the memorials as he is. Although he's only halfway through his research, he's already reached some conclusions. Most markers commemorate sudden and violent death. Most victims are young, with an average age of eighteen. Most markers are made by victims' friends and family members. Most are posted along rural highways, particularly intersections. Most are erected spontaneously, usually within two days of the death. Most help survivors maintain bonds with those who have died.

"There seems to be some attempt to re-establish contact," Collins says. "There's the feeling that this all happened so suddenly, that they left this morning and they were fine, and now they're not coming back. And death occurred not in the home and under the protection of the family, but in a public place. Others saw it, perhaps others saw the deceased after the family did. It's wanting to do something for a death that happened quickly, without warning, and there was no opportunity for survivors to be involved. There was no way to find closure."

But finding closure, Collins learned, was not always the motive. "Some people really avoided using these as a gesture of goodbye," he says. "They very much wanted to think of the victim as continuing to exist. When you see people leaving pretzels, beer bottles, baseball gloves and rubber dinosaurs, it's very much thinking of the victim as continuing to exist, with the express idea that they are not here physically but continue to do the things they enjoyed before."

Other researchers have made similar determinations. Kathy McRee, a Santa Fe-based photographer, documented descansos and recorded oral histories in New Mexico. She, too, detected a desire among the families and friends of victims to find the exact place of the death. "They would say, 'Yes, his body is at the cemetery, but his spirit is here. This is where we talk to him, this is where we feel closer to him, this is where he took his last breath,'" McRee says. "There is an ongoing need to communicate with the soul of a person."

And that need, says Stephen Sapp, a professor of religious studies at the University of Miami, can be traced back to the cave drawings, the pyramids and even Hollywood Westerns, where you'd see a stick on the side of the road with a cowboy hat on it. "Humans are social animals," says Sapp, an authority on death and grief. "It's almost a primordial need, an instinctive need. If you look at it from a Western religious perspective, we're created to be in community. We're all part and parcel of some community. When that community is rent, we need to recognize that and respond to that and express our loss. It's human nature."

With descansos, says Peter van Lent, there's also a need to share that passing with others. Van Lent is coordinator of Native American studies at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. He became fascinated with descansos during a sabbatical in Santa Fe and wrote a paper on them with his daughter, who is a psychologist. "There is the desire to reach out to others and invite them in," van Lent says. "A roadside is a very public place. A cemetery is a very private place. This is a gesture to a community or a society to share in the grief of an individual."

But more than that, says James Griffith, former head of the Southwestern Folklore Center at the University of Arizona, there is the need, particularly among Hispanic Catholics, to prepare the victim for the afterlife. "Here you have a soul that went to a sudden death without spiritual preparation by the church," he explains. "This is a reminder to pray for this person, that those prayers will help them through purgatory."

Ironically, Sapp says, the absence of religion in many people's lives and the disappearance of rituals has contributed to the current popularity of descansos. There are so few tangible ways for people to grieve. "We no longer really do that in America," he adds. "We say, 'Oh, gee, really? I'm sorry your father died, but you will be in at work tomorrow?' That's the attitude. In terms of honest-to-goodness funerals, the numbers are plummeting. Many more people are going for direct cremation. The body goes from the funeral home to the crematorium, and that's it. A lot of people are saying that's very unhealthy because grief is real. Grief is there. If it isn't dealt with in a direct way, it will manifest itself. Unresolved grief will force itself out. By denying death and the practices and rituals that we've engaged in throughout human history, we're not allowing ourselves to grieve. These roadside memorials are expressions of the need for that."

Collins agrees. "We have isolated death and its aftermath so effectively, there is no immediacy anymore," he says. "A century ago, when there was a death in the family, even an accident, it was the family that prepared the body and built the coffin and dug the grave. There was a lot of contact. Today, institutions step in. Whether it's the EMTs, the hospital or the mortuary, there's a separation between the family and the deceased. In short, we used to bury our own. Now institution takes over. With descansos, there seems to be a need to let the deceased know that we are sorry we weren't there and to do something about it."

Rather than surrendering death to an industry, the roadside memorials bring an intimacy to death. "The whole thing has become so commercial," van Lent says. "You go to a place and pick out a headstone and a casket, and the funeral takes over. This is an effort to assert the personal. The purpose of putting up a descanso is putting it up yourself, doing it yourself, using very personal things. If it was cowboy who was killed, you make it of horseshoes. You put things that were very dear to the person. It might be a reaction to the commercialization, and therefore the de-personalization, of grieving.

"It is purposely deliberate and not manufactured," he adds. "It has resisted the effort to be commercialized. It's turning grief into an artistic creation. Folk art is still alive."

Some survivors have no choice but to raise roadside memorials, according to Charles Zdravesky, a disc jockey who compiled a descansos documentary for KUNM radio in Albuquerque. "There's the girlfriend of one guy who was killed and his body was cremated, and the only place she has to grieve is the descanso on the side of the highway," he says. "For her, that was it."

McRee understands. "I was raised a Baptist, and a lot of it, we just didn't express grief in public," she says. "It was like, 'How dare you shed tears in public?' It was considered bad manners. When I saw these descansos, I thought, 'How wonderful to put grief out there. How wonderful to put grief out there for the world and not be afraid.' To me, they symbolize love."

It was foggy that morning, so when the truck driver pulled a K-turn on the county road, he didn't see Don's motorcycle. And when the driver backed up, he backed into Don.

When her daughter died a decade later, Jolene Korgan felt the same way she had when she learned about her husband's death in August 1987. She had the same urge to learn everything, to put together all the puzzle pieces, to walk the ground where it had happened, to sit beside the guardrail, unfold a pocket knife and scratch a loved one's name. "Don Lives."

Desarae was headed home from a party on New Year's Day when the pickup she was driving fish-tailed on the dirt road and rolled three times. Desarae was tossed out into a horse pasture.

As soon as she got the phone call, Jolene knew what she would do. She knew she would search the field where Desarae had landed. She knew she would find the puddle of blood where her sixteen-year-old daughter had hit her head. And she knew she would mark that spot.

Jolene chose a white cross, because she's a Christian. She selected a bouquet of roses, because Rose was Desarae's middle name. And she crafted a marker from concrete, because she wanted something lasting. "I was with my daughter when she came into this world," Jolene tells people, "but I could not be with her when she left it." And that is why, she says, the marker is shaped like a heart.

Descansos have their detractors.

In Florida, which banned the markers in 1997 after a contentious move toward officially sanctioned lollypop-shaped memorials, Jim Philips of Orlando's WTKS radio gave a T-shirt to anyone who plucked a descanso from the road. The signs were visible blight, he declared, and apparently his listeners agreed. The station collected so many descansos that after fifty or so, Philips asked people to stop bringing them in and instead to simply throw them away. Which they did.

"It was getting ridiculous," Philips recalls. "Central Florida was getting to look like Mexico or Guatemala. Every time a drunk went off the road and hit a tree, someone would put up a cross. Some were eight feet tall, like the cross Jesus was crucified on. Some looked like tombstones. Some had electricity. You'd get people sitting out beside them in lawn chairs. They'd put up Christmas tree lights and fake ivy and silk flowers...I understand they mean a lot to people, but memorials are essentially for cemeteries, not for rights-of-way. Florida is ugly enough without that stuff on the road."

A veteran firefighter in Massachusetts argued that the memorials were hard on the paramedics, police and witnesses who'd been at the crash scenes. The shrines, he said, only served to remind people of the horror, pain and suffering they'd seen. "Let them take their memories and be private," David Yalenezian told a Boston newspaper. "Why do they have to show it in public, where it can hurt other people?"

In South New Jersey, the chairman of a transportation authority termed the descansos along the Atlantic City Expressway "morbid" and pushed through a new policy allowing the markers only if they are posted under a police escort. Even then, they had to come down after ten days. "Look at this ten years from now," Stanley Glassey told a reporter. "This could really get out of hand."

In Nevada, the family of a girl killed in a car wreck demanded that her friends remove a descanso dedicated to her. Because of the marker, they complained, their commute was "almost like going to the cemetery every day."

In California, road crews are ordered to remove the memorials on sight. Although state officials say they respect the intent of the markers, they argue that descansos distract drivers and hinder maintenance. So if they're in the way, they come out. No exceptions. When a California road worker died in the line of duty and his colleagues posted an orange construction cone with a poem, officials took it away. "We remove them as soon as possible," says Gene Berthelsen, spokesman for the California Transportation Department. "We consider them a traffic hazard. If someone has already had an accident there and someone else drives by and looks at the memorial instead of the road, they're liable to have another accident. We try to be sensitive. People want to grieve and remember their loved ones. But if they constitute a safety hazard, they come out."

At the other end of the spectrum is New Mexico, which treats descansos with respect. Road crews simply work around them unless the markers block traffic or obstruct views, in which case they will relocate them. As a result, some descansos have stood for decades. "As long as they're not endangering motorists, we don't have any problems with them," says Anthony Gonzales, a highway-department spokesman. "It's one of those things where we turn our heads if they're not causing a problem. Our guys have a lot of respect for them, especially up north, because they might know the person who died. They're close to our culture. People take pride in them. They signify a part of New Mexico."

Although few maintenance crews patrol their states' roads for illegal markers, most remove descansos if someone complains about them. A couple of states set time limits on the markers, and others encourage grieving families to participate in official memorial projects, such as adopt-a-highway campaigns.

In Texas, memorials are allowed on state highways only for DWI-related deaths. Houston district judge Ted Poe takes it further: He requires people convicted of causing fatal wrecks to raise and maintain white crosses at the crash scenes. So far, twenty such monuments have been posted. "It lets the accused know that a life was taken there for no reason," Poe says. "When they're out digging the hole and tending the ground, some have had pretty emotional reactions. One offender said, 'That was the first time I realized I took someone's life.'"

Montana follows a similar rationale for its memorial program, which dates back to 1953, when six people died in car wrecks over the Labor Day weekend and the American Legion posted white crosses at each of the crash sites. Today there are hundreds of death markers along the roads. "It's pretty tough to find a highway that doesn't have one," says Pete Richardson, a Montana highway patrol sergeant and American Legion member. "People die on the highway every day. It's hard to count how many crashes you prevent, but it has been well-received. The crosses speak for themselves."

Karen Long waits up for her children now. It doesn't matter where they have been or how late they are. When they walk through the front door, Karen is there. After Angela died, it was something she promised to do. Four years later, she has kept her word.

Angela was on her way to Eaton from her boyfriend's house in Greeley. They think she fell asleep at the wheel, because there were no skid marks leading to the telephone pole. Angela had not been drinking, but it was late, around midnight, and she had been burning the candle at both ends. She was days away from her high school graduation and had already started work at the paint store. She wasn't speeding, either, and the road was paved and straight. But somehow, her little Ford found the telephone pole, spun around and threw Angela into a field. They said she was wearing her seatbelt, but how can you know?

The deputies posted the cross. They do that when someone dies on Weld County roads. Angela's friends added mementos, Karen's husband brought flowers, and the marker became a permanent memorial. Later the cross was nailed to the pole that Angela had hit so it wouldn't be battered by the rain and wind.

Karen waited a long time before she visited the marker. Even now, she seldom goes there. Sometimes she will drive miles out of her way to avoid it, even though it's on her way home. But it is in a beautiful place, she does admit that. There's a little creek nearby and plenty of grass. Still, she prefers the privacy of the cemetery, where there's a picture of Angela on the headstone and words to remember her by.

To tell the truth, Karen doesn't really know why they put the cross up. The ground is sacred, yes; it is the place where angels came for Angela. But it is a sad place, too. The place where she lost her oldest daughter. And the few times Karen has stood beside the white cross, she has felt lonely.

Colorado's highway department has mixed feelings about descansos. When road crews notice the memorials on state or federal highways (where they are also illegal), they either take them down or order the families to do so. In October 1998, for instance, the family of nineteen-year-old Sabrina Stevens raised a sturdy pink cross off C-470 in Lakewood, where a truck driver had found her nude body. The next day, someone saw a photo of the memorial in a newspaper and complained. So the state asked the Stevens family to come back from Arizona and remove it.

But that doesn't mean hunting down descansos is a top priority, says Dan Hopkins, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. Colorado would much rather have maintenance teams patching potholes, fixing guardrails and plowing snow than pulling up roadside memorials, he explains. Besides, the highway department is not completely insensitive. When possible, Hopkins says, it directs grieving families toward a memorial-sign program pushed by Mark George, a detective with the Boulder Sheriff's Department, and Pati Lloyd, executive director of the Denver chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

That project began in 1996, after George returned from trips to Hawaii and New Mexico, where he saw dozens of descansos along the roads. George, who is an expert in DWI education and prevention, wanted to use similar symbols in Colorado to raise awareness about DWI deaths. And Lloyd wanted to start an education campaign, because the year before, Colorado had recorded one of its worst years for DWI deaths: 232 in 1995 alone. Following Texas's lead, they chose small wooden crosses as memorials.

But no sooner had they planted the first marker off Flagstaff Road in Boulder than someone called the American Civil Liberties Union. The caller had seen a newspaper photo of George in uniform planting a cross for an eighteen-year-old girl who was killed while joyriding on the top of a car. (She and her friends had been drinking.) The ACLU demanded that George scrap the program: Uniformed government officials cannot be seen endorsing religious symbols, its attorneys said.

Instead of arguing their case in court, George and Lloyd developed another design: a white, diamond-shaped sign with a red ribbon "X" on it. The new sign passed public scrutiny and also ACLU attorneys, and was soon adopted in Boulder County. When the idea reached the state, though, it hit a wall. The only diamond-shaped signs allowed on Colorado highways, George and Lloyd were told, were yellow notices that include traffic-related warnings.

So they went back to the drawing board. This time they came up with a rectangular sign with a blue background, white lettering and the red "X." And this version was applauded by state officials, who posted the first official marker in 1997 at Orchard and Parker roads to commemorate the death of sixteen-year-old Michael Wagner, killed at the site by a drunken driver the year before.

Since then, the blue-and-white signs have been adopted by a half-dozen cities and counties in Colorado, including Denver. They cost $100 and can be posted only under certain conditions, such as a DWI or drug-related death. Even then, they are allowed to stand only two years.

"Word is getting out," Lloyd says. "This program is going statewide. It helps people stop and think. It helps families, too."

It wasn't supposed to happen. Not this way. Not to Lloyd Elder.

He rarely drank. He never wanted to. He grew up on a farm with fresh air and hard work and lived his life clean and strong. He raised his family the same way.

When he retired from the dairy business four years ago, he took a job tending the grounds at the Vernon Taylor estate. He and his wife, Peggy, lived on the property. When they went to work, they walked across the yard.

On that day, a Tuesday, Lloyd was headed home after playing a late hockey match. By the time he showered and dressed, it was after midnight.

He loved hockey. Even at his age, which was 66, he was still out there giving them fits.

He had passed the intersection of Wadsworth and Morrison and was only a few hundred yards from the driveway when she hit him.

The 27-year-old had been drinking. She had borrowed a friend's Chevy SUV when she left the bar. Then she'd sped up the hill, jumped the median, plowed over two traffic signs and swerved into oncoming traffic. When the Chevy finally stopped, the speedometer was frozen at 77 mph. The airbag saved her life. She suffered only a broken wrist. Later, she was sentenced to community service and work release. This winter she's supposed to be released. Early.

Peggy remembers the sirens that August night. She remembers thinking, "Something happened. And it's bad. And it's close." But never in a million years did she think it was Lloyd out there on the side of the road with the flashing red lights and the paramedics.

When they told her about the DWI memorial-sign program, Peggy wasn't sure what to do. She didn't need a reminder of where Lloyd had died: She drives past the spot every day. Even after fourteen months, it's still a difficult thing to do. But if that sign can save even one life, she thought, then it's worth it. So on a bright October morning, Peggy stood by the side of the intersection at Wadsworth and Morrison with family, friends and a few highway department workers and watched two men raise a sign that reads: "Don't Drink and Drive. In Memory of Lloyd E. Elder."

"Thank you," Peggy said afterward. "It's a comfort."

She and Lloyd had been married 42 years. He was so close to home.

Scholars agree that official markers console grieving families and warn motorists of the dangers of drinking and driving. But they will never replace descansos. The identical white crosses, blue-and-white signs, lollipop-shaped memorials, non-controversial as they might be, overlook the reason many descansos exist in the first place: They personalize grief.

"This is one case where the states could just back off," Stephen Sapp says. "I think the states could give a little more leeway to needs of people who are grieving. And these roadside memorials seem to be a relatively benign way of doing that. I'd much rather have people be able to erect roadside memorials than have them standing outside bars and shooting everyone who looks tipsy because a drunk driver killed their little girl."

Zdravesky agrees. "To me, taking them down is like desecrating a cemetery," he says. "I can understand if they're out in traffic or drawing a crowd, but all the descansos I've seen aren't like that. It's just this whole thing about people who are nervous about death and the customs surrounding death. When you get a descanso that has plastic flowers and teddy bears -- in some people's minds, it borders on bogey-wogey stuff. Colorado, California and Florida are just too politically correct."

But even when forbidden, descansos will pop up anyway. Zdravesky knows families who move the markers to private property (with permission from landowners) or simply return them to public roads. In Albuquerque, one woman planted an evergreen beside the interstate where her husband died in a car wreck. The tree was chopped down and burned three times by persons unknown. Each time, the woman planted another. "It's still there," Zdravesky says. "After all that, it's still there."

And while roadside memorials might turn the head of an occasional motorist, billboards, neon signs and even cell phones are far more distracting, say descansos' defenders. "Most descansos are too small and modest to be any kind of blight," Collins says. "I like to see things on the landscape that are built from the heart. If they remind people to ease up on the accelerator or watch out at an intersection, that serves a purpose."

Besides, McRee adds, blight is in the eye of the beholder. "My God," she says. "What about all the signs that say 'Buy McDonald's hamburgers?' With descansos, how wonderful to have a tradition so old and strong in a homogenous society. There are so few traditions left. The fact that it is growing instead of dying is really quite exciting."

"They're a part of the landscape that I'm used to and that I rather like," James Griffith agrees. "They're reminders of the strength of family ties as well as accidents and violence. Some of them are downright beautiful."

Before more states start yanking memorials from the roadside, they should take a lesson from history. In 1783, when Spanish settlers were dying at the hands of Apaches and descansos were popping up faster than homesteads, the bishop of Sonora wrote the commander general of New Spain to complain that the memorials "cheapened the holy symbol of the cross," exposed the icon to acts of irreverence, frightened settlers and encouraged the marauding Apaches. Spanish officials ordered all markers removed. "It was so successful that the tradition continues today," Griffith chuckles. "The internal combustion engine and consumption of alcohol might have replaced the Apaches, but the roadside markers are still around."

And ban or no ban, Collins says, the markers always will be. "When you talk to the people who put them up, that spot just means too much to them to be ignored," he says.

Six months have passed since Robert visited the place where Lenny died. As he wades through knee-high weeds along Highway 66, he is surprised to see a vase of red and white flowers.

"Look at that," he says through a grin. "I didn't think there was anything here."

He bends down, yanks a weed from the memorial site, kicks a stone, yanks another weed, sets the cracked vase upright, then straightens a bouquet of sun-bleached flowers. While he works, a fat shiny beetle scurries across the sand, and a spider curls its legs inside the dust-covered vase.

"Yeah," Robert says. "It's been a while."

In the days after his brother's death in June 1996, Robert and his family visited the marker several times a week. Someone had moved it from its original spot on the shoulder to a nearby ravine, presumably so it wouldn't interfere with traffic, but that was okay. Robert's family planted a rosebush and spread blue and white gravel around the marker. They tended the ground on weekends and on their way home from work. It was good for them, like therapy.

But last Halloween, someone stole Lenny's cross. They uprooted the marker, even though it was welded to a pipe sunk seven feet into the ground. Robert and his family searched the weeds and called highway officials but couldn't find a trace. "It's sad," Robert says. "I put a lot of work into it. A lot of love. And then for someone to just take it?"

He felt close to Lenny here. Although he has a picture of his brother in his living room and Lenny's ashes in a special toolbox, he'd come to this lonely roadside to talk, smoke a cigarette, think about things.

"This was someplace to go and take care of," Robert says. "To show Lenny that we care about him and that we haven't forgotten."

Now, as he stands over the tattered little bouquet, Robert decides to renew a promise he made when the descanso first disappeared. "It's time to put something back up here," he says.

He already has the design figured out. This time the cross will be larger and made of wood. Again the ground will be decorated with blue and white gravel. They are Robert's favorite colors, blue and white. They reminded him of the sky and the clouds. Something enduring.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >