A Stop for Rest Along the Way
Grapefruit Boulevard is what they call Highway 111 in the town of Thermal, California. Going through town, it has the right of way over the roads that intersect it, so cars tend to blast through as they cruise from Coachella to the Salton Sea and on to Calexico. But at Avenue 62 there's a four-way stop.
This change-up in traffic control was the reason the roadside shrine caught my eye as we slowed down to stop in the southbound lane. It was an elaborate double shrine, its twin crosses and red, white and blue palette bright against the dun-colored sand and dry brown creosote brush.
There was no other traffic on a Friday around high noon. So we made a careful U-turn and parked on the northbound shoulder to take a closer look. The word “shrine” comes from the Latin scrinium, a “case or chest for books or papers,” and this one consisted of two sturdy wooden boxes used as niches to shelter photos and offerings from the sun and rain. They were marked with metal crosses elaborately embellished with welded scrolls and curlicues. In the Latino culture of Mexico and the American Southwest, memorials marking the site of a loved-one's death echo back to a long and abiding tradition. In rural villages, pall-bearers carrying the coffin from the funeral to the graveyard, might need to rest a moment along the hot and dusty road. These resting places were called descansos, and shrines were built there to remember the dead. In later years, grieving families erected similar memorials where lives were lost in highway accidents. Often elaborate, with a variety of offerings including candles and flowers, and items favored by the dead, like cigarettes, beer, or CDs of their favorite tunes, the shrines are faithfully tended and renewed by families, sometimes for years.
This shrine marks the memory of two young men, 20 year old Victor Elizarraraz, and his friend Christian Garcia Regalado. Just before midnight on November 19, 2011, they were in Victor's Hyundai sedan going east on Avenue 62 when they were struck by a northbound tractor-trailer hauling 30,000 pounds of melons and lettuce. Victor was ejected from the car and according to the Riverside County Coroner's report, died on the "dirt shoulder 148 feet north of Avenue 62." Christian died in the fire that engulfed the Hyundai. The truck driver escaped before flames spread to his cab.
Victor and Christian's memorial includes a crucifix hung atop the niche, figurines of angels and one of the Virgin of Guadalupe. There are crosses fashioned from palm fronds, votive candles, and a rosary. There is a small silver tinsel Christmas tree. There are also cans of Bud Light and Coors, and a bottle of Corona.
The few news reports that chronicled the accident were unclear which vehicle ran the stop sign, but noted that alcohol may have been a factor.
Solar landscaping lights are attached to the shrine, carefully held on by conduit clamps. I can imagine how they must glow softly at night, having gathered the harsh desert sun.
Debates about roadside shrines appear regularly in newspapers, city council meetings, and other forums. People who oppose shrines cite different reasons. Some think they are unsightly, especially as the mementos are ravaged by time and weather. Some feel shrines are morbid reminders of death. Others fear the shrines distract drivers, and endanger those who tend them on the side of the road. Yet other objectors see religious memorials on the public right-of-way as a violation of the constitutional principle separating church and state.
The flipside of the constitutional argument sees shrines as expressions of religion protected under the First Amendment. Another argument in favor of shrines contends that these spontaneous expressions of grief provide comfort for families and communities. Some supporters claim the shrines actually contribute to safety, cautioning drivers to slow down at dangerous intersections.
Laws regarding roadside shrines vary greatly from state to state. In some states they are prohibited. In others they are allowed for a time, but removed after a mourning period.
Certain states offer alternate methods to mark sites of traffic-related deaths; most erect uniform signs bearing the victim’s name. In West Virginia, a choice of messages is offered, and signs are not made available to victims whose “wrongful conduct was the proximate cause of the crash.” The state of Delaware seeks to answer the needs both of families and public safety, with the Delaware Highway Memorial Garden. Planted with native trees and shrubs, its paths are paved with stones carved with victims’ names,
Some states allow memorials that comply with state criteria. Memorials in Texas may not include photographs, and may not mention the death was caused by drunk driving unless a conviction has been confirmed. Other states fully support shrines - In New Mexico, it is a crime to deface or destroy a descanso.
California law is among the harshest when it comes to roadside shrines; they are banned and violators fined up to $1000. Yet here on Highway 111 through the town of Thermal, Victor and Christian’s shrine still remains, its solar-powered lights glowing in the dark.
I am not a religious person but I think there's something a grieving heart takes from these creations that it cannot get from blue enameled signs or carved official bricks. These collections of objects, unique to each individual, represent the outpouring of feeling that families and friends must express in order to cope with the loss of one who has departed too soon, too abruptly.
Descansos are deeply personal – dedicated to the victim as well as a specific saint, ancestor, or martyr. More than mere remembrances, shrines impart a visual force and focus to prayers. They honor and connect. They are about being in the presence of those who have passed.
The Latin expression numen inest appears in a verse cycle by the Roman poet Ovid, as he describes how a shady oak grove seemed imbued with spiritual meaning. Numen inest translates to “There is a spirit here.”
To be here, to see a face in a faded photograph, a pack of smokes or a beer favored by the departed, confronts us with a death that is not an abstraction. Devotion expressed with such love and creativity conjures up the humanity of the departed. I myself have very little in common with young men like Victor or Christian. Yet when I see the descanso made in their names, it is powerfully clear that someone loved them. If their shrine makes me, a stranger, remember these young men even for a moment, I think there must be spirits here.
Look around here at the dusty verge, the creosote bushes, the open sky. This place was a witness when these young men each drew his last breath. But Victor and Christian do not rest here. They just stopped here along the way.
About the Author
After a long career in theatre production, Glennis Waterman retired and returned to school to get that Creative Writing degree she meant to get when she was 20. She is now a recent graduate of the MFA Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans, and she is living a wonderful life in the city of New Orleans.