Sacred Byways and roadside shrines

Redemption lies by the side of the road.

You see it out of the corner of your eye, a blurred white cross propped up by a mosaic of color. Sometimes two or three are bunched together. Then there are the ones in plain view either coming or going that at first jar the eye but if you stop, get out, and take a look, end up stabbing the heart.

Roadside memorials are no longer a rare occurrence along the highways in Nevada or, for that matter, across the country. They mark the place where one person's life ended and other lives were changed forever. Often put up by friends or even strangers, they remind us of our own mortality even as they hold an earthly place for the deceased.

No hard statistics exist, but the custom of erecting shrines at the site of a highway tragedy seems to be on the rise.

"Certainly there are more of them out there than there ever used to be," said Carole Blair, professor of American Studies at UC Davis.

Although the custom has Hispanic roots in the western United States, Blair thinks it is part of an even broader cultural trend.

"It doesn't tend to follow ethnic lines, though that is a factor," she said. "A whole bunch of things are contributing to it.

"Today, death rituals tend not to occupy as important a place in a highly urbanized, highly mobile society. Formal death practices have disappeared from our society, and people are, in part, compensating by putting up these memorials," said Blair.

Half a century ago, the deceased often lay in state in the family parlor before a funeral and wake were held. In some farm families, the body was given a final tour around the land holdings before the burial. Cremation was not as common then and cemeteries were elaborate, spacious affairs.

Yet even when there is a gravesite for the family to visit, a shrine will often go up as a way to deal with a particularly senseless tragedy.

It's been 12 years since a drunk driver leaving a company picnic at Bowers Mansion slammed into Ruby Velarde Moya's car doing an estimated 88 mph. Moya, who was in her early 30s, was killed, leaving behind two small boys and a pair of grieving parents who buried their daughter at Sierra Memorial Gardens.

Today, Cordy Velarde visits her daughter's grave twice a month. But she and her husband have also maintained a shrine in Ruby's memory near the entrance to Washoe Valley.

"We decided to put up a memorial because so many people come out of Bowers drunk," said Velarde. "We just decided to do it on our own, to let people know our daughter was not just killed, but killed by a drunk driver. We wanted people to know why she died."

Her husband Gilbert made a small plaque to go on the white marker that sits off the edge of the road. Every year, he repaints the cross.

"When I'm out there people will stop and ask me about it," he said. "I always tell them what happened."

Recently they noticed someone added a sculptured metal cross to the shrine.

"We don't know who did it, but it's beautiful," said Cordy Velarde.

Yet, often the famiy has nothing to do with the memorial, and empathetic strangers are putting up the markers as a public gesture, said Blair. The Polly Klaas incident prompted a huge display with teddy bears and other mementos. The kidnapped 12-year-old's body was found along Highway 101 near Petaluma.

Carson City resident Christopher Stevens had the same reaction when the body of 9-year-old Krystal Steadman was discovered near Clear Creek Canyon off Spooner Summit.

"I did it for personal reasons," said Stevens, who drives that road every day to his job at Raley's in Incline Village. "I have two kids of my own about the same age, and it hurt to see that bare empty spot, knowing what happened there."

So during a long work shift, he got together some 2-day-old flowers, a can of leftover spray paint, and created a shrine for the spot. Others have added to the memorial, and Stevens takes pleasure from the fact that it still stands and looks cared for. He has not heard how the family feels about it.

"It just gives me some peace of mind," he said.

Shrines have long been common to the Southwest, according to David Epple of Arizona Cactus & Succulent Research. The locals call them "descansos," meaning "resting place." The terms "crucitas" and "memorias" are also heard.

Entire Web sites are devoted to posting photos of shrines in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, where the tradition has been in place since the days of the early Spanish explorers. As the Conquistadors made their way through what was to be New Mexico, whenever someone died along the trail, they were buried at that place, and a simple cross was erected to mark where the soul left the body.

Even after towns became large enough to sustain their own cemeteries, the custom of marking a roadside death held on. Descansos remain true to their origins, and entire families still make yearly pilgrimages to the place where a loved one died to replenish the shrine, to pray and to rest.

Immigration patterns have also helped spread the custom across the country, said Blair. Roadside crosses have become so popular that a company called Shrinerite Productions in Bisbee, Ariz., offers a line of mail-order shrine-making kits through its Web site.

So many shrines have popped up in Oregon that the state Department of Transportation has had to abandon its policy of looking the other way and is starting to take them down. Florida regulates the custom by having its Department of Transportation put up a standardized small marker at the family's request.

In Nevada, the shrines are technically prohibited, but officials at NDOT can see both sides of the story.

"Our unwritten approach is that these memorials reflect the grief of loss," said NDOT spokesman Ed Wilson. "If they are well off the roadway and present no tremendous distraction, we let them alone."

Shrines are not without controversy, and as more and more appear the state is having to walk a finer line between those who feel the roadside is no place for a memorial and those who need to express their grief.

"We all need to be somewhat sensitive to those who are grieving," said Wilson. "Let's face it, how far do you take the letter of the law? We want to be flexible about this."

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