The sun descends behind western slopes as I drop down Banner Grade from Julian toward the Anza-Borrego Desert on High 78 — nearly 1500 feet in five miles. A park ranger I met at the Julian Post Office told me to keep an eye out for an iron gate on my right. Someone was shot there, she thought, near the mouth of the Chariot Canyon some years back. She, too, has a thing for road shrines.
I drive slowly through a mixed forest of pines and hardwoods, past tin-roofed cabins tucked into draws, a sign on my left: "Paint Ball Playing Field." I entertain fantasies, inevitable to the search for death's residuals. At a horseshoe turn at foot of the grade, a wrought-iron gate bristles Keep Out warnings. A cairn of stones, visible in the last light, sprouts a crude ghostly cross. "Creepy," my companion says.
But I find it strangely beautiful. For I have become a hunter of "shrines," "roadside memorials, "highway memento mori," "crash site" (as J.G. Ballard and MADD activists call them) — stark white crosses or bright upbeat efflorescences at the base of telephone poles — commemoratives erected by the passing living to the slaughtered dead. Outlets for grief, warnings, attempts to deal with death in a society that shuns it, they are also a curious means of communal bonding.
Death is a solemn quarry, you learn to stalk it respectfully, alert, seeking signs; the contrast of sunlight and shadow on "Cigarette Hills" to the east, velvety chaparral in late November light, a chill rising off the forest floor, artificial flowers and sunflowers wedged between stones; a cross woven of twigs, garlanded with artificial lilies, seemingly fashioned by Neolithic wanderers with a Kmart account. Literally the "tree of life" in the iconography of the cross, though anything but verdant with its dead branches. A stream trickles past into Chariot Canyon in the smell of greenery and moist air. The metal gate blocking entrance to the canyon forebodes with dire warnings: BLM Land — Keep Out! A haunting place, this eerie contrast of tranquility and murder.
Something crashes in brush across the road. When I look up the noise ceases. An animal? Or are we watched through crosshairs of a rifle scope? Death lingers here. We don't.
Muzak tinkles in Banner Grocery just beyond, a touristy curio shop beside the Banner Recreation Ranch RV park. A woman with a tightly knit cap of gray hair appears from the back in a gray sweater, arms folded. She frowns at my tape recorder. "There was two of 'em shot," Evelyn tells me, four or five years ago. "Not on the highway but back up in. It was quite a to-do. There was never anything solved. First we heard they were CIA, then you heard they were the FBI. But, anyway, they were the caretakers of the property, and the other people were out with AK-47s shooting, and they tried to stop them." The shrine is maintained, she says, by "some of them" up in Julian; she doesn't know who all. "Mainly, the one who was killed was Chris Zerbe, his parents still live in Julian."
As I return up Banner Grade, just past Day Springs Ranch, my headlights rake reflectors on a plain white cross thrust above the guard rail, boldly visible as it wasn't in daylight. Here, in 1992, 47-year-old Roger Dubois of Julian had a heart attack driving and plunged through the rail to his death on the canyon floor hundreds of feet below. Granite Mountain broods low and dark to the southeast. Far below, smoke rises from deep forest in the day's decaying light: Paint Ball Tag Playing Field, AK-47s, men dressed in camo — known as "weekend Rambos" hereabouts. A road shrine to unsolved murder. I'm intrigued.
We return to tony Julian — scrimshaw and pie shops, soft contrast to Banner Grade's hard-scrabble mining settlements carved into hillsides — and eat barbecued ribs and apple pie at the Bailey Woodpit Barbecue. Enough death for one day.
The true story of the Banner Grade murders, the "official story," pieced together from newspaper accounts and interviews is a strange fiction indeed. Briefly this: Edward "Joe" Lopes (66) and Christopher Zerbe (34) were shot to death on the evening of May 29, 1989, near the Ready Relief Mine, a tenth of a mile up the canyon from the crude memorial on High 78, in a Wild West shoot-out over gold claims. According to the Evening Tribune, an El Cajon family, Gustav Hudson, his wife Mary, their son Matthew, daughter heather, and three young family friends had come to picnic and target shoot in Chariot Canyon on a "placer" gold claim the Hudsons had recently filed. They were "dressed for war games, wearing heavy boots, strapped-on knives and ammunition clips," according to the first person to come on the scene, armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, a .22 rifle, a 9.2 mm rifle, 12-gauge shotgun, and 9 mm pistol. Just the thing for a little target practice.
The Hudsons told police that Zerbe, caretaker of the Ready Relief Mine, and Lopes met them at the wrought-iron gate and asked them to leave in a "belligerent" and "profane" manner but backed off when the Hudsons produced documentation of their claim. Shortly later, Zerbe and Lopes returned in a pickup truck and parked near a cabin above the Hudson party. According to the Hudsons, they fired at Mary Hudson, who was picking up the trash. The Hudson men returned fire until the pickup door swung open and Chris Zerbe fell to the ground atop his rifle. Joe Lopes slumped in the pickup seat, dead from bullet wounds to the head and chest.
The Hudsons claimed self-defense, and authorities brought no charges against them. Sheriff's investigators reported two rifles, two shotguns, and plentiful ammunition in the pickup truck. But Bennett Paul Scott, first on the scene, said he saw only a dismantled "long-barreled gun" wedged between the driver's and passenger's seats, Joe Lopes's hands nowhere near it. Richard Zerbe, whose son Christopher died in the shoot-out, speculated at the time that investigators may have been prejudiced by his son's history of run-ins with law enforcement and a drunk-driving conviction.
Theories abound, from gun-feverish overreaction to speculation that Zerbe and Lopes stumbled onto a drug deal. Why else would the Hudsons be carrying an assault rifle? But sheriff's homicide detective John Tenwolde told Tribune staff writer Dee Anne Traitel that "lots of people are carrying AK-47s for target shooting in the back country." Some surmised that after killing Zerbe, the Hudson party felt they had to kill old Joe Lopes too.
In a recent phone interview, Richard Zerbe tells me it is unlikely we will ever know what happened that evening in Chariot Canyon. "The only witnesses we have are the people who perpetrated the action." The district attorney assured the Zerbes there wasn't enough evidence to substantiate criminal charges. "We carried it as far as we thought was appropriate. His last advice was to put it behind us and get on with our lives, which we did." A criminal conviction wouldn't bring their son back. "That was the bottom line." Besides, Zerbe admits, "There would have been some doubts as to whether Christopher was completely justified in what he did, or at least what they say he did. I suspect — to be honest with you — that probably alcohol had something to do with it."
Zerbe tells me his son "was not an ordinary type guy." He worked in stained glass and was "taking reasonable amounts of gold" out of the Hubbard Mine in Chariot Canyon and "supporting himself with the take," Zerbe says. "And I don't think he wanted anybody really to know that that property was still valuable, particularly the people who were moving in there on the placer claim.
"Today happens to be our wedding anniversary, 45 years. And Christopher was our only son. [Zerbe sighs] What can I say?" Eight years after his son's death he still thinks about him every day. The memorial on Banner Grade appears and disappears periodically, likely removed by Caltrans. Zerbe doesn't know who put up the current version but imagines it was one of his son's many friends. "His personality has lived on in the minds of some." The shrine is testimony to that. Best seen not as memento mori but memento vitae, a reminder of a life lived...cut off at the quick. Typically, it is young friends of victims who construct such memorials, not family members.
Sudden, violent death has long been stigmatized in the West. While Europeans in the Middle Ages regarded death with an equanimity unknown to us — which Philippe Aries calls the "Tame Death" —they saw unexpected death as shameful, a sign of divine displeasure, since it gave the deceased no chance to make peace with God before dying. All who died abruptly, other than in battle, were cast out and forgotten, as if they'd never existed. Roadside memorials reflect our continuing fear of sudden, traumatic death — but in a form consistent with our cult of selfhood. Both advertisements for the self and cries of outrage and rebellion: "Remember This Life" or "This Should Not Be So."
Or "We Love Heather 1980-96," spelled out with Styrofoam cups jammed into gaps of a chain-link fence on Montiel Road, off Rock Springs Road in San Marcos. When I first passed the memorial to Heather Lynn Hanson in the fall of '96, I surmised a card had plunged off the camp above, connecting I-15 to Highway 78 west. Who was Heather Hanson? How did she die on the wide, weeded, anonymous shoulder of the road — at 16: On her way to soccer practice perhaps (a girl's cleats at foot of the fence)? Out partying with cheerleader friends (orange and black pom-poms wedged into links)? The girl gazing tentatively back at me from a large photo is round-cheeked, innocent, sky-eyed; brownish blond hair, parted at center, falls straight onto her shoulders, faint eyebrows apostrophe round brown eyes, an easy smile. What to make of small offerings — a salt shaker, deck of cards, lunch box...? They remain for months undisturbed. Even vandals shy before death's votives.
Over the months, I chronicle seasonal changes to the Montiel Road shrine: pumpkins on Halloween, votive candles and wreaths at Christmas, notes folded and jammed into chain links — like those left on a Central Park fence facing the Dakota apartments in New York where John Lennon was shot or the many poems said to ahve been left outside Pablo Neruda's home in Santiago. Heather's well-tended memory prospers here at her death site. There are photo collages mounted on foam core: girls mugging in a car, sprawled on the beach, couples standing before a limp on prom night. Heather's face superimposed over Washington's on a blown-up dollar bill. Notes of undying love and gaspily heartfelt poems, one by Lindsey Kulns:
Without you life seems not the same
You've been so cheated in this game
For you've played your part with all the rest
But I understand they take the best…
More somber tokens accompany this heady teenage smile gallery: crosses, wreaths of artificial poinsettias, a crude grave site outlined in stones, potted flowers along the fence. Flower — cut, potted, artificial — are ubiquitous to road shrines, recalling the Tame Death period when it was believed that the dead await salvation peacefully at rest in a flower garden. This mixture of the sentimental and macabre typifies road shrines, tokening our ambivalent feelings about that place where deep water meets the shore, for which this culture offers scant preparation.
Death is improper in America. "To be shunned, avoided, denied, and, if possible, conquered," writes David Moller in Confronting Death. An inconvenience we cannot tolerate. The ultimate bad credit report. We prefer to view our dead through video hookups at the coroner's and hide their corpses away in hospital basements. Many Americans have never seen a corpse. Why should they believe they actually exist? You can buy products for all other aspects of life at American shopping malls — anal suppositories, sex aids, zit medicine, toe-jam relief, illegal drugs (from kids out front) — but you won't find coffins sold there. Worst possible business venture, open a death accessory shop at North County Fair! Like homelessness, death is one of those mishaps that happens to other people, not to us. When someone we know dies, we think as Ivan Illich's contemporaries did in Tolstoy's story: "Well, he's dead, but I'm alive!" We turn away from death and hurry out the door. We find it hard even to say the D-word, instead say, "He passed away, expired, went sour, didn't make it, kicked the bucket, croaked.....He's been restructured," or "lit up," as they said in Vietnam. Thanatos has countless euphemisms.
Those who erect tributes to the dead along our highways are cultural guerrillas. They speak frankly, often in remarkable detail about a daughter or son who has died on the road. Mike Fulkerson, whose 21-year-old son, Brent, was killed by a drunk driver, urges me not to be hesitant. "We like talking about our children." Death has arrived in their lives unannounced and terribly, and they have no choice but confront it.
For Greg Smith of Rancho San Diego and his wife Maria Elena it arrived at 5:46 p.m. on Halloween 1996 when their 13-year-old son Erik was hit by a van on Jamacha Road in El Cajon. By coincidence, I find Erik's memorial exactly a year later on Halloween 1997 after a frustrating day of shrine hunting. Serendipity is death's first principle and rules the search for its traces.
I find no trace that day of the memorial to the 29-year-old woman who jumped off the Severin Drive overpass onto Interstate 8 in April of '95, or the one said to be at the Bradley Avenue exit off High 67 in Santee, where in 1991 pregnant Kimberly Lancaster sat at top of the off-ramp waiting for the light to change and was rear-ended by a drunk driver who careened onto the ramp at 80 mph. So many flowers once piled here, I'm told, such an outpouring of public sympathy, that Caltrans had to delay work on a project. I'm stuck in the Friday evening badlands amidst low prowling street rods and high-suspension pickups. Ahead of me, two shirtless dudes in a pickup with Arkansas plates turn their red mouths inside out yelling obscenities at a woman crossing the street. A gritty Santa Ana is blowing, hills to the east encased in acrylic haze.
I'm told by a friendly fellow at a gas station — sandy mustache, bowl-cut hair: Yeah, a little girl on a bicycle was run down at the traffic light pole on the Bradley Avenue overpass. It's the generic story I hear in Oceanside, Ramona, and Temecula. "Yeah, some drunk dude ran a kid down on a bike. They never caught him." The shrine is left up, so the story goes, in hopes the driver will suffer remorse and come forward. Details of roadside death distort in their retelling as in the telephone game kids play. At a 7-Eleven on Magnolia Avenue in El Cajon, a customer gives me directions to Erik Smith's shrine. The right side of her face so badly scarred that at first I think she's wearing a Halloween mask. "Shrine hunting is a hobby of mine," she quips. "Just Kidding!"
Near dusk, I find Erik's colorfully bedecked "bike lane" pole at Jamacha and Brabham, entwined with artificial vines, a heart-shaped balloon atop; at its base a profusion of fresh roses in plastic tubes, potted yellow dahlia, showy daisies, pink-throated orchids, a jack-o'-lantern with "E-R-I-K" carved in, candy corn, and other trick-or-treat goodies piled atop it. A boy in a green T-shirt peers out from a photo at eye level; a straight-ahead gaze, his smile toothy but not give-away, black hair combed back, ears sticking out. Possibly Hispanic. A tiny teddy bear hangs from a stickpin above him. In another shot, Erik kneels on a knee in a white-and-blue jersey holding a soccer ball. A postcard reads, "To the family of Erik Smith. You don't know me but I think and pray for you as I drive to work every day and pass Erik's memorial. I grieve for your loss." Signed: James Pascarella. Unlike death at home, death on the highway is a public event, open to the perusal of strangers. I tack a note to the pole. Greg Smith calls me the next day.
We meet at a Starbucks not half a mile from his son's death site. Smith tells me how his wife, Maria Elena, who teaches bilingual third-grade classes at Martin Luther King elementary school, went to pick eighth-grader Erik up from a Halloween play at Hillsdale Middle School. Somehow they "missed connections," so Greg returned to the school to look for Erik. Passing the corner of Jamacha Road and Brabham, he saw tire trucks and ambulances but continued on to the middle school on Brabham. He couldn't find Erik. "So I was driving on back and I saw the Life Flight helicopter coming in. And I thought, Well, I don't see any wrecked cars, so I ought to stop. Erik was lying there on the curb; he had been hit."
Smith's words come slowly. His eyes, naturally deep-set, seem carved back in his skull, his face grave, tallowy white, black hair slicked across his head. He reconstructs for me how his son had started walking the two miles home from school, as he often did. "And I think Erik was standing there, and he saw some traffic way down south a couple of blocks coming north. One of the tragic things, the crosswalk signal there was burned out that night. I think he thought somebody had to have the green light, and it must've been him." He ran across three southbound lanes, then angled catty-corner across northbound lanes, his back to traffic he hadn't seen coming — dressed in dark clothes, wearing his black backpack. The driver of the northbound van, who had the light, didn't see him either. "She hits him somewhere between 35 and 45 miles an hour," Smith says, "a very violent hit...dumps him on the street there." When Smith arrived on the scene, Erik's body functions were still okay but his brain was dead. "And they pretty much declared him dead there."
The Smiths spent the night with their son at Children's Hospital, where Erik was sustained on life support, awaiting the arrival of a San Francisco transplant team. It gave them a chance "to stand by him and hold his hand and just sort of hold him, you know. He was a good little guy." Smith's chin bunches, he looks up at me and nods. Of the organ donations — liver, kidneys, corneas — he says, "It was kind of automatic. In our mind, we just wanted to spread him out as far as we could." They were disappointed there wasn't a heart recipient.
By all accounts, young Erik Smith had a good heart. Father Jerry of St. Luke's Catholic Church in Rancho San Diego characterized him as "the quiet little guy with the great big smile." Smaller than the other boys but an eager, untiring soccer player. In a eulogy, International Soccernet said Erik's goal was to play soccer professionally. Craig Wollitz, principal at Hillsdale Middle School, tells me the school will give a yearly trophy to "a student who exemplifies Erik, being the leader, the happy-go-lucky, the good athlete, someone who tries all the time." Greg Smith says they never knew how many kids Erik would bring home from a game to spend the night. At school, he was known as "the Candyman," because he sold candy to his classmates. He always had some business going. With his older brother, Octavio, he raised reptiles to sell. Regularly, he treated his less flush pals at McDonald's, and a note left at the shrine tells how Erik befriended a classmate shunned by other kids. In a vigil homily, Father Jerry noted Erik's cheerfulness and quick wit. "No matter if it was in a jungle hut with a dirt floor, or a palatial home with floors of marble, Erik Smith fit in." He'd been around. Born in the Philippines, he'd traveled to Hong Kong, Japan, Panama, Mexico, where he practiced soccer with two older cousins who play in the Mexican professional league.
Smith shows snapshots of his son fishing at Lake Madison in South Dakota, where the family has a summer cabin. An uncle once said, "We didn't know how many fish there were in the lake until Erik started fishing it." Smith says he coached baseball and soccer teams his son was on. "The kids taught me soccer, and I just taught them basketball strategy, and we did well." Erik did his job like any other player, never argued with him. "Erik was probably the only coach's kid I ever saw on all those soccer and softball teams who never did that." Such pride in his smile.
We don't expect objectivity of parents whose children are torn crudely away from them. Besides, there may be something to the old saw "Only the good die young." Lives seen at adolescence or young adulthood are often seen at their best — all that raw energy and potential before life dulls it. As Father Jerry notes, "He died too young to become jaded by life." Moreover, roadside memorials aren't erected to everyone who dies on the road; arguably, only to those best loved.
Quietly, while the Smiths sat with their dying son at the hospital, neighbors and classmates decorated the pole near the accident scene. Some met at Cheryl Kevane's home in El Cajon to mark 2000 green ribbons with Erik's initials for schoolmates at Hillsdale Middle School and Valhalla High to wear (green was his favorite color). Kevane hoped they would help kids cope with his death. "The whole community really came together," Smith says. "I don't think there's ever been, outside of Easter maybe, a crowd as big as was in St. Luke's Catholic Church for the funeral. It just makes you feel real good." As Chris Marra, whose daughter was killed in a car accident, notes, roadside memorials are "a way for neighbors to take care of each other." Despite all the horror stories we hear, "people do nice things." Perhaps our perceived moral crisis isn't so much that we fail to be decent as that we too often overlook our decency. It doesn't make good copy.
Smith tells me his wife can't drive down that street anymore, but he likes going there, especially late at night. "It's the last place I saw Erik. You know, I can almost feel him, he's just there, I can still see him lying on the side. I like to go across there and see the last thing he saw before he started that run. So many things had to go wrong that night for that to happen."
We walk the accident site on Jamacha Road in drizzling rain. Greg Smith rehashes details of his son's death, pointing out where the van hit him between the inside and middle lanes, noting that Erik could run 60 feet in 4.2 seconds (he'd timed him for Little League); with the backpack on he would be slower, maybe 6 to 8 seconds in the street, 70 to 90 feet...trying to shave half a second off his time and get his boy safely across. It can't be done. Smith switches to present tense rehashing it, as if the accident occurs endless before him. This present that won't dissipate, X marks the spot forever. Is that what shrines are about? An existential inability to accept death? A desire to void it? A protest against its obscene mystery?
"It really hits you, hits you real deep, feels like everything inside has just been sucked out...You're ready for Mom or Dad to pass away, but it never occurs to you that you're going to be the one carrying on and your boy isn't."
Smith is hurt by the police report's suggestion that Erik ran blindly into traffic, a dumb kid partly to blame for his own death. "One news report said he 'darted' into traffic. After you run into about the sixth lane, I think you cease to 'dart.' "
He takes me by the school to show me a plaque and rosebush planted for Erik in a courtyard off the library and mentions a scholarship fund set up in his name. "It's just one of the ways to try to keep him alive," along with a picture collage hanging at home and mementos he harvests from his son's shrine. "You get proud of stuff like that, where you used to be proud of everything he could do on the soccer field or something he would do in school...You hate for him to be forgotten. You don't want to put him away in a closet in that cardboard box."
I look for objects attached to chain-link fences or traffic poles, any flash of color, ribbon or wreath, the ubiquitous white cross — a crucifix below a lopsided heart on a telephone pole on East Valley Parkway in Escondido, four forlorn crosses in a row by an alfalfa field on Ramona Expressway near Hemet; two spindly, wilting poinsettias in hatd-pack clay on College Boulevard off Palomar Airport Road in the industrial-park outback of Carlsbad — where, I'm told, a girl on a bike was run down — amid coldly indifferent glass-and-steel corporate catafalques, monuments to our collective anomie.
Shrines might be divided into six categories: Temporary, Seasonal, Permanent, Sanctioned, Warning, and Ghost. Temporary put up on impulse by young friends directly after death, tended until the kids move on — as on the Rancho Bernardo Road median east of Bernardo Center Drive, where two boys died one early morning in August 1996 when a drunk friend slammed a car into an olive tree at 83 mph. Seasonal revived on death and birth dates, holidays, effaced between by rain, wind, or Caltrans. Permanent rare, furtive, often illegally on public property. Officially Sanctioned shrines rarer still — the Cara Knott Memorial Bridge on Interstate 15, a mini-cactus garden and Caltrans marker on Kearny Villa Road off Camp Elliott, where 30-year-old Randall James Copeland was gunned down by gang members after a drag race in 1994. Ironically, Copeland worked in Caltrans' road-maintenance unit removing graffiti.
Unauthorized shrines put up along freeways are quickly removed. Olga Gonzalez of Caltrans tells me the agency routinely denies permits for them. Roadways aren't an appropriate place for memorials, Gonzalez says. "We would have a cemetery along the freeways. If we put a shrine in every location, we could connect the dots." A Caltrans permit engineer, who prefers anonymity, tells me "commemoratives" must be authorized through a concurrent resolution of the state legislature before you can even apply for a permit. They can be hazardous or distracting. "You can't have families stopping by to leave flowers and get rear-ended or something." During his four-year tenure, he has denied all requests for memorials and knows of no permits granted in the region.
Mark Gregg of the CHP tells me, "Basically, they are illegal." Officers wouldn't likely ticket someone erecting a shrine, but would be in their rights to do so. "Nothing can be affixed along roadways without written permission of state, county, or city officials," he says. A spokesperson for the San Diego City Clerk's office can find no city laws on the books regarding memorials. Bill Robinson of the San Diego Police Department tells me, "We respect the grieving process, and if part of that process includes temporary memorials, we have no problem with that" — as long as they're not too big and no laws are broken. So it's: state roadways, No! county, Maybe! city, Okay...? Not surprisingly, most are found on the county's back roads.
The blinking yellow warning light put up on a bad curve on 3rd Street in Ramona after a car passenger was killed there could be considered another kind of shrine. Most common are those that disappear through time or attrition, which I cal Ghost shrines — as to pregnant Kim Lancaster at Bradley Avenue. I chase down leads to many of these, walk roads looking for telltale signs. Ephemeral, evanescent, they may be death's truest emissaries. The living whir past unaware, leaving the dead to tend their dead.
The first time Cheri Smith (no relation to Erik Smith) and her husband Mike drove by the scene of their daughter Laura's accident, about 1:30 a.m. November 17, 1994, rushing west along Highway 52 to the hospital, they didn't see the ambulances, police cars, the demolished Honda. They had their eyes fixed on eastbound lanes, knowing their daughter and her friends had been on their way home to Santee from Del Mar. Doubtless they were. Cheri Smith's cousin Cathy had just called to tell them that her daughter, Michelle Freeburn, had called from the hospital. There had been an accident; no one would tell Michelle how badly Laura was hurt. "You guys need to get down here," she said.
Laura and Michelle had gone to the beach that night with two boys they hardly knew, nor knew how much the boys had been drinking. The boys sat in front, the girls in back; Laura alone wore her seat belt. At the point where 52 narrows from three to two lanes, the driver, 18-year-old Timo Wolf, apparently turned to talk to his pal. When he looked up, the Honda was headed off the road. He overcorrected and lost control of the car. It spun violently one direction, then the other, centrifugal force crashing occupants back in their seats, hit the median and flipped, continued on another 150 yards, rolling across westbound lanes, and slammed into an embankment. According to Marcie Sloan, Laura Smith's aunt, the driver's blood alcohol level was .12 two hours after the accident.
Sloan tells me that Cheri Smith knew from the way emergency-room nurses looked at each other when she arrived at the hospital that her daughter was dead. Mike Smith talked by phone with the coroner from the ER, confirming from the driver's license in her pocket that his daughter among the four kids in the car had been killed. Dazed and bewildered, the Smiths drove to her sister Marcie's home while their 20-year-old daughter Valerie stayed home with their two younger children. "I dropped the whole thing in Marcie's lap," Cherie Smith tells me, crediting her sister for bring her 10-year-old son through that period unscathed. "When he was a little bit leery of, like, 'Should I even talk to Mom right now' or whatever, he could go to Marcie." Sloan says she slept with all the cousins "in a great big huddle" on her sister's floor for two weeks after the accident. No one wanted to sleep alone. A close clan, the Smiths and Sloans. "Not like she has four children and I have four children, but we have eight kids," both sisters tell me.
By 5:30 a.m. it was on the news. Popular local girl killed by a drunk teenager — yearbook pictures, Laura's covered body lying beside the demolished car. Friends calling to ask, "Is this our Laura? Keep the kids away from the TV." "I remember going home and just sitting there going, 'This isn't real,' " Smith says. News teams were in the front yard interviewing her brother.
"But the kids, oh my goodness, the kids were wonderful," she says of Laura's friends. "I felt incredibly loved." So many came to the funeral that the church had to put chairs and speakers outside. Because of extensive head and neck injuries, they didn't do an open viewing of the body. The funeral director asked Smith if she would permit a closed-casket viewing. "They told me kids that age have to connect." They wanted a receiving line, wanted to touch her. Something tangible before death' vacuum.
Cheri Smith's words come in a rush, thoughts melding together. A short, energetic woman, with thick chocolate brown hair, she alternates between girlishly bubbly and pensive. I'm struck by the sisters' hunger for details of the accident. Sloan went over the 17-page accident report with the CHP, walked the site, noting skid marks and car parts. Despite Laura's head injuries, Cheri Smith insisted on seeing her daughter's body and was bewildered that all the injuries were on Laura's left side when she had been sitting on the right. Three weeks after the accident, she went with Marcie to inspect the wrecked car. Clumps of Laura's blond hair still hung out the window, and she realized that Laura was ejected out the back and the car came down atop her. "I kept thinking she had to be on the other side of the car...and to see her hair there, I went, 'Okay, she was sitting there.' And seeing the car, I went, 'Okay, that's why it killed her and the other three walked away.' " Such hunger for death's details, common to those who've lost a child, surely isn't morbid fascination. Sloan tells me, "It's like you can't let it rest, you can't incorporate that experience, until you have this information. Even though it hurts and you don't really want to know — you want to know." As novelist Russell Banks notes, "It's something we Americans are particularly reluctant to do, to live with a mystery, to live without causation."
At first, the family couldn't find the exact location of the accident but kept looking until they did. Sloan and her husband sometimes go to sit there at night, finding the place where their niece died both peaceful and disturbing. "Just chaparral and a fence," lights of Santee below. "I don't know what the fascination or the attraction to that spot is, but there definitely is one," Sloan says. "That was the last place that she was. I think maybe we just think there's something of her in that spot."
Cheri Smith says that they decorated the chain-link fence near the accident site because people kept asking where it was. Laura's friends drove up and down 52 trying to find it. That spot was all that remained of her. "So for the kids it's a closure. That's part of the reason at the beginning that you do it, because everyone wants to know. It's reinforcing it in your head that, because you can't see her anymore, and you can't hear her voice anymore, and you can't touch her, that this was the last connection point where she stopped being here." Before the huge, yawning, incomprehensible mystery of sudden death, young death, we must know. X marks the spot.
Sloan's daughter Kristina, a junior studying dance at Cal State, Long Beach, and Laura's 11th-grade sister Rebekah find Laura's death site more soothing than her grave site. The family has not yet even purchased a headstone. "The site is where she was alive," Rebekah says, "and the cemetery is where she was buried." But when nothing has been put up at the site, she finds it "cold and creepy." Kristina feels a pang whenever she passes, but afterwards "there's a warm feeling." She recalls a spunky cousin who "liked to take care of people," who would shovel the other kids' brussels sprouts onto her plate when parents left the room and eat as many as she could before they reappeared.
Other than the anniversary of her death, there's no given date when family or friends decorate the site. "The kids will start talking about it," Smith says, "and they'll do the 'Remember when Laura did this?' And that'll spark a whole conversation. 'Okay, it's time to do something.' " Once her son said he'd forgotten his sister's voice, so they took her flowers. "It's like you hit your peak of being down, and you have to make yourself be okay with it. 'Okay, she's not here, but we can remember her.' " Other times it's just "a fun thing to do."
Like Greg Smith, the family is grateful when someone leaves something — a balloon, dried flowers — evidence that Laura remains alive in someone's thoughts. Occasionally, her friends hang a banner on the fence: THINK OF LAURA. "She was, like, a real goof, and she loved to call attention to herself," her mother says. She adopted Christopher Cross's "Think of Laura" as a theme song. They plan to inscribe her headstone with its words: "Think of Laura dn laugh don't cry, for I know she'd want it that way."
To mark the spot, to stay connected, to warn others "that this did happen and it could happen again," roadside memorials are a postmortem advertisement of a life lived, inspired, Sloan thinks, by fear that the loved one will be forgotten by all but their immediate circle. "It will just be another face that, you know, 'something happened, poor girl, she's gone' type of a thing." Moreover, shrines provide an outlet for anguish and aid in the process of grieving and acceptance. Rebekah Smith and Kristina Sloan tell me coping with Laura's death has been easier than they expected. Kristina thinks it's because Laura remains part of their lives, not shunned or pushed away but incorporated. The memorial is one aspect of the openness that helps them cope with loss. They talk about her a lot, and Kristina has choreographed a dance about losing her cousin. In a performance some months after the accident, she looked up and saw Laura's face in the audience — "a flash" — and found it not "spooky" but "comforting." At times, Rebekah sees someone with her sister's long blond hair, and for an instant she sees Laura alive again.
But Laura's older sister Valerie has had trouble handling the loss, her mother tells me, and is in therapy. She can't visit Laura's shrine or discuss her. "If you mention her sister's name, her eyes will with tears...She lost her partner."
Losing a child, Smith says, can cause health problems, sleeplessness, a sense of ennui. At first, she moved "in a fog or a dream." Now, after four years, she says, "I'm just waking up." She recalls a woman who'd lost her 16-year-old son approaching her shortly after the accident and advising, "The things that pierce your heart and hurt so much now will become your best friend a while from now." It's true, Smith says. Now she remembers Laura less with pain than warmth. Her voice goes husky. "I think the only thing that I really struggle with still is that I miss her."
The fence at site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City decorated with balloons, flowers, and teddy bears; a maroon-and-gray headstone for Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas; a black obelisk marking the site of the first atomic bomb explosion at Ground Zero, Trinity Site, New Mexico; a granite memorial with a solar powered angel light atop for the children of Susan Smith, drowned when their mother ran her car into John D. Long Lake in Union, South Carolina; a bronze plaque on a granite boulder near the Wild Animal Park, honoring the American soldiers who "gave their lives in the battles of San Pasqual between the Americans and Mexicans Dec. 6-10, 1846"; a stone monument to 11 men who died fighting the Inaja forest fire near Julian in November 1956...Roadside memorials come in all varieties. Bronze memorials to Lenin were once so common along Russian roadways that when the Soviet Union collapsed, foundries fell on hard times — no orders since 1991.
I'm told shrines are "a Hispanic thing," "a Catholic thing," "a European thing." Yes, all of these. But memorials that identify victims in San Diego County are predominately Anglo and secular. Most to accident victims under 25, many killed by drunk drivers, often young themselves. Chris Marra, whose 18-year-old daughter Noelle was killed by a drunk driver on Pomerado Road in Scripps Ranch, says that when older people die we don't bother putting up a monument because there's isn't "the unfinishedness or the feeling of tragedy as with a young person of so much promise. It's just so unnatural." Young, tragic death so marks a life that death outweighs the living of it, becoming one's singular accomplishment. Adults don't need memorials, they erect monuments of their own lives, as the young dead have no chance to do.
According to Mark Gregg of the CHP, 29 percent of all fatal accidents in California are alcohol-related. Paula Myers, victim services director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, feels that many shrines are inspired by outrage as much as grief. People want to call attention to what happened in that spot and plead to end drunk driving. She thinks it might be a good idea if there was an official marker in every location where there was "a fatality or sever-injury crash. I definitely think everybody's eyes would be opened...I suppose you could limit it to all DUIs or all hit-and-runs or whatever." Florida has recently instituted such a standard marker for roadside deaths.
Myers introduces me to the grim story of Noelle Marra, a senior at Scripps Ranch High School, honor student and swimmer, killed at the corner of Pomerado Road and Avenida Magnifica in January of 1995. Murder on the open road. Noelle had left work as a lifeguard at the Scripps Ranch Swim and Racquet club about 9:30 p.m., followed by Raymond Kruszona; the two were going out on their first date that night. Crossing Pomerado, Marra's car was broadsided by a car driven by John Contreras, who barreled through a red light, drugged and drunk, a .26 blood alcohol level. Marra's Honda civic wrapped around a streetlight pole across the intersection. Contreras fled on foot into a nearby "giant" eucalyptus grove, abandoning a badly injured passenger. He was pursued by a police helicopter and finally caught.
At home nearby, Noelle's parents, Ken and Chris Marra, were watching Masterpiece Theatre on TV when someone came screaming that there had been a horrible accident. Police wouldn't allow Chris Marra to approach the car. "I guess they considered it a crime scene," she tells me. Finally, feeling sorry for her, a woman police officer came to tell her Noelle was dead. "I always felt bad that I wasn't more assertive — but, you know, who plans?"
At his trial, Contreras denied he was involved and showed no remorse. Because of prior drunk driving and criminal convictions, he was convicted of second-degree murder rather than manslaughter. It's a story I've heard often: a drunk driver who evades responsibility, remorse, even injury. But Chris Marra bears Contreras no ill will. "The man was nasty," she says, but his brain was so destroyed he didn't comprehend what was happening. "A zombie. I had absolutely no feeling for him at all." She disagrees with the pop-culture image of the victim's family screaming for revenge. More like you're "numb," in a "protective shell."
In gray slacks and a light jacket, reddish blond hair cut short in a modified DA, swept back at sides, Marra appears relaxed as we talk over coffee in Scripps Ranch, but there's a woundedness in her deep-set brown eyes I've come to recognize. A photo of her daughter bears close resemblance, the same thin face. Three years after the death, things have just begun normalizing for her, Marra says. "Oh God! If you grit your teeth anymore, you're not going to have any left." She speaks tenderly, philosophically of Noelle, as if she's fully discovered her daughter in death. "She was just great. I used to — this sounds silly — but every once in a while I would just be thankful for her. She was soooo special." A tall, strong girl, "completely uninhibited," she planned to go into physical therapy, volunteered at Alvarado Hospital, and helped physically handicapped kids onto the bus each day. Marra knew Noelle had a crush on the boy who would be taking her out that January night. "It would have been nice to hear about it when she got home."
Marra was astonished when she first saw the memorial that Noelle's friends put up immediately after the accident: flowers, her name spray-painted on the grass, Avenida Magnifica renamed "Noelle Street," the traffic light pole painted red-orange (her favorite color). When the city repainted the pole silver, the kids painted ir orange again; back and forth — orange and silver. Marra says maintenance men once left orange cones behind after working at the corner in solidarity. A neighborhood group led by Bub Dingman raised money and got city permission to put in a sprinkler system and ornamental plantings. There was broad community support, Dingman assures me, but "they were not at all receptive to putting up any crosses." Once plantings went in, the kids agreed to stop painting the pole orange. Today the corner is sedate. Orange and white artificial flowers adorn the pole, "Remember Noelle" repeated on a twining yellow ribbon.
"I don't look at it so much as this was where Noelle was killed, as I consider it, like, part of me now. It's almost as if there's still a part of her there," Chris Marra tells me. When someone suggested doing a memorial elsewhere, people asked, "What would be the point?"
At first, Marra says, her younger children couldn't deal with their sister's death. "There was a lot of anger, anger at her and anger at us. You know, we're parents, we're supposed to make sure things turn out right." Now her 18-year-old daughter occasionally goes to "the corner" on her own and sits. "I felt like this was their place," Marra says of the kids who started the shrine. They would hang out there for hours on end.
Father Jim Poulsen of St. Gregory's Catholic Church spent much of that first night at the corner with them. They gathered spontaneously hours after her death, he tells me in a phone interview. "They were doing a lot of the same things that we do ritually in church — lit candles, hugged each other, brought flowers, said prayer-like things to Noelle, kind of like they created a church right there on the corner." Poulsen notes that many young people are raised without spiritual guidance or religious tradition. Facing death, they need some tangible outlet for their feelings. "Sudden death is a deep mystery, especially for young people. I mean, adults can't even make sense of it. If we can't get answers, at least we can make a statement of what the person meant to us."
Raised in a society sparse in public ritual, they appear to understand intuitively that ritualization enables us to deal with what is beyond understanding. And isn't there something seditious in boldly recognizing that death in a society that denies it, something of teenage spiritual rebellion? Poulson says, "There was no way authorities were going to prevent those kids from painting that pole orange." In a land ill with "affluenza," I find myself cheering their cultural uprising — spiritual guerrilla theater. Despairing of elders who can't fit death into their datebooks, the kids turn to their own devices.
August 11, 1997, one year after Heather Hanson's death on the High 78 on-ramp, new Styrofoam cups adorn the fence, green-and-yellow picnic tables before it, a mini roadside park. Heather's dulcet smile blown up above a printed eulogy: "Neither saint nor sinner, Heather was a regular Southern California teen through and through." Student leader, DJ at Escondido High, cheerleader, "physical fitness buff," on her way to the beach at Carlsbad to go bodysurfing that Sunday afternoon in '96. A picture in the North County Times shows a red Hyundai lying in sere grass, front end demolished. Sarah Chui, a passenger, describes seeing Heather sitting absolutely still, with her head thrown back against the back seat. Months later, Heather's mother, Patricia Draggaman, tells me her friends thought she was unconscious after the car went down an embankment and hit a pepper tree at 35 mph in broad daylight. The driver overcorrected on the ramp and lost control. Draggaman says the Hyundai's seat belt cut Heather's aorta and she bled to death internally. They have just concluded litigation.
At 10:00 that August night two teenage girls in sweatshirts, shorts, and ponytails sit at a table talking. I leave my headlights on and approach. Votive lights flicker eerily along the fence. "It's a place where we can come and talk," the dark-haired girl says. Last year, after Heather's death, there was a meteor shower, says the blonde. "So, like, a while ago I saw a shooting star."
"I didn't see it," says the other.
"So then right after that there was another one. Like it was Heather. There's a shooting star engraved on her tombstone."
Tears brim their eyes in the headlight glare. I'm touched that they should speak so openly to a stranger, brushed by headlights and the air wash of passing cars. The fence behind them a visual eulogy, a hotchpotch incantation.
Five months later, in January of '98, I meet a gang of Escondido High students on the turn at Montiel Road: Rena, Keith, Summer, Kim, Sarah, Keli Ivan, Rhiannon O'Hara, Amanda, Tara...with many others, held a vigil here the night after Heather's death and shared stories, as they do now. "She was on the edge, spur-of-the-moment kind of a person," Rena says. The shrine reflects their dead friend's love of decor and handicrafts, "in honor of her," says one, "to keep her spirit here with us," another. They come on her birthday, her death day. Sarah put the decorated box Heather gave her one birthday at foot of the chain-link fence, filled with day-to-day icons of her life: mascara, gum. Keli jammed a toy VW between fence links, "because she would drive anything. She'd drive a dump truck if she could." Sarah left the butter substitute spray bottle; Heather ate it on everything. "It's fat-free," they chorus.
They joke about a counselor who met with them after Heather's accident and talked mainly about herself. "We had to do it on our own," says one, not petulant, just telling how it is. "We have a really good group of friends... Really close... We can talk to each other." They didn't need counseling, they had no trouble talking about Heather's death, they didn't want to do the touchie-feelie thing. "We talked more about her and, like, remembering her," Amanda says. Like the time at a pep rally as a freshman Heather did a nosedive in front of her class, jumped up and went on with her routine as if nothing had happened, ignoring peals of laughter — "didn't cover her face or anything." Tara, a tall, mature girl, tells about the night a group of them went skinny-dipping in the apartment pool; Heather took a picture. "The whole football team had our pictures," one cries. "It was sooo embarrassing."
When I ask about the picnic tables, they laugh. "Oh God!" says one. "I don't think we should tell him," another. "They were kind of stolen," a third, " 'cause we'd all carved our names in them. They were just like sitting there anyway." The taco shop they took them from had just bought new ones.
Their shrine-making is no adolescent rebellion, rather remarkably mature in a society that has forgotten how to meet death. Youth advocate Jeffrey Canada reminds us that "the old folks" met it by gathering together to offer each other solace and guidance, knowing shared pain eases individual pain. Facing the death of a loved one alone was unthinkable. Assembling together at the death site to share stories, these kids hearken back to the Tame Death period when death was a communal concern. Maybe we have something to learn from them.
A skeptic would say it's sentimental flush — flowers, mementos — a gilt Victorian patchwork of silvered tears. But, as novelist John Irving notes, we must distinguish between sentimentality and true sentiment, without which the world is a cold zone. It occurs to me that road shrines encompass the full range of Western attitudes about death: the Middle Ages' communal sharing of grief and stigmatization of sudden, violent death; a ghost of the 14th to 16th Centuries' "danse macabre" in dancing roadside skeletons and fascination with death's gory details; something of the 17th and 18th Centuries' eroticization of death — supercharged by pop culture's hard-core morbidity fetish (e.g., Anne Rice, J.G. Ballard's encomium to crushed steel and splintered glass in Crash); flowers, gaspy poems, and deckle-edged excess suggest Victorian sentimentalizing of death; roadside vigils echo the Puritan taming of loss and fear via communal ritual; resonances, too, of today's reluctance to accept loss. But surely not the "deep freeze of silence," as David Moller puts it, the current view of death as a furtive social disease. Memorials shout publicly and loud.
Brent Fulkerson's, for example, on the corner of Monte Vista and Fuerte Drive in an El Cajon suburb. A telephone pole blazoning MADD bumper strips: "A Drunk Driver Killed My Son," "A Drunk Driver Killed My Brother, I Am MADD," newspaper articles, letters, notes, poems stapled to the pole. "You will be twenty-one years old forever." Snapshots of a grinning boy raiding the refrigerator, hiking in the mountans, giving his younger brother a piggyback ride. A lush, well-tended flower garden bordered by stones at the pole's base. But the overall impression is somber. Grief clings to this pole.
On a drizzly Sunday afternoon in late December, I wend out Rancho Santa Fe Road through upscale North County burbs. Faux adobe walls encompass half-acre lots. The Fulkerson house is palatial, archways and glass, lit up like an ocean liner in the day's gloom. Carol Fulkerson answers the door in jeans, a peach turtleneck sweater, a stately woman with short blond hair and a preoccupied manner, her plump do Gidgett beside her. Rooms lead off the spacious atrium, a staircase winds up to Mike Fullerton's office suite; high ceilings, a gas-log fireplace alight in the living room, another in a homey room in back, wreathes and glistening Christmas decor. A photo collage features Brent. Carol Fulkerson makes coffee and tells me Christmas isn't what it once was. Sadness endemic to her eyes and the set of her mouth. Mike Fulkerson, a paunchy, peremptory man in his 50s, home-office casual in a yellow sweatshirt, comes downstairs from the office, where he's finishing up work before a holiday ski trip to Steamboat Springs. He asks to see some ID. We sit on facing couches before the fire in the living room. The glitter and affluent cheeriness a stark contrast to our grim subject in the heartland of the American Dream.
Brent was killed on Mother's Day 1996, when a drunk buddy took a sharp 25 mph turn on Fuerte Drive in El Cajon at 65 and slammed the car into a telephone pole. The Fulkersons got a nightmare call from Sharp Hospital at 2:30 a.m.. Told their son had severe head injuries, they rushed to the hospital and were met in the parking lot by a hospital volunteer, who led them "into one of those rooms where apparently they tell people of deaths." The elderly volunteer said, "I'm afraid we don't have good news."
The Fulkersons haven't let their son slip gently into that good night. " 'Accident' is a sensitive word for us," Mike corrects me right off, "because drunken driving is a preventable crime, not an accident." At the sentencing, Carol raged at the SDSU student found guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter. At a MADD candlelight vigil, Mike — who served two tours of duty in the Navy in Vietnam — noted, "Drunk drivers kill as many people as if we are having a Vietnam War every three years — 19,600 last year." Recalling "public outrage" over the war, he says we need a similar fury to end the slaughter on our highways. But the Fulkersons didn't demand a prison term for the man who killed their son, after he expressed remorse. Rage need not be synonymous with revenge.
Carol Fulkerson tells me her son's memorial on a telephone pole miles from home "just evolved." She goes out once a week to replace old flowers with fresh grown, from a garden devoted to that purpose at her Encinitas home. Mike says he dreaded his first visit, afraid he'd be tortured by "what ifs." He picked up debris from the "crash site," which he keeps on a shelf at home. After that, he says, "it was just a magnet."
"Brent's last moments were there," Carol says. "That was the last breath he took, right there."
"The car was going down the road and hit that telephone pole. He was alive, and a split second later he was dead," Mike adds. "So it's that point in time, that marker, that milestone, that spot that took him from this life to the afterlife." Not a religious thing, but "spiritual" in some sense of "connectedness."
Has the shrine helped them in grieving? Carol says yes. "Just to have a place to go once a week to remember." Sometimes she spends the whole time weeping, sometimes just sits. There is also the cemetery in Alpine and a memorial bench in an Encinitas park overlooking the ocean. "This one's just dominant in terms of pulling me there," Mike says. "Sometimes I'll sit there and cry for 20 to 30 minutes." On the anniversary of Brent's death, Mother's Day 1997, he and two friends retraced his son's steps that night a year before — the downtown restaurant, a pub in Spring Valley where the boys shot pool. "I cruised up there and bumped into it [the telephone pole] symbolically." They played Brent's favorite Grateful Dead songs. "So peaceful, and so calming and reassuring." For the next few days he felt euphoric.
Soft jazz plays in the background, Gidgett rolls over and stretches before the fire; Mike talks about the pull of places of sudden death, how we celebrate our war dead on the battlefields where they died — Normandy, Gettysburg. He tells me that Brent's younger brother, Scott, won't visit the memorial and hasn't coped well with his older brother's loss. He has become "at risk with everything — drugs, alcohol, driving." On Thanksgiving, he showed up in the middle of the night with the sheriff after totaling his car. "To me, I see absolutely no negatives in the situation — none," Mike insists. "Everything can be fixed, he wasn't hurt, the obvious! Maybe...maybe he learned to cool it a little bit."
Is it coincidence that other troubled siblings of the young dead wouldn't visit these shrines either? Cheri Smith's daughter? Too simplistic to suggest that those who do heal faster? Lacking some symbolic way to cope with trauma, we can't cope at all. It occurs to me that road shrines are part of the great theater of human reenactment — including the arts and religion — which we turn to before issues that life can't resolve. When we are bereft, when we need emotional refueling, we look to ritual.
Friends thought the Fulkersons held up well at first. That was numbness, Mike says. "You're not pulling out some reserves of strength and courage to be brave, that's bullshit." At seminars sponsored by Compassionate Friends, a support group for parents who've lost children, people warned them the second year's pain would be greater than the first's. They were right, Carol says.
Bret Crain, a friend of Brent's, arrives in a black limousine, on break from his job as a limo driver. He went to a lot of Padres and Chargers games with Brent and his dad, Crain says, was with Mike that night they retraced Brent's steps. Three months after the accident he started working for them and was over "almost every day." Mike says, "We just hired him so we could see him." All laugh easily. Mike motions to the limo parked at the curb. "People are going to see them and say, 'Who else died over there?' " Not surprisingly, parents often adopt their dead children's friends.
Mike answers testily when I ask their response to those who find road shrines morbid: "This culture just has no clue. If you ranked them, this culture would be pretty far down the list on how to deal with death." Some former friends, he says, haven't been able to face them and what they represent. "It might be contagious." Remind me of Cheri Smith's stories about longtime acquaintances panicking when they saw her at the grocery store. "They would go out of their way to pretend to be busy."
I go upstairs to the airy office from which Mike Fulkerson does franchise consulting work for outfits like Del Taco and El Torito. "Fortunately, it lets me work at home." From the office shared with his father, Brent had begun running a small carpet-cleaning business before his death. "It's good to hear their name, it's good to talk about it," Fulkerson says. "The tears don't mean we don't want to talk about them."
I make a ritual visit to the Memorial Bridge on Interstate 15, where Cara Knott was murdered 14 years ago by highway patrolman Craig Peyer and thrown into a canyon off "No-Mercy Road." Perhaps the country's largest shrine. Now the canyon reeks of raw sewage and harbors the squalid camps of migrants. Clothes tangle in lower branches of scrappy willow and cottonwoods. Abandoned fire rings, broken bottles, mattresses on the ground; a mirror, set against a tree, catches the sky. Crossing a stream, I come face-to-face with a frightened young man with a gold tooth and high Mayan cheekbones. We stare at each other, then he disappears — one of the county's ghost people sequestered in a memorial garden to a murdered girl.
San Diego's most poignant memorial may be a pink heart-shaped stone set in the embankment on Debesa Road in El Cajon, where 17-year-old Jennifer Ripperger lost control of her Karmann Ghia on a wet curve in 1997. The creepiest may be a great charred eucalyptus tree abutting the road just east of the Pine Hill Egg Ranch on Route 78 at Santa Ysabel, against which two Poway High students crashed and burned in a head-on collision in the summer of '96. A third was pulled from the burning wreckage by a brave woman traveling the road that morning. The driver, Brian May, had his driver's license less than a week. A curled poster is tacked to the tree like a blown-up page from a weather-stained high school yearbook. A crooked wooden cross half buried in leaf litter adorned with what seems more detritus than commemoration: a faded blue baseball cap, package of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, dead flowers in a pot, the foil wrapping seemingly dipped in blood.
But you must go to Twin Oaks Valley Road in North County just down the hill from CSU San Marco, to find the most troubling shrine. In the shade of a mesquite tree on an empty lot, a makeshift blooming of mums, roses, dahlias, and daisies — clusters about a cross fashioned of PVC plastic pie, from which a tiny blue teddy bear hangs crucified, a watering bucket and three tiny pumpkins at its base. A puddle-gouged track leads uphill to a truck farm and down-at-heels bungalows, junker cars, and trailers parked in dirt yards. Near here just two weeks before, according to sheriff's investigators, Susan Diane Fairbanks shot her four boys, aged 4 to 14, to death, then shot herself in the stomach. It is a tale replete with collapsed marriage, debt, unemployment, alcoholism, parental abuse, disregarded complaints to Child Protective Services. But pathos pushed to an extreme becomes bathos. And I've nearly had my fill of violent roadside death.
Some days later, I'm in the lobby of the North County Times in Escondido when a disheveled man bursts in and attempts to explain something to the receptionist, Ronda Davis (not her real name; she doesn't want her ex-boyfriend finding her). He wears a tattered blue sweater, eyes hugely amplified behind glasses that slide down his nose, and stutters violently. We make out that some men are stealing parts from a car in an apartment complex across the street. They have "a g-g-gun, v-v-ver-very s-sm-little-little-little g-g-g-gun — " "A small gun?" Ronda asks. She calls the police. Trying to answer the dispatcher's questions, the stutterer becomes more agitated. Ronda pats his hand and takes the phone. "She needs to know. Did they point the gun at you or just brandish it?" They dre-dre-drew on him and he raw-raw-ran away. I step outside with him to help pin down the location of the apartments. "Fray-fray-frayed," he tells me, people over there. Some minutes later a police cruiser passes. Mishap closes in. Some distortion of the Heisenberg principle: Seek misfortune and it finds you.
I recall spooky roadside crosses popping up in headlights in my Oregon youth — seven cutting an intersection on bloody High 99 near Junction City — dire warnings in days of two-lane highways when head-on collisions meant near certain death. Whatever they mean to those who erect them, roadside crosses are less symbolic of resurrection — "the death that is no death" — than stark symbols of extinction. Not Simon Schama's "wonder cross," the tree of life, but the burnt tree, with resonances ancient and "pagan." Death stopped here! X marks the spot. (Consider the cruciform nature of Xs — St. Andrew's cross — how the illiterate identify themselves anonymously with an X, universal signifier of things marked and finished. The cross has long been an ambivalent symbol. One early form, the Egyptian "nilometer, a horizontal stick of wood fastened to an upright, measured the height waters reached in the floodplain, signifying either life-giving plenty or drought and decay. Life and death in one. Crosses have long been associated with ill fortune and death. The "labarum cross," an X crossing a P, was common on early Christian tombs. We cross our fingers or hearts to avert back luck, invoke the cross to exorcise demons. The custom of signifying roadside deaths with crosses began in early centuries A.D. when those unworthy of consecrated ground were buried at crossroads outside of town, their graves marked with a cross — including all who died sudden, violent death.
Crosses erected at death sites in San Diego County rarely bear names or personal information, merely denote anonymous death, as they often do in Mexico, leaving me to wonder if such are to Latino dead. The hauntingly beautiful memorial on West Lake Road in Bonsall, for example: a Latin cross wreathed in puppies — vines spilling about, a thorny barrel cactus before it — against which some joker has rested Coors bottles. There's something of the religious reliquary in such shrines, their stark simplicity and isolated longing a cry for mercy. They seem to say: No need to name him. God will know his name. Erected more for the dead than the living. More personal shrines show religious symbols except in pop forms. Upbeat, garlanded with flowers and personal iconography, symbols of a lifetime, they are about mourning the dead, keeping memory alive. Erected for the living.
None more clearly so than the elaborate memorial under the Interstate 15 overcrossing on Mesa Rock Road, north of Escondido. For Ron and Wendy Barry, who lost two sons here, the shrine is about resurrecting the good names of four young men characterized posthumously as boozing, speed-crazed teenagers. If shrines are places hallowed in shared emotional needs and touch-points of experience, this is more aptly called "shrine" than "memorial." Private sadness offered here as a public gift.
In hills north of Escondido, the landscape is a palimpsest of California whole: cactus gardens, houses with Spanish tile roofs, palm trees and rugged hills covered by chaparral and sienna boulders, avocado and citrus orchards. Under the I-15 overpass beyond a chain-link fence stand four stylized redwood tau crosses set in concrete: scalloped crossbars symbolize lotus flowers and bear the inscribed names of Scott Rathbun (20), Andy Barry (19), Bobby "Bud" Barry (16), and Billy Minicola (19). Between the Barry brothers' crosses sits a picture of two young men dressed in tuxes, blond hair slicked back, taken at their half-brother Roger's wedding near Yosemite a month before their deaths. Fresh red roses in a coffee can, notes jammed into chain links, Palomar College parking permits. Personal mementos: cigars, golf balls — all four boys golfed, Scott worked at the Fallbrook golf course — a stick of gum for each, a blanket in a plastic bag beside Billy Minicola's cross, a Tharum cigarette box. Up the embankment four crude wooden crosses tilt forlornly: red-and-white Tibetan prayer flags waver from a pole.
Nearby, a grizzled, cranky-faced old fellow sits in a light blue '70s model Dodge in the shadow of the overpass watching me, a For Sale sign in the back window. He tells me the boys' Mustang came off the overpass, tore off some of the concrete abutment, plowed through a chain-link fence, and crashed onto the road below between north and southbound overpasses. "A shame, a waste."
According to official CHP and press versions: At 10:40 p.m. on May 9, 1997, a red Ford Mustang driven by Robert Barry at 100 mph came off the overpass and plunged 50 feet to the road below, landing on its roof. Three of the boys died instantly, one later in the hospital. Beer cans were found in the wreckage; the driver had a .10 blood alcohol level.
Ron and Wendy Barry feel burned by press and CHP report characterizing their son as reckless. Ron summarizes his side of the night's events in a written statement: "While traveling south on I-15 at 10:30 p.m. a tire deflated. As the driver pulled over onto the center divider somehow the car got tangled up in the guardrail, flipping the car over and sending it to the road below." One of the tires was installed "illegally" and it blew, and his son was trying to pull off the road. "We think he didn't see that railing. And somehow it just showed up all of a sudden."
One bright Sunday morning in November I arrive at the boys' death site to find the blue Dodge's owner standing mid-road staring up at the freeway overpass like one possessed, smoking a cigarette. Sandy-haired, with drooping mustache and glasses, he is lanky and itinerant as an albatross. Disregarding me, he stares.
A flashy red Mustang pulls in behind me, its teenage driver's eyes concealed behind dark sunglasses. Colby Raymond tells me he stops to "hang out for a while," every time he runs into town. Bud Barry was "a pretty smart guy" who loved his car, he says. "We're into hot rods, you know." I ask what he thinks of shrines. "I think it's good to have them. I think it's damn good to have them. It gets people thinking, you know. 'Cause anything can happen — Wham! just like that." The boys hit something on the road that night and pulled over, he says. They never saw the bridge.
The Barry family arrives in the blue Mustang that once belonged to their son Andy, Ron casual in purple long-underwear top and blue jeans, salt and pepper hair worn in a ponytail, a bushy mustache, amber tinted glasses. Wendy Barry is slightly built, her eyes deep-set and watchful, sharp-featured yet gently attractive. While I talk to Ron, she stands aside with her oldest son Rom, a strapping fellow in his 20s, hair sandy-blond like his dead half-brothers. They look up at 3:15 as if speculating about that night six months before. Nearby, the old man rotates his tires. Ron Barry says he lives here in his car. He considers him guardian of the shrine.
“The morning after the boys died there must have been 40 kids here," he says. "Just so shocked by everything, they didn't know what to do but to come out here." Wendy spent six weeks making and finishing the crosses. The Barrys, who had come to the region to raise their sons, planned, now they were dead, to move somewhere "more merrier" and wanted to have something to which they could make annual pilgrimages: Markers for future emotional reference. Wendy made them to last 100 years.
Ron tells me his son died right here on the dirt shoulder of the road before the shrine. Then blood soaked into the soil all over here, Wendy adds. My instinct is to step away, but the Barrys are as comfortable as if it's a room in their home. Ben picks up a cigarette left near potted flowers and says it's new since his last visit. The boys' friends stop by regularly and leave cigarettes as offerings. At times, strangers stop to ask what's going on, he says. "And I'll say, 'my boys died,' and then they'll say, 'Yeah, we know. I just lost my dad...and you know I was feeling pretty bad about everything and just wanted to stop and talk to you.' "
The Barrys, who are Tibetan Buddhists, held services here for 40 days after the accident. Nine weeks after their deaths, a crowd gathered to send the boys off. "That's when the Tibetans say is the first departure then that gets reborn somewhere." Ron says, "We pretty much followed the Tibetan Book of the Dead to get 'em through it." Next "I built things, an understanding of the mind." Where consciousness leaves the body is sacred. "Consciousness can linger, especially in a sudden, unexpected death." And the thought and prayers of the living can help the dead to understand what has become of them "and assist them in their journey." He says sometimes at odd places — all those "entities" piled up in one place, when it's Peaceful" and "serene." Fortunately, the boys died in a place where they could erect a shrine. If on the freeway it wouldn't have been possible.
I mention Caltrans' position that road shrines can prove a hazardous distraction. Ron's stepson Rom, cuts in: "Then they should like outlaw billboards. Women and beer, stuff like that, where guys are breaking their necks looking at it." Square-jawed and more, every inch the hockey player. "If somebody pays then puts up a billboard, then it's okay. But if somebody dies and you put of a few crosses, that's offensive?" Ron says it's absurd to think they've created a nuisance. They keep the place cleaned up, have taken out barrels full of trash.
Telling me his son Andy worked with him in construction and was his best friend, Ron is overcome with emotion, grips the bridge of his nose, asks me to give him a minute. I step back to give him space. Wendy's eyes hit me hard; she grips her husband's arm from behind. Ron shakes his head and continues. "You know, the materialistic world...words like 'closure' and 'letting go,' principle in the materialistic world. They want to get back to work, to forget about it. Life goes on, which is true. But they're really all fueling these wishes, because the only real way to deal with this is to look it right in the face and go through whatever it is that you have to go through." Wendy Barry nods grimly. People he's seen who cover death over and go on with business as usual, "after a couple months, they're hit with despair and hopelessness. Nothing seems to matter anymore. You really need to not get away from it, you need to not forget." Speaking, it seems, for all road shrine makers.
Wendy says her mother told her that "happiness is fleeting and grief's forever." Flanked by her eldest son and husband, Ron's arm around her, she says the lotus petals on the crosses "symbolize the beauty that can grow from the mumbly swamp." Her voice cracks, tears course her cheeks, but she goes on. "I know they will do around here. I know they will when people come and pray for them and think about 'em and, as the kids say, 'kick it with them.' "
The Barrys become most animated discussing their boys' many accomplishments. Bobby skipped grades, had finished his final semester at Palomar at age 16; his goal — to have his bachelor's degree by the time he would normally have graduated high school. He was a person of strong convictions who despised injustice. Wendy mentions an incident that magnified her youngest son. "One friend worked a grave yard shift and didn't have his car, and Bob would get up and drive him to work, and set his alarm, and get and go pick him up from work." Andy, she says, was even-tempered. He like doing yardwork, just "to make the earth more beautiful." Ron says, "Andy was a stand-up for all the kids. He would never lie." He refused to golf with his father when Ron got angry about his game. "Do you golf?" he asks. "No one is like that." Oddly, they don't mention that their sons were corporate-sponsored skateboarders, Andy two-time state champion and gold medal winner in international competition. Concerned perhaps I will consider them speed-happy daredevils?
Their friend Scott, who died that night, was at "the top of the top" of his class. "A sweet, sensitive boy," Wendy says. She considered him a personal friend and discussed holistic healing with him. "Quite a special group of friends," she says. "Some of them still come by to visit" She had friends who died when she was a girl. No one ever thought to visit their parents.
"When they found that beer they all jumped to conclusions," Ron laments. "It was really unfortunate for the boys and especially Bobby, being the driver and such a beautiful person, to have his name smutted." Wendy tells me he was "a responsible, good driver." There were bruises on his hands from trying to control the car. "The tire did blow out," Ron says. "And we know the tire was illegally put on there." The Mustang left red skid marks along the concrete railing of the overcrossing and nearly made it to the other side. "They were real close."
"The impact, it was like an airplane crash," Wendy says.
When they turned the car over, the firemen said their sons were sitting upright in their seats, Ron says, "and they felt like saying, 'Hey, you guys okay?' And we saw 'em, you know, before we burned them — no cuts, no broken bones."
"Flawless. They bled to death out their noses and their mouths. It was internal injuries."
"We're pretty sure they weren't going 100 miles per hour."
Ron says Billy Minicola's father told them he was scared of speed; he wouldn't have been in a car going that fast. "I mean, they were chucking down the road, there's no doubt about it. But I don't think they were going 100 miles per hour." They rehash details of that night, seeking answers, knowing they won't change the outcome. The shrine part testimony to the agony of doubt. "But the whole idea that they were out joy-riding drunk — "
A blowout that night? Possibly. Other motorists along I-15 reported heavy debris on the road that night. Could Bob Barry have hit something and lost control? Does it detract from the boys' memory to know they were speeding? Must the young die faultless? Don't the faulted die young? I wonder at portraits of idealized young victims I encounter again and again — washed clean, sentimentalized, made principles rather than people. Bereft of a life lived fully, survivors take comfort in the perfection of a few short years. We wouldn't tolerate such idealization of the older, whose deaths are commonly marked with a simple cross (a black-and-red prayer flag wrapped around a charred stick among glass shards on Highway 79 near Dripping Springs). No denying the grief and pain that motivates such shrines. But victimization is at work here too, an attempt to deny what role — however slight — the young may play in their own deaths. As Cheri Smith says of the drunk driver who killed her daughter, "He was just a kid being reckless, and my daughter was reckless for being in the car with him. The kids were being kids. He didn't leave that night with all the girls, saying, 'Okay, I'm going to go out and kill somebody.' "
Perhaps one shouldn't have been driving so fast, another should have told his buddy to slow down; neighbors and relatives should have intervened and gotten the kids out of that house. Guilt lingers here.
Friends of the Barry boys, Torrey Alkire and Chris Colgan, arrive in a black pickup. Torrey a tall, imposing, thoughtful girl in a black sack dress, broad, puffy cheeks, eyes naked and direct. Chris lanky and nervous, eyes hidden behind silver lenses. They stop by "at least once a week," he says. "Hang out," she says, "tell 'em what's going on." Torrey says the Barry brothers were "good at everything" and "made kind of a mark wherever they went." I ask if they've left any objects here. Chris says his little brother Mikey left the gum, huskying his voice, " 'Oh, I'm gonna give 'em all a piece of gum.' So he jumped the fence and gave them all a piece of gum."
"Goooood," Wendy says. "We like that."
Why shrines? I ask. A warning.
"A reminder of what can happen," Torrey Alkire answers. "Oh wow! maybe I should slow down."
"Whenever you see any reminder of death it always makes you more respectful of life," Ron says.
"And maybe your problems aren't quite so big and maybe you should be happier to be able to go home and kiss your kids...knowing that someone's not." Wendy's voice tightens.
To take it down, Torrey Alkire says, would be just another example of "bringing society down, individualizing everyone more and segregating everyone. This kind of brings everyone together, knowing that we're all one and we're all here together, and this is obviously going to happen to all of us."
Ron adds, "It shows that people care about other people."
A place of pilgrimage, shout of outrage, reminder, final song of affection, a community created around death and caring, a way to look death squarely in the eye. A tree, a pole, a corner, a cyclone fence, a crash site. A damp spot under the overpass. In a mechanistic world that denies the primacy of feeling, that hides death away and disavows it, road shrines put it right up front and make a cult of it.
Ron points to rocks on a hill to the east by some palm trees. He tells me Wendy lived in a house just below there when the first "got together" 23 years ago. "So we thought that was unusual that the boys died right here. What is it, a mile away?"
Wendy nods. "Where we became a couple."
Shrines are about the incredible, sometimes terrible, happenstances and serendipities of life. Evidence that life and death will never be the quantifiable commodities some want to make them.